A good opening line's important. This week, mine was going to be "is it just me, or is everyone a little edgy lately?"
That could be a good opening line, but it's not right now. Right now, it's trite, foolish and dismissive. Because the answer's "yes."
And it's not hard to see why. Look what's happening in the world: another mass shooting, terrorism, violence, climate change, the economy, unemployment, poverty, hunger. Perhaps, though, it's not because any of that's new, but because it's not. And it's become significantly closer and more personal. We're getting "wore down," as my wife would say, and we're showing it.
We're becoming overwhelmed with fear, hurt and anger. And we're expressing it. Look beyond the usual generalizations we make about media and government, and look at what people are saying and how they're saying it. Look at social media and the day to day conversations we're having in coffee shops and meetings, even street corners.
Facebook's always been a place where people will post - and believe - pretty much anything, but lately grumpy cat's been replaced with vitriolic and often personal attacks, not always based on substantiated fact. "Trash" or "smack" talk isn't just isolated to intimidating opponents in a competitive sport, it's made it's way into everyday use. And we're responding.
But it's not just talk. It's confrontation and fight.
Remember the movie The Untouchables, way back in 1987? Jim Malone is talking to Eliot Ness about Al Capone - in a church, no less - and he says, "you wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way! And that's how you fight Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?"
No. Say "no." The right answer is "no." That wasn't Ness's answer, but, to be fair, in the end they got Capone on tax evasion.
Still, it's tended to be our answer for a very long time. So let's just pause and take a moment to remind ourselves that we have a choice. That choice should be informed by love, not hate and by hope, not fear. Those are the things that bring peace and goodwill, things that should be on our mind at this time of year.
As part of our Advent, preparing the way for Jesus, we meet John the Baptizer, too. The gospel of Luke describes him with the words of the prophet Isaiah, as a lone voice, "crying in the wilderness" that people should prepare with repentance. Please don't be taken aback by that word. We've loaded it up with guilt and sin, required certain behaviour from it and made forgiveness conditional on it, but that's not what it's about. And God's forgiveness isn't conditional, anyway. But to repent simply means to turn away from behaviour that's hurtful and destructive and turn to what is true. John called people to turn towards the love that was coming their way in Jesus.
As we turn towards Christmas, take a moment and make a choice. In the face of all that overwhelms us, choose to hope. Choose to bring peace. Choose to love.