Life under lockdown

We are seeing sights we never expected to see. Recently I made a rare foray outside our home to drive to our allotment. (Can’t cycle, might bump into someone, car is isolated.) I passed the fish-and-chip van that arrives every Saturday noon at our estate, with a line of people each 2m apart.

In the village I saw a hand-made A-frame sign: ‘Thank you NHS’ and I was reminded of Nigel Lawson’s saying that the NHS is the nearest thing the English have to a religion.

Outside the local supermarket a small queue was standing patiently, also maintaining their distance. Everything was quiet and orderly. I wondered about this. (We are having everything delivered so I haven’t seen the inside of a shop for some time.) Are only a few people allowed in the shop? Do they feel the same pressure as you feel when you are the only person in the bathroom and someone is standing outside? That would not suit my supermarket shopping where half the point is visiting aisles full of things you don’t need, picking up something that might form the ingredient for a new and interesting meal, carrying it around the shop for a while and then putting it back.

So that’s what’s going on in the world. It will be fascinating to see what changes persist when, as I hope, things get better. More Zooming, I suppose, or the equivalent. We’ve been having family get togethers each weekend for both my and my wife’s side of the family; everyone’s had a crash course. Going out for a meal again will be nice. Seeing grandchildren other than down a phone, extra nice.

Some of the seminars I’ve seen, such as the one just below this paragraph, are fundamentally optimistic about what this reshuffling of things will do for the ministry of the Christian Church:

We’ll see. Meanwhile I have to confess to a happy lockdown. Working from home as usual, bit more time for focussed work, company of my wife, summer flooding the garden early.

Life in the old dog yet

Even though pubs and high streets are still declining.

Image by Carla Burke from Pixabay

My childhood landscape included church buildings being sold and other church buildings displaying painted thermometers outside as they looked for donations for a new roof. Media portrayals of vicars portrayed them as nice but useless. The tone, back in the 1970s, was that churches were like other sunset British industries, poorly managed, needing government aid , ripe for selling off.

I wonder if it will change. Last year legendary researcher Peter Brierley counted 40,100 church buildings in use in the UK — more than than all the pubs. He noted that new builds and old buildings repurposed for new congregations were at least matching sell-offs, at trend that surprised him:

Although some Anglican, Roman Catholic and Methodist church buildings have closed in recent years, this loss has been outweighed by the growth of new Evangelical and Pentecostal church congregations.

Migration to the UK is another factor behind the buoyancy in the number of church congregations. One of the first things that new communities do when arriving in the UK is to set up a place of worship. These new congregations often gather in non-traditional spaces such as converted cinemas, warehouses or shops.

Although much has been written about the decline in church going in recent years, the number of Christian congregations and church buildings in the UK has remained remarkably stable.

Peter Brierley

I wonder if the aftermath of Covid-19 will change things more. Surely things have moved on from the 1970s. In all the long recession, churches have been the backbone of the foodbank provision. Many times they are providers of youth work or family care when councils have cut provision. Some (like our own church) run day care for the elderly. Street pastors help those youngsters experimenting with too much alcohol on Friday nights. Churches and Christians are at the core of the community help in Covid-19 in my very limited observation. Churches have not gone the way of British Leyland, the National Coal Board, or British Steel, or British shipbuilding.

I have the idea that in this country people may stumble across the Christian church like finding an old coin, brushing off the dirt, and realizing it’s still worth something. We’ll see.

Healing the frequent fliers

In which I stumble into the world of Adverse Childhood Experiences

Just started to read (actually listen to) a fascinating book whose big idea is that there sometimes can be a single cause at the root of a person’s multiple, recurring illnesses and other problems.

This root cause? Childhood trauma. Childhood trauma can cause grownup health problems. When an ingénue like me stumbles into something like this I then quickly discover that what was for me previously unknown territory contains a landscape’s-worth of books, research, controversy, refinements, criticism, and its own three-letter-acronym (ACE or adverse childhood experiences).

ACE is fascinating. What fascinates me just at the moment is how childhood traumas link with those passages in the gospels when people gathered around Jesus and he healed them all. If he healed the sicknesses the people were presenting with, many of them would have been back next week. But if Christ somehow dug out the root, which was something lodged in the psyche, buried there through one or more childhood traumas, and bearing fruit in adulthood as stroke or heart desease or ‘fibromyalgia’, or anxiety and depression, then those patients of his might truly have been healed.

Go far, go slow

Reasons not to panic

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Hillary Clinton is fond of quoting an African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together.’

I read an example today of the human species collectively going far. ‘Between 1968 and 2017, the world’s population increased by 113 percent from 3.55 billion to 7.55 billion. Over the same time period, the average global food supply per person per day rose from 2,334 calories to 2,962 – a 27 percent increase.’ 1.

So the population doubled, but the food supply more than matched it. Back in 1968 educated voices were looking at likely population increases and saying things like ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over … hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.’2 Today obesity is a bigger cause of death than the diseases of hunger.

Somewhere in all of this, perhaps, is a lesson that when we have far to go as a species, or a community — think global warming for example– it is OK to have prophetic types warning us of dire consquences, perhaps, but we have to travel together.

Radical meekness

Very hard to stamp out

Paul’s letters in the New Testament often contain instructions about family life and these cause a lot of trouble:

‘Wives, submit to your husbands’ is probably the most contentious. Here is the Christian faith at its most patriarchal apparently, digging in on the side of oppressing women.

Recently I wondered about this. Paul was writing, I think, to a society where the power imbalance and the justice imbalance were already ingrained. Men commanding, oppressing, even beating women was the norm, a society where a lot of couples were at war, an oppressive male, a scheming female.

When Paul wrote that wives should cheerfully submit to their husbands, it would completely disorient things.

So, in reverse, would a man acting kindly and considerately towards his wife.

Paul’s directions, in other words, were of a piece with the stuff Jesus was saying about praying for your enemies, blessing those who curse, turning the other cheek, carrying a load the second mile when you’ve been press-ganged to do the first. It was about upending oppression by radical, cheerful, irritating meekness.

It builds a new world and sets new norms. Radically meek women and tender men topple structures of pride and shame spouses into mutual decency. I think you have to add, though, there’s a context of normalcy here. I don’t think this applies in the abnormal and even criminal context of domestic abuse or coercive behaviour. People facing that stuff should get out and get safe and take their children with them. Paul’s teaching is about re-setting a societal norm, not licensing abuse. Still.

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay 

Slow meat-eating

The vegans are definitely 1-0 up over the carnivores and it’s well into the second half of the match, so I’m going to have to quote the Guardian at them.

Veganism is rightly touted as a response to industrial farming and butchery. It produces less CO2 as well, at least on its way into the stomach. (I’ve not seen research on what happens within the vegan stomach and beyond but prejudice suggests plenty of CO2 and CH4 emerges from human digesters.)

I did see, however, a contrary article that at least constitutes a brief rude noise in the sonorous vegan sermon. To quote:

Rather than being seduced by exhortations to eat more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing. We should, at the very least, question the ethics of driving up demand for crops that require high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, while demonising sustainable forms of livestock farming that can restore soils and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.

This is appealingly slow. The writer, who re-wilded her traditional dairy and arable farm, adds:

So there’s a huge responsibility here: unless you’re sourcing your vegan products specifically from organic, “no-dig” systems, you are actively participating in the destruction of soil biota, promoting a system that deprives other species, including small mammals, birds and reptiles, of the conditions for life, and significantly contributing to climate change.

Our ecology evolved with large herbivores – with free-roaming herds of aurochs (the ancestral cow), tarpan (the original horse), elk, bear, bison, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and millions of beavers. They are species whose interactions with the environment sustain and promote life. Using herbivores as part of the farming cycle can go a long way towards making agriculture sustainable.

There’s no question we should all be eating far less meat, and calls for an end to high-carbon, polluting, unethical, intensive forms of grain-fed meat production are commendable. But if your concerns as a vegan are the environment, animal welfare and your own health, then it’s no longer possible to pretend that these are all met simply by giving up meat and dairy. Counterintuitive as it may seem, adding the occasional organic, pasture-fed steak to your diet could be the right way to square the circle.

Isabella Tree. (Yes, she really is called that.) Here’s her book, which I have not read.

Meanings of slow

Try steady. Thorough. Patient

Fail.
Image by Igor Yastrebov from Pixabay

Now that I’m telling people I’m writing about Slow, I have to keep defining what it is. It’s a metaphor really, the opposite of another metaphor, fast, as in fast food.

In this context it means methodical and single-focussed. When a counsellor sits down with a client, and has booked out the whole morning, she’s going to be slow. That’s all she’s going to do this morning. She isn’t going to let her phone interrupt. She’s put aside her other responsibilities. All she’s going to do is unwrap her client’s soul until both client and counsellor can see the true person. It’s slow because it’s thorough, thoughtful and single-minded. Slow is that habit of doing things well, perhaps from first principles, focussed, practising a craft.

Slow is also patient. Cricket (in its longer forms) is slow because it is a test of routines and patience. Allotment gardening is slow because you have to sow and reap and bury, overseeing life and fruit and death, at the same pace as the seasons. The Christian faith is slow because you hourly walk paths of spiritual discipline that carve out contours in lives and culture and history. Centuries are shaped by the hourly habits of the worshipper.

All of Christian discipleship is slow: healing is slow, holiness is slow, forming a marriage or family or a child is slow. Nurturing a Christian community is slow. Love and faith crystallize into faithfulness in all its splendid forms and are slow.

Learning a skill is slow. Those who have found enduring wealth or fame or celebrity have usually embraced slow: the person who sells out stadiums has learnt her craft and polished her art in clubs and pubs. Flash-in-the-pan wealth or fame, I think, can be instant, up like gunpowder rocket, down like the stick.

Slow glows with divine light. Somebody is lit up by something, and they love it, and work to perfect it, and do it over and over again. There’s a holiness about watching someone, adult or child, quietly doing what they love to do; they have found something, they have connected with a stream that doesn’t stop flowing, whose source is God.

Walking in Kingdom foothills

Without knowing it

I see this a lot.

I think Paul saw it too, when he wrote about ‘Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature (or naturally) what the law requires…’ 1.

These are people who do things because they are good or beautiful in themselves. Characteristically, staff in the UK’s national health service, in my experience, and teachers, and people in other areas of public service, do what they do to serve others rather than to gain prestige. Not all of course; but some.

The other day I heard of a property developer who, if he was deciding where to spend money, invested in good materials, high ceilings and big windows. Other housebuilders prefer fancy kitchens and bathrooms in what are otherwise cramped and mean buildings. Fancy kitchens might generate a quick sale; but the other developer is focussing resource on a home whose light and space will be delightful for generations.

It isn’t true of everyone, and all of us can be be public-spirited in one breath and mean or malicious in the next. But still. I meet a lot of people who are committed to public service, quietly doing their job with love and devotion, but they don’t share my faith or at least don’t speak ‘Christian’ the way I do. They have come to do what they do by some other route: personal choice, or nature, or instinct, or following the culture they learnt.

I like to think they are walking in the foothills of the Kingdom of God. They might not call it that, or recognize it as that, or even associate with that thought, but they feel the goodness in their bones.

Image by LadyLioness from Pixabay

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 to do controversy

Remember not to shout

Am enjoying Roy Jenkins’ biography of William Gladstone, which is a happy distraction from reading the current news. Jenkins was hampered by his lack of sympathy for Gladstone’s faith, but it’s a good read. I was struck by a speech Gladstone made at Glasgow University. Four guides to follow in controversy:

  • Truth
  • Charity
  • Diligence
  • Reverence

We could do worse.