Two Australian tree experts have been flown into Hong Kong to save a banyan tree believed to be imbued with special powers. Wishing tokens written on cards and tied to oranges are thrown at the tree. It’s said that your wish will come true if your orange hooks onto the tree's huge branches. But this Lunar New Year one of the branches fell on two of the many visitors who visit the tree annually and it’s feared the banyan’s days are numbered.
Eighty years of carrying the longings and expectations of thousands of pilgrims is perhaps proving too much for the ancient tree. For human beings too, such pressure can be burdensome. Children carrying their parents’ hopes, leaders carrying their followers’, lovers carrying their beloved’s, workers carrying their boss’s, all may sometimes find the strain onerous. Perhaps today, we might particularly think of the Archbishop of Canterbury and his colleagues as they bear the responsibility for holding together the Anglican Communion whilst finding a just solution.
Jesus too, especially as his followers grew in number, carried their hopes for freedom. Yet he knew he could not deliver what they longed for in the way they hoped. His chosen path of suffering and death led many to disillusionment. Let’s today be grateful for anybody willing to let us put our faith in them and trust them to do the best they can, even if it’s not in the way we expect.
Seventy-nine year old Hank Edwards used a guidebook from 1914 to plan his holiday - and got lost for two days in a forest that wasn't there 90 years ago.
Hank had been in love with the eastern Bayreuth area from childhood. As a boy and since, he’d explored the area in his imagination, using the guidebook his father had bought. But because of the wars, the Depression and family commitments, neither he nor his father had ever been able to make the hoped-for visit. Now he discovered the hard way that two world wars and a massive reforestation programme meant most of the Bayreuth in the book no longer existed.
Reality often fails to match our dreams. That’s sometimes because our hopes for the future have become inflexible, more geared to what we wanted once than to the best possibilities in the current situation. Sometimes our goals subtly shift without us really realising it. Sometimes we deliberately change direction. Occasionally, without necessarily knowing why, we sense that our previous ideas have got to change. Christians expect God sometimes to put that thought into our minds as happened once to St Paul. He knew
he had to abandon his vision of a missionary trip into Asia for a more mundane visit to Macedonia.
When next we take stock of where we are going in our lives, its worth checking that our dreams match with our present reality. Perhaps we need always to be open to the possibility of redefining the future we hope to achieve in the light of our ever-changing experience of ourselves and our lives.
The National Archives website receives 8,000-10,000 inquiries a day from people wanting to trace their ancestry. When the 1901 census returns were put on the site two years ago, there were nearly 150 million hits on the site, equivalent to two for every person living in the UK, though many visitors were from the US, South Africa and New Zealand, as people tried to discover their family origins.
In the stories about the birth of Jesus, both Matthew and Luke include a long account of who his ancestors were*. Matthew takes the genealogy back to Abraham and Luke right back to God! The two genealogies are completely different, even down to who the grandfather of Jesus was, so they cannot be historically accurate. That is not their intention. They are there as part of the build-up to the accounts of Jesus’ life which follow, as if they are saying: with a background like this, you can expect extraordinary things of this man.
As families gather for Christmas, we are reminded of our family origins and, if this is how we feel, it can be a time to be grateful for the genes and upbringing which made us who we are. It may also be a time when we become aware again of expectations put upon us by other members of our families, some of which we are probably not willing or capable of fulfilling. Jesus played a crucial part in God’s involvement in the whole sweep of human history and carried the weight of enormous expectation. Yet he emerges from the gospel writers’ accounts as one who was uniquely and delightfully himself. Perhaps over Christmas, we can deal with any family pressure to be otherwise, with renewed confidence in who we are and what we are making of our lives.
* Matthew 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38.
Last month's White House Correspondents' Association dinner featured a performance by Bush impersonator Steve Bridges, who stood with the president in an entertaining he said/he said routine. The duet was generally considered a success for Bush (it allowed him to seem self-deprecating), and it's pretty likely the president enjoyed it more than he did Stephen Colbert's lacerating speech at the same dinner.
Any one who has heard some of George Bush’s sound bites may find it to hard take him seriously. Statements like: “Most of our imports are from abroad” and “The trouble with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur” won’t give the best impression. But of course he should be taken very seriously indeed.
There is in many people a tendency to assess others according to how they speak. We may prefer an accent or use of vocabulary that matches our own and feel less trust or respect for those who speak differently. One reason why Jesus cut less ice with the religious leaders in Jerusalem was because he spoke with a provincial accent.
Perhaps today we could celebrate the enormous variety of ways of speaking and the multiplicity of accents we hear. As we discover new value in such diversity, we are much less likely to judge people on the basis of how they speak.
‘Aoccdrnig to rseearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.’ This is the gist of some recent research. ‘As long as you can anticipate what the next word in a sentence could be, you will not necessarily notice if some of the letters in that word are out of place’, says a lecturer in neuro-psychology.
It’s true in life too that meaning is provided by expectation. Most of the time we think we know what will happen next and, generally, life feels more comfortable if we are right. Even if the details are slightly different from what we expected, we feel we know where we are if things follow a more or less predictable course.
But when we apply this principle to our relationships, our desire for the comfort of the familiar can have an unwanted affect. If we are close to someone, our expectation of how they will behave can have a sufficiently strong impact on them to encourage precisely the predicted behaviour. So if we expect someone, for example, to be incompetent, uncooperative, humourless, they often will be. These assumptions may be based on experience but to revise them, so as to have more hopeful expectations, can help them change.
Let’s today hope for the best in the people around us and be delighted when they conofnud our eptaxetcoins.