One lunch at a time

Don’t mobilize, metabolize.

Breakfast in Catalonia (author pic)

Regular readers will know that I am weary and wary of approaches to the Christian faith that come out of a business-speak textbook:

Strategy!

Outreach!

Mobilisation!

I wonder instead how much real work for the Kingdom, and better work, is done in coffee shops or over lunches.

It’s an approach with form. Remember Acts 2, ‘They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts‘ (v 46).  No sooner was the Holy Spirit poured out than the church lunch became a thing.

Less well known is how good this is for our well-being. Newspaper reports recently cited an Oxford University study that found ‘the more people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied about their lives’, and that the only two factors that really mattered in long-term survival after a heart attack were (a) giving up smoking and (b) having friends. 1

So let us march to the New Jerusalem, stopping frequently for lunch.

The drinking straw and the eye-dropper

Looking for signs of the Kingdom

 

Drop

The drinking straw

We Christians, I thought the other day, look at the world through a drinking straw. We search the whole realm of nature for familiar markers of God at work that we can note and approve of: Bible-studying, praying, church-going.

People who encounter us feel this. They feel themselves scrutinized and judged through a drinking straw. We don’t see the totality of them, or care about their world really; we’re only interested in what fits through our drinking straw. Unsurprisingly, they are not attracted.

The eye-dropper

There’s another way of looking at God’s work: the eyedropper. In this picture, the activity of God  is like a drop of ink dripped into a clear liquid. The liquid could be a moment in time, or a human soul, or the whole world, or the whole universe. (The scale doesn’t matter; the principle is the same.) God colours the whole.

This seems to me a more Biblical picture. The Kingdom of God is the mustard seed that takes over the garden, the yeast that ferments all the flour, the feast at the end of the time to which all humanity is invited. ‘God so loved the world that he sent his Son.’

Who are we?

So are we evangelicals drinking-straw servants of an eye-dropper God, the narrowly-focussed in the service of the Wide? It can certainly seem that way. Our services are all about Jesus, our noticeboards are full of people all doing Jesus-themed things. Our Sunday Schools could be site of the old joke, where the new teacher asks the kids ‘what’s got a bushy tail, lives in trees and eats nuts?’ And after a long silence a kid pipes up, ‘I’m pretty sure the right answer is “Jesus” but it sounds like a squirrel to me.’

Drinking straw servants?

Drinking straw servants of an eyedropper God? It’s an easy charge, and I think we are somewhat guilty, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Here’s why. There is a place in love for infatuation. There is a season for a deep, greedy, obsessive searching for and finding God. There’s a time to get the drinking-straw perspective deep into your heart. When you decide to marry someone, you spend time, in love, obsessively rearranging your mental furniture. Perhaps it’s similar when you make Christ your Lord.

But I don’t think we should get stuck here. Oh God, give us breadth. Securely loved,  with the basics settled, we are all the better set up to see God’s life dripping everywhere, and to cooperate  with it.

Share the gospel or preach good principles?

A randomised trial of religion has surprising results

Fascinating experiment in the Philippines. International Care Ministries (a Christian charity) helps the Philippines’ poorest people with a training course that contains anumber of modules. Some just explain the gospel. Others teach things like financial planning or health. The charity can deliver all the modules, or just some.

So they tried just the gospel portions on one large group of villages. They tried just the life-skills module on another group. Still another group got the full course. And for a control, they looked at villages where they did nothing. It was (reports the Economist, ‘a randomised controlled trial of religion’) 1

The group who got the gospel (6000 households, a large sample) became more religious, a bit gloomier about their prospects, and their incomes ‘had increased by 9.2% compared with the others. ‘

As the Economist points out, ‘For now, anyone recalling nudges from grandma urging wakefulness through tedious sermons should consider that she may have been right.’

God’s technology?

Factory 3Here’s a thing. Technology achieves many of the things Jesus came to do.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’[f]

Recovery of sight to the blind? Most blindness today is preventable – by technology. Most blind people today are blind because they are poor, not because they are blind.

Good news to the poor? Set the oppressed free? Some principles that humans have worked out–the rule of law, free trade, mass-production, joint-stock companies– (arguably) seem to lift people out of poverty better than (say)  a career in slash-and-burn farming, or a culture of subsistence agriculture.

I believe that the link between ‘democracy’ and ‘people not starving’ has also been well made, even if you can’t necessary decide in that case which is cause and which is effect. But in this analysis ‘democracy’ would be another technology that works to relieve human suffering.

I would say that technology, understood as both gadgets and ideas, has done more to reduce human misery than almost anything else, and that process continues. Soon, for example, old people will get their mobility back once self-driving cars become popular.

What then is the link between the advance of (some aspects) of the Kingdom of the God and the rise of technology? Is it a coincidence that the Bible starts in a garden but ends in a city? Is anyone writing about this stuff? Would love to hear comments.

 

Belonging, that life and death thing

all contributions greatly received

TogetherI am trying to learn about some stuff in preparation for a book I might try to  write one day. It goes like this. My book ‘More than Bananas’ tried to show how the gospel is compatible with the world that science describes – physical reality.

Now I’m trying to think about how the gospel can be a good fit with our emotional landscape – ’emotional reality.’

In this, the idea of ‘belonging’ is so haunting and interesting.

  1. Belonging before believing

First:I think I have seen men join our church men’s breakfast group just because they had an overwhelming desire to belong to it. They just wanted to be a part of it. The things we evangelicals worry about (belief, truth, discipleship) came along later.  This is not what our evangelical procedures lead us to expect.

(What’s supposed to happen, according to some orthodoxy that I have yet to find written down, is that people hear the good news that God loves them, put their faith in Jesus, and then sign up.

What actually seems to happen is that some people see something, want it, join it, and then figure out what ‘it’ is.  They are basically the only people who have joined our group over the years. )

2. Dying unwanted

Second: I think I have seen people  die because they don’t belong and nobody wants them, and they don’t seem to be any use any more. They just shut down. Earlier than they need to. Not belonging sets off a kind of self-destruct routine. One old colleague of mine, alone, no-longer needed at work, and not endowed with close friends or family, went into hospital with something not very serious, and just died. Interesting.

3. A root of crime

Third: I work a bit with young people involved in crime. Everyone knows these youth share a lot in common, for example: low educational achievement, poverty, broken homes, ADHD. But now I think about it, isolation, unwantedness, not belonging, is central to these kids’ experience. Nobody loves them. Some were chucked out of their mum’s home at age 16, no longer welcome. Others have lost the last stable person in their life, a grandad say, and fallen off the edge.

4. A source of healing

Fourth: when I was ill and at my most totally infirm and paralyzed, the fact I was loved and mattered to people was the most astonishing tonic. I belonged; I mended.

5. The state doesn’t offer ‘belonging’

Fifth, our country will, with a bit of duct tape, and on a good day, provide an abandoned 16-year-old with shelter, a little cash, some help with jobs and education, and free health care. It will do the same for mentally ill person or the old  (in fairness, the government also pays for initiatives like a day centre, such as the one our church runs).  But belonging to someone?  Mattering to someone? Much more complex.

Preliminary conclusion: not belonging/not being loved is more dangerous than the most aggressive cancer. Belonging is better for you than a superfood salad.

Love to hear comments. Sorry if all this is obvious to you.

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Price: £6.99 - - -

The need to unknow

Uncertainty and scepticism strengthen faith

The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs‘.

Bible paraphraser J B Philips wrote this in 1961. ‘While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.

He went on to describe the dangers of not letting your understanding of God grow along with everything else:

It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday School age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by great effort of will, he does this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.

(J B Philips Your God is Too Small, (Collier/Macmillan 1961) p 7).

Your God is too small

by J. B Phillips [The Epworth Press]
Price: £3.83 - - -

I found these references to J B Phillips in David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey’s enjoyable astronomical tour Star Struck (Zondervan 2016), p261.

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Futility is so last season

Jean-Paul Satre or Radiohead might not have the last word

To the Pond!‘Jesus lived as someone who knew something we don’t – that something of dramatic importance was about to happen, and he was bringing it about. And then he rose from the dead, kickstarted the new creation, and told his followers there was a job to do, a planet to heal, a Gospel to share, a world to save. Look what happened. Deadbeat fishermen became apostles. Tax collectors wrote books that are still bestsellers today. Broken, demonised women became the first witnesses of the new creation. Arrogant thugs turned into church planters. Jesus had taken on futility and won, so you don’t have to listen to Marcel Duchamp, or Jean-Paul Sartre, or Radiohead, or whoever is depressing you at the moment. Because of Jesus and resurrection, futility is very, very last season. Meaning is back.’

 

Andrew Wilson, quoted in Matthew Hosier’s Thinktheology blog Meaning Radiohead. Worryingly, I knew Matthew’s dad.

‘For I’m building a people of power’. Fail.

We may not be cut out for it

Look left, look rightFor I’m building a people of power, I”m making a people of praise, who will move through this land by my Spirit.

Now is the time for us to march across the land.

What were we thinking of in the 1980s? When did the church ‘marching across the land’ end well? What would it even look like, the clatter of zimmer frames, the trundle of wheelchairs, the clergy in nice jumpers, overweight people looking hot and wanting to sit down, the toddlers needing the toilet?

Surely ‘marching across the land’ is not how the Kingdom of God spreads. Here’s how the experts do it:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.1

 

‘Science’ and ‘religion’ were originally names for good personal habits

’Science’ was originally a name for virtue, or a good habit–like making your bed or not doing that thing with your nose in public.

According to the thoughtful book The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison, when thirteenth-century Doctor-of-the-Church Thomas Aquinas filtered newly-recovered Greek philosophy through a Christian net, — which was more or less what Aquinas did with his life — he came to understood ‘science’ as ‘working out conclusions from first principles.’ It was one of a trio of virtues: intellectus (grasping the first principles in the first place) scientia (deriving conclusions from them) and sapientia (coming to terms with the highest and ultimate cause, namely God.)

Good people possessed scientia. It was a fine habit. They were able to arrive at conclusions from principles and evidence, unswayed by prejudice, rage, timidity or Fox News (Vulpes Fabulae).

Religion –religio–was also a virtue. I am oversimplifying Peter Harrison’s careful historical inquiry here, but perhaps religio could be  ‘a disposition to worship the true God and live out a life of goodness.’ Insofar as this sense was true, it potentially transcended any one expression (Catholicism, say), by focussing on the timeless essence of the thing, namely the heart-to-God encounter that leads to a good life.

The opposite of religion could be ritual or idolatry–investing in spiritual scratchcards, as it were–or the equally empty pursuit of money, pleasure and stuff; or again the worship and pampering of Self; or even the slavish and fearful preoccupation with the Material Only.

Back in the early modern day, good people were defined by a kindly God-centred life and by applying logic to facts and arriving at conclusions. Scientia and Religio. Could perhaps do with a comeback.

 

Peter Harrison’s book is available on Kindle, and his first chapter, which arguably contains all the really good bits, is free to download.

The Territories of Science and Religion

by Peter Harrison [University of Chicago Press]
Price: £22.50 - - -

The Kingdom of God as the ‘sphere of God’s goodness’

I enjoyed this quote from Ken Costa

When Jesus came to earth, he proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand. The language of kingdoms can sound strange to us, in that it seems to signify territoriality. In the context of work, it may therefore be helpful to see the kingdom of God as “the sphere of God’s goodness” in the world. We are called to advance God’s kingdom, sharing the “sphere of goodness” and extending it as we operate with God’s values. Our actions at work have the potential to advance the kingdom of God and his “sphere of goodness,” or to hinder it–on both a macro and a micro level. Each time we tell the truth, make decisions fairly and with respect for others, or act with integrity, we are advancing this sphere, albeit in small ways.

Ken Costa, God at Work, p 16.