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After a year of such turmoil, we could all do worse than to trust God in 2017

By Alf McCreary

What a year it has been in politics and religion in Northern Ireland and the rest of the world, and what can we expect in 2017?

Back home in 2016, we had the Stormont 'cash for ash' scandal, the ongoing saga of the Ashers' case, and the continuing Presbyterians' clumsy mishandling of the gay issue.

There was the announcement of a possible Papal visit to Ireland in 2018.

This year there was also the tortuous fall-out from Brexit, the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn by a Labour Party living in cloud-cuckoo land, and the seismic political shock of Donald Trump becoming President-elect of the USA.

How are we to face such upheaval and uncertainty in the year to come? One source of comfort which springs to my mind was the Christmas message broadcast by King George VI in the dark year of 1939.

The words were written by the British poet and academic Minnie Louise Haskins, and I am very familiar with them because they are framed in our hallway at home:

"I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year

"Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.

"And he replied, 'Go out into the Darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way'."

No doubt there are people today who still find comfort in these words, but there are others who will laugh cynically, and will dismiss this as empty religious superstition.

In our semi-sophisticated Western world, a large number of opinion-formers and so-called experts make a point of sneering at religion, and look on people of faith as deluded.

One of the highlights of the past year has been in finding out how wrong the experts can be.

The metropolitan political elite got it badly wrong about Brexit and Trump, and our own "experts" got it disastrously wrong about the RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) scandal.

So when the "expert" commentators dismiss religious beliefs out of hand, that does not worry me. It only shows yet again how arrogant and out of touch they are. However, in recent days I have noticed how some of the heavyweight commentators in the London media have been asking themselves if the opinion-formers have been too hasty in dismissing religious faith as a crucial part of the national fabric.

In the Daily Telegraph, the headline on Charles Moore's article stated: "As at the first Christmas, the faith today needs help against its persecutors."

Moore stated, "Modern secular cultures do not know what to say about religion. They tend to oscillate between theoretical support for religious freedom, and dislike of any noticeable exercise of that freedom in the public sphere." (Think of the Ashers case).

In The Times, Michael Gove's article had the headline "Terrorism thrives on our lack of self belief - violent Islamism is on the rise because its proponents' zeal puts our loss of confidence in Western values to shame."

In yet another Times article, the award-winning columnist and self-confessed atheist Matthew Parris admitted that he was nevertheless greatly touched by the witness of the Church and the monarchy which he described as part of the bedrock of British values.

Perhaps this is part of a growing awareness in elite media and political circles that people of faith are not cranks, or stupid, or misguided, and that they derive from their faith a comfort and an inner peace and vision which others lack.

Certainly it is vital for our leaders and our opinion formers to understand the power of religion in our own culture if we are to realise the crucial place which religion occupies in the lives and motives of people of other cultures, including Islam.

On this New Year's Eve, at a time of great uncertainty and fear in the world, we could do worse than heed the exhortation of King George VI to "Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God".

I wish you all a peaceful New Year.

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