When suffering filters out the non-essentials

seek simplicity

A friend who is nursing a very sick wife wrote about how much they were enjoying talking and eating and Bible study and TV. That resonated with me.

Conversation, company, meals, devotion and story-telling: you don’t know how valuable they are till you’ve lost a lot of other things.

Illness can make you do that, pan for the gold. When a flow of suffering washes normal life away, you realise that gleaming among the residue was the treasure you’d been wanting all your life.

We often stumble into this gold, and then stumble away from it again.  Maybe suffering or illness helps refine our tastes. It’s interesting to compile a list of what does or doesn’t have this life-giving, joy-giving quality. Here’s my attempt — you may disagree:

Does:
  • People creating something together, for example in a sports team or an orchestra or a village fete
  • Pottering in the garden
  • Conversation
  • Meals together
  • Storytelling
  • Belonging
  • Being happily part of a family

Doesn’t:

  • People accumulating together but without community: queues, traffic jams, tourism
  • Email
  • Meetings
  • Eating ‘al desko’
  • Looking at a screen into the small hours
  • Death by Powerpoint
  • Being famous
  • Being wealthy

‘Slow mission’, I think, is about choosing these things — things that will exist in some form in eternity — over the things that will pass away?

The joy of memorizing whole books

words.jpgThat said, I’ve only memorized two, and both were Bible books. Between about 1993 and 2005, I memorized Mark’s Gospel (whose 16 chapters is about 11,000 words) and somewhere later in the noughties I memorized Ephesians (whose six chapters is only around 2,500 words). I think I averaged about a chapter a year, and I was also reading the whole Bible each year usually, plus any special research projects. So it wasn’t my sole focus. And I was raising kids and holding down a job and so on.

Is it hard? Not at all. If like me you read the Bible devotionally anyway, you might as well. Like learning a language, only early death can stop you.

How do I do it? A bit at a time with lots of revision.

How did I start? I memorized a few psalms, to sort of convince myself I could do it.

What are the benefits?  I found them huge. Here are some:

  1. You really, deeply reflect on every word. It feeds your soul. This really is something. It’s like crossing a landscape by foot or narrowboat rather than on a motorway. Mark is (I think) the collection of stories Peter told while he was visiting the churches. You’re almost with him there in the audience, at that first telling among the smoking oil lamps. Wonderful. Meanwhile Ephesians is that astonishing, eagle-eyed view of the whole destiny of the Universe, and the church in its small acts of reconciliation and worship is somehow at the beating heart of it. There’s nothing like these two views. (Except, I suppose, other Bible books.)
  2. You can do it odd moments. When I lived in Singapore, I did it during my bus journey to work.
  3. It’s great for when part of your work is preparing talks or (as in my case) writing books. So much material is already in your head, pre-digested. I do find myself quoting Mark or Ephesians quite a lot.
  4. Loads of old people do sudokos to keep Alzheimer’s at bay. Fair enough. (I am not yet old.) But honestly, you can do a lot better. I noticed Ephesians was a lot easier to memorize than Mark, and not just because it was orders of magnitude smaller. I think maybe my brain got better at it.

How do I keep the memories fresh? In principle, I go through the whole two books again every year, often during a retreat day. I recite them out loud. My medical adventures of the past few years have disrupted that schedule, but I’ll get back to it. I have the book open when I recite it, because I have forgotten parts over the years.

It’s a good question whether I should take the necessary couple of months to get right back up to speed and be able to do the whole thing without opening the book: I tend to think that isn’t worth it, unless I was going to present that material in public or something.

How does it differ from other Bible memorization schemes? Well it’s probably personal taste, but I like the organic approach of tackling a whole of an author’s work. I prefer this to memorizing scripture nuggets out of context. This may be work for you, but I find it a bit forced.

Should I have a go? Up to you. Let me know how you’ve got on in about 12 years.

 

 

 

Spiritual honesty, that rare and refreshing place

honesty

The honest place is a happy place, often quite a funny place, and the place where most people gather and where the walls are down.

That wonderful scholar F F Bruce pointed out that the wisdom literature in the Bible (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Lamentations, the Song) are all about human responses to truth. They are the place in the Scriptures where you can sound off about how you really feel. (God loves me! God hates me! I’m not giving up! I am giving up! I wish that person was dead! You can overdo religion! Ordinary lives and ordinary pleasures are wonderful!)

I don’t know about you but though I made a commitment to follow Jesus years ago it is taking me a long time to be honest. It has taken me many years and a lot of pain to say things like:

‘God, don’t talk, I just want to hold your hand’

or

‘God, I feel like a tin can being kicked down the road, and you are the one doing the kicking.’

Learning to think those thoughts is, I have found, worth the effort.

The day the stars fell from the sky

Ice on roofWhen ice melts off a roof, you hear dripping and thawing for some time. Then, occasionally, a whole chunk falls off. I think I have lived through such a change in the UK. Census returns show it:

UK Census 2001 Christian: 71.7% No religion: 14:8%

UK Census 2011 Christian: 59.3% No religion: 25.1%

A piece of ice fell off the roof. When I was growing up, we theoretically believed in the ten commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

School worship was vaguely Christian.

National celebrations like Armistice Day saw the country getting its Christian hardware out.

It was a staple of farce that the moment something immoral was happening in your house, the Vicar would call, and you were bothered.

In fairness it was all ripe for collapse, because not too many people believed in it really, though some did.

What has happened since has been:

  • The incineration of millions of old nominal Christians (after they died).
  • Their replacement by millions of younger people not brought up in Christian traditions
  • A new widely accepted story about what we believe.

The new normal

I blame the BBC for this latter point, though really our national broadcaster only reflects back to us our own thoughts. What is the new normal? All religions are treated equal and thereby categorized and thereby diminished. The BBC looks down on them all and ‘caters’ for them all, while believing in none of them.

The position from which it looks down is not defined, but is assumed to be somewhere liberal, reasonable, empirical, scientific:  a totally superior vantage point to where the poor saps who still follow ‘a religion’ lurk. Christians may prefer Fair Isle jumpers and fair trade coffee to beards and burkhas but really. All religions are the same and don’t lead anywhere. Though of course one must give them the utmost respect.

Ursa MajorThe Christian faith was like the constellation Ursa Major in the Northern hemisphere: always there, always indicating true north, always pointed out to children, always called the wrong thing, but everyone recognised it.

Now the stars have fallen from the sky.

Millions of thoughts flow from this, which might occupy other blogs. One is worth thinking about in passing.

It is a loss. Since the Emperor Constantine the European peoples bought into a project to unite every aspect of their lives– science, philosophy, trade, agriculture, birth, marriage, death–under the Lordship of Christ.However well or badly that worked out, we agreed on where the pole star was. Now it’s gone.

Interesting. Thoughts, anyone?

 

Why violence has fallen

Stephen’s Pinker’s wonderful book The Better Angels of our Nature describes the fall in violence over thousands of years. You have to read the book if you don’t believe me, but I find it convincing.

Amazon

For example: we have a much less chance of being caught in a vendetta or blood feud than if we were all hunter-gatherers 5000 years ago. Crucifixion, cannibalism, the rack and the whip, these days, are deployed only in the world’s darkest holes, not in its finest civilisations. These days–in Europe–we worry about battery hens or foxhunting or whether a cow died well; in the past we worried about slave trading or state executions.

We still have evil and violence in the world but, per capita, per life, there is much less of it.

Wars, of course, are more problematic but even here the facts are surprising. No war has killed more than World War II, true, but World War I only ranks fifth or sixth in the list, out-cataclysmed by three Chinese wars and the Mongol conquests. If you adjust for world population at the time, neither of the 2oth century’s showpieces make the top ten.

So, violence has declined.

Why?

Pinker has five general reasons:

  1. ‘Leviathan’: by this he means, following Thomas Hobbes, government and the power of the state. If they punish the person who robs me, I don’t have to. And if they police the streets, it’s possible fewer people will want to rob me in the first place. Anarchy is bad for us. Government, though it brings its own problems, is preferred.
  2. ‘Gentle commerce’: the more we trade, the less we fight.
  3. Feminization: It does tend to be the chaps who do the violence; as women gain more influence, violence declines.1
  4. ‘The expanding circle’. The more we mix, and appreciate each other, and put ourselves in each other’s shoes, the less likely we are to fight. Maybe education works, too. Sounds soppy, but, hey.
  5. ‘The escalator of reason.’ This is about applying logic to problems rather than pride or prejudice.

I find this powerful stuff. Take your favourite dysfunctional country, and apply this lot, and things will get better. That is what is happening around the world, and why we now have–for example–the EU rather than the 100 years’ war.

But he missed the chilli out of the curry

I  find these arguments necessary and enlightening, but not sufficient. On my reading Steven Pinker is a wonderful scholar but he keeps dodging Jesus. Like many who boast the title ‘humanist’, he is happy talking about the Old Testament, about crusades, inquisitions, and witch-burning, but he refuses to look Christ–the not-retaliating, against the death penalty, blessed-are-the-peacemakers Christ–in the face. He underplays the role of radical Christians in (for example)  fighting slavery, inventing the whole idea of the NGO and being decisive in civil society, also known as being salt and light.

(This might not be his fault. If he is a behavioural psychologist he is destined to be shaped by his environment and anyone who spends as much time as he does with social scientists is bound to lose his grip in certain areas.)

It matters, though, even in a book so brilliant as his. Take drug addiction in the UK. ‘Leviathan’ gets druggies their own apartments, on methodone rather than heroin, with a care worker, using clean needles and with good free healthcare. It’s harm reduction and it’s loads better than nothing.

But I could dig up stories about hundreds of former addicts who are off drugs entirely, and embedded securely in loving networks of family, community and work. And they would attribute the change to Christ. Government ministers have visited centres in the UK and seen this and asked, ‘couldn’t you do it without the religious stuff?’. The answer, of course, is ‘feel free’. But when it comes to rescuing druggies, fishing the inebriated out of ditches, running day care for the elderly, the humanists honestly seem a bit thin on the ground. Perhaps his curry is lacking a dash of chilli.

 

Things to do when you’ve missed your train at Kings Cross (part 1)

The British Library1.No, don’t go to platform 9 3/4 and watch the tourists photographing each other. Come out of the station, skip past St Pancras, and walk into the British Library.

2.Breathe deeply. Relax. It may look like a Young Offenders’ Institution, but this is an holy place.

3. Climb the broad stairs to the dimly-lit room where they keep their treasures.

4. Try not to get too excited.

5. Find the folio in which Handel hand-wrote the Hallelujah Chorus. It is open at the last page, the final, endless A-le-lu-ia, and you can see Handel’s spidery lines, his scribblings-out, his squashed semibreves, his desperate haste. This is not the forensically typeset version of the printed score. It is Handel’s own untidy and spontaneous penmanship.

(This is a photo of a facsimile, not the original, just in case you thought I’d done a bad thing.)Handel - in his own hand!

6. Reflect. Here’s what the all-knowing Internet says about Messiah:

In 1741, Handel composed Messiah and what we know now as the Hallelujah Chorus. While designing and composing Messiah, Handel was in debt and deeply depressed; however, the masterpiece was completed in a mere 24 days.

Despite his mental and financial state, the Hallelujah Chorus’s birth story is a glorious one. After Handel’s assistant called for him for a few moments, the assistant went to Handel’s work area because he received no response from Handel. Upon entering the room, the assistant saw tears emerge from Handel’s eyes. When the assistant asked why Handel was crying, Handel proclaimed, “I have seen the face of God.” 1

In front of Handel would have been the manuscript that’s now in front of you.

Here’s the internet again“Considering the immensity of the work and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition.”

7. Reflect some more. Life wasn’t going well. But a gifted person, in the place God meant him to be, doing the thing God gifted him to do, met God, created something beautiful, and 275 years later, the world is still reverberating.

A problem with miracles

You just can’t rely on them…

beauvaisOn Ascension Day 1573, just after the congregation had filed out of the building, the cathedral tower at Beauvais in Northern France fell through the roof. A monument to mediaeval hubris (it was, for a few short years, the tallest building in Europe), it  has never been finished1. But because the tower fell just after church, nobody died. A miracle?

1755On All Saints’ Day 1755 the Great Lisbon Earthquake struck, while the churches and Lisbon cathedral were packed with worshippers. Thousands died. Meanwhile the non-churchgoers, picknicking or partying away from the city, survived the quake and also the following fire and tsunami.

Christians 1, Atheists 1.

 

Storytelling: In praise of World Book Day

This is to remind discouraged writers everywhere. All these are from flickr; thanks to their creators for making them available.
Reading Well

reading
reading time

Shared readingreading
Reading
Reading for my new born kid
Reading the newspaper in a saturday afternoon
CL Society 334: Walking and reading

Reading
Sunny reading
Reading a touristic guideReading III
"He who reads a lot and walk a lot, seen a lot and knows a lot."
That moment when you're reading a book...
Reading
Reading list
Reading at the demo 2

On not being sucked into the vortex of someone else’s urgency

Evangelists, and apostolic, entrepreneurial Christian types generally, seem to be the unsettling opposite of ‘slow mission.’ They dash about. The apostle Paul seemed always to be in a hurry.

Rush Hour at Guwahati Club, Guwahati

This can make the rest of us feel uneasy. These people are out evangelizing the world while we are digging allotments, playing games, visiting Aunts or watching cricket. Do they show up us slow mission types as wicked, lazy servants?

Here’s why that isn’t—or at least might not be—the case.

  1. Much of what is achieved in haste seems either to evaporate altogether or need re-doing more slowly.
  2. In my experience, some evangelists cut corners. They might be slapdash with relationships, or with money, or with the speed limits. Their evangelistic zeal is a kind of coverall to hide their character defects.
  3. God in any case has his ways of slowing evangelists down. Paul kept being put in jail, and arguably did his best work there, writing half the New Testament.
  4. Slow mission is not about laziness. When you follow your love and your passion, you work harder and for longer than when you work at anything else. Duty can take you a long way, but devotion will take you further. 
  5. Evangelists’ love and passion is in winning people. That’s their thing and their devotion. Wonderful.  But it shouldn’t–should it?– be foisted on the rest of us as if it were the final word in discipleship or obedience.