Keep a pencil handy

Because eternity’s at your shoulder

lined paper

Today someone, armed just with a pencil and paper could make something that will last forever.

It might be a pencil sketch, or a melody, or a novel, or a theorem.

As long as there are people, that picture or song or story or insight will live on. Even if humans are out-evolved by (let us say) intelligent machines, they may be wise enough still to treasure these divine relics.

And our art may add to the furniture in an eternal age to come. The Bible’s Book of Revelation says ‘The glory and honour of the nations’ will be carried into City of God (Rev 21:26).

Once there was a time when Picasso had not sketched a dove, when Handel had not written the Hallelujah chorus, when no-one knew the magical relation between e, i, pi, 1 and zero, when no-one had ever written a gospel or a sonnet.

Today or tomorrow some art will be created that will loved for a thousand or ten thousand years.

Two thoughts

Two obvious thoughts flow:

  1. How can anyone believe we are not made in the image of God? That we are not his sketches, melodies, novels, theorems? That he didn’t create us to create this stuff to celebrate his glory of which he contained too much to keep to himself?
  2. Buy a pencil-sharpener.

 

My favourite slow mission habit of them all

Do stuff you love, with friends.

Group hugs

Nothing comes close to this, in my experience:

  1. Get a group together doing something you all love.
  2. Mix together people who have a faith with people who don’t.
  3. Er – that’s it.

I’ve seen this so many times.

  • My wife ran a youth group for 15 years. We did youthy things on Sunday nights, and on Mondays all had a meal together and a Bible study. We used to take them camping as well. We saw several generations of young people grow in faith (and some not) over the years.
  • Our church organizes a men’s walking weekend each year, coupled with a monthly breakfast meeting that involves bacon sandwiches. We do curries and film nights too. Quite a few guys have been scooped up by this over the years.
  • I go to a community choir in our village organized by the local Baptist church. Several people, thus exposed to Baptist threshing machinery, have also now joined the church.
  • I used to be part of a book club, a place for some fantastic discussions.
  • We have a board games evening every month, people of varying orientation and faith all geeking together and enjoying each other’s company.
  • Once I organized a bird-watching event at 5:00am one May morning. I put it in our parish magazine. In the more than 10 years I edited that magazine, it was the only thing we advertised where the resulting crowd actually blocked the road. At 5 am! (Actually this was a one-off and did not result in a group, but perhaps it should’ve.)

Slow mission in a nutshell.

Healing the slow way (2)

When it’s curtains for you, pull yourself together

157/365 On the Mend 060609I find it helpful to start at the end.

If ‘healing’ postpones your final dismantling by a few months or decades, it’s good, but it’s not that good.

Of course it is good: if someone dies aged 5 or 15 or 25, we feel very differently than if they’re tipped out of the wheelbarrow at 65 or 85 or 105. Putting back the evil day is an extremely good thing.

I prefer to think, though, that the real blessing of getting physically healed (especially, nearly dying and getting a let off) is what you go on to think and do. If you think wonderful, I’m back to my indestructible self, that’s the wrong lesson.

The right lesson is that now you’ve been awakened to the reality of your upcoming mortality, you can do something about it.

Like:

  • Say everything good that needs saying to your loved ones
  • Make peace with your enemies
  • Get your affairs in order
  • Sort out the God-and-eternity business in your head and your soul
  • Gratefully relish each ‘bright blessed day’, and ‘dark sacred night’.

Do that, and you can walk hereafter with a lovely light tread on the earth, enjoying it absolutely more than ever and determinedly not getting your feet stuck in muddy glops of anger, fury, malice, bitterness, vengefulness or cynicism.

 

10 reasons to eat the forbidden fruit

Why you should do what marketing people tell you

mangoThe Bible is light on detail about the conversation between Eve and the Serpent over the forbidden fruit. Happily I’ve been able to obtain further details of the Serpent’s offer.

  1. The forbidden fruit is 100% natural and organic with no artificial flavouring, colouring or preservatives.
  2. It’s locally sourced and picked fresh.
  3. It’s one of your five-a-day.
  4. It’s made for sharing.
  5. This is a strictly limited, once-in-a-lifetime offer. Other animals in the Garden of Eden could take it away at any time. Hurry!
  6. You deserve the best.
  7. Imagine the look on your husband’s face when you present him with this precious gift.
  8. It’s absolutely free (terms and conditions apply).
  9. If you are not completely satisfied you may return the forbidden fruit at any time. The knowledge of Good and Evil will be yours to keep whatever you decide.
  10. Take back control of your life!

In praise of dogged

We all know people like this: unfailingly courteous. Hard-working. Persistently kind. Steady. Thorough. They are like pillars who hold up the organizations we work in.

Somewhere else in the building is the rodent scurrying of chatter, gossip, five-year-plans, radical upheaval, ambition, people making their mark, all passing by with the lifespan of hamsters while the pillars go on holding up the roof.

Our labrador Mabel, who died recently after 14 wonderfully dogged years just being a dog.

(I saw a quote: ‘Reform! Reform! Aren’t things bad enough already?’)

The odd thing about the steady people is that they don’t feel they’ve achieved anything. All they did was go to work, raise their families, pay their bills; nothing spectacular or charismatic or epoch-making or history-shaping or world-changing.

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. George Elliot, Middlemarch (with which the book ends).

Towards making peace in the culture wars

doveSome interesting facts1:

  1. 56m abortions each year on earth, one in four pregnancies.
  2. Moral instruction or legal hassle doesn’t work. Countries where abortion is against the law don’t lead the league tables for the fewest abortions. Surprise, surprise, the law is good for making us know our guilt; not good at making us good.
  3. Free access to contraception and advice helps a bit. That may be why the UK’s rate is one in five pregnancies, not one in four. It could be made better all over the world. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers could congregate in that space and work together to improve our societies.
  4. Killing our unborn is (surely obviously) a symptom, not a problem,  and the problem is that we’re all broken, and the solution is meeting the kindness of God.

The (second) greatest story ever told

A Christmas CarolI only re-read one book every year (apart from the Bible). I have an audio version of A Christmas Carol and I listen to it every Christmas season without fail. It’s huge fun and it’s about repentance.  What more could you want?

It’s also interesting for two other reasons:

  1. It’s nearly perfect. For me A Christmas Carol is the textbook for popular storytelling. Everything opened up at the beginning is resolved at the end. Everything is vivid and passionate. The dramatic tension never stops, building like a symphony through scene after perfect scene to the final explosion and the shattering and remaking of Scrooge.
  2. It shows how a novelist can change culture. All of us in the West draw on this text when we think about Christmas. Dickens edited the world by scribbling stories. He’s a reminder of why people should write; in a story-dominated world, culture is jerked and pulled across the stage by the story-tellers. If you want Christmas to be about something other than snow and the wretched jingle of sleighbells-something like a gleeful, subversive transformation of an old sinner–write a book.

My novel Paradise isn’t about Christmas. But it is subversive and is supposed to be funny.  A recent Amazon review from someone who described herself as an “extremely liberal atheist” was kind enough to say “Truly excellent! … I can’t wait to read his next work.” Which was nice. Courtesy of internet bookshops, I’ve been able to make Paradise a free download. Happy Christmas.

 

O come, O come, Emmanuel

Recently I spent two weeks reading through 900 pages of the prayer handbook Operation World. (I was preparing the text for conversion to a phone app: exciting project.)

Operation World is basically the most gigantic prayer list every compiled. Prayer points are suggested for each country and there are thousands of them.

Reading Operation World over just a few days is an exhausting experience. So much need. So many places and points for prayer.

Many countries and peoples are still owed the gospel, and we in the church have been slow coming up with the goods.

A few countries, have, if anything been punched drunk by repeated visits of short-term missionary teams; not exactly over-evangelized but at a certain level exploited.

Corruption, power seeking, divisions? Apathy, defeat, retreat? Immorality? Idolatry? Take your pick. It seems to be everywhere. Everywhere needs good teaching, disciples being formed, the Spirit stirring. Everywhere needs leadership training and student work and children’s work.

It’s exhausting.

How to make sense of it, this spraying, kicking hosepipe of need? I was puzzling over this when I remembered the prayer at the very end of the Bible, which is also perhaps the simplest prayer in the Bible.

Come, Lord Jesus. Into every situation. Into every heart. One day, in power to usher in a new world. O come, O come, Emmanuel.

(This title is an edited and occasionally updated version of the 2010 version, with about 600 fewer pages, which–full disclosure–I helped edit.)

On following the money

Channel your inner Yorkshireman. You know it’s good for you

UntitledMy late accountant friend, a fine Christian, used to work out the health of things by ‘following the money’. It sounded a bit mercenery to me, but I’ve come round to liking it a lot for its diagnostic power.

If the money isn’t working, your vocation, ministry, organization is not in good health. (Discuss.)

Last night I went through in my head the stories of several friends who followed a Christian vocation or a business idea and just couldn’t make the money work. They tried for a long time. Often, others told them it wasn’t going to work. All suffered quite a bit. In the end each had to give up and do something else. I’m not saying they were wrong to try, but the subsequent let-down wasn’t painless.

Interestingly, of all them changed direction and got jobs that paid and that were also a toned-down version of their original dream. They found a middle way that included earning a living as well as being fruitful and happy.

Our men’s breakfast group at church was looking at this the other week, and we were surprised how emphatically the Bible came down on the side of common sense — channelling, as it were, its inner Yorkshireman. Follow your dreams by all means, but first make the money work.

This is difficult!  In pursuit of vocation, dream, calling, or business idea, many of us have to face opposition, shortage, severe financial hardship. So how do you know if your current-financial-hardship-in-pursuit-of-dream is

(a) a merely necessary stage in your eventual success or

(b) a sign from God that you have located the wrong tree. (Good effort for barking up it but, wrong tree.)

Some common sense surely helps here. Living an indebted life isn’t good. Failing to look after your family definitely isn’t good. And finally and definitively running out of money is sometimes a great mercy.

How to give to charity (1)

The fundraising industry and charities can become co-dependent

moneyA while ago I looked at  an American site called Charity Navigator.1 A charity itself,  it looks at the financial efficiency, governance and transparency of charities in the USA, providing a star rating and all kinds of information. What a good idea. It highlights total clunkers. For example, the Cancer Survivors’ Fund which spends just 8.1% of its income on its programs; 89.2% on its fundraising. It must be congratulated on giving professional fundraisers a new purpose and meaning in life.

However, try the ’10 best charities everyone has heard of’ list and take a bow, Samaritan’s Purse.  Samaritan’s Purse puts 88% of every dollar it receives into its charitable programs. (Though it still manages to pay Franklin Graham a to my mind eye-popping annual salary of $443,000. Compassion International’s CEO Santiago H Mellado scrapes by on $130,000 less. Compassion turns over half as much again as Samaritan’s Purse ($0.8bn compared with $0.5bn) and hands over 83% of its income to the poor.)

Others are still good but not quite so good: Oxfam America burns through nearly 14% of its income in fundraising and pays its CEO nearly  half a million dollars a year. Its turnover is a mere $90m.

A very few charities– fewer than 1%–get perfect scores on Charity Navigator for their financial policies and their accountability, openness and integrity. Most are small. In the evangelical missions space, just one manages it: step forward The Outreach Foundation which ‘seeks to engage Presbyterians in Christ-centered evangelistic mission for the salvation of humankind.’ Expect Presbyterians to be good with with accountancy and souls.

Here in the UK I know of no similar charity. Does anyone? Instead, we are assailed by various groups in various ways with no very easy way to figure out whether we are dealing with the gruesome UK equivalent of the Cancer Survivor’s Fund or the more uplifting examples like Samaritan’s Purse or The Outreach Foundation.