Prayerlessness

All about capturing the moment, and squashing it. From my forthcoming book ‘The Sandwich’

About catching the moment

(2018)

Here’s another piece I wrote for the Singaporean magazine for newish Christians and which is destined for my forthcoming book The Sandwich.

Luckylife11 on Pixabay

Prayerlessness requires real effort on our part.

When the Holy Spirit brushes against your soul, you need to brush him off. When you see a need, you should suppress the desire to bring it to God. When you sense a flame rising in your heart for God or eternity, you must douse it.

Practice, of course, helps. With dedication you can coat your heart with a solid shell that resists most holy urges. But even so, if we are Christians, every day we are buffeted by any number of nudges, longings, sorrows, questions and needs that prompt us to go and find God. It’s hard work to dodge them all.

The root cause

I think the reason for our prayerlessness is mostly the same reason that we don’t eat a proper diet, read improving books, make that call to a friend, or learn the piano. It’s that in the moment, we decide to play on our phone or flick through our social networks instead. We say no to prayer when we should be saying yes, or yes to some attractive thing when we should be saying no to it, and the accumulation of thousands of those moments eventually hardens and forms us into what we are and will be: I didn’t learn the piano, I didn’t look after my body, and I’ve just declined my millionth invitation to meet Jesus in prayer.

Should be an improving book here somewhere

Yes, we are urged to pray

Do we need to pray? Er, yes:

Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people’ (Eph 6:18). ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’ (Phil 4:6). ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful‘ (Col 4:2). ‘Pray continually‘ (1 Thess 5:17). ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people’ (I Tim 2:1). ‘Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed’ (James 5:16).

Then we notice that Jesus was quite happy to live as a human being, but he did not seem to manage life as a prayerless human being. Sometimes he stayed up late to pray. Sometimes he got up early. Sometimes his disciples just caught him praying. Ministry decisions? He prayed. Healing? Ditto. Feeding thousands? Ditto ditto. Personal crises? In the desert, in the garden, didn’t matter. He called on God. He called on God until he was satisfied. You would say there was something of a pattern there.

What if you’re too busy?

Perhaps you are too busy?

I refuse to believe anyone is too busy to pray. To my way of thinking, the busiest people most of us ever meet are parents with young children. Babies poop, cry, need comfort, get hungry, get mad and never hesitate to get in touch. They tend not to be all that patient either. Parents of such creatures, especially when not helped by others, are busier than a general fighting a war. Show me a young mum doing most of the caring of two small children and I will show you a sleep-deprived zombie who is too busy to finish a sentence, let alone a meal, and for whom a bathroom break is a triumph of battlefield planning.

And yet she has time to pray. When the kid is sleeping, or plugged onto her breast, or being wheeled up and down a corridor in the pit of night, she has time to reach out to God. Her prayers may not be coherent, but that doesn’t matter. Coherence can be overdone. She’s slurping an energy-drink at the spiritual ringside, ready for another round.

Honestly, you’re not too busy to pray.

So what is the cure?

Is there a cure? There is.

First. Understand you can be more fluent in the things of God and prayer. Look around your church. Some people have mastered it. Some people know God and walk with him every day. There are even some people–plenty of people actually—who are quiet and hesitant in social settings, but when they are switched over to prayer-mode they turn confident and eloquent. When they start to pray these people are like an academic walking into a library or an alcoholic opening a bottle of Scotch. They’re home. Heaven is their happy place, even while they keep one foot on earth. You can be a bit more like them.

Second. Understand what happens when you pray and what happens when you don’t. To turn to God in prayer is to access a secret, invisible world where you can pull levers that change things on earth and where you can come face to face with Christ.

Missing out on prayer, on the other hand, means that part of us lies forever fallow. Part of us that could be fruitful, colourful, playful, remains unploughed, unsown, and the butterflies must flutter elsewhere. All of us have areas of our life like that: but our prayer life never needs to be one of them.

More than that, if you don’t pray you’re mostly stuck with earthly solutions to everything. This is not great.

Third. There are a million possible solutions to the issue of prayerlessness. I suggest they all flow from a single principle. Combatting prayerlessness requires some mixture of discipline and spontaneity. This is the same way we become fluent in other areas of life, such as keeping fit or learning a musical instrument.

We need to build in some regular habits, but we also have to remind ourselves that keeping up the habit is not the aim. Enjoying God and being with him is the aim. It’s like practising the piano. We don’t practise so that we can say ‘I practised’. We practise so that we can make music.

How do we practise prayer? It surely varies with each individual and each season of life. It’s good to find out from other people what does and doesn’t work for them. Then see what works for you. Here’s my list; your friends will have other lists. 

  1. Schedule a regular time- either a part of a day or a number of minutes in the day. You might start small: ten minutes. Then you might get more ambitious. I have a friend who as a young Christian decided to tithe his waking hours. A tithe of sixteen waking hours is 96 minutes. For some years he aimed, and mostly kept, to the plan of either studying his Bible or praying for 96 minutes a day. Things changed, I am told, when he got married; but it was a good discipline for a long time.
  2. If you’re married, get into the habit of praying together every day. My wife and I do this every night. We didn’t always. But it’s a good habit.
  3. Decide that you are going to pray even when the situation is non-optimal. It isn’t perfect to pray in the corridor at work as you walk to the toilet; but it’s not a bad moment to turn over whatever’s on your mind before God.
  4. If you can’t get alone, write or type your prayers. People will think you are just fooling with your phone.
  5. Reclaim your insomnia. Can’t sleep? Pray. Stay in bed if you like. So your mind drifts? Well, steer it back. Non-optimal, half-sleepy prayer is better than no prayer at all, like a sleepy kiss is better than no kiss at all. Stop waiting for everything to be perfect.
  6. Don’t always use words. It’s OK just to be in God’s presence. Sometimes you don’t have words.
  7. Alternatively, it’s OK to speak words if that helps and it’s OK just to pray in your heart if that helps.
  8. Sign up for some regular prayer food. This can help broaden your horizons. I recently started working with the Operation World prayer ministry. They have an app that you can access every day and thus pray for the world over a year. Many groups have similar initiatives.
  9. Try things. Pray through the alphabet – pray for something beginning with A, then something beginning with B, and so on. Pray through the psalms. Use the Lord’s prayer as a set of headings.
  10. Try a total immersion method. If your church has 24-7 prayer room, or prayer event, sign up for an hour and see what happens.

You get the idea.

Bonus material: my scientist friend Ruth Bancewich has also been blogging (and experimenting) on prayer. Here‘s her helpful thoughts.

‘I never knew you’

About not living on fumes: being an extract from my new book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.

Luckylife11 on Pixabay

Here’s a new extract from my new book, ‘The Sandwich’, originally written for a magazine in Singapore that is aimed at young adults taking early steps of faith.

(2019)

Two passages in the New Testament record people’s shock when they are shut out of the Kingdom of God at the last day. They can’t believe it. In one passage, people complain, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets!’ (Luke 13:22-30). In the other, they go even further: ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?‘ (Matthew 7:15-23).

I don’t know where you are from,’ Jesus says to those who lived in his neighbourhood. ‘I never knew you’, he says to those who worked spectacular miracles in his name. What does he mean?

In both these examples, things look fine on the surface, but underneath, there’s nothing.

More of the same

Plenty of other places in the Bible talk about situations where people looked good for a time, or even worked miracles in Christ’s name, but shared the same deep lack. They were running on fumes, not on steady supplies of fuel.

  • The parable of the Sower talks about seeds that sprout and quickly grow, but never come to harvest.
  • Judas Iscariot went with the other disciples on preaching tours, healing and driving out demons. He looked just like a proper apostle but was always a thief and was found out in the end.
  • In Ephesus, some Jewish exorcists tried casting out demons in the name of Jesus. It worked until one day they were mauled by a demonized person and barely managed to escape alive.
  • In the Old Testament a prophet for hire named Balaam prophesied accurately about the people of God, but money rather than God owned his heart. The New Testament warns us several times of Christian-era Balaams (see 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11).

Frequently, the Bible warns us against people who look good but are in fact, bad. ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’ (Matthew 7:15). Beware ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 11:13). ‘They are blots and blemishes, revelling in their deceptions, while they feast with you’ (2 Peter 2:13).

Knowing and being known

Jesus says to all these surprised people, who looked so good, ‘I never knew you.’ What does he mean? And does he mean us?

  1. It can’t mean that there is anything God doesn’t know about us. He is God. He’s measured our shoe size, counted the hairs on our head, heard every word of our self-talk. He knows when we meant well. He knows when we say we meant well but really didn’t. He knows everything about us and judges it with an utter fairness. Every good point we might want him to consider – he will already have listed it. Everything we’d rather he hadn’t seen – he will have seen that too. We are entirely exposed to him, even if we would wish to cover some bits up.
  2. Yet there is another sort of knowing. If you fell in love with someone from afar, you might over time learn a lot about him or her. Stalkers, who turn this kind of behaviour into criminal obsession, may learn a lot more, all the facts – creepily so. But all that is nothing compared with the knowledge of actually knowing that person as your boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s that heart-to-heart knowledge, that relational knowledge, that openness to each other, that Jesus seems to mean when he says, ‘I never knew you.’ I never knew you like that.

This personal, heart-to-heart knowing is a two-way thing. Paul puts it like this to the Galatians, ‘Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again? (Galatians 4:8-9). Jesus says simply, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me’ (John 10:14).

Pride makes us stupid, but humility lets us see and know.

This opening of the heart to the Other, to God, is what some of us so strenuously avoid. I can go along with the Christian crowd. I can even get involved in all kinds of spiritual fireworks, impressing everyone with the show, just don’t let me face him heart to heart, naked and unarmed. Let me keep busy in his name instead. Or let me just gingerly tread around him and his call, keeping a respectful distance: ‘Oh yes, I know him well, I’m quite familiar with the teaching.’

This is such a huge theme of the Bible. Adam hides behind a tree, not a brilliant strategy when the one looking for you is All-Seeing.  ‘These people worship me with their mouths but their hearts are far from me’ says Isaiah, quoted later by Jesus, and identifying a later group of Adams sheltering behind a tree of religiosity (Mark 7:6).

Here I am!’ Jesus says to the smug and all-knowing Christians of Laodicea. ‘I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’ (Revelation 3:20 NIVUK). Don’t hold me at a distance, cool and sardonic and flip. Face me. Meet me.

Knowing is trusting is following

This heart-to-heart knowing, this relational knowledge, is bound up with trusting. If you are emerging from your hiding place, laying down your weapons, taking off your headphones, and facing God defenceless, argument-less and alone, then necessarily you are trusting him to deal with you kindly and well.

Necessarily you are also committing yourself to do what he says. So another way of looking at ‘knowing’ is ‘trusting and obeying’. This is God’s ‘firm foundation’: ‘But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his”, and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity”’ (2 Timothy 2:19).

It is a surrender. That is why it is so simple and so terrible. It is why (I think) the biggest barrier between anyone knowing God and being known by him is not ignorance but pride. God can take a humble person a long way even if they have just a few sandwiches in their mental lunchbox; a proud genius with all the world’s information on a smartphone will still be blundering in the dark. Pride makes us stupid, but humility lets us see and know. But when you surrender, when you trust and follow, knowing him and being known, there is healing for your wounds, rest for your tired bones, comfort for your sorrows, forgiveness for your rebellions and stubbornness, energy for your serving, and quietness and happiness and glory.

Holy heroism

Being a chapter from my new book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.

Yes, I took August off, and a bit of September, which is the advantage of writing a blog called ‘slowmission.’ As a new(ish) born grandad of a two-year-old and a five-month-old I had things to do in August, mostly involving lying still in a dark room.

I used the lockdown to write two little books. One has been brewed from all the blog articles I’ve done and I hope to say more about that soon. The other I want to share over the coming weeks. This title might end up being The Sandwich, because it explores the way Christian believers are sandwiched between the promises of God and the world we all know, where you stub your toe, lose your keys, and worry.

The Sandwich, if indeed we end up calling it that, started life as a series of columns I wrote for a magazine in Singapore. This magazine was aimed at the many young adults who were finding faith in God for the first time. Here’s a chapter.

On heroes

About how you just can’t get them or be them

(2006)

You just can’t get the heroes these days. In previous eras of church history, the world seemed to be full of clean-limbed individuals who lived hard-working and praiseworthy lives while preaching the gospel, shutting the mouths of lions and being sawn in two, often all at once.

Today we live in a world where even the best of us are seen as badly flawed.  And even those squeaky-clean saints of former years have been re-graded. No decent biography or obituary is complete these days without a listing, tactful or otherwise, of a few of the subject’s faults and misdemeanours.

Like a photo culled from the web and then enlarged, heroes don’t seem to have that fine-grained resolution that means their lives look good on billboards.

To take just one example, the pioneering founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, fearless fighter for the poor and needy, once got so mad with his children that he took a gun and shot the family dog. When he realized how upset they were, he had it stuffed and brought back into the house.  Then he got mad again because they didn’t thank him. He was one of many leaders down to the present time who were perhaps better pioneers than they were parents. How many children of Christian heroes could tell stories of tyranny? Plenty.

It was also said of Booth that orders he gave were to be obeyed without question. However, if anyone tried to give orders to him, he was free to ignore them because he must obey God and not men. This is a handy tip for team-working that I expect you to file for later use.

It’s better this way

Yet even in this cynical age, we Christians can still fall into the beguiling trap of hero worship. This is how it seems to work. We go along in the Christian life like Goldilocks, finding some things too hot for us, and other things too cold; some things too wild, other things too tame. Then we stumble upon someone who just seems to have everything just right. We like what they say or write. Or we like their churches, or their leadership. It’s such a relief to find them. These people seem to embody just what we aspire to in Christian living. What heroes they are. We start collecting recordings of their talks and buying their books.

The apostle Paul found plenty of hero-worship when he listened to a report about the church he planted in Corinth. Some people thought he, Paul, was everything you could wish for in an apostle. Others preferred the eloquent and powerful speaker Apollos. Still others spoke fondly of Peter, who of course had worked with Jesus for three years, was presumably a fund of colourful stories, and of whom Jesus had said, ‘on this rock I will build my church.’

Paul wouldn’t have any of it. I think he found hero-worship, at its root, a sign of not-being-properly-grown-up. He told the Corinthians, we are all your servants.

So two things: your hero isn’t perfect, and he will let you down. And those other guys who you already know aren’t perfect, and who you think don’t quite get it right, maybe they have things to say into your life after all. By extension this is true of denominations and movements too. All kinds of Christian writers on the bookshelf can bless you. Bible-Presbyterians and charismatics can both feed your soul. In my view.

You’re the ones in charge of your lives, concludes Paul. Don’t follow people or movements blindly or totally. Weigh things. Take responsibility. Be your own person before God.

That’s a sample of what Paul was always saying to new Christians, of course: don’t be faddish, don’t be blown off course, don’t be a slave to the latest trends, be deeply rooted in God for yourself.

Remember their faith

There is another side to this, though. Let’s not be hero-worshippers. But let’s not cut everyone and everything down to our puny size either.

When the writer of the letter to the Hebrews wanted to stiffen the spines of the people he was writing to he reminded them of the saints of the past. He didn’t claim they were perfect, or that we should model our lives on theirs exactly. He didn’t set them forth as an example of how it should be done, in the good old days, when saints were real saints. But he did say, ‘consider their faith’.  

They weren’t perfect, but they stuck it out. They failed, their hearts failed sometimes, it was difficult – the Bible is full of their failings — but they stuck it out.

Paul says the same to Timothy, almost his last written words: ‘You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings …’ (2 Tim 3: 10-11)

And then he says,

Continue in what you have learned.’ Stick it out like I did. Do better than me, learn from my mistakes, do things differently, but stick it out. Keep the faith.

It comes to this

In summary, then, how do we treat Christian heroes? Well, don’t build your life on them. Take what they have to give. And remember their faith.

You wouldn’t want to do things exactly the way William Booth did. He got a lot wrong. But the poor lined the streets for his funeral. His children followed him into ministry. The organization he founded still bears fruit generations later. He kept the faith. A (flawed) hero. Just like you.

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.