Christmas comes at a time of tremendous make-believe and bingeing. At the time of the shortest day we make-believe with coloured lights, alcohol or airplane tickets that winter does not have us under its lash. We binge, if we can get them, on food and drink and old movies and things of all kinds. And we binge on family. The two reflections here are about spiritual moderation and about the reality of family.
The language and thought of Christianity (or how we have received these things) easily give prominence to an all-or-nothing view of the world and of the spiritual journey. Think of the many hellfire sermons, or the message in Revelation 3: 15-16 to the early Christians at Laodicea: ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out my mouth.’
Perhaps certain frames of thought naturally ‘favour’ certain tones of voice, just as certain building architectures bring out the best in different music and singing. It is not that other voices are not there, rather that they may be more easily missed – for instance within Christianity the doubting of the apostle Thomas, the not-yetness of St Augustine or, thus far, the many voices of women.
This means that one of the blessings which different religions can offer each other is not simply to engage intellectually with what is said – although that is one valid form of engagement. In addition, we can listen with a different purpose and different results to the tones of voice which come through more strongly in other people’s religions than in our own; that we might become more sensitive to the voices within our own tradition which may get lost in the our religion’s architecture.
For example, Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches about materialism that it is not bad for someone to have as much they want, if others also have as much they want and need. He notes the potential contradiction that if he is staying in a hotel in an international city and sees a workers’ demonstration going by, he is drawn to join in – yet he is the one enjoying the comforts of the hotel. He says:
‘I do not believe everyone can or should be like Mahatma Gandhi and live the life of a poor peasant. Such dedication is wonderful and greatly to be admired. But the watchword is ‘As much as we can’ – without going to extremes’ (Ancient Wisdom, Modern World, p 184).
Considering his elucidation of the issues could help Christians do two things. It could stimulate a deeper and clearer engagement with what Christian understandings of materialism and poverty are, and what understanding we shall make our own. And hearing a different voice could also make us more thoughtful about the possibility that the all-or-nothing voice within Christianity drowns out the other God-given voices which are also there.
One of the things on which it is traditional to binge at Christmas is families and relations. One of the things which can make Christmas acutely painful for some people with families, as well as for many people without, is the degree of make-believe about the goodness and completeness of families. In reality, life in and around many families is like life in and around many people – enriching, complex and incomplete.
Just as families are incomplete, so are individual perspectives on them. Duwayne Brooks gives us his perspective on a friendship and two families, his own and Stephen Lawrence’s, in chapter 2 of his book ‘Steve and Me’:
I know I was a difficult kid. Loyal and bright, but definitely stroppy. I don’t suppose that I’m that different now. My mum found me difficult to cope with. She was strong and stroppy too.
My mum was one for laying down the law – a bit like Steve’s mum. And one of her top laws was the washing-up law. The dishes were my responsibility. It shouldn’t have been such a big deal, but it was … it would look like Mum had had a party and there’d be a huge pile of dishes blocking up the sink and trailing round the kitchen, and she wouldn’t let me go to bed till they were all done.
One day when I was sixteen [in 1991], I was sitting in the house watching Manchester United on the telly, and Mum said would I do the dishes. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do them after the football.’ Well, that was it, she exploded – said I could get out of the house right then. So I did.
I stayed at the first hostel in Sydenham for a month … it was so liberating after home. I just remember thinking to myself, Ah, peace and quiet, peace and quiet.
In 1992, from Stockwell I bounced temporarily out of the hostel system and into my gran’s flat at Grove Park back in south-east London … It was at gran’s that I hooked up with Mum again. She came round to see me, and, of course, she was hurt that I’d not been in touch … When I lived at home she didn’t seem that interested in helping me, but now she came round and wanted to know if I needed anything – clothes, food, money.
Eventually I managed to move back closer to home … We’d [Steve and I] both grown up a bit. I’d found my own way to independence, and Steve was looking for his. He was brought up wrapped up in cotton wool. In a way, all the rules were just another aspect of this – they wanted the best for him, and they were strict with him so he couldn’t mess things up. Then when he started doing stuff that they weren’t so keen on, they became increasingly hard on him. He was smoking and drinking a bit, as were most boys his age. Like so many of our crowd, he was into the drink called 20/20. It’s ironic really that his mum always warned him against me turning him to drink, when I couldn’t stand the bloody stuff.
Steve asked what chance there would be of moving into the hostel. I said I’d look into it for him. But I never felt sure that he wanted to move out of home. He was torn – he was finding it impossible at home, but despite everything he didn’t want to hurt his parents by walking out on them.
We saw a lot of each other that year. There was so much to catch up on, so much to talk about. We’d spend hours and hours just talking about nothing in the way that good friends do, arguing about football, arguing about girls, play-fighting, swapping stories, talking about the future, dreaming.