Today’s needful thing

Still slightly obsessing about the so-called ‘Lord’s prayer’; so fascinating that the first half of it is big global things and the second half is local, personal things, sky-wide things and fingertip things.

The prayer for daily bread, that kicks off the second half, is intriguing. There’s a one-off appearance of a word: ἐπιούσιος (epiousios). This word only appears in the two references to the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6 and Luke 11), and nowhere else in the New Testament, and nowhere else in Greek literature anywhere. Ever. At all. Rowan Williams, who was an archbishop once, and who lives in our city, says the exact meaming has remained ‘elusive’. Indeed. Guesses include the word ‘needful’. ‘Give us each day our needful bread.’

It may also be related to the verb ἐπιοῦσα (epiousa) which seems to mean, ‘to come later.’ Williams suggests ‘bread of tomorrow’ I think, and that makes sense since it follows from the lines about ‘your kingdom come’ and ‘your will be done’. Give us each day a foretaste of tomorrow, as it were. Alternatively, it might mean, give us what we will need today for what will come later today.

Either way, it’s the ‘daily’ I like. It is interesting how much prayer in practice and in my observation is conveniently shuffled into the future. Now at one level this is fair enough: the answer may happen in the future. But Jesus teaches us to pray about today, pray about what you need today, today, today. Give me the needful bread today. Give me a taste of the future today. Give me it today. Not necessarily everything I’m going to need, but everything I’m going to need today.

I’ve seen prayer for healing done so badly. I’ve watched churches pray for people with cancer. Heal them sometime, in the future, please, at some point, ideally before they peg out. Pray this way if you want but it is not what Jesus taught us to do. Give us what we need for today, today.

Not quite the sixth place of decimals

There are surprises in store

Image by (Joenomias) Menno de Jong from Pixabay

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

Albert Michelson, Light Waves and Their Uses (1903), 23-4. 1

It was probably a shame that Michelson, first American winner of the Nobel Prize, came up with this quote, since it was his careful experiments on the way the speed of light never varied that provided the initial information behind Einstein’s 1904 theory of relativity.2.

It was a further shame that he wrote in 1903, just at the edge of quarter -century of discovery and theory that would turn physics upside down – the most exciting twenty-five years physics has ever known. Physicists since (arguably) have just been adding footnotes

What do we learn from this? Arguably, beware certainty in scientists. Think of this. Over here (I won’t draw it but you can imagine it) is the totality of reality. Over here (I won’t draw it either) is Science, a tool for exploring this reality. This is all very fine, except for the problem that since we do not know what the totality of reality is, we have no way of judging how good our tool is. It might be, for example, like a torch that only lights up the shiny things in a vast cave. Or it might be like an optical telescope, blind to X-ray sources that light up the sky. Or it might be like a child’s understanding, or like a fly’s, relying (in the case of the child) in a badly incomplete model or (in the case of a fly) on a deep cognitive lack.

Scientists generally, in my observation, are not good at looking at the acts of faith that underlie their discipline. What part does prejudice play? Or confirmation bias? How limited is our ability to perceive? How observable is the Universe? Science proceeds on assumptions that the Universe is generally observable, that human failings are ironed out by the need to replicate results, and, more broadly that it ‘works’. By which they/we mean: ‘when we shine a light into the cave, we can see shiny things.’

We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know if we can know what we don’t know. And we don’t know, if we can know what we don’t know, how we will know it.

Apart from that, everything is absolutely fine.

The white nights

Elusive and evocative

I am writing this around the time of the longest day, the time they call in St Petersburg, which is even further north than I am, the ‘White Nights.’

It’s my favourite time of year, light and pollen everywhere, and often in the evening I will stand outside and try to sniff the air and store the moment. It’s the sort of moment you need to store given there is also, every year, the phenomenon known as January, when it’s dark, or cold, or bleak, or grey, or all four.

But really it’s a hopeless exercise. There is something about the White Nights that can’t be stored or even experienced for a moment; the joy of the stilled creation, the still-warm stones, the crashing of birds and squirrels in trees overstuffed with leaves.

C S Lewis wrote a lot about desiring this elusive joy, and discovered a German word, sehnsucht,to describe it. Desiring elusive joy is a familiar experience. What does it mean? Is it just a product of a deficient mental model of reality? We anticipate a meaning, even a joy, in creation but we can never find it because it is an artifact of our pattern-hungry brains, not a real thing in the Universe?

There’s another explanation which I much prefer. There is such a being as God, such a thing as the Kingdom of God, and these hints of joys are like straws blown over to us from that field — so they are not soap bubbles that look good but are empty and must pop, but signs that out there, over there, somewhere, to be hunted down, now hinted at, is a realm of joy that we yearn for and have not yet fully entered. We are hungry for a reason; we yearn for joy for a reason.

Perichoresis for beginners

A lesson on self-isolation from the Cappadocian Fathers

I am reading a book called Trinity by Roger Forster. Forster, bearded, successful early, kinda trendy, around forever, is the evangelical equivalent of Richard Branson. A little bit anyway.

Forster points out so helpfully that the classical Greek view of God–thanks Aristotle–was that because he was perfect, he couldn’t change.1 Being the Uncaused Cause, on that analysis, made you like a classic sculpture: a perfect 10, but made of marble.

Forster–whose learning is impressive even if he veers around a little like a car with a puncture–compares this cold Greek slab with the God of the Cappadocian Fathers. They joined a fourth-century theological ruck alongside Athanasius, pushing back the Arian heresy and making sure a trinitarian God was a mark of orthodox Christianity. Forster writes: ‘The doctrine of the the trinity is truly important because God is personal, He is communal, He is loving, He is altruistic – and He is all of those things forever and ever.’2

It so happens the Cappadocian Fathers were themselves a trinity: Basil of Cesarea; his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa; and their big friend Gregory Nazianzus.

They were an example of inspired and super-smart Christians fighting the mighty Greeks on their home ground–a battle which, a thousand years later, people we now know as scientists had also to do: people like the devout Johannes Kepler, who freed natural science from its Grecian obsession with the perfectly circular.

The Cappadocian Fathers saw the Trinity as a kind of dance: as Forster says, ‘where the partners move around one another, each giving way to the other and then changing the direction, or changing the lead, but each one always in perfect symphony and synchrony.’3. Their word for this was perichoresis, which is a word I look forward to you using when you next see a dance routine.

It is a lovely picture though: God interdependent in his self-sufficiency. No wonder, then, that the creation that sprang out of the divine bosom, if we believe it, was itself a perichoresis of mutual service and supply. We breathe out; plants breathe in. Male and female he created them. We are one body, with many members. Perichoresis is everywhere. Which is why human thriving is not centred on achieving alone but on belonging and contributing.

‘The most glorious measure’

Be it therefore enacted by the King’s most excellent Majesty … that from and after the first day of May One thousand eight hundred and seven, The African Slave Trade, and all manner of dealing and trading in the Purchase, Sale, Barter, or Transfer of Slaves, or of Persons intended to be sold, transferred, used, or dealt with as Slaves, practised or carried on, in, at, to or from any Part of the Coast or Countries of Africa, shall be … utterly abolished, prohibited, and declared to be unlawful.

These words were part of the Royal Assent given to the bill that abolished slavery on March 25, 1807. The then Prime Minister William Grenville described it as ‘the most glorious measure that had ever been adopted by any legislative assembly in the world.

It was the work of many, but perhaps supremely the work of William Wilberforce, who as a back-bench MP, had introduced an anti-slavery bill many times, only to see it defeated. In 1791 Wilberforce had said ‘Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name … [our descendants] will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to our country‘.

Church of England bishops opposed it. It was evangelicals (within and outside the Church of England) and Quakers who led the fight. Public campaigning and mobilizing popular opinion played a part. At one point, a quarter of the country was boycotting West Indian sugar — thanks to women, mostly, who did most of the sugar-handling in the UK, then as probably now.

I was re-reading this story today 1 and two things struck me again: the fact it was the evangelicals who led the fight; and the fact it didn’t matter that it was slow.

Lockdown as waiting

When God presses pause

Lovely, though I use a machine for mine. Image by Devanath from Pixabay

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.

A theology of slow mission

Not a programme, or a strategy, but a course of life.

Pixabay

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.

The eternal worth of what we do now

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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:

  1. We have an intuition that we must.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

I think and hope.

Slow, science, tradition and systems

Old ways may embody clever stuff

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.

Savouring

Lingering longer than you need to

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.

Image by Obsidain Photography from Pixabay

My wife emailed me this, saying I’d probably like it. I did. I’m very sorry that I don’t have the source: