The new creation prayer

A hymn and a prayer

Here’s what I learnt this week. It came from reading the ‘Lord’s prayer’ in Greek in Luke 11. You can strip it down as follows – the first three requests setting the framework, the next three filling in the human-level detail.

Setting the framework
‘sanctified’ – set apart as holybe your name
‘let come’your kingdom
‘let be done’your will
The human-level detail
‘give us the needful bread’daily rations
‘forgive us’like we forgive those who owe us
‘lead us not’ into fiery trial; ‘deliver us from evil’Fatherly company in a rough world

And then later on in the same teaching session, Luke has Jesus talk about asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13).

This all reminds me of ways you can dismantle Genesis 1. That passage on creation starts with the Holy Spirit brooding over primeaval chaos. And then has two lots of three, as follows:

Setting the framework
Day 1Light and darkness; day and night
Day 2Sky (or heaven) and earth
Day 3Land and sea; trees and grass
The human-level detail
Day 4Sun and moon as light and calendar markers – measuring our days
Day 5Animals and birds everywhere
Day 6Men and women as subregents of the animals; ‘cattle’ as a thing; vegetation for food

Genesis 1 is a picture of God ordering the primeval chaos, making it fit for humans, and then settling in to work with them — this settling in is God’s ‘rest’ of day 7.

The prayer that Jesus taught in Luke 11 has resonances with Genesis 1: first, setting a framework of God’s rule; then promoting God’s rule at a human level. Genesis 1 is a hymn of creation; Luke 11 is a prayer of new creation. Both end with God and people either in a harmonious creation or building towards a harmonious new creation. Both are universal and both are personal. This comparison may be rather contrived; but it is fun to see the two passages in dialogue.

Dust

What we leave behind

bible-1679746_1920Here’s the Apostle Paul: brilliant, intense, battered. Gnarly. Well-travelled, and when imprisoned, sending letters instead of sending himself. Eventually executed.

What happened to the letters he left behind? Surely people kept them. And some copied them. Some enterprising people probably wrote to other churches and asked for the copies they’d also collected. Maybe some people took a set with them when they travelled, so they could share it with other churches they met. Slowly, by hand-copying, collections built up. It must have happened by word-of-mouth.  People knew spiritual treasure and kept it and shared it.

FF Bruce writes:

We know, for example, that about the year 95 the cupboard somewhere in Rome which was the Vatican library of that date contained not only Paul’s letter to the Romans (as we should expect in any case) but also copies of his first letter to the Corinthians and (possibly) one or two others. It also contained copies of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which had a close association with Rome, of the First Epistle of Peter, which was written from Rome, and of some Gospel writings, not to mention the Greek version of the Old Testament commonly called the Septuagint. 1

In the analysis by FF Bruce, the same happened with gospels: Mark’s in Rome, Matthew’s in Syria, John’s in Ephesus, Luke’s perhaps already designed for wide circulation. Eventually a four-fold gospel was circulating, as were collections of letters, and Luke-Acts could be split and Acts used to connect the four-fold gospel with the letters of Paul and others.

In this way, the New Testament was formed, a word-of-mouth collection that, sifted by all the Christians who were using both it and other documents, gained traction.

Later developments caused church leaders to codify what was already on the ground. And so the New Testament came into being in a similar way to an Amazon bestseller list. People left writings, the Christian community used them, or didn’t. Then add a dash of politics and you have a New Testament. And Paul’s letters, after his lonely execution, took hold, and now no hour passes in the world without multitudes reading and pondering Paul. By any measures of publishing success, Paul is the greatest and most successful writer ever to scratch ink on papyrus. ‘See what large letters I write with my own hand’.

This is so different from seeking to build a following through advertising, free offers, campaigns, special deals, commendations. Just pour your life out, be faithful to your heavenly vision, and let God and the future generations do the rest.

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.

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:

At the heart of art

The impulse to create beauty

I’ve just returned from four days of investigations at a hospital, trying to see if I’m a candidate for a heart transplant. I also talked to other patients on my hospital corridor, who have walked farther down the trail of suffering and patience than I have ever ventured. This is the second time I’ve gone through this exercise and I have come home with my head rather full, and the introvert’s need to sit at home for a long time and think about it all.

Somewhere in all that, I asked the question, What am I for?

Trying to answer that doesn’t involve me attempting to respond objectively and rigorously, even if I had the equipment or the courage, which I don’t. Instead, that question is a prompt to motivations and perhaps to temperament or psychological health. Another way of framing the same question is something like how do I feel about going on living? Or how much do I want to continue to exist and contribute?

There’s an answer to this around the idea of knowing and glorifying Christ, and that is my answer too, there is no meaning outside of him, but within that general answer there must be specific route-maps for each person. The tug of love, pulling us to go on living for someone else’s sake or some others’ sake is certainly a huge component of the vector.

I find another part though. I want to make beautiful things. In my world, this has to mean writing, and it has to mean writing something that someone reads, five minutes from now, or five weeks, or even five centuries, and that person’s thoughts and mine connect over all that distance, and the thing that has lit me up lights them up too.

I wonder if this isn’t the impulse behind all art, both the tawdry and the epic, and perhaps lots else too. Make something beautiful. Add to the stock of our herd’s insights, creativity, beauty and overall wealth. I’ve often envied a musician’s ability to dream up a melody that previously didn’t exist but that the whole world comes to know and indeed may even continue to know until the end of time. Think Hey Jude or Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s poem in his Ninth Symphony. Using words to combine thoughts in attractive forms is a micro-scale enterprise compared with that, and I do not say I am good at it, but it is what I have.

The Christian hope for history is the fulfilment of all things and one of the pictures is the New Jerusalem, the city of God, the fulfilled human community, lit up by the light of God’s face. A feature of the New Jerusalem is that its gates are always open. Nothing evil or mean or superficial is allowed in but what does flow in is the wealth of the nations, the baking and the architecture and the engineering and the melodies and the elegant theories and the eloquent art. The patiently and lovingly constructed treasures, dusted as they are – as they must be- with sprinkles of divine pleasure. What am I for? A piece of that.

Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

The back of the tapestry

Devotion weaves it

This isn’t an original thought. Our straggly lives down here are like the back of a tapestry, loose ends and knots and tangles. Our eternal selves–through Christ– are like the front of the tapestry, beautifully woven.

Two recent things made me think of this familiar Christian trope. One is freshly hearing Jesus’ command not to accumulate treasure on earth, but to accumulate it in heaven. The other was a series of articles on the Guardian website about being 47.

I’m not 47, though I used to be, but it is the point (according to surveys in the West) that we are at our least happy. After 47, happiness starts to grow again. The Grauniad asked for some personal experiences and the people who they published were sad: weighed down by kids, work, circumstances, perhaps by a marriage that had lost its fizz. (It was mostly first-world sadness, people worn down managing and coping, rather than enduring more apocalyptic types of loss.)

Hence the tapestry. It’s a lovely picture for the follower of Christ — patiently walking through the frustrations and anxieties of every day. Doing so with a worshipful heart so that actually you are weaving colourful swirls and whorls and whirls (and other words that have a root of ‘rls’ and that I can’t think of at the moment) into some tapestry somewhere; through Christ turning from merely enduring to wonderfully weaving because it’s an act of devotion to an audience of One.

Image by Welcome to all and thank you for your visit ! ツ from Pixabay

Make it your ambition to

Try not to panic

Am enjoying reading the NT transliterated (Greek and English together) on a phone app. My ignorance of Greek is a great help because any dim grasp of a thing feels like a discovery, even if it would be steamrollered flat by a proper scholar.

Here’s one. There is a Greek word which means ‘aspire to’ or ‘make it your ambition to.’ Paul uses it of himself when he says he was ‘making it his ambition’ to spread the gospel. (Romans 15:20).

Then he writes to the Thessalonians, ‘Make it your ambition to…’ (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and we might expect him to write the same thing. This is what we evangelicals tend to sign up to in our faith, at least notionally, and in our songs, and are certainly urged to do from pulpits.

But what he actually says is ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life’.

Which I have to say I honestly prefer.

Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

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.