Today was meant to be peaceful. I went to bed very late last night, but it means that everything is ready. The in laws are on their way; the fridge has been emptied, cleaned and refilled with all the ingredients filed in meal order. I’ve done enough in advance that I should be able to join in with the Christmas films and board games; my plans for Christmas Eve morning included finishing a cup of tea while it was still hot, writing my final post and getting some piano practice in.
You can’t deny that God has a sense of humour. I was woken up at six by child 4, whose mission in life has been to decorate a dress for her doll Matilda to wear on Christmas day. I finally got round to cobbling together a plain shift out of calico yesterday, and today was to be all about fabric crayons, ribbon and ric-rac braid. Obviously today couldn’t start early enough. No sooner was Matilda appropriately garbed than Child 1 appeared in tears, distraught at not having organized presents to give his siblings. A couple of hours later, he’d learned to use the sewing machine. He’s made pillows for each sibling’s favourite toy, with their names written on them. And child 2, who reserved to herself the right to decorate Grandpa’s birthday cake, is now so caught up in teaching my mother to play Man Bites Dog that the cake has been forgotten, and the wicker reindeer have not yet been put on either side of the fireplace, and James is gathering spoons, and we’ve run out of kindling, and my beloved Portmerion Holly and Ivy serving dish was smashed yesterday and I have nothing else big enough for the turkey, and I’m not yet dressed.
But whatever happens, I’ll be at the crib service at four o’clock, with anyone who wants to come with me. I’ll go and hear the Christmas message – not at the church I always called mine, because I cannot hear Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All Men from the lips of people who think gay conversion therapy is a reasonable thing, but at the church in whose hall my chorus rehearses weekly. And there will be a truth in the words of faith and hope that will resonate with me, and I’ll probably cry. And I’ll pray, too. For Paris. For Nice. For Berlin. For my friend with terminal cancer, and my friend cherishing the new life inside her, and my friend who is coming to terms with her husband’s diagnosis. And I will ask myself what sense those prayers make if God is not real, and my faith that he is will open a floodgate of other questions.
But these things I am sure of: I support equal marriage. I support free, safe access to abortion. I think businesses should act within the law – which means they must pay taxes and make cakes for, or give accommodation to, for customers whose requests are legal. I want women to have equal rights, enshrined in law. I want children to be educated and sick people given medical care regardless of their income. I believe that government should be secular, to ensure that every single citizen can be respected and heard, to ensure religious debates can be vigorous and robust, to ensure that tolerance comes first.
Where is God? Why didn’t he strike Bertolucci down before Brando (who had no business agreeing) could follow his instructions about the butter? Turn aside the lorry in Berlin? Deafen my children to the shouts of the man on Piccadilly? I don’t need a purple-winged angel for this one. I know the answer. It’s not that he
works in mysterious ways or that he only interferes for people who’ve been to Confession in the last month or who’ve kept kosher kitchens or upheld the Five Pillars or whatever. It’s that he works through his creation. He created mankind in his own image, and then gave that creation agency. I have agency. We all have agency.
Let’s talk about God. Let’s talk beliefs. Let’s talk it out until we’re exhausted, then break bread together and talk again. Let’s talk about why I’ve reached for the wine, but your religion forbids you to drink. Let’s talk about why I passionately defend the right to abortion while you picket clinics. Let’s talk about why you’re upset about a black family representing Christmas in this year’s John Lewis advert. Let’s talk about why you don’t believe in God at all. Or why your faith drives you to condemn a couple in love because they are the same sex, or why you believe I should cover my head. Let’s talk about why the refugee should not be welcomed; let’s talk about why they should. But let’s talk. It’s frustrating. It’s often boring, too. It requires all of us to read, to research, to listen to each other with the intention of understanding. It requires us to hear.
And I expect what we’ll do is agree to differ about God, and where and whether he, she or it is.
But what we can’t do is agree to differ on anything that leaves one person being exploited or abused by another. We cannot agree to differ about situations of vast inequality. And this, for me, is where Jesus comes in. Jesus came to those without agency. He was born into poverty; a refugee who could not find shelter. One of those very refugees we are turning away; one of the eleven thousand who have drowned in the Mediterranean. He forced people to confront their prejudices; he gave grace, not to a chosen group, but to anyone who asked for it.
The mistake I have made it to look to him for peace. Life on this earth is not a peaceful thing. While we have free will, we will never agree. Every now and again, we get a glimpse of perfection. Love is requited; an achievement is recognized; a long-for child is conceived. But those states cannot be permanent. To be human is to struggle, and those of us who have the great good luck to be engaging with our struggles in situations of warmth and plenty must not use our comfort as a reason to exempt ourselves from the discussion. Those glimpses of perfection are our glimpses into the world we have been given the chance to create for each other. We are all equal in the sight of God; if we make equality our watchword, then our disagreements will be productive, powerful and constructive, and our striving towards our own ideals will bring rewards in ways we cannot predict or know.