At this time of year, many of us will be celebrating the dawn of a new year. We’ll overeat, overdrink, watch fireworks and Jools Holland on the TV.
But New Year’s Eve is a human construction only and is of little consequence . The boundary separating one year to the next is as tangible as the boundary separating the living from the dead. Don’t worry about it; it’s not important. Its only value is as a reminder to focus on the things in your life that really matter, such as your loved ones and your priorities for living your life.
So tomorrow night, grasp your loved ones and your opportunities with both hands and never let them go.
This summer, I attended the funeral of my father. My father was, in the main, a good man. But he did some things that he wouldn’t have been proud of. At his funeral, I spoke for ten minutes about the highlights of his life. Was it a true representation of his life? Was it fair? For the purposes of a funeral, of course it was. If you were trying to write a balanced biography, perhaps it wouldn’t.
But it would have been easy for someone at his funeral – after all, they all knew him – to stand up and mention one of the more fruitier parts of his life. And it would have been thoroughly appalling to have done so. Luckily, those present had sufficient decorum and respected the sensibilities of those present.
Or let’s consider a starker example. Would anyone consider it kind, or a good idea, to walk into a pub full of Manchester United fans during a local derby in which City are winning 2-0 to tell them how poorly their team is performing and how much better City are?
Christmas is a challenging time for atheists, as they find themselves face to face with faith. While the vast majority conduct themselves with decorum, some feel obliged to seek refuge from their own unhappiness by bringing others down to their level. So they might seek to pour scorn on elements of the Christmas story that strike them as inconsistent. Or to deride faith itself in cruel and mocking terms. To those who are tempted to behave in such a way, imagine the losing football supporter or the grieving child at a parent’s funeral, and consider whether you would like to be on the receiving end of such unkind behaviour.
At the Church of the Dead Dad, we do not subscribe to the idea that only through the church can you find morality. So at Christmas time, I call upon atheists everywhere to show that you can find ethics in atheism as well, and to keep any unkind opinions about Christianity or faith firmly under wraps.
With my father having died, I can now contemplate my own role as a father.
There is, to my mind, nothing greater than caring for your own children. I love the excitement in their eyes as they tell me about their days at school. I’m constantly amused by their funny stories and their unique perspectives on the world. It’s fantastic to see them grappling with maths or spelling for the first time and being able to see the cogs fall into place as they work it out. And I really enjoy looking after them: getting a hot water bottle, replacing a toy dropped while asleep, or tucking their covers back in.
Through these rituals of caring, they are well on their way, in time, for a role within the Church.
God bless you all.
From Genesis ch.44.
19 My lord asked his servants, saying, Have ye a father, or a brother?
20 And we said unto my lord, We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother; and his father loveth him.
21 And thou saidst unto thy servants, Bring him down unto me, that I may set mine eyes upon him.
22 And we said unto my lord, The lad cannot leave his father: for if he should leave his father, his father would die.
This is an intensely troubling section. For surely all sons must leave their fathers in order to find work? I did indeed leave my father to find work in the Big City. And now he’s dead.
Though this is clearly the Lord’s Divine will, a great deal more meditation will be necessary before we can fully comprehend it.
Here is the text for my forthcoming ‘Thought for the day’, to be broadcast on Monday 12 December on the subject of “Advent”.
Advent is for many a joyous time. It brings the promise of Christmas, a wonderful time of giving and receiving presents and enjoying some time at home with your family. It may bring thick blankets of snow, that slow the impossibly rapid pace of modern life to a complete standstill, while also dulling its noise and bustle. The long winter nights mean time spent indoors huddled together next to a warm fire, enjoying the merry twinkling lights of a Christmas tree. It is a month-long extravaganza of mince pies, mulled wine, Christmas carols and parties.
That’s all peripheral to Advent’s true purpose, which is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, in a stable faraway, some 2,000 years ago. Through Christ we were all saved.
But there’s a dark side to Advent. Long nights mean short days, and the inevitable dark journeys to and from work and the bleakness of seasonal affective disorder. There are some who cannot afford to keep their houses warm, or even to buy a Christmas tree. Snow means tragic accidents on the roads, delays in gritting streets and pavements and cancelled public transport. The colder weather causes leaves to shrivel up and die. And, while we can enjoy time with our families, it necessarily reminds us of those – such as my own father – who are not here to enjoy Christmas with us this year.
When you have lost your father, you can seek solace in the fact that – like Jesus in the manger – your father is in Heaven on Christmas Day. And, finally, it may be your turn to get the best bits of the turkey.