Sunday morning. Sunshine and near-silence. Somewhere in the distance the melody of a familiar hymn stretches all the way back to my childhood. I’m on holiday. And for me, at last, a holiday has become a time to breathe. A time for hills. Trees. Butterflies. Bullrushes. Sun, sea and stony beaches. Stillness.
It wasn’t always like this. The annual holidays of my childhood were a double-edged sword. They meant so much to my parents. My father especially. And I loved them too. But somehow, along with the welter of wellies and waterproofs, we always managed to squeeze the Protestant work ethic into the battered leather suitcases. Thus, as we stepped out of the car and stretched our legs, surrounded by all the glory of the Lake District or Snowdonia, my mother would scurry indoors to inspect the kitchen of our self-catering holiday cottage. She’d declare that every last item must be thoroughly washed before we could so much as make a cup of tea. I was the eldest, and the only girl, so it fell to my lot to scrub dishes while my younger brothers splashed about in the stream at the bottom of the garden. This done, all meals had to be be prepared to the usual standard, regardless of the facilities available. In this, Mum made a rod wholly for her own back. She reigned supreme in the kitchen. No-one else was allowed to do anything more creative than potato-peeling. I think she probably went home more exhausted than when we arrived. Small wonder she insisted that dad take her to hotels once the three of us had grown up and gone.
When all the work was done properly there were mountains to be walked up. Walking up mountains was a Good Thing. Even if we hated it. It’s not that I hate mountains, you understand. Quite the contrary. I don’t even hate walking up them. It’s simply that the 1960s approach was depressingly utilitarian. Get to the top as fast as possible. Admire the view. If the fog hadn’t got there first. Have a picnic. That was the best part. Then walk back down to the car. I simply wasn’t good at the ‘get to the top as fast as possible’ bit. I liked to take my time. Watch the butterflies. Examine the lichens on a rock or tree trunk. Most of all, I liked to breathe. To fill my lungs with enough oxygen to avoid near-death sensations. Instead, I was nagged to walk faster. Try harder. To me, ‘try harder’ meant tense every muscle in my body. Pull my shoulders up to my ears. Draw in a deep breath and hold it. I suppose near death experiences were the inevitable result.
How we love that ol’ Protestant work ethic. Try harder. Work harder. Make more money. Forget those lazy, hazy, crazy dreams … What you really want is a new iPhone. A bigger house. A 60-inch flat-screen telly will make you truly happy. We’re sold the myth that work is virtuous in and of itself. Just so long as it makes money. The government has a mantra for it nowadays. ‘Hard-working families’. I remember a time, back in the 80s, when they told us we wouldn’t need to work so much in the future. Whatever happened to that one? Instead, it’s everyone for themselves. A never-ending pitched battle to be the hardest-working, longest-suffering, most hard-done-by on your street. Then to get rich enough to move to a better street. Just so long as you’re not poor. Poor is wrong. Poor is evil. Poor proves you’re not-hard-working. Not-hard-working is the worst sin in the world.
Sin. Now there’s an idea. Or ‘ideal’, as we Bristolians might say. I’d love to go out on the street one day and ask for random people’s ideas of their ideal ‘sins’. Sex would be right up there of course. Christians have made a lot of fuss about sex down the centuries. If the people involved have the same number of x and y chromosomes it’s even worse. Murder. Robbery. Rape. Yep. Can’t argue with those. Poverty … Not-working-hard … Going against the status quo … Most of us are not ready to rank them alongside murder just yet. But I’d be willing to bet there are more people who’d call them ‘sins’ than there were a generation ago.
Which makes it all the more odd that our government lays claim to Christian values. The man Christians say they follow certainly wouldn’t recognise wealth creation or accepting the status quo as Christian values. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven … Woe to you who are rich now … Sell your possessions and give to the poor … You have heard that it was said, but I tell you … Just a small selection of quotes from his teachings.
It seems to me Jesus was all about going against the flow. I think that’s what I like best about him. He jacked in a secure job in the family carpentry business in his early thirties and became an itinerant preacher. He drew huge crowds with his alternative philosophy. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …You can’t serve God and money … Blessed are the peacemakers … He was homeless, owning nothing but the clothes on his back. When accused of not paying his taxes he produced a coin from the mouth of a fish and paid up, even though he owed nothing. A far cry from the tax-dodging billionaires who preach austerity to the rest of us today.
Human nature hasn’t changed a lot in two-thousand-plus years. Turns out the crowds who flocked to Jesus were looking for a magical solution. A formula. The one quick fix that would sort things out for all time. What good thing must I do to get eternal life? Sell your possessions and give to the poor … follow me. What? You must be joking. Jesus never sugared the pill. Never offered compromise. Small wonder the crowd turned on him in the end. He just wasn’t giving them what they wanted.
We all want instant answers. There are more quick fixes today, of course. Email. Text messages. Online shopping. Why wait? Why not make myself feel better right now? I deserve it don’t I? Why shouldn’t I pay money I don’t have to someone who already has more than me, for another trinket that will make people envy me? In a Wonga-loan society I’m free to mortgage my soul to the point of no escape. To mortgage the earth. To steal it from my children and my grandchildren. A debt I have absolutely no hope of repaying. Eternal life or not. In the past forty years, the earth has lost more than half its vertebrate wildlife. At this rate, the butterflies and bullrushes will be gone by the time my grandsons are old enough to appreciate them. Greed’s the great untalked-about ‘sin’. The one that’s going to get us all. We need to start upsetting the status quo. Going against the flow. Making peace. Loving our enemies. Selling our possessions. Giving to the poor.
This week I’ve been walking. Along the beach. On the wild and windy cliff top. I’ve walked here every summer for five years now. Nothing changed much from one year to the next, until now. The beach looks significantly different from the way it did last summer. The rising sea level is beginning to erode the shoreline. Warning notices have appeared. The coast is less safe than it was, even twelve months ago.
Jesus walked too. He walked up mountains to find quiet space to pray, away from the crowds. I imagine him taking his time. Examining lichens on rocks. Watching a butterfly on the breeze. Gasping at the swoop of an eagle. I’ve had the privilege of doing all these things, and I’m thankful. I’d love to leave the world in a better state than it was when I arrived. I want my grandchildren, and their grandchildren too, to be able to marvel at creation the way I have. But I’m old enough and ugly enough to know there’s no quick fix. If I really want to change anything, I’m going to have to start with myself. That’s going to be the hardest part.