Saturday, December 24, 2011

4 Days To Christmas - Noel

In another two years time, the world will mark the centenary of the First World War or The Great War as it was then called till Hitler rolled his wagon into Poland and ignited the second.

It's rather ironic that the war waged under the naive assumption that it would be 'the war to end all wars' began at the beginning of the bloodiest century in human history.

However, in the midst of the savagery of this war that saw the death of millions of young men on the battlefield, there is also a story of hope and peace.

I find it so inspiring that I repeated it last year, and don't mind repeating it again as long as I continue writing these Christmas countdown posts.

It's an unusual story and comes across as almost unreal and yet it's true. Somehow the most inspiring real life events are a bit like that - you can't believe it could be possible but then again you can't deny it.

I won't say much about it except leave you to read the lyrics below which explains what really happened that Christmas eve many years ago.

What I really like about it is that it sums up what Christmas is all about or should be - peace and reconciliation with a bit of joyous festivity thrown in for good measure.

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool,
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung,
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me
Soon one by one each German voice joined in in
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was "Stille Nacht," "Tis 'Silent Night'," says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
"There's someone coming towards us!" the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeeze box and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

©1984 John McCutcheon/Appalsongs (ASCAP)

5 Days To Christmas - Fellowship

We are supposed to be social animals, gregarious entities who find pleasure in the company of one another.

We were created that way, too.

Our entire being is meant to belong and not stay in isolation. Not as islands cast adrift in an ocean of apathy but as as an archipelago that finds its identity in being recognised as part of something bigger than itself.

However, loneliness is a reality for many people in this day and age. To them being part of the collective is a desirable reality that does not correspond with the painful reality they experience day in and day out.

Our modern lifestyle hasn't helped matters much either. The human touch is often the most neglected component in most communications, and technology has made it possible to engage without actually being in touch.

In such a scenario, the unconnected individual loses his or her bearing and finds it impossible to find connections.

In earlier societies where the community was everything, the search for connections was irrelevant because the community helped in establishing those connections.

And now left to the individual, the same process becomes a tiresome journey involving many pitfalls of pain, frustration and disappointment.

It just isn't the same to do it all by yourself when once it took a village to accomplish everything.

This spectre of loneliness is so pervasive that it is often reflected in songs and in much of our art and films. There is a sense that being alone and lonely is the state of every man and woman in the 21st Century, and that everyone must deal with it as best as one can.

Trouble is, not many can - or want to - deal with it. They see their loneliness as an aberration and not as something typical of this day and age.

Christmas is a time when their loneliness becomes even more acute. This is so because the overall emphasis on families and loved ones getting together for a christmas meal is a rude reminder of what their life truly lacks.

In such a context, it would be necessary to reflect on the first Christmas that announced the birth of Immanuel - God with us. This idea of God being near and not far away or remote from the pressures of modern life is a comforting and soul strengthening thought.

But while we do so, it would be equally helpful to remember what the Apostle John wrote about Christ - He came to that which was his own but his own received him not.

In other words, sharing not just our humanity but also the loneliness we experience after being rejected.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

6 Days To Christmas - Light

I am a little behind schedule with my posts because I was not well but let me see how best I can speed up.

The ability of light to dispel darkness is, perhaps, one of those powerful metaphors that suffers from being overused.

It's sad, really.

The imagery is just right to make a point: a tiny flicker of a candle devouring darkness by its mere glow and revealing what was once hidden.

However, what happens with such overused metaphors is that one loses sight of its significance and it becomes nothing more than a tired cliche.

But it doesn't in any way alter the truth behind what the imagery suggests.

Like serendipity, it becomes a moment of discovery, of new insights suddenly becoming more relevant, of ideas moving away from theoretical notions into something real and tangible.

The Christmas story is also about light entering the world, to bring hope to a people perplexed by their inner darkness, and to reveal that hamartia need no longer be the defining feature of humanity.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

The words of prophet Isaiah written a few centuries before the birth of Christ gives a sense of the Messiah's mission.

The words bring a sense of comfort and a sense of belonging especially in knowing that the divine light is not remote or beyond our reach but has chosen to inhabit our soul provided we allow Him to.

However, Christ also said 'let your light shine that people may see your good works...'

Hence, being a repository of light can also be a challenge because one is not expected to glow for oneself but to reflect God's goodness in our world.

There's so much of darkness in the world - the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing, healthcare is not accessible to everyone, the language of violence appears to define political discourse, hunger and lack of education has reduced some people groups into abject poverty, and in some countries corruption appears to be the 'normal' state of affairs for all business transactions.

This is just the tip of the iceberg but the challenge remains - what are we doing about it? Will we bring our light into these areas of darkness? Will we reveal the evil for what it really is or remain silent? Or will we follow the example of the cross by pursuing truth and righteousness no matter the cost?

And that's the challenge.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

7 Days To Christmas - Love

We are creatures of love but we also happen to be the most unloving race on this planet.

It's a weird paradox and one that defies all sense of logic. On the one hand, we demonstrate such extreme emotions of love that finds expression in works of art, literature, architecture and acts that warms our heart and soothes our soul.

And then, on the other hand, we commit acts of extreme cruelty, develop weapons that inflict the most severe pain, oppose people on the basis of superficial factors like colour or ethnicity and applaud policies that bleed rather than heal the poor.

And we claim to do all this in the name of love or its many variants.

Love can be quite tricky that way. It expects us to rise above ourselves, think of the other as more deserving of the best we can give, and disturbingly enough, touches the very heart of God because God is love.

The trouble is, human imperfection or hamartia as the writers of the New Testament put it, comes in the way and warps our expressions of love into something totally unrecognisable from its original intent.

Hamartia - or tragic flaw - describes the state of humanity as one that has missed the mark in becoming what God has intended humanity to be - creatures made in the image of God, reflecting His love through acts of kindness that breathe life into an aching world.

The tragedy is that, we've paid more
attention to our baser instincts, insisting on its invincibility and believing in the 'virtue' of selfishness rather than to the selflessness God expects.

The result is a world torn apart by anger and hatred, where creeds like 'unto thine own self be true' are used as excuses to avoid caring for the socially disadvantaged, and where narrow and parochial world views are made to seem more important than the command to love our neighbour as ourselves.

In such a world, the Christmas story is not just a pretty picture on our cards. It is also a divine promise that all is not lost -- that Love finds a way to redeem humanity and undo the curse of hamartia.

It is the story of a Messiah who came to love the unlovable, give them His all, and provide an example of selflessness that can be emulated.

The problem is, this call for love remains but a cry in the wilderness... will we take up the challenge or continue giving hatred and cruel indifference the pride of place in our hearts?

8 Days To Christmas - Joy

Joy is an exclamation mark!

There's no other way one can best describe a word such as joy. It's not as blunt, curt and to-the-point like a period. Or somewhat diffident and cautious but with an impulsive sprint in its foot like a comma.

Joy cannot be whispered in hush tones or stated matter of factly. That would be too polite and would seem a little bit like a stuck up courtier behaving with decorum. It has to be shouted and screamed with the kind of delirium that some might mistake for insanity.

Joy does that. Or at least, it's supposed to do so.

Being joyous must involve being lost for words. If one can explain it in a perfectly formed and grammatically sound sentence, then, perhaps one hasn't got it as yet. It's not a rule as such but as indicators go, it'd be a sign.

There are moments in our life when joy can be the only valid response. Anything else can hardly match the leaps our heart would be taking when we're struck by joy.

Christmas is meant to be a season of joy. It's in the carols we sing. It's in the family get-togethers where memories are made. It's in the warm hugs and kisses we share with those we love and care.

And it's also in the news of the Christ child born in an insignificant Palestinian town of Bethlehem - a birth that would herald freedom to those shackled by sin's clutches, peace to those tormented by the inner demons of anxiety, and a group of social nobodies out in the hillside tending to their sheep given the privilege of being the first to hear this news.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

9 Days To Christmas - Peace

Peace is a song, a chant, a cry, a reason to protest or an excuse for some sort of action.  For many people, peace can be one or two or all of these things. And for still others, it's an idea worth preserving and fighting for.

Whichever way one looks at it, peace invariably finds itself on the top of everyone's agenda. One can't go wrong if peace remains the core rationale for any activity. It sounds great on paper and makes the ones talking about it feel and look good. Sometimes the most outrageous military exercise can be undertaken in the name of peace, and that somehow, is often used as a means to toast themselves as saints.

In fact, some of the most tyrannical dictatorships that have been known for exporting terrorism claim to do so in the name of peace. Or at least, their atrocity projected as a necessity to bring about peace.

Peace, in this context, is often viewed as a combination of a ceasefire and cessation of violence. Or as a resumption of trade ties and establishment of economic partnership. In other words, transforming adversaries into economic allies.

It is assumed that this change in equation will silence the guns forever because of a shared stake in economic gain. And it makes sense because war and violence do not produce the right environment for boosting the retail and tourism trade, for instance.

But there is another peace that no trade or political agreement can ever help achieve. It is to do with the war that burns in the hearts of men and women everywhere -- the fear and anxiety that makes being alive a living hell for some people, the agonising insecurity that drives others to uncontrollable fits of rage and jealousy, and the aching loneliness that renders their very existence to be totally meaningless.

Peace, for many people, is not a brownie point to be gained the way governmental bodies negotiate treaties. It is the very water that the hot burning sands of the desert crave during the summer months. It is a need as urgent as the air one breathes, the water that quenches our thirst, and the food that  strengthens and nourishes us.

Peace is also something that ties in very well with the Christmas narrative. It is something that we need to remind ourselves in between the many distractions that can shift our minds elsewhere during the season.

Christmas marks the birth of the Messiah who was also known as the Prince of Peace. In fact, the angelic choir burst out in the night sky and announced to the shepherds: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace on whom His favour rests.'

It was, as if, a declaration was made that peace need no longer inhabit the realm of wishful thinking but has now become possible for those who seek it.

However, it is vital to note that to give to the world the 'peace that passes all understanding', the Messiah had to walk a road of pain and grief or as Prophet Isaiah put it:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

Friday, December 16, 2011

10 Days to Christmas - Hope

Hope can be electric.

It can fire up passion, stir emotions, breathe optimism into the most dismal situation and even encourage the faint hearted to do the most extraordinary things.

What hope really does is remind us that the present is transient, and that the misery and the anxiety we undergo day in and day out is not meant to last forever. It's that silver lining we are expected to see but rarely notice or even bother. It's that light at the end of the tunnel we dismiss as fantasy or a joke but deep inside wish it wasn't so.

Hope, by its very nature, looks ahead at the future more positively. It is confident that the drudgery of our daily experiences, the tyranny of the ones that make us worry, the weaknesses that threaten to destroy everything we ever stood for, and the fear that paralyses us into inaction come with an expiry date.

It makes us see our world the way it is meant to be, and not in the way our worries want us to see.

Our world today is full of people with hope in their eyes and in their hearts -- hope for the economy to rebound, hope for jobs, hope for peace and security, hope for justice, hope for an equal society, hope for a dialogue with those who don't even listen...

In first century Palestine, for instance, hope was not just an idea but a person. The Jews hoped that the Messiah would come soon and rescue them from the yoke of imperial Rome. They hoped that the Messiah would turn them into an independent nation, make them masters of their own fate, and am sure, turn them into a power similar to Rome.

However, the Messiah did come but not as a king the world might recognise but as a baby whose frail humanity was wrapped in unseen divinity. Hope did not match expectation, and the loud cries of 'hosannas' were turned into the angrier chants of 'crucify him'. Hope still did not die.  Easter happened three days later to breathe life into a dying world, and humanity got a chance to look beyond the dreary present.

Question is, do we miss out on what we hope for because it comes in a packaging we least expect? 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

11 Days To Christmas - Faith

Faith is an uneasy word for most people because it assumes a certainty that's not quite there. At least, not yet.

It somehow expects adherents to believe that the 'here and now' is not the only valid worldview that one can subscribe to. And that something needn't necessarily be tangible or immediate for it to be grasped as a companion of reality.

The writer to Hebrews, for instance, described faith simply as the confidence in what one hopes for and assurance of that which one does not see.

In other words, the invisible no longer remains a mysterious entity that we should be wary of, but as something that beats with anticipation like a palpitating heart. Alive like an unborn child, a cry of joy just waiting to be heard.

Faith cannot be compared to wishful thinking because the latter is sustained by presumption and is not necessarily guided by anything concrete -- just a wish nothing more, nothing less. And in the same vein, it's certainly not a leap into the dark because its outcome is a foregone conclusion where the future is not hazy but somewhat well defined. The only difference being that future is yet to come or happen, as it were.

The events of the first Christmas night brings faith into another dimension altogether. Not as an idea or a thought one could wrestle with, argue over or even make sense of, it was a defiance of everything that was considered acceptable and challenged some accepted notions of propriety.

Mary and Joseph had to place faith in the words of the angels who spoke of the Messiah being born through virgin birth. A situation so unbelievable that no explanation was enough to discourage murmuring tongues from casting slurs. And yet they kept faith.

The shepherds had to place faith in the choirs of angels telling them - of all people - the news of the Messiah's birth. Who would ever think of making such a huge announcement to a bunch of social nobodies? Why should they even believe that they would be worthy of such an honor? And yet they kept faith.

The wise men from the east placed faith in a star that led them to the little town of Bethlehem and into the company of a lowly carpenter and his wife. The birth of the Messiah, they discovered, took place not in a palace in Jerusalem but in a manger. Not in an imperial household but in that of a carpenter and his young wife. And yet they kept faith.

They were the first to see the Messiah -- not as the One who turned water into wine, walked on water, healed the sick, made the lame walk, feed the five thousand or even rise from the dead after being brutally crucified. They saw Him as a little baby - frail and vulnerable in its humanity but with the promise of divinity shining bright nevertheless.

And their faith was made strong.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

12 Days To Christmas - Beginnings

I was in two minds about it.

Should I continue with this Christmas tradition of mine? Or shall I just skip it this year altogether?

After all, I haven't done much blogging this year, and so - I felt - it wouldn't make much difference whether or not I write something.

For two years, I've done my 12 days to Christmas series and must admit that there's always that little thought nagging me -- does it really make any difference what I write? Is the world out there really waiting for my voice to be heard again? Do I have something to say that needs to be said and cannot be silenced any longer?

Now that's the thing. Most of us will never ever know what impact our little actions or words will have in the eternal scheme of things. We are so saturated with the short term that for many the long term view of things appears strange, mysterious, foreign and unnecessary. It's so far away that we don't feel the need to include it in our daily reckonings of things that matter.

But whichever way we look at it, we cannot escape the fact that words like actions have consequences, and it doesn't matter if those consequences are in the short term or in the long term. There are consequences and it's up to us to measure the steps we take, the words we utter, the thoughts we think and ensure that a delicious residue remains as a gentle reminder of our presence.

In a way it's the same with writing, I guess. We may never know if the stories and poems we write have any impact whatsoever. I'm sure there are people who might differ since they are very sure about their objectives but that's not everyone. For most of us it's catharsis that provides the inspiration and the entree process becomes a sort of a voyage of discovery.

Or at least it's supposed to be.

The point I am making is that it doesn't really matter if I have a clearer assessment of the impact words have on people who are not in my circle of friends. One must write because one has to. The most genuine writing usually emerges from such a process -- the writers and the artists produce works of lasting quality by being crazily absorbed in producing it.

In a strange and twisted way, this ties in very well with the Christmas story as well.

The Jewish people waited for the Messiah to come and free them from imperial Rome's clutches. But when the Messiah did come, He was unwelcome because He came as a baby in a manger and His message of salvation was not political but personal redemption. In other words, the consequences of the birth of the Christ child in Bethelehem was not fantastic when you look at the birth by itself and ignore the bigger picture of Christ's soul transforming work.

What the Christmas story really tells us is... never ignore the bigness of small beginnings.