Farewell 2016 (perhaps you weren’t so bad after all…)

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2016 hasn’t been the best of years, has it?

At least for those within the same socio-economic-political bubble as me, 2016 has brought blow after depressing blow of bad news. Each time we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. It began to feel like 2016 was doing it on purpose.

Well, I for one have decided not to let 2016 depress me. Allow me to share with you a few thoughts that have brought me out of the pit of despair, into the enlightening conclusion that 2016 probably wasn’t the worst year in history, after all.


Celebrity deaths

There has undoubtedly been a spookily high number of celebrity deaths this year. Bowie, Prince, Muhammed Ali, Ronnie Corbett, Liz Smith, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Victoria Wood, Paul Daniels, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan…the list goes on. It’s been incredibly sad to lose so many of our heroes and icons in such a short space of time – it really does feel like the greatness in the world has been significantly diminished in the last twelve months. Writing that list has made me sad again!

But here’s a thought: whilst remembering and grieving those we’ve lost, could we also harness some of this emotional energy into truly appreciating all the great artists, entertainers and sportspeople who are still alive? Think of all the celebrities who managed to survive 2016…there’s actually quite a few when you think about it! That’s not to mention the people we actually know, love and interact with on a regular basis who are still going strong. Life is short and precious… let’s grab it by the horns and embrace the days we have left! Carpe diem and all that!


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Brexit and Trump

If someone had tried to tell me this time last year that in 2016, Britain would vote to leave the European Union and America would elect Donald J. Trump as their next president, I’d have assumed they’d had one too many New Year cocktails.

No-one saw Brexit coming. And most people I know saw Trump as a hilariously offensive distraction, kind of like Ali G… a caricature to laugh disbelievingly at but never for a minute take seriously. Most of us still didn’t take him seriously after Brexit, although there was a growing unease that maybe not everyone in the world thought the same as us. Then on the morning of Nov 9th that final realisation hit us like a freight train – we were wrong. There are an awful lot of people out there who we don’t understand at all, and whom we are now going to be forced to listen to.

But what if that’s a good thing? If the ‘leave’ campaign had failed in Britain and Hillary had won in the US just like we all expected, then we would have merrily carried on as we were, largely unaware of (or deliberately turning a blind eye to) the discontent rumbling amongst a very significant proportion of our respective populations. Whatever problems in society these political developments have highlighted were clearly there already. What if letting these people have a voice could actually take us forward in addressing some of the societal issues that we have previously ignored?

Also, can you remember the last time people, particularly young people, were this interested in politics? If longterm disillusionment and disengagement with the ‘political elite’ has culminated in Brexit and Trump, perhaps Brexit and Trump will be the wake up call that will finally get us off our backsides and motivate us to start changing the world in our own little ways.


The really bad stuff

Most of us would probably agree that even Brexit and Trump have been eclipsed by the dreadful news of war and terrorism this year. The terrorist attacks in the West have been truly horrific and utterly terrifying, but the number of those affected by these attacks pales into insignificance when compared to the horror and scale of the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, not to mention the other various conflicts and natural disasters. The human suffering we’ve seen on the news this year has been overwhelming, and it can leave us feeling helplessness and despair in the face of the sheer scale of it all.

Terrorism is terrifying, that’s the point of it, but I have found it incredibly helpful to realise that it is not new. Terrorist attacks have happened fairly regularly around the world for a few decades now, and although it seems like it’s been far worse this year, on a global scale it actually hasn’t. If we believe the false narrative that the threat is forever imminent and deadly, then the terrorist attacks are having their designed effect.

As for the war and other causes of suffering on a vast scale, there are no words to make them less tragic and horrifying. But war and suffering were not introduced in 2016. It feels like everything is getting worse, but it’s actually really not. The world as a whole is safer, more peaceful and more prosperous than it’s ever been. As far as human history goes, 2016 was a really, really great time to be alive. So while it’s important to be outraged and moved to act in aid of those in need, we needn’t feel that everything is spiralling downwards headlong into Armageddon.


News vs. reality

The news assaults us wherever we go these days. I really don’t think we would feel this gloomy about 2016 if, like our grandparents’ generation, we listened to the wireless or read the morning paper over breakfast, then spent the rest of the day concentrating on our own lives. When we read headlines every few minutes in news feeds and on TV screens, of course we become anxious and deeply affected by the stories, and they feel oppressive and urgent in our own lives even if they are happening on the other side of the world. In reality, our own lives are probably not all that bad.


So as I bid farewell to 2016, I’m feeling pretty hopeful, actually. Perspective is a wonderful, wonderful thing!

Here’s to a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year to you all – may you be filled with hope for 2017!


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A Light in the Darkness: The Reality of the Christmas Story

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This guest post was written by Katie van Santen

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How you think of the Christmas story may not have changed much since you were a child. The beautiful image of a pregnant lady on a donkey and a cosy stable full of smiling people snuggled up in clean hay.

The reality was quite different. The reality was an unplanned teenage pregnancy and a doubting fiancé. The reality was a politically-forced journey at just the wrong time. The reality was a husband who couldn’t provide shelter for his new family. The reality was smelly and dirty and bloody. The reality was mass infanticide and a refugee’s flight. The reality was Mary being told this child would pierce her soul.

It wasn’t nice, it wasn’t sparkly and wonderful… it was awful and squalid and confusing. It was everything going wrong for a couple who had been told this was God’s plan, who trusted Him to look after them.

But God chose weakness and failure to be the birthplace of the Light of the World. He took all that looked like it was going wrong, when it looked like it couldn’t get worse, but did… He used that darkness, that doubt, that fear, to speak the truth that darkness and doubt and fear aren’t failure, but can be the birthplace of the greatest victory.


Later, when Jesus had grown and lived, everything was going wrong for his followers who had been told this was God’s plan, who trusted him for all their hopes and future. God chose another place of weakness and failure to be the Salvation of the World. It all looked like it was going wrong when he was arrested, it looked like it couldn’t get any worse… then it did, when Jesus was nailed to a cross and died.

God used that darkness, that doubt, that fear, to speak the truth that darkness and doubt and fear aren’t failure, but can be the birthplace of the greatest victory.


In the New Year, the Christmas tree at the front of our church will be kept, stripped of its branches, and at Easter will become our cross. The cross will be empty, because a dead man isn’t good news. An empty cross, an empty grave, and a risen Christ proclaims that darkness is not the end of the story.

There is a dawn coming.


63267_461950095997_6663309_nKatie van Santen lives in Plymouth with lots of lego and quite a few books. She is currently not a marine biologist or science teacher due to disability, but keeps herself busy studying theology, preaching, and Godmothering.

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Lover of Darkness: A Winter Solstice Reflection

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This guest post was written by Adam Couchman


December 21st, in the northern hemisphere, is the Winter Solstice – the ‘shortest’ day of the year. Except it’s not the shortest day really. It’s still 24 hours long, I’ll still sleep for the same amount of time. I won’t be losing time. But we call it the shortest day because it is the day when the sun is risen for the least amount of time. Here along latitude 51 we will get, give or take, just shy of 8 hours of daylight on Wednesday. That means 16 hours of darkness.

It’s the dark hours that got me thinking this week. Darkness has always been a strange place to me. It’s been a place of comfort and fear, a place of loneliness and company, boredom and creativity. Things that go ‘bump’ in the night hold a certain appeal to me. I’m not necessarily talking ghosts and goblins, although they come into it, but the parts of our own minds that race in the dark hours. The parts of our conscience that drink deep of the blackness and spins the ether to create stories of intrigue and mystery. Is it any wonder that some of the world’s darkest and most fanciful tales emerge out of the black Scandinavian winters?

I find it easier to look inward on myself in darkness, I find my mind opens to other possibilities when the lights go down. I can better order my rambling thoughts of the light hours into a deeper understanding, under the shadow of the moon.


But darkness has a negative connotation in my culture. Particularly that of the Christian faith. We are led to believe that the dark is where the bad stuff hides. We must constantly be shining bright lights into all the dark places of the world and of ourselves. Now, largely I agree; when darkness is used to describe a place of actual evil, then yes. I do believe that God’s ‘light’ is a real thing, but I’m not arrogant enough to just go throwing it around…at least I hope not.

Darkness is, after all, the absence of light. But equally, light is the absence of darkness. There is this perfect, beautiful marriage between the two. We can have no understanding of light without first experiencing the darkness, and vice versa. We use darkness to grow and mature. Darkness is the only base line we have to measure light. And if we extrapolate that idea we can arrive at the result of good being only ever measured by the depth of bad. Few things in this world can be solely experienced as good without having first been experienced as bad…but we’ll come to that later.


When God caused the universe to come into being there was at first, only darkness. Then light was caused to become and the light and dark where separated. The light became day and the dark, night. If darkness was so bad then surely God would have just made light? We need the night. We need to rest, we need to collate the information gleamed during our waking hours and make sense. Since the dawn of time when darkness descends mankind has looked up to the heavens and sought meaning. The darkness gives us our meanings, it balances the light.

If we lose a loved one, or we lose a job, or any number of things; there is a saying that we use: ‘we’re in a dark place’. Granted they are often low points, but it is only after the low, dark points does the light seem effective. It is only after bad situations that we can see the good – we need a marker.


Now, I said there are few things that can be solely experienced as good without having first been experienced as bad; that require no marker. But to be honest, there’s only one I can think of…

Love.

Some people do go through the hell of experiencing bad, evil and horrendous ‘love’. But that isn’t real love and we know it. I know what human love is. I love my wife and kids, I love my parents and siblings, I love my friends and others. But I’ve never experienced ‘bad love’, so what’s my marker?

Love requires no rules, love isn’t subservient to anyone, love is free and love is boundless. Love is present in light and darkness, in the hearts of evildoers and the good. Love can set us free!

What love is this? It is the love of humanity, the love in the fabric of the universe…the Love of the One who is.

Now tell me there is no love in darkness. Truly… love is eternal.


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Adam lives in Southern England with his wife and 2 kids. He is a landscape gardener by day and amateur theologian by night. He is an avid reader, cyclist and walker. Very occasional speaker, preacher and community theatre actor. And he is on a quest to seek wisdom wherever it is found.


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‘Finding God In The Waves: How I Lost My Faith And Found It Again Through Science’, by Mike McHargue

Rethinking Christianity: The Message Of Jesus

Rethinking Christianity: Sin and Salvation

Rethinking Christianity: Hell (How My Story Evolved From A Story Of Fear To A Story Of Hope)

Is Being A Christian Just About Being A Good Person?

Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory Makes Me Want To Throw Up A Little Bit In My Mouth

A Thoroughly Biblical Argument Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement

My Confession / Why I Am Still A Christian

Rethinking Christianity: Deconstruction

‘The Idol of Feelings’?: Jesus, Mental Health and the Quest for Happiness

Love, Love, Love: the painfully misunderstood, profoundly simple, earth-shattering message of Jesus

Homosexuality and the Bible: An Epic Conversation with my Anti-theist Brother

Dear Non-LGBT-affirming Christians, please search your hearts

I Think God Makes People Gay