The art of fighting for a cause

Re-reading the passion narrative in Luke, I noticed — sadly for the first time — that Christ was crucified as a political actor for political reasons.

Of course there was a bigger story going on, the one celebrated in the gospel, Christ dying to reconcile humanity to God.

But as far as everyone on the ground was concerned, it was politics. And seeing it in this light is fascinating. Jesus was out to ‘get’ the ruling religious authorities in Jerusalem. They had stolen religious affairs for their own good, not the common good. They were running the religion business so that they did well out of it: best seats at the banquets, top places in the synagogues.

Jesus campaigned against them. First he started a popular movement, going from town to town preaching and building large crowds. Then he spent some months training followers. Finally he invaded the Temple and taught right in their faces. This was incendiary stuff and everyone knew it.

But how did he ‘win’?

He chose the path of non-violence. He let them beat him, try him unjustly, crucify him.

Yet instead of stamping his movement out, as they hoped, within weeks it had thousands of followers, some of whom were themselves willing to die for him.

Over coming decades, the movement grew, and it split the autocracy still trying to control Jerusalem as Pharisees started to believe.

Finally the Temple was swept away by the Romans. Meanwhile the size of the Church grew, at its widest estimate, to a third of the human race.

The power of non-violence today

I saw this same dynamic when I was writing a book on Algeria. The White Fathers, a Catholic order, decided to stay in the country as the situation deteriorated into civil war in the 1990s. As very public Christians, they were obvious targets for the Islamic militants who were half of the civil war. (The state was the other combatant.) I remember hearing of three White Fathers, friends of a friend of mine, who were gunned down in cold blood one morning. The small Christian cemetery was filled with Muslim friends at their burial. One wrote to the newspaper saying something like, ‘I want to live like they do.’

This was not, presumably, was the Islamic militants intended: Christ and Christ’s peaceful ways were exalted. That which was supposed to be stamped out, lived.

Interesting.

Why undercooked ideas make you grumpy and cross

I’ve had to swallow two arguments recently with fellow-Christians because having the argument would have been less worthwhile than the friendship or whatever that it would have taken away. One (a surgeon, though admittedly only an orthopedic surgeon if I remember) didn’t believe in evolution. The other, a management consultant, thought we might allow the possibilities of a Young Earth because ‘science is changing all the time.’

Wrong, and wrong, and wrongity wrong wrong. My friends were trying to pay a bill with the wrong coin. Neither had arrived at their wacky ideas through studying science. It was their attempts at Bible study, which were also not very good, that they had hurled like a custard pie into a scientific discussion, that led them astray. This you cannot do. You have to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s: critique science with the methods of science. Critique theology or bible-exegesis with better theology or bible-exegesis.

The same problem happens in reverse, of course, when scientists stray from their proper bounds and ask questions, for example about why anything exists. Science is equipped to measure, watch, count, predict. Surely it’s ill-equipped to find a rationale for being itself.

We know in part (in science); we know in part (in theology). Stirring two half-cooked things together and thinking a fully cooked meal will magically pop out is not going to work.

You can only have fruitful dialogue between science and religion when you stop nipping down shortcuts. Mostly this involves, like walking through an airport, by just following one path to the end, albeit with a friendly glance now and then through the glass to see what the other people in the different corridors are doing.

A recipe for incomplete knowledge and messy contradiction? That shows we’re on the right lines.

Healing, yes, again.

It’s a moment, and it’s a walk

Suppose for a moment there is such a thing as divine healing. Suppose it is a mark of the presence of Jesus, a downpayment towards the later, greater transformation of the world. The world is much more complicated if that is true than if it isn’t.

If it weren’t true, you’re sick, you get on with it. If it is true, there’s a kind of lifeline flung down from the skies. But that lifeline is elusive.

I think a lot about this because I am a Christian and I am someone who credibly can be said to have made unanticipated recoveries from fatal events. One morning my heart stopped and had to be electrocuted repeatedly until it returned, as it were, to the beating path. Two years later I spent a month in a coma. As readers of this blog already know. And I think about healing a lot because body parts still malfunction and because now I have started a new part-time job which is all about responding to the ill-health of others. And also because people around me, some Christian, some not, some sort-of, some maybe, fall sick or their loved ones do and what does healing mean in all those situations?

I’m beginning to conclude it’s about peace with God and the wellness of your soul in his presence. There’s a Sunday-School staple of a woman called Hannah, who was childless, who went to the temple to pray for a child. The priest saw her lips moving and said, more or less, go easy on the sauce, lady. She told him she wasn’t drunk, she was praying, and he said ‘Go in peace then’ and she went and the account tells us ‘her face was no longer sad.’

I have to say that’s been important for me almost every day through the last decade. When she left the temple, Hannah wasn’t pregnant, nothing had changed, but ‘her face was no longer sad’. Everything had changed! The heart of the thing had changed. She had found peace with God in the moment.

That’s why I believe healing is instantaneous, or at least a thing that happens in the moment. It is peace with God for now. Healing is also a walk, sometimes a walk for the rest of your life. It is a walk where every day, or maybe every hour, or maybe sometimes every few minutes, you refresh yourself with God’s peace. As you string these moments together, hours, days, you are healed. The shape and orientation of your life is transformed, yes by the illness, but more by the companionship of God.

The Bible is a treasure-chest of this stuff. The Psalms, for example, on my reading, are repeated swings of the pendulum between pain and peace–hymns and anthems on which we can be carried.

What about when you are mentally ill, trapped in your own mind? What about chronic terrible pain? What about uncertainty and waiting? All these are hard places from which to find a settled peace with God. I agree but I don’t have any other remedy unfortunately and would prescribe the same medicine, with the proviso that we don’t do this alone: a community can help bear the load. And (even if we don’t believe in him) God is sovereign, greater than us, for us, and personally attuned to our darkest corners.

Bread of tomorrow

Hungry for the future.

Rowan Williams’ enjoyable little book Being Disciples (SPCK) has a whole chapter on daily bread which is interesting.

He talks about the need for bread in the wider context of our humanity and being those who need to receive as well as give.

He also notes ‘the odd Greek word that is used in the Gospels for “daily bread” whose exact meaning has proved elusive’ but it could have meant in the original Aramaic that Jesus

was telling us to pray for the gifts of the coming kingdom to be received in the present … The need, the hunger, we must learn to express is a need not simply for sustenance but for God’s future. What we need is the new creation, the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’ (p42)

Rowan Williams Being disciples p 42.

Resume virtues and eulogy virtues

Take your pick

Temporary

Nice snippet from an article I was reading recently, attributable to a New York Times columnist called David Brooke.1

Resume virtues are the things you put on your CV, the promotions you got, the sales you made, the money you earned.

Eulogy virtues are the things people say at your funeral. He always had time for people, he was a good dad, he made people around him feel good.

Since we are absolutely going to die, and all we achieved will be forgotten, decayed, or (at best) archived, maybe good to work on the eulogy virtues.

Local businesses, and daily bread

Something to be proud of

I did some copywriting work once for a charity called ‘Feed the Hungry’ (FTH). I enjoyed reading up on their philosophy. If I’m stating it right, they believed every community had God-given ways of sustaining themselves. FTH’s job was to catalyze the community to find and start deploying that source of ‘daily bread’. Then FTH would move on, job done. Even the poorest communities, they believed, could find, under God, a way of sustaining themselves.

Their theology is an expansion upon the prayer Jesus taught us: ‘Give us today our daily bread’.

Maybe these ideas don’t just apply to the poorest communities. The rich world is pockmarked with towns that have lost their old source of daily bread.

For example, in the town I grew up in, the biggest industry was making asbestos conveyor belts for the coal-mining industry. We had a school trip there once, to give us some ideas of the working life, which for some of us was just a few months away. This may be news to some, but the market for asbestos conveyor belts isn’t what it was.

What has replaced local industry? Government jobs and chain-store jobs. What’s been lost? Local pride. My home town also used to manufacture cast-iron drain-hole covers, and as a kid I would point it out if I found one in some distant street somewhere. We were famous! Our drain-hole covers were the finest, or perhaps the cheapest, but they were something.

A council in the NW of the UK (Preston maybe?) has pushed against the trend by trying to spend its council money locally. They get a local start-up to supply school dinners (for example), instead of hiring one of the established national providers. Like FTH, this council is trying to catalyse new initiatives that eventually might sustain themselves.

Economists grumble that everyone did what that council is doing, it would on balance be less efficient. That council are arguably wasting tax-payers’ money by not choosing the cheapest provider. But the extra inefficiencies may be worth it. I wonder if part of ‘daily bread’ is growing local businesses? And if it is worth some effort to catalyse that? That daily bread is not just about sustaining an individual but sustaining a community? That that can be an aim of prayers and faith? I wonder if a return to proud local businesses (even if they manufacture lowly drain-hole covers for a grateful nation) might be one way to dispel the powerlessness that many feel?

On finding your first love … again

In praise of the crazy act of love

Heart at airshow

Just coming down personally from a busy few months. With emails whittled down, files organized, commitments met, mostly, and the things shifted off my desk towards their final destination. A cup of tea in the sun and some mental unpacking.

And a reminder. The first love. That best, freest, sweetist thing I am capable of giving to my soul’s Lover. Not so much the good, proper, dutiful, obligation-fulfilling stuff that rightly fills much of my life. But the crazy act of love, unconsidered, unweighed, ill-judged. The thing done for the love of doing it and for the love of my creative Creator who loves me; the thing planted in our walled garden, for just the two of us. That thing. Do that.

Mission as being where Jesus is

This (from Rowan Williams, Being Disciples) is one of the most attractive reasons for the mission enterprise that I have read.

Being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks and keeps. Jesus chooses the company of the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased; so that is where you are going to find yourself …

That is why so many disciples of Jesus across the history of the Christian Church –and indeed now — find themselves in the company of people they would never have imagined being with, had they not been seeking to be where Jesus is: those who have gone to the ends of the earth for the sake of the gospel; those who have found themsevles in the midst of strangers wondering, ‘How did I get here?’ People like Thomas French, a great missionary figure of the nineteenth century who spent much of his [p12] ministry as bishop in the Persian Gulf at a time when the number of Christians in the area was in single figures, and who died alone of fever on a beach in Muscat. What took him there? What else except the desire to be where Jesus was, the sense of Jesus waiting to come to birth, to come to visibility, in those souls whose lives he touched — even though, in the long years he worked in the Middle East he seems to have made no converts. He wasn’t there first to make converts, he was there first because he wanted to be in the company of Jesus Christ — Jesus reaching out to, seeking to be born in, those he worked with and loved so intensely. It’s the apparent failure, and that drama of that failure, so like the ‘failure’ of Jesus abandoned on the cross, that draws me to his story, because it demonstrates what a discipleship looks like that is concerned with being where Jesus is, regardless of the consequences.

Rowan Williams Being Disciples (pp 11-12)

What happens after Islamism

People get fed up of it

In some states of Nigeria, the northern ones, where around the turn of the century they declared shari’a law for Muslims in a dozen provinces a few years ago, they are cutting the numbers of religious police. In Kano province their budget has been cut by a third, and they no longer patrol the (‘Christian’-run) bars and betting shops, hauling off Muslims.

Economist, ‘Nigeria’s vice cops feel squeezed’, April 13 2019

In Saudi Arabia, controversial crown prince has greatly restricted the powers of the religious police, forcing them to work office hours only and only produce written reports rather than taking direct action. One newspaper reported in 2018, ‘many restaurants in Riyadh are now seen humming with music and mixed-gender crowds, a scene unimaginable until two years ago.’

https://www.straitstimes.com/world/middle-east/saudi-religious-polices-decline-under-spotlight[

In Egypt, the Economistreported in Nov 2017, how a young puritanical preacher in the town of Mansoura used to have a congregation that overflowed the mosque into the nearby street (and that was not unusual). ‘Now he barely half-fills the mosque,’ and complains, ‘we’re in decline.’ This, according to the newspaper, ‘is true in many places in the Arab World’.

Prayer as birdwatching

Sometimes it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening.

Am still enjoying Rowan Williams on discipleship. In fact I’ve not got much further than the first chapter. Which is all about discipleship as just hanging around in God’s presence, much like students in the past, or indeed disciples, used to share not just lectures but their whole lives with their teachers.


‘I’ve always loved that image of prayer as birdwatching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view, and sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening. I suspect that, for most of us, a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that. But the odd occasions when you do see (p5) what T. S. Eliot (in section IV of “Burnt Norton”) called “the kingfisher’s wing” flashing “light to light” make it all worthwhile … this sort of expectancy … is basic to discipleship.’

Rowan Williams Being Disciples, pp 4-5