I’ve haven’t blogged about the lockdown because I’m as baffled as the rest of us. Two things coincided in my head today though (May 5th, still locked down at the time of writing). It happens I am having a happy lockdown, working at home as I have done for more than 30 years, but with my wife’s company which is lovely.
The first thing I learnt (courtesy of a newsletter from the mission agency where I used to work, WEC) is that the lockdown is a time of waiting, a kind of winter. That reminds me of what happens to individual souls sometime. One of the things about waiting/winter is the way new connections are being forged underground that will lay foundations for a brilliant spring.
The second thing I read was Nicky Gumbel saying about the multiplied demand for Alpha now that it’s online:
‘every week a new Alpha Course will start in the morning and in the evening. We couldn’t do that when you’re meeting with food and all the rest of it. You can only do three a year. We’re starting two every week.’
A third thing is that this is an unexpected setback to everything; covid-19 is a spanner thrown into the machinery of the world. Perhaps it is a spanner we threw ourselves or (to change the metaphor) perhaps it is a wave sweeping the globe because of a convergence of a series of human failings. No matter: we make bread by kneading together yeast, water and flour.1 Kneading, while presumably not pleasant for the kneaded, gets yeast to places it never got before.
In God’s hands, perhaps, consequences of human missteps can be forward steps for the Kingdom.
Not a programme, or a strategy, but a course of life.
We know how this ends.
Everyone dies, the Universe expands and cools, the last lights go out. It isn’t this.
It is — according to Christian theology — this. A resurrected Universe thrives. All things are united together in Christ.
I have written about how you can understand this in terms of the physicist’s idea of entropy. The little localized patches of low entropy that already exist, known to us as ‘life’, are the forerunners or harbingers or early hints of a total low-entropy takeover of time and space.
Another way of saying the same thing is the language of heaven and earth. Heaven is the low-entropy, eternal, invisible dimension or realm where Christ reigns. Perhaps it surrounds in some way our physical Universe. When people turn to Christ and lean into him, heaven enters their souls. They have a presence somehow in these heavens, ‘seated in heavenly places in Christ.’1 They belong to eternity, but they reside on earth. They belong to God’s people, to Jesus, and their future is secure. Yet they live on earth. What is their job? Their lives become about bringing the qualities of heaven into earth. They are routes by which heaven leaks into earth. Which is why prayer is important, as is weakness and perseverance, and the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. Eventually, heaven will burst out and flood over earth and Christ will be ‘all in all’. ‘Death’, as the Apostle Paul put it, ‘is swallowed up by victory’. 2
A lot of the New Testament lights up when we realize this. This is why we pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ 3, why ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness’ 4, why we ‘groan’5, why Paul tells the Colossians to bear fruit ‘in every good work .. [with] great endurance and patience’ 6, why ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ 7.
Here is a theology of slow mission. We pray, and do, and bear, and endure on earth. But we are not building the kingdom of heaven on earth like you build a cathedral. We are engaged in an act of life-giving. It is like when a plant puts all its strength into preparing a seed head.
It is also like the ways mothers live by pouring life into their children. The children live on into a future the mother doesn’t see. The mother doesn’t see the future because death stands between her and it, and that future is far removed from her current experience of protesting, messy babies. But she lives and gives life and her loving work will endure beyond death, bearing fruit in ways she will perhaps never guess. The coming of the Kingdom of God in the end will be a bridal day for a squalling creation.
This is why mission is and should be slow. Because it isn’t a programme; it’s a work of love. It’s why every little corner matters, as well as every grand vision. It’s a pursuit of Christ in the large and the small. We pour in all the knowledge of Christ and all the beauty and justice and patience and faith and love that we can, into this world, tugged along in our course by the Holy Spirit. We live, reluctant coals blown on by Jesus. We also groan: weak, sorrowful, disappointed, set back again and again. What we finish won’t look finished, until it all dies and rises again, and then we will see in Christ that it was.
I’m intrigued by the question of how or if the things we do each day matter in the lights of the eternity that our Christian faith is embedded in.
As we know, the New Testament teaching is that everything has an end:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.1
Even if you don’t believe in an apocalypse, you still believe it in a modified form: we’re all going to die eventually, as are the institutions we serve, our country, perhaps even our species. One way or another, the lights are going out.
So if the world is going to end, why work to improve it? If everything is going to be destroyed, why do politics? Why breed fruit trees? Why engineer beautiful buildings? Why even redecorate the house?
Here are some reasons:
We have an intuition that we must.
Even if we accept or partly accept an apocalyptic worldview, the best strategy is to build, love, work, beautify until the end. It is the same as for those with a terminal illness: keep living until you die.
A couple of Bible metaphors come to our help. Think ‘seed’ or ‘bride’. Both get prepared over a long season. Both experience some dramatic, even apocalyptic change: the seed gets buried and dies. The bride gets married. Afterwards, it’s a new age. But it is also a continuation of everything that went before: there’s discontinuity and continuity.
Today we paint tiny pictures, miniatures. These little acts are a kind of anticipation or even a statement of faith in a better world. Somehow our work loads eternity up so that after death and resurrection, and in Christ, our horizons will unfurl like a flower in a new age. Nothing of beauty or worth or diligence will be destroyed; all will be caught up again and fulfilled in unguessed ways in eternity.
Have just finished reading the beautifully written Wilding by Isabella Tree. For the past 20 years she and her husband Charlie Burrell have discarded traditional farming and sought to re-establish their Sussex clay as it may have been before agricultural revolutions.
Contrary to the default understanding, she suggests, that old state was not just a giant hardwood forest but a landscape grazed by ancient oxen, ponies and deer.
We only get one side of the story, of course, but, thanks to longhorn cattle, Dartmoor ponies and other big four-legged munchers, reintroduced at their family pile of Knepp Castle, a landscape has emerged that buzzes, hoots, squawks, splashes and hums with resurgent life. Trees, mammals, birds, insects, fungi and soil are alike enjoying the freedom to be not squished into a human farmed environment. It’s a lovely book and story, all taking place between Gatwick Airport and the sea.
It also hints at lessons about science, systems and complexity; and hence Slow. Here’s how. Science is in my experience a process of radical simplification. It’s a quest for universal laws and simple causes and effects. It’s much less good at dealing with complex (emergent) phenomena that involve many simple systems working together. It can analyse a neuron but not consciousness; it can measure a link between nitrogen and growth and so boost crops. But that can also lead to vast, productive, silent fields, carbohydrate monocultures; and with them, the problem of wearing out the earth and the soil. Conservationists like their scientific methods too, planting forests with each tree surrounded by a non-recyclable plastic shield, for example, which are not found in nature, or dropping wheat grains across a field to boost turtle dove numbers. Oddly, to those of us sold on scientific solutions, a simple science-led approach may attempt to save a single species or solve a single problem but not lead to the riotous complexity that characterizes a healthy ecosystem.
There is a way of promoting emergence and complexity: letting nature do its stuff, looking to the old ways. Isabella Tree has read old books as well as science papers (and is eloquent in both). Species have had a zillion years to figure out ways of cooperating fruitfully. They seem to manage at Knepp. Isabella Tree laments that they couldn’t go further, like re-introducing beavers or lynx.
None of this is my world and well above my pay grade, but is fascinating: a further stage, perhaps, in humanity’s learning curve in stewarding the earth, and a humbler one, and a slow, non-intensive turn in the road. Great read.
Take a Creme Egg and pull off most of the foil. Keep some of the foil so you can still hold the egg without getting your fingers chocolatey. Using your front teeth, gently bite into the pointy end and roll the detached piece down your tongue. Keep the chocolate piece in your mouth . With your tongue, scoop up a little of the fondant cream. Mush and swirl the chocolate and fondant together in your mouth for a while, until they’re gone. Well done. You did some savouring. And you didn’t even need to buy a Creme Egg.
Savouring is part of Slow and it is also perhaps part of thanksgiving and worship. Perhaps it is also a proper response to the era of abundance that we find ourselves in: so much music to hear, so many books to read, so many box-sets to watch, so many choices in the shops, so many sights to see. How sad if in all this we gorge ourselves on one thing after another, without stopping to savour (and I guess then to thank). Perhaps savouring is an antidote to greed.
Perhaps it is also a good practice for the lean times. One horrible night once in hospital, with alarms going off, alarms that were attached to me, I listened to some classical music in my little earpiece, and I also walked in my mind around Buttermere in the English Lake District, a walk I knew then very well. Savouring was all I had then.
My wife emailed me this, saying I’d probably like it. I did. I’m very sorry that I don’t have the source:
In which I stumble into the world of Adverse Childhood Experiences
Just started to read (actually listen to) a fascinating book whose big idea is that there sometimes can be a single cause at the root of a person’s multiple, recurring illnesses and other problems.
This root cause? Childhood trauma. Childhood trauma can cause grownup health problems. When an ingénue like me stumbles into something like this I then quickly discover that what was for me previously unknown territory contains a landscape’s-worth of books, research, controversy, refinements, criticism, and its own three-letter-acronym (ACE or adverse childhood experiences).
ACE is fascinating. What fascinates me just at the moment is how childhood traumas link with those passages in the gospels when people gathered around Jesus and he healed them all. If he healed the sicknesses the people were presenting with, many of them would have been back next week. But if Christ somehow dug out the root, which was something lodged in the psyche, buried there through one or more childhood traumas, and bearing fruit in adulthood as stroke or heart desease or ‘fibromyalgia’, or anxiety and depression, then those patients of his might truly have been healed.
Hillary Clinton is fond of quoting an African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together.’
I read an example today of the human species collectively going far. ‘Between 1968 and 2017, the world’s population increased by 113 percent from 3.55 billion to 7.55 billion. Over the same time period, the average global food supply per person per day rose from 2,334 calories to 2,962 – a 27 percent increase.’ 1.
So the population doubled, but the food supply more than matched it. Back in 1968 educated voices were looking at likely population increases and saying things like ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over … hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.’2 Today obesity is a bigger cause of death than the diseases of hunger.
Somewhere in all of this, perhaps, is a lesson that when we have far to go as a species, or a community — think global warming for example– it is OK to have prophetic types warning us of dire consquences, perhaps, but we have to travel together.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.