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Yes, it's been a tough year, but let's 'stop gurning' and look forward to life

By Alf McCreary

Earlier this week, a national newspaper carried a story about the deaths of innocent people in the Berlin Market massacre, and asked "So what about Christmas and its message of peace and goodwill towards men?"

It is a relevant question in a world where there is constant bad news, ranging from the suffering of innocent civilians in Syria, the Yemen and South Sudan, as well as the constant details of murder and mayhem nearer to home, and union strikes at the worst possible time for travellers.

There is also depressing news about the mess of the 'cash for ash' scandal at Stormont, where there is too much rhetoric and play-acting, and hardly any common sense, or evidence of the politicians' ability to run this small province properly.

Indeed, it is very easy for to become depressed and without much hope if we concentrate on the bad news.

Happily, however there is another side to Christmas, and I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when I attended a ceremony at Ulster University in Londonderry where my son Matthew graduated with a Master's degree.

The Chancellor James Nesbitt spoke with humour, clarity and encouragement in one of the best addresses I have heard from any university chancellor - and I heard many during my 14 years as Head of Information at Queen's.

Another impressive and challenging speech at the ceremony in the Millennium Theatre in Derry was delivered by the Ireland rugby coach Joe Schmidt. He eloquently challenged the new graduates to be leaders and to make a positive difference, wherever they found themselves.

He also told the audience about taking the Irish rugby squad to a church in Dublin one Christmas where they wrapped parcels for the homeless and the needy.

He had asked this group of star players to do this, in order to underline the message of Christmas, and to reinforce the point that there is more to life than rugby. Joe Schmidt is one of the world's top coaches, but he is also a truly self-effacing man with an impressive set of values.

You could have heard a pin drop while a packed audience in Derry listened to him intently.

We are also constantly reminded of the spirit of Christmas by the familiar carols which are as beautiful and as precious as their brief annual life-span, though I recently heard a Classic FM presenter refer to White Christmas as a carol, which it definitely is not. So much for our secular society.

Inspiring messages are not confined to carols, and occasionally we are privileged to hear a Christmas sermon which is fresh and inspiring, like the one I listened to in a recent 'live' Morning Service on BBC Radio Ulster.

The preacher, Canon Noel Battye, who also hosts a weekly religious music requests programme on Radio Ulster, was talking about the importance of hope.

He referred to the late comic James Young, who urged us during the Troubles to "Stop fightin'", and Canon Battye said that while the fighting had largely stopped, James Young would exhort us today to "stop gurning".

This is a hard truth which we in Ulster really need to face. It is often said that many of us would drive a hundred miles out of our way to be offended.

This attitude of being victims to insult, sometimes real but more often imaginary, continues to debase our community and public life. What a nicer place this would be if we all tried to "stop gurning" all the time.

However, Canon Battye's main point was about the importance of hope at Christmas and all the year round.

There have been many depressing developments this year, but there is still great goodness and kindness among so many ordinary people.

Things may be tough, but if we do not have hope, we having nothing to look forward to. That is one of the deepest messages of Christmas.

May I take this opportunity to wish you all a Peaceful and Happy Christmas.

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