On not being famous

Or even successful

Contentment
Not my photo, nor my former dog, but I recognize the pose. Thanks to flattop341@flickr.com for this creative commons photo.

I see a clamour all around me; the need to justify our existence. The writer and playwright Alan Bennett captured it perfectly. He talked of one of his relatives who said this as they drove in the car:

‘Do you see that gasworks over there? That’s the second biggest gasworks in Europe. And I know the manager.’

Or I remember interviewing someone once, a salesperson,  I forget about what, but I noticed his office wall covered with meaningless plaques about his achievements. Sad that his company felt the need to trade in these things; sadder that he displayed them.

If you are a normal healthy adult it is of course good and necessary to be productive. One of the reasons people fear retirement is because all that valid affirmation of their identity is taken away, replaced with the three simple letters ‘OAP’. This is perhaps why, for example in places like the BBC, old people hang onto their jobs, long after the spark of talent that got them the job in the first place has turned to smoke.

I think it is an art and a skill to learn how to be content with whatever prestige or affirmation the world has dealt you. In my case, none. So worth learning though.  After living through days when I needed a mechanical hoist to drop me onto a toilet, I have to confess to frequent moments of upwelling delight in enjoying the simple things of life like family and friends and food and fellowship and worship; and as for using my own spark of talent, writing (in my own eyes at least) beautifully; and doing all this before and for God.

In my former life, before I was sick, I viewed the simple things merely as a platform to higher and greater achievements. Five years after serious illness, I return to this place and see it for the first time as the true location of happiness and worth.

Eating

Why we should do more of it


Congratulations to writer Michele Guinness, whom I have not met or even read very much. Her story Chosen of being a Jewish person and meeting Christians (and eventually becoming one herself) has not been out of print in 35 years and is being re-issued by Lion in a new edition in October.

She still has loads to teach us, not least about eating. This is from an article in Together, magazine for Christian retailers, July/August 2018:

My first visit to a church was a shock to the system – so gloomy and dull. The congregation chanted “and make thy chosen people joyful” as if they were at a funeral … A greater understanding of Jesus’ worldview is liberating. It brings colour and richness, significance and celebration, wonder and joy to the Christian faith.

When I first became a Christian it seemed to me that around 50% of the New Testament was lost on Christians … I think it is more relevant than ever to encourage families to invite in the neighbours, single friends and children of all ages to celebrate at home together with story-telling and symbol, food and worship around the table.

Highlighted below is her book about celebrations, The Heavenly Party.

[amazon template=multinational&asin=1854248359]

Reimagining Britain

How wonderful if it happened

Just started Justin Welby’s new book ‘Reimagining Britain’. The introduction is intriguing:

  • ‘British Values’: have come to mean ‘democcracy, the rule of law and respect for other’.
  • As a phrase they strike the wrong note somehow
  • These values are necessary (obviously) but not sufficient for the task of ‘re-imagining Britain’
  • ‘I suspect, and argue here that there are values that come out of our common European history and Christian heritage, which have been tweaked and adapted in each country and culture.’
  • Given the amount being written these days, and the great rumble of the Brexquake shattering everything around us (my phrase), ‘this really is one of those rare moments when we have both the risk and the opportunity of rethinking what we should do and be as a country.’

A rare moment to change direction, by redigging some old wells. Super stuff. This is slow mission. Bring it on. Looking forward to the rest of the book and hoping to blog further about it.

 

I bought this book, counter-intuitively, by walking into Waterstones and handing over my credit card – full-price, hardback, from a high street store that pays UK tax. Then I went to a coffee shop to blog about it. Life is deeply, wonderfully good that I get to do these things.

But here’s a reference for those of us, me at the top of the list, who also happen to appreciate Amazon:

[amazon template=multinational&asin=1472946073]

 

Reading

And the dangers of too much dopamine

BookstoreWhen even that gifted writer and reader Philip Yancey confesses that he is struggling to read books like he used to, you know there’s a problem.

In a recent article 1 he explains:

‘The internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around.’

It is, he goes on, a behaviour explained by neuroscience. ‘When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush … the brain’s pleasure centres light up.’ So we flick though the internet, snacking as we go. Stuffing our faces with fast food, we malnourish ourselves.

It’s a deep loss. He quotes another researcher who says, ‘we are too addicted, too weak, and too distracted to do what we all know is important.’

Perhaps he’s exaggerating his own case, but he also suggests a remedy:

‘I’ve conclude that a commitment to reading is an ongoing battle, somewhat like the battles against the seduction of internet pornography.’ We have a construct ‘a fortress of habits’ to buttress deep, good, thoughtful reading. Of deep, good, thoughtful books.

 

 

On being trusted by God

Being trusted by God feels just like being abandoned by him

I was commissioned to write this a few years ago, and thought it was worth unearthing.

Let me get a heretical thought out of my system first.

I was listening to the singer Katie Melua who had a modest hit in 2007 with a slightly wacky song called If you were a sailboat. There’s a line in that song that goes like this:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you

Here’s my heretical thought: that’s how it feels between us and God.

Listen to your good and true church leaders
Of course our church leaders, if they are good and true church leaders, will tell us that thought is theological nonsense on all kinds of levels. Here are two:

1.Us loving and trusting God isn’t a gamble. God is more reliable than gravity, more sure than taxation, more certain than the fact that your girlfriend will laugh at you for something you don’t find funny. Mountains are shifty things compared with our God. The stars can fade from the sky like foam vanishing into the sand: still God is true, still God is loving. It’s ridiculous to sing, as to God, a lyric like ‘I took a chance on loving you.’

2. God loving and trusting us isn’t a gamble either. This is God we’re talking about. God whose judgement might be said to be fairly sound. God who has a good idea how things will turn out in the end, because both the beginning of history and its end are familiar territory to him. When he set his love on the human race, when he offered the wide arms of Jesus to anyone who will rest himself in them, he wasn’t messing about, calculating the angles, whistling in the wind, or vaguely hoping things will come good. He’s going to finish what he started. When he sets his love on us he is most definitely not thinking:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you

But that’s how it feels
Except that’s how it feels, quite often.

Consider Joseph, patriarch, grand vizier of Egypt, and sometime irritating younger brother. His brothers sold him into slavery, doing something that many an elder brother has only dreamed of.

It set up one of the classic narratives of the Old Testament: 17-year-old Joseph trusted God. Ever-old, ever-young God trusted Joseph. Joseph is sold on to an Egyptian official, but works hard and becomes a top employee. He refuses to sleep with his boss’s wife, but gets imprisoned for it anyway. He rises to a senior position in the prison and has hopes for people putting in a good word for him with Pharoah, but his hopes are dashed yet again. Still God and Joseph trust each other. Finally, of course, thanks to realizing that Pharoah’s puzzling dream is actually a weather forecast, he is appointed Pharoah’s No. 2 and the story ends happily. He trusted God. God trusted him. And it all worked out.

Consider Mary, mother of the Lord Jesus. I think she was a teenager too. (Only a teenager, surely, would believe such a madcap idea as the ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35, NIV). Sensible mothers knock ideas like that out of their daughters at an early stage.) We know that Mary found a friend in her cousin Elizabeth. She found another in her husband-to-be, another Joseph, who stood with her through it all. But presumably Mary had a mother, and aunties, and a granny or two. What did they think of her? What did her neighbours whisper? What did Joseph’s friends laugh about? How could Mary walk down the street in Nazareth as her bulge grew? Was she always the serene figure of mediaeval art? Not if she was a human being, she wasn’t.

Surely the Patriarch Joseph and the Virgin Mary, as well as every other person who has ever loved and trusted God in dark places, went through times when they could sing:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you.

We might wonder how God felt as he watched these dear servants endure their disappointments, taste their bitterness, cry their tears. Somehow I can’t see God sitting smug and aloof: what kind of Father is that? Did God too, somehow, worry about them? Did He, as it were, sit on his hands, longing to help, determined not to, nervous of the outcome? Somewhere within his all-knowingness and his almightiness could he, too, have sung:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you

These are questions for extremely highly paid and clever theologians, of which I am not one. But I’d love to know how you can be a Father and not feel vulnerable when you watch your children stumble and get hurt.

The power of powerlessness
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: God trusting you feels exactly the same as God abandoning you. Indeed that’s the nature of trust. There can’t be trust without a letting go. God backed Joseph to endure the disappointment, the self-doubt, and the injustice, and he did. God trusted Mary to endure the painful conversations and the laughter in the street, and she did.

Shortly my own 17-year-old daughter is likely to pass her driving test. This means I am going to have to hand over the steering wheel to her, and also (to be fair to her), try to restrain my cries of panic. I think I will have to put my fist in my mouth. I have to let go, or she won’t grow. I have to trust her, even though she’s 17. It’s a dad thing. You just have to do it. That’s a tiny instance of what God does every day, with each of us who have entrusted ourselves to him.

So why does God put us, and perhaps himself, through all this, this pain of trusting? Here’s why.

God wants sons (and daughters), not slaves. Being trusted makes you grow. Trust leads to trustworthiness. This world does not need more Pharisees, who trust the rule-book and recipe book, never think creatively, never cook something new. It does not need lazy miserable servants, scared that God is a taskmaster, who bury their gifts within a fear of failure, who never want to be vulnerable.

This world needs people who are built up by the power of trust. Trusted, trustworthy people. Read Paul’s first letter to Timothy (I’m paraphrasing): I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service … this is a trustworthy saying … entrust the church to trustworthy people … Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care.

Trustworthiness will see the Church through, Timothy.

And so it will. Through the infectious power of trust, God is raising sons and daughters, confident in his love and favour, sure of his power, creative and happy, free to innovate, free to fail, free to wonder and dream and love and fight and transform the world. The dreamer Joseph ran a country. The peasant Mary made the Incarnation work. But previous bold generations of saints haven’t exhausted all the fun. There’s still some left for us.

God trusts you. Go with it. It will hurt. But it’s OK.