On a pretty regular basis we hear about people who have made some silly remarks – like David Cameron’s ‘Queen purring down the line’; or who have hurled insults – like David Mellor’s recent rant against a London taxi driver; or who have made racist, sexist or homophobic comments – like Malky Mackay’s texts exchanged with Iain Moody in Cardiff City Football Club. These are just examples of people caught off guard, causing them to be embarrassed when their comments have been unexpectedly exposed to the wider public, and sometimes costing them dearly. But this sort of clumsiness isn’t reserved solely to public figures. I’m pretty certain that, at some time, each one of us has been caught red-handed while making some unpleasant comments about someone else.
The examples I’ve just recalled came to mind while I was pondering on today’s gospel, with the phrase ‘stay awake’ used four times, and accompanied by another one: ‘be on your guard.’ This passage is the final bit of quite a long speech of Jesus on the apocalyptic future. That delivery can be a bit confusing: at first glance it’s about the wretched fate of Jerusalem, but it also seems to talk about the end of the world and the Son of Man returning in glory. Differences in interpretation aside, the main message seems to be encapsulated in this simple challenge: ‘be on your guard, stay awake.’ As I’m not interested in any purely theoretical deliberations, I’ve been trying to apply this challenge to everyday life.
The first idea that came to my mind was a sort of self-control, keeping guard on what to say, how to say it, who to say it to, how to behave, and so on. But – honestly – this sounds dreadful: there was the danger of ending up being a control-freak, inflicting on myself a neurotic attitude which completely stifled life and completely deprived it of any joy. Usually one’s true views are laid bare sooner or later in supposedly private conversations, in stressful situations, or when drunk. So this sort of being on guard is hardly attractive, plus it is pathetically superficial in its extreme form. Surprisingly, it’s pretty common, and is better known as ‘political correctness’. But it’s not reserved only to politicians and public figures; its insipid version is adopted widely by the masses.
Do we then have two options to choose from? Either being ‘politically correct’ or being rude and unpleasant? Thankfully, no. There’s another way, and I call it ‘revise and train, train and revise.’ The first aspect – revise – is a critical confrontation of my attitudes and opinions against the gospel to find out if they comply with its core message. If something doesn’t, I train myself to change it by finding new, or deeper, or more convincing reasons for that. After some years this process happens semi-automatically as a natural way of dealing with changes both in me and around me. In this way respect for others, appreciation, thankfulness, understanding, forgiveness, the ability to listen, and many other desired attitudes have the chance to become deeply embedded, permanent and unforced aspects of a posture genuinely embraced.
Special seasons, like this Advent that has just commenced, can play a special role in the process of examining our lives, re-introducing evangelical values of love and compassion into our hearts, and re-training ourselves in making them alive in us. I have a suggestion for you: we have four coloured candles here; each Sunday one more will be lit. So my suggestion is that every Sunday you find one aspect in your life you’d like to change, or ask your spouse/close friend which one it should be. Over the week try to deal with that. Even if you fail at the first attempt don’t give up, but revise your plan and try again. You will succeed eventually because, in this game, training always makes champions.