Make it your ambition to

Try not to panic

Am enjoying reading the NT transliterated (Greek and English together) on a phone app. My ignorance of Greek is a great help because any dim grasp of a thing feels like a discovery, even if it would be steamrollered flat by a proper scholar.

Here’s one. There is a Greek word which means ‘aspire to’ or ‘make it your ambition to.’ Paul uses it of himself when he says he was ‘making it his ambition’ to spread the gospel. (Romans 15:20).

Then he writes to the Thessalonians, ‘Make it your ambition to…’ (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and we might expect him to write the same thing. This is what we evangelicals tend to sign up to in our faith, at least notionally, and in our songs, and are certainly urged to do from pulpits.

But what he actually says is ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life’.

Which I have to say I honestly prefer.

Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

Ten years can be too short

For greatness

My scientist son suggested that we humans like projects that take no more than a decade. A prime example is President Kennedy’s 8-year goal of getting to the moon in the 1960s. More recently, the New Horizons expedition to Pluto, about which my son and I have both been reading, took around a decade to realize its primary goals (launched 2006, flew by Pluto 2015). Reducing a new langugage to writing and translating the New Testament into it? About 10 years. Many big infrastructure projects – the HS2 rail link and the Hinkley C nuclear plant here in the UK, for example – are sold on a ten-year frame, even if ‘time frame’ is eventually found to be the wrong metaphor as dates and costs balloon ludicrously out of shape like bubble gum in the mouth of a kid.

Ten years is a nice period in a career and a life. We can commit ourselves to a major piece of work, and we can also buy a house and keep the kids in the same school. We can envisage and enjoy ten years. Longer than ten years …. man, it’s never going to end.

Decade-long projects can work extremely well – like the moon landings and New Horizons or like the 2012 London Olympics. Perhaps they work well because they allow for a certain thoroughness and excellence. They work less well when they are just the cloak for much longer projects that would never start if people knew how long they would take or how much they would really cost. (Think: a lot of defence projects.)

Yer can we improve even on a decade-long planning horizon? Possibly.

Doing the grand

  1. Many things have a multi-century grandeur about them. Think of the spread of humans around the world from Africa. How many thousand thousand journeys did that take? How about the slow accumulation of science, technology and power over the millennia, compounding like the investment it is. It has transformed us as a species. How about the development of life on earth, another compounding investment, leading to at least one species that is self-aware and planet-dominating: given several billion years, atoms learned arrangements that made them capable of consciousness.
  2. I can also think of a couple of Christian-inspired projects that were expected to last many decades and successfully did. One is building cathedrals. Another was a 24-7 prayer meeting begun by the Moravians in (what is now) East Germany, and which they sustained for a century. The cathedrals still stand as magnificient holy places across Europe. Has any completed cathedral ever fallen down? I don’t know. The 100-year prayer meeting preceded a great explosion of Christianity that occupied the eighteenth century, and led to Christianity becoming a global faith.
  3. One of the reasons we Christians may find the Kingdom of God puzzling sometimes, and Jesus’ current reign as King, is that he likely doesn’t work on the scale of a decade. He might be working on a scale so impossibly grand that our short lives, buzzing around as we do, miss the scale of his holy ambition.

Being the collagen

Still another way of not being tied into (admittedly attractive and fruitful) human-sized ten-year projects is to lay foundations or build structures that will stand the test of decades. I still remember Steve Jobs moving Apple to the Unix-based operating system OS X. It was a change, he thought, that would be a good foundation for decades to come. Nineteen years after the release of OS X 10.0 ‘Cheetah’, and years after Jobs’ own death, OS X is still powering Macs.

Good workmanship is another way of building across the generations. I used to live in a multi-room mansion. The people who worked maintaining this old property knew where money had been spent originally and good work done; they also knew where corners had been cut, cheap work done, and the results plastered over.

Building to last is such a wonderful thing. Even if it is not followed up, people will look back and see the quality work that was done and lament its loss and be inspired themselves. Quality work is like collagen in living cells, giving structure to the mush and laying down a standard for centuries to come. It is timeless. In the case of bone, which I understand as being collagen plus grit, the skeleton long outlasts the body it supported.

This is so totally inspirational and so deeply motivates us to the patient, the thorough, the well-thought-out, the experienced and the slow. Whatever your field, imagine doing work that centuries later people will still look back on and admire! That is not immortality, but it is a stepping stone over which many generations can tread on their way to even greater things for the human species.

Slow meat-eating

The vegans are definitely 1-0 up over the carnivores and it’s well into the second half of the match, so I’m going to have to quote the Guardian at them.

Veganism is rightly touted as a response to industrial farming and butchery. It produces less CO2 as well, at least on its way into the stomach. (I’ve not seen research on what happens within the vegan stomach and beyond but prejudice suggests plenty of CO2 and CH4 emerges from human digesters.)

I did see, however, a contrary article that at least constitutes a brief rude noise in the sonorous vegan sermon. To quote:

Rather than being seduced by exhortations to eat more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing. We should, at the very least, question the ethics of driving up demand for crops that require high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, while demonising sustainable forms of livestock farming that can restore soils and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.

This is appealingly slow. The writer, who re-wilded her traditional dairy and arable farm, adds:

So there’s a huge responsibility here: unless you’re sourcing your vegan products specifically from organic, “no-dig” systems, you are actively participating in the destruction of soil biota, promoting a system that deprives other species, including small mammals, birds and reptiles, of the conditions for life, and significantly contributing to climate change.

Our ecology evolved with large herbivores – with free-roaming herds of aurochs (the ancestral cow), tarpan (the original horse), elk, bear, bison, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and millions of beavers. They are species whose interactions with the environment sustain and promote life. Using herbivores as part of the farming cycle can go a long way towards making agriculture sustainable.

There’s no question we should all be eating far less meat, and calls for an end to high-carbon, polluting, unethical, intensive forms of grain-fed meat production are commendable. But if your concerns as a vegan are the environment, animal welfare and your own health, then it’s no longer possible to pretend that these are all met simply by giving up meat and dairy. Counterintuitive as it may seem, adding the occasional organic, pasture-fed steak to your diet could be the right way to square the circle.

Isabella Tree. (Yes, she really is called that.) Here’s her book, which I have not read.

The slow inversion

Being turned inside out is slow

long and winding road
Image by Tayyab Bashir from Pixabay

I just read a PhD thesis of someone who tracked two dozen Palestinian Muslims who turned to Christ. 1

Each of these was following an against-the-herd choice, hard for any of us. They had things in common. Many had had dreams that had set or confirmed them on a journey. (The dream was never the end of the journey, interestingly.) Many read and re-read the New Testament. All took a long time, many of them, years.

Each of them was slow. This was a specialized sample and so it is risky to universalize it. But I think all true conversion is slow. Sometimes it’s the slow laying of groundwork before an instant-looking conversion. Often, maybe always, it’s slow work afterwards. As in my three novels of comic fiction, repentance is both the true start and the true marker of movement. It is a turning-to God as much as a turning-from dead stuff. Emptied and thirsty, back we go to the slow-dropping grace; fed up of the cave, we breathe the outdoor air and take in the view; out of sorts, we reach for a hug. Slow like life is slow, like seasons are slow, like growing is slow.

Meanings of slow

Try steady. Thorough. Patient

Fail.
Image by Igor Yastrebov from Pixabay

Now that I’m telling people I’m writing about Slow, I have to keep defining what it is. It’s a metaphor really, the opposite of another metaphor, fast, as in fast food.

In this context it means methodical and single-focussed. When a counsellor sits down with a client, and has booked out the whole morning, she’s going to be slow. That’s all she’s going to do this morning. She isn’t going to let her phone interrupt. She’s put aside her other responsibilities. All she’s going to do is unwrap her client’s soul until both client and counsellor can see the true person. It’s slow because it’s thorough, thoughtful and single-minded. Slow is that habit of doing things well, perhaps from first principles, focussed, practising a craft.

Slow is also patient. Cricket (in its longer forms) is slow because it is a test of routines and patience. Allotment gardening is slow because you have to sow and reap and bury, overseeing life and fruit and death, at the same pace as the seasons. The Christian faith is slow because you hourly walk paths of spiritual discipline that carve out contours in lives and culture and history. Centuries are shaped by the hourly habits of the worshipper.

All of Christian discipleship is slow: healing is slow, holiness is slow, forming a marriage or family or a child is slow. Nurturing a Christian community is slow. Love and faith crystallize into faithfulness in all its splendid forms and are slow.

Learning a skill is slow. Those who have found enduring wealth or fame or celebrity have usually embraced slow: the person who sells out stadiums has learnt her craft and polished her art in clubs and pubs. Flash-in-the-pan wealth or fame, I think, can be instant, up like gunpowder rocket, down like the stick.

Slow glows with divine light. Somebody is lit up by something, and they love it, and work to perfect it, and do it over and over again. There’s a holiness about watching someone, adult or child, quietly doing what they love to do; they have found something, they have connected with a stream that doesn’t stop flowing, whose source is God.

Slow and stop

Nothing is quite something

Image by ptra from Pixabay

Stop is the father of Slow. And Stop has exotic parents: it is the lovechild of hubris and reality. You are driving your car, radio on, happy, hubristic, and in a few panicked moments there is a bang and things happening quickly and then the crumpled metal and the stop.

Or there is the phone call that stops your world or the judgement or the letter or the diagnosis or the moment. That which was your careful construct of a life is a house of cards. You know this now because it has fallen down. You have been blessed with a dead stop. As you rebuild you will embrace Slow.

This all has Christian resonance because in that framework of thought the death of Christ is the only stationary point in an oscillating, surging, blushing, trilling Universe. The cross is the origin, coordinate (0,0), the place you have to go to orient yourself and find your way. It is the full stop. We enter into it, finding the death of hubris and the death of self in the death of Christ; finding a new pattern of life in the resurrection, fuelled by the Spirit of God. As the joke goes, Death is God’s way of getting us to slow down. .

Walking in Kingdom foothills

Without knowing it

I see this a lot.

I think Paul saw it too, when he wrote about ‘Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature (or naturally) what the law requires…’ 1.

These are people who do things because they are good or beautiful in themselves. Characteristically, staff in the UK’s national health service, in my experience, and teachers, and people in other areas of public service, do what they do to serve others rather than to gain prestige. Not all of course; but some.

The other day I heard of a property developer who, if he was deciding where to spend money, invested in good materials, high ceilings and big windows. Other housebuilders prefer fancy kitchens and bathrooms in what are otherwise cramped and mean buildings. Fancy kitchens might generate a quick sale; but the other developer is focussing resource on a home whose light and space will be delightful for generations.

It isn’t true of everyone, and all of us can be be public-spirited in one breath and mean or malicious in the next. But still. I meet a lot of people who are committed to public service, quietly doing their job with love and devotion, but they don’t share my faith or at least don’t speak ‘Christian’ the way I do. They have come to do what they do by some other route: personal choice, or nature, or instinct, or following the culture they learnt.

I like to think they are walking in the foothills of the Kingdom of God. They might not call it that, or recognize it as that, or even associate with that thought, but they feel the goodness in their bones.

Image by LadyLioness from Pixabay

God of the beginning of the journey

Surely somewhere in there

One hundred generations, 4,000 years, stand between us and Abraham, and Genesis 12, and the dawn of recorded history.

Unrecorded history stretches back much further, perhaps 100,000 years or 2,500 generations. Think of daughters turning into mothers and mothers to grandmothers, chubby toddlers growing brittle and wrinkled. It’s happened a hundred times over the span of history. It’s happened perhaps 2,500 times in pre-history, a line of generations stretching around the world.

But weren’t humans few in those first 100,000 years? They were, but when you stack up the millenniums until they are a hundred millenniums tall, these few become a great company. Perhaps for every one person alive today, 14 have already lived and died.

Those of us who live or have lived in history compare with those from prehistory like the chocolate sprinkles compare with the cappucino, or like the slivery Colorado River compares with the Grand Canyon.

Where was God in all those generations? Fourteen human races have come and gone compared with the humans alive today. This is a problem if you believe humans need truth in order to really live, and 14 human races lived and died before truth made its appearance, dimly with Abraham, brightly with Christ.

Where was God in this buried crowd? It is a mystery.

History tells us the One True God haunted the human race, often lodged in the upper mists of high-piled spiritual hierarchies. Occasionally the mists lifted and a culture was lit by a gleam of monotheism.

The Egyptian Pharoah Tutankamen’s less famous father Akhetenan got the Egyptians to worship the one true God for a time (personified as the Sun), but Egypt soon reverted to its old ways. Similar movements may have happened in South American pre-Christian empires – bubbles of monotheism that floated above the turbid waters and then popped.

That was in history, and thus is in a sense knowable. What started, and how many times, among the 2,5000 generations of pre-history? Was it all darkness?

The trouble with truth

We might need to drizzle humility over our convictions

Start with the Reformation. You have printed Bibles around the place. You have corruption in the Church. So you start saying:

The Bible is truth!

This gives you a lever to overthrow the old idea, which was perhaps even often unstated: tradition is truth. A new truth-claim lets you unsettle the old world.

After that initial crowbar job, other things pile in with their claims. Hence:

That which is discovered by reason is truth.

Or:

That which is established by the Scientific Method is truth.

And

Establish all the facts and you establish the truth!

And because humans are complicated and clever:

All claimed ‘truth’ is just a way of bullying people and all claims to truth are simplistic and over-ambitious.

And

The truth we believe is a construct inside our head. The objective truth outside our head is the only truth but it is forever unknowable since we can only know what has made its way into our head, and that which has found its way inside our head is only a tiny unrepresentative subset of the ‘real’ truth outside.

Or what about

Truth is actually found in music or art or poetry, a chimeral thing that we occasionally encounter, but never grasp, and obviously beyond words.

Worse, I can’t think of a reliable way of judging between all these competing claims. How can you test the truth of truth? Though there are workarounds. For example, I prefer my Ryanair pilot to believe her flight instruments rather than her inner aesthetic sense. And if the air traffic controller said she was coming in too low, I would rather she believed him than accused him of abusing power for his own sexist reasons.

Where this gets us

I don’t know where this gets us, but I do think those who slickly think they have this whole Truth business nailed — the sort of people who say, ‘I’ll deal with your questions, just give me a moment’ — might be missing something.

How to do controversy

Remember not to shout

Am enjoying Roy Jenkins’ biography of William Gladstone, which is a happy distraction from reading the current news. Jenkins was hampered by his lack of sympathy for Gladstone’s faith, but it’s a good read. I was struck by a speech Gladstone made at Glasgow University. Four guides to follow in controversy:

  • Truth
  • Charity
  • Diligence
  • Reverence

We could do worse.