Slow and stop

Nothing is quite something

Image by ptra from Pixabay

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

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

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

The trouble with truth

We might need to drizzle humility over our convictions

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

The Bible is truth!

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

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

That which is discovered by reason is truth.

Or:

That which is established by the Scientific Method is truth.

And

Establish all the facts and you establish the truth!

And because humans are complicated and clever:

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

And

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

Or what about

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

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

Where this gets us

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

How careers change after mid-life

Your runny self becomes hard-boiled. But don’t worry.

Just read a fascinating article about how we all peak earlier than we think…

In a really helpful piece in the Atlantic, Arthur C Brooks talked about the difference between fluid and crystalized intelligence. The fluid sort is flexible and creative, problem-solving and innovative. The crystalized sort is more likely to draw on wisdom and experience from the past – runny versus solid intelligence, if you like.

The runny sort is what many of us use as we progress in our career, trying new approaches, showing flexibility, making creative leaps and discoveries. But our runniness starts to decline as early as our 30s and 40s.

The solid sort builds through life and you don’t lose it until until the very end.

This is why scientists (often post-docs) are young; Supreme Court justices are old.

The significance of significance

Brooks’ deeper point is that if you get your significance from your achievements when your intelligence was running all over the place, you may struggle when you no longer can make the same leaps.

He gives the example of Charles Darwin, who was famous early but rather lost steam in his 50s and didn’t end particularly well. Start-up founders, creatives of all kinds, mathematicians and scientists, lawyers, business people — anyone who’s done well with learning, changing, driving change, beware. You’re seizing up faster than you think.

The remedy to this career disillusion, Brooks claims, is to shift gears and try to exploit all those stores of solid, crystallized intelligence you’ve built up while running around changing the world. Try mentoring or teaching in some sense, resourcing others. Try wisdom rather than innovation. It may mean stepping back from the frontlines of fame and significance but that can only be good.

(The alternative to this, which he doesn’t suggest, is to attend meetings and be the person who says ‘we tried that years ago and it never worked.’)

This is fascinating in several different ways.

  1. We have seasons in our lives; resisting this truth is not a recipe for happiness. We have to shift gears. If our significance comes from our fresh ideas, our flexibility, our creative leaps, watch out.
  2. This is something we instinctively know. Of course old men have a different perspective from young guys. It was always so: the young men of the village play cricket, the old guys nurse their pints of beer and watch. The mistake of us baby boomers is that in our 50s and 60s we think we can still do it on the dancefloor. Perhaps we are fooled by how good health care is now, or perhaps we don’t labour in the body-crushing occupations of our ancestors. Or perhaps no previous generation has been this pampered and this stupid.
  3. For me personally, my fiction-writing self has often felt fear that I won’t be able to be make the creative leaps of the past. That’s actually frightening. On the other hand, to write further books about the same people and in worlds already dreamed up is an enticing prospect, and I observe that many of my favourite writers did exactly that: they were like musicians on tour again, playing the old hits. Meanwhile my non-fiction writing self feels differently. After decades of reading and thinking, I’m getting to lay out the stuff that’s been crystallizing in my heart.
  4. And for all of us, the gear change may involve putting more weight on relationships than our glittering career, stepping back, pushing others forward, finding significance outside a string of achievements: choosing slow.

How not to pray for someone with cancer

Don’t pray for a future healing. Find today’s grace.

Don’t pray for instant total healing.

Well, do if you must, but it may be that you are really responding to your own rage and pain rather than listening to God. The Psalms do this a lot.

But consider the poor schmuck you are praying for: there might be a better way.

First, remember the context. Suffering is everywhere. Cancer is everywhere. Our seemingly–lonesome path has already been worn down by millions of heavy footsteps and many others are queuing behind us. This can help us past our self-obsession. And we can learn to look with fresh eyes on the human species. So much struggle. And what a brave lot we all are.

Second, reflect that even complete healing (whatever that is) is just part of wider and slower package that includes elements of rehabilitation, reflection and repentance. God continues tenderly to love and form us. Our cancer is not separate from our disciple’s walk or our life’s work of glorifying God. It’s just another thing.

Third, think about the Kingdom and the gospels: ‘People would … beg [Jesus] to let the sick at least touch the edge of his cloak. And all who touched it were made well.’ 1 Remember the ‘all’. We are members of the all.

Just praying ‘God somehow take all this away,’ is entirely understandable. But, given everything, it is an ill-considered and unhelpful place for your prayers or your church’s prayers to land. Don’t focus your hopes on an encounter in the misty future that will make everything all right again.

Touch the edge of the cloak today. Pray for grace for today, for healing today. Pray for God’s help today: the fear and anxiety to be replaced with peace. The pain soothed. The stresses on everyone eased. A good night, rather than a dark one. Pray prayers of thanksgiving for the goodness of God and for the worth and value of the person being prayed for.

We are on very solid ground praying for peace today, dumping our worries and fears today, praying for good communication with each other today and finding ways to thank God and esteem each other’s love today. Find today’s grace.

Touch the cloak again tomorrow. Some of the tomorrows may include further investigations or treatment. Pray about those. Some of those days may include miraculous tumour-shrinkage or joyous remission. Wonderful. Keep pressing on with the rehab, the reflection, the repentance.

Mistaking the peace for the promise

A final thought, sometimes missed: it’s possible to mistake God’s peace for God’s promise. Especially when you’re desperate. When you just want horrible news to unhappen, and you pray and find peace, you can think God has said something when he hasn’t. He may indeed have something to say on the matter but that isn’t it and then wasn’t the time. What does the peace mean, then? It means he’s here, like always.

The revolutionary effects of non-violence

It really works

I’m enjoying thinking about non-violence and radical submission.

Following Jesus’ example on non-violence and foot-washing, the principle of radical submission became embedded in Christian ethics.

Slaves were told to be excellent slaves, even if they served less-than-excellent masters. Enemies were to be fed and watered. Women, newly freed from oppression by the gospel, were told to fit voluntarily within the old patriarchal structures. They undermined it totally, throwing men completely off balance, by being unusually sweet and nice. Rulers were smilingly obeyed. Taxes were stumped up. Early on in the piece, a Roman governor (from memory, the younger Pliny) complained that the Christians treated the pagan dead with more kindness than the pagan living were managing to do.

When you treat an oppressor thoughtfully, charitably, kindly and well, you weaponize shame. ‘I’m giving you a chance to disgrace yourself,’ we say. ‘Don’t miss the opportunity.’

And even if that particular enemy is immunized against shame, his mother won’t be, his children won’t be, his support network won’t be. The more he shames himself by being cruel and sneaky to the kind, the more his authority shrivels away.

This has such powerful resonances for today. Hong Kong residents gather in their tens of thousands singing Christian worship songs (for example). This is much harder for the authorities to deal with than (for example) violent lawlessness. They have a playbook for violent lawlessness. They are rather less certain how to crack down on a church picnic.

It’s easy to say

Of course this is easy to say. Much, much harder to live out. Look at Zimbabwe, looted and ransacked by its leaders, peacefully opposed, but generations of suffering has not yet brought the needed change.

Look at the rise of autocracy and populism around the world. Yet, still, we have to insist that peacemaking and radical submission and love are the marker posts on the true path to transformation.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity. Psalm 37:10-11


	

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.