It`s always a great privilege to call on a family who have just been bereaved. But among the most distressing things for me are those occasions when the next of kin (incredible as it might seem) are unable to tell me anything of significance about the person who has died. I`ve wrestled with this over many years and tried all manner of approaches but it seems that in some families, some people were hardly there at all. No one it appears ever really listened or engaged with them. No one regarded them as someone worthy of time and attention. I`ve come to the conclusion that there`s a real poverty here; and it`s got nothing to do with the peoples` wealth or means. It has to do with our capacity to really acknowledge the true significance of another human being.
Some while ago I got into a conversation with a young girl who was about to go to University. She was hoping to study Psychology and last I heard she`s doing very well. She flattered me somewhat by asking me what advice I might give her. I simply suggested that she use as her benchmark one particular question: “In her studies what vision of the human person lies behind this theory, technique or strategy for caring?” I wasn`t trying to be clever and importantly I wasn`t making a theoretical point. I mean you and I know exactly what that means. I was talking about what happens when a nurse knows all about taking someone`s temperature but nothing about holding someone`s hand. It`s what`s going on every time we try to contact a Utility Company and we put down the phone screaming, “All I want to do is speak to a person”.
You see behind those experiences are someone`s perception of you and me. Nowadays it seems that the labels we are called to wear are variously, clients, customers, patients or the one you wouldn`t really want to see on your gravestone: “Here lies a Consumer”.
Of course the organisations we deal with like to call it `customer service`; but frankly that`s the LAST thing it is. Because what it involves is you and I accepting one of those labels and behaving as THEY want us to. Yes, we CAN pay a little extra for that `personal touch` – a personal touch we used to take for granted in times past but which is now used to flatter our ego because now we`re the people with the cash to afford it…..! Again, we`ve long since seen through the `circulars` that are designed to look like personal letters; they can put people on the end of a call Centre phone lines who tells you their first name (and do their best -let`s be kind- these are people often caught up in a horrible system with appalling employment conditions) but as soon as they open their mouth you can tell they`ve been on a Course… somehow the sincerity isn`t there.
Now, this is not a rant I just want to draw our attention to how we all experience the corporate mind-set, which in a drive for efficiency; maximising profit and getting the numbers up cuts `relational` corners at every turn. And “All WE want to do is speak to a person”.
As I`ve just hinted, working for some of these groups isn`t at all easy. In recent years we`ve seen the rise of `Human Resources` departments… Just ponder that name for a moment….it`s interesting being thought of as a RESOURCE isn`t it! We`ve got one in the Diocese now! But despite all this some companies are STILL fearful of engaging face to face with their employees. Only a year or so ago you might remember we had a case of people being sacked by text message!
And everywhere you turn initiative in the workplace and personal engagement is flatly discouraged. I met a man recently who told me that one day they were short staffed in his office. He offered to help out but his Supervisor told him on no account to answer the telephone because quote “he wasn`t trained in speaking to the public….”
And so prevalent is this way of operating that in its fear of losing `market share` the Church has adopted similar tactics. Over the last few generations we`ve been falling in and out of love with industrialised strategies for filling the Pews- from Billy Graham Missions to the Alpha Course…. all in a vain search for some magic button which will get the numbers up. I say `Industrialised` because we`re simply using the world`s models; all the while forgetting that these strategies stand in stark contrast to the images of the Kingdom of God used by Christ… who talks of seeds growing; of seasons for waiting and seasons for reaping.
I can`t help thinking that we too have become adept at cutting the relational corners. We fight shy of the truth that the Good News is passed on through flesh and blood relating; not projects, programmes or techniques. And then you speak with a colleague who tells the story of ringing his Diocesan Office to be greeted with the words: “Duty Bishop speaking”.
When we put down the `phone, frustrated that our energy firm couldn`t speak to us in person we instinctively know that something is wrong. It shouldn`t BE like this. And when you see the faith of Christ being marketed like soap powder you should likewise know something is wrong. What`s wrong is that we`re cutting the relational corners.
The heart of what we prepare to celebrate in the weeks ahead is the coming of God `in the flesh`; in relationship. In the mess of all our caring and celebrating; our fallings out and forgiving`s. And our ability or otherwise to form and develop good relationships is so important if we are to grow in the life of faith. What I`m trying to say is that we forget that it`s SO easy to rant on about the way our culture operates all the while forgetting that often it`s WE who are the chief culprits.
Just think a little of the games we play in our interaction with others. So who are the people in our lives that we might not consider worthy of our attention? What tone do you use with those people carrying out those otherwise menial tasks? What draws or repels you from others- and how really aware or honest are you about that in your praying? Do you settle for the same old faces and a somewhat closed social group? Do you more readily gravitate to those who entertain, flatter or amuse you? Be honest! How many of your relationships are about convenience or mutual advantage? Do you get anxious about who you might have to sit with?
These are not jaundiced or cynical observations. These are questions we need to answer and I say again, pray about because whether we like it or not; whether we realise it or not our pattern of relating; the way we form and sustain relationships is the place Christ will make himself known. What I`m getting at is that in days when utility companies and others deploy their faux customer service strategies and leave us utterly frustrated and somewhat demeaned we mustn`t be blind to the way in which we can do exactly the same in our day to day dealings with one another. And as I say, sometimes it`s those of our own family who can feel used, disregarded, and unworthy of our attention.
In our Gospel reading this morning John the Baptist uses some words, which frankly have haunted me this week. He tells the people: “Among you stands one whom you do not know”. It seems to me that we do not really know him; so often we do not recognise Christ among us because, far too often we like to set the terms of engagement. We draw too firm a line around ourselves. We excuse ourselves by using social convention; `birds of a feather flock together` and all the rest. But then the challenge comes when you encounter someone like Mother Teresa.
I picked up a little book about her the other day and was just bowled over by her stark and direct legacy. Putting it simply she stood in the tradition which says, as the Benedictines would put it: “we welcome others as we would welcome Christ himself”… Again, very cleverly we excuse ourselves, we call her a saint and having stuck her on a pedestal we`re free to regard her as the exception…. But she`s NOT the exception. On the contrary, she and her example is the rule and the call to holiness is and never has been for the favoured few.
One of the Church Fathers, Tertullian tells us, “The one who has seen his brother has seen his God”. And this whole notion that the next person you meet; the one sitting next to you; the one you would otherwise avoid; the one who needs your help; is to be treated as Christ himself ……frankly is dynamite.
As some of you will know Margaret and I were fortunate enough to go to Nepal a few years ago and one of the things we noticed was that just as we might say “Good morning” to those we pass in the street (though of course in some places they`ll think you a bit strange) the tradition there is to put your hands together and say “Namaste”. It`s a greeting which says, “I bow to the God within you”. After four weeks of that it was interesting returning to England, walking into a shop in Windermere and just stopping myself in time. Embarrassment takes over doesn`t it? But the hand gesture isn`t the point. You see I don`t think we`ll ever understand Christmas and what it means for God to come among us `in the flesh` while ever we look for the holy or the sacred in for example what I increasingly hear people calling `magical` feelings.
Christ will remain among us as “one we do not know” if we don`t begin with greeting, welcoming and engaging with those you wouldn`t usually regard as worthy of time and attention. Greeting, welcoming and engaging them as if they were Christ is the place to start.