As the year rushes towards the end there are numerous commentators talking about the best and worst of the year, the successes and the failures, of both individuals and governments. While you might think this is a strange ritual to engage in – as each writer has different understandings of ‘worst’, ‘failure’, ‘best’, and ‘success’ – I view it through the lens of hope.
What does hope look like, feel like, for individuals, groups and countries?
2016 has been a hard year for many Kiwis. There are many struggling to pay for food and housing. There are many weighed down by debt – the sort of debt that loan-sharks create when your minimum wage has gone solely on housing and some food, and then a medical crisis has hit your family.
In Auckland the price of houses is such that most young people will never own one, unless they have a significant inheritance, which most don’t.
In North Canterbury and Wellington the earthquakes have made life tough for many. And it will be tough for some time to come.
In the face of all this does the old Christmas stories, and the traditions grown up around them, offer any hope?
The cartoonist, Brendan Boughen, drew our Christmas billboard this year. The billboard portrays those Kiwis that have had it hard as a guy looking battered, tired and beaten, crawling along the ground towards a line that says 2017. Standing just in front of the line for 2017 looking at him are Joseph and Mary, who is holding the baby Jesus, while Joseph holds a sign that simply says 'Joy to the World'.
The Holy Family look, frankly, ridiculous. ‘Joy to the World’? Really?? They look like they have just landed from another time and culture, having defied our border security. Is the birth of Jesus really something that will help Kiwis who are struggling? How can this foreign-looking family be at all a sign of hope? In the face of earthquakes, debt, and house prices they seem an irrelevant sideshow, a joke.
And get this: the ‘saviour’ figure is not the dad or the mum, but the baby. How silly is that? The kid can’t even do up his own shoes yet – if he has any. Wouldn’t it be better if an adult saviour arrived – like a muscular, component, executive Jesus, loaded with money and goodwill to help the beleaguered Kiwis. This redeemer could pour money and personnel into earthquake zones, increase the minimum wage, jail corrupt lenders, and set house prices at levels people could afford. He could be our strong God.
But Christmas has a weak God – a God known in fragility, vulnerability, and failure.
Let me tell you a story – the original of which comes from Bob Fulghum.
John Pierpont died a failure, according to those who measure success in terms of achievement, status, and wealth [which we all kind of do]. In 1866, at age eighty-one, he came to the end of his days a government clerk in Washington D.C.
Things began well enough. He graduated from Yale, and chose education as a profession.
He was a failure at school teaching. He was too easy on his students in an age when harshness was expected. And so he turned to the legal world.
He was a failure as a lawyer. He was too generous to his clients and too concerned about justice to take the cases that brought good fees. The next career he took up was that of a merchant.
He was a failure as a businessman. He could not charge enough for his goods to make a profit, and was too liberal with credit.
In the meantime he had been writing poetry, and though it was published, he didn’t collect enough royalties to make a living.
He was a failure as a poet. And so he decided to become a minister, went off to Harvard Divinity School, and was for a number of years the minister of Hollis Street Church in Boston. But his position on temperance and against slavery got him offside with influential members of his congregation and he was forced to resign.
He was a failure as a minister. He entered politics and was nominated as an Abolition Party candidate. He lost.
He was a failure as a politician. The Civil War came along and he volunteered as a chaplain. Two weeks later he quit. He found the task too much of a strain on his health. He was 76 years old.
Someone found him an obscure job as a menial file clerk and where he finished off the last 5 years of his life. He wasn’t very good at that. His heart wasn’t in it.
John Pierpont died, according to those who measure success in terms of achievement, status, and wealth, a failure. He had accomplished nothing he set out to do or be.
From this distance in time, and given our biases, one might say that he was not in fact a failure. His commitment to justice, his desire to be a loving human being, his active engagement in the great issues of his times, and his faith – these were not failures. But they are difficult, if not impossible, to measure.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, every Christmas we carry in our hearts and mind a lifelong memorial to him. It’s a song.
Not about Jesus or angels or Santa Claus. It’s a terribly simply song about the simple joy of whizzing through the cold white dark of winters gloom in a sleigh pulled by a horse. And with the company of friends, laughing and singing all the way. No more. No less. “Jingle Bells”. John Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells.” It’s a song that stands for the simplest of joys.
One snowy afternoon in deep winter, John Pierpont penned the lines as a small gift for his family and friends, and in doing so left behind a permanent gift for Christmas – the best kind – not the one under the tree, but the invisible, invincible one of joy.[i]
The child Jesus, who grew into the adult Jesus, was, similarly to John Pierpont, a failure. He earned no money that we know of, and seemed to rely on other’s benevolence. He had a trade we think, but gave it up to walk around the countryside telling stories and touching people. He had no house, car, bank account, or wardrobe. He seemed to peeve off not only religious and political authorities, but also his friends. He didn’t write book[s], or poems, or compose songs. And he got killed for being politically naive. Yep, a failure.
And yet he was the inspiration of community/communities that have sought over the centuries to embody compassion and just dealings with all. He inspired a vision of everyone having enough to eat with leftovers to share, of everyone having a place of shelter and belonging, of debts being not only manageable but forgiven, and, especially in times of crisis, neighbour helping neighbour, those who have made it helping those who haven’t. It was a vision that said ‘Together we can do it, and no one will be left behind’.
It is not a vision of a strong manager God sorting out the world’s problems, but a weak manger God who invites us to love one another and so embody hope and joy. Christmas, dressed up in carols, costumes, and ancient stories, is as simply and as difficult as that.
[i] Robert Fulghum, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, London: Grafton, 1989, p.17ff