How we need infinity to make the sums come out right

Life seemed so simple

Our local flock of free-range turkeys have left the farm for their one-way trip to the dinner table.

It will come as a shock to them. Perhaps they thought they’d understood life well, with its regular rhythms of sleeping, running about, gobbling and eating.

Their mistake was that they didn’t know they were created by and for someone, namely the Christmas consumer. Perhaps, for the turkeys, this was a good thing.

It’s not a good thing for us, though, and I think this is where the purely material life falls over. All may seem fine. But then something big intrudes: love, death, the quest for meaning.

I’ve seen this too many times, thriving, self-sufficient people laid low. What worked for them everyday, the life they’d figured out, suddenly didn’t work any more. They’d missed the truth that they were made by and for someone. They didn’t include God or eternity in their calculations; they found they were were talking turkey all along.

When physicists get out the duct tape

Mathematical fumblings behind the campus bikeshed

IMG_3071The great physicist Roger Penrose has written:

‘…The standard model is clearly not the “ultimate answer”, with regard to particle physics, because it contains many unexplained features and “ragged edges”, despite its undoubted success. It involves about 17 unexplained parameters that simply need to be taken from observation.’ 1

Then he talks about quantum field theory and the frequent need to ‘renormalize’ equations. ‘Renormalizing’ means, for example, when the maths yields an infinite negative mass or an infinite negative charge, arbitrarily to add infinite mass or infinite charge so that the problem goes away and you get values that meet experiments. Or to put it another way, the ‘twin criteria of agreement with observation’ and ‘mathematical consistency’ are ‘incompletely fufilled’ (p665) and ‘there is no accepted way of obtaining finite answers without such an “infinite rescaling” procedure applied not necessarily only to charge, or to mass, but to other quantities also’ (p678).

Physicists, possibly, can get away with much in the murky cellars of mathematics because the rest of us are ill-equipped to go down and supervise.

“What are you doing down there?’ we call.

‘Oh, I’m just renormalizing,’ they reply, amid the clink of bottles.

Those of us who are not unsupervised quantum physicists still live under tiresome restrictions: at GCSE, we can’t arbitrarily add numbers to make our equations come out right. In the bank, we find opposition to us renormalizing our overdrafts by suggesing the bank adds an infinite amount of positive-but-theoretical money. So tiresome!

Yet this is not to throw stones at physicists, who in my view have by their mathematical fluency made much more progress on paradoxical issues than (say) theologians (who are usually just restricted to human languages).

But it is to say that physics isn’t quite the purring engine, not quite the lonely pinnacle of rarefied human thought, that we might like to think.

And so, for example, when New Atheists claim that Quantum Field Theory and its like does away with the need for a Creator, since everything just pops spontaneously out of a quantum vacuum, we should remember these arguments are held together, at a fundamental level, by duct tape.

Quotes are from Roger Penrose’s magnificent The Road to Reality, which has sadly reminded me what three years of undergraduate study proved: in physics, I can hum the tunes but can’t do the lyrics.

Prayer as resonance

wavesHere’s how prayer works. The overflow from God’s heart spills over into our hearts. The overflow of our hearts pours into his. We are entangled together, God and us, like two quantum particles. What stirs one, stirs the other.

When many people are moved to pray, some great wave of desire is stirring in God’s heart and flowing into many of us.

Or alternatively, something mighty maybe stirring in many hearts and slopping over to God’s heart.

Back and forth the waves flow.

When two or three agree together in prayer it will be done for them. Why? because the act of tuning your hearts so that they resonate together before God necessarily tunes them together into God’s own frequencies.

This has practical uses.

So much of prayer, surely, is scrambling around trying to find out what to believe in for today. Where in the buffeting of desire or longing or fear is the place we can anchor our souls for the day? Tomorrow is another day. But today’s calm place is what resonates with God today and where he wants to lead us today. 

‘Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens’ – discuss

There must be more than this

Our beautiful, warless world, where I could be entranced by the purest mathematics for all eternity.

Any human who arrive here, gazing at our violet landscapes, might well have believed they have entered Heaven.

But what happened in Heaven?

‘What did you do there?’

After a while, didn’t you crave flaws? Love and lust and misunderstandings, and maybe even a little violence to lighten things up? Didn’t light need shade? Didn’t it?’ Matt Haig, The Humans p174

I like that.

I found Matt Haig’s happy book The Humans (about an alien who takes the body of a maths lecturer to stop human progress)  irresistable. Not least because like some other books I know, namely my

own, it is set in Cambridge and also in some complete other world.

He uses the alien-being-human trope to explore fun, slanted views on human life, well worth a read. Here’s another:

They have no way of coming to terms with what are, biologically, the two most important things that happen to them –procreation and death … They have lived on this planet for over a hundred thousand generations and yet they still have no idea about who they really are or how they should really live. (p248)

The Humans

by Matt Haig [Canongate Books Ltd]
Price: £6.29 - - -

Mathematical proof of the looming shortage of church treasurers

You read it here first

Trumpeting angelIt’s simple really. Look at these global figures 1

Annual rate of growth of Christians: 1.8% (roughly the same as population growth)

Annual rate of growth of worship centres: 2.4% (mostly because of the continuing rise of independent churches)

Every year, therefore, the number of worship centres increases faster than the number of Christians does. And–to a first approximation–every worship centre is an accounting unit. Each one needs a treasurer. So the demand for church treasurers is rising at 2.4% p.a. while the supply of church treasurers is only growing at 1.8% p.a.

This is what we journalists like to call a Looming Shortage. Don’t say I didn’t sound the trumpet.

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.

London: Pubs closing, churches opening

It’s not a fight but it’s interesting

Wine and beerSince 2001, London has lost 1200 of its 5000 pubs and gained perhaps 1500 new churches.

Pubs: The Economist 1 reports a decline from 4,835 pubs in 2001 to 3,615 in 2016.

Churches: as for churches, Peter Brierley’s London Church Census, the last detailed analysis of London church growth I am aware of, measured 1000 churches opening and 300 closing in the period 2005-2012, a net gain of 100 churches per year; two a week.  More than 700,000 Londoners were in church on a typical Sunday in 2012 compared with 600,000 in 2005. Extrapolating roughly, it’s likely that since the turn of the century, the growth of churches in the capital has at least matched the decline of pubs.

Of course, pubs and churches are not particularly in competition with each other or serving exactly the same clients.  Perhaps the real competition is between getting people to meet together compared with staying home in front of ever more high definition screens.

But I’m more interested in how the facts depart from the “facts”, that “everyone knows” – which are that London’s pubs are teeming, while London’s churches become ever more irrelevant.

 

Happy failure

The value of oops and downs

oopsWith the start of a new academic year looming, this is one my better subjects: failure. The kind of failure I’m thinking of is not some kind of accidental slip-up, a bit of inattention.

I mean the failure that comes despite careful planning and good counsel and, if you’re a Christian, diligent prayer. Despite your best efforts, it didn’t work out. However you spin it, it didn’t succeed.

Here are notes I made while reflecting on my failures and disappointments:

  1. We are in process with God, his ways are not ways, and ‘failure’ and ‘success’ look different to him than they do to us.
  2. Failure is a normal part of life.
  3. It is a false spirituality to think that we are immune from failure, and so must re-define it as success.
  4. There are puzzles in this Universe we will never solve.
  5. It’s good to be reminded to put our motivation and trust in God, not in our own success or our own selves.
  6. God’s presence, in the midst of failure or while pursuing an ultimately failed attempt, is an enduring sign of his favour. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.’
  7. There’s a freedom and joy that comes from belonging to the community of the failed, the got-it-wrong.

When God breaks your stuff

To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart…

(Broken...I was pleased to receive this thoughtful story for the blog.)

‘I was such a good missionary. I had given up so much. Surely God would respect that. Right?’

A cross-cultural worker writes of her experience of paring down her worldly goods ready for a simple life among people much poorer than herself, and then finding that within her first 12 months the precious things she had taken from home were mostly broken or damaged by visitors to her home.

She describes her pain and anger with God, followed by brokenness at the recognition of her resentment; the resulting surrender to God and the realisation ‘that people are always more important than things. Always.’

The title grabbed my attention because I too have pondered over similar issues. Not that I have lost crockery or ornaments. Having never been much attached to goods and chattels, I would have difficulty filling two plastic barrels, let alone the 20 that this lady writes of! But that doesn’t mean that other things don’t become precious to me…

Looking back over more than 35 years in mission I have thrown myself into my work, seeking always to honour God, to build up and encourage others. By and large I have enjoyed the ministries God has led me into. These have been for the most part low-profile, with the occasional up-front speaking engagement. I have long recognised God-given leadership gifts and have often been aware of my own insecurities in this role. At the same time, aspirations and ambitions have at times risen to the surface and have had to be laid before God. In asking Him to ‘rank me with whom You will,’ I have frequently been surprised at where He has taken me.

The vision fades

For me, the breaking has come in a different way. I look back over two periods of my life when as part of a leadership team I have given of my best, often going beyond the call of duty, to get a team to the ‘performing’ stage.

In the first case, decisions began to be taken that unwound the changes we had led. Had we failed to communicate the new vision adequately? Or had people simply gone along with it at the time for the sake of peace? Slowly we watched the ministry drift, lose personnel, and forget the original vision.

In the second instance, I stepped down and the new leadership team that took over proved to be overstretched with other responsibilities. That led to dissatisfaction and drift and eventually new leaders were appointed. But they proved to be an unhappy choice, failing to gain the support of the staff.

To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart is painful – doubly so when it happens the second time! As a former leader I felt I couldn’t interfere. There were days when I had to work hard to avoid adding my comments to the critical voices around me (to my shame I have to say, not always successfully.) As I struggled with my feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment at those who appear to be making poor decisions and ultimately at God Himself for allowing this to happen, I could only watch and pray and ponder…

Did I as a leader miss something significant? Where did I/ we go wrong? Could I have done more to prevent things falling apart? Have other parties been at fault? (Don’t we all want to place the blame at someone else’s door?) This was my life’s work – what is there to show for it? Have I wasted my days building a house of hay and straw, only for it all to come tumbling down? And then, of course, the big question: Where is God in all of this?

The God Question has been the easiest to answer. Over and over again He continues to reveal His love and His grace. He is the unchanging One and in those ongoing revelations of grace I have been reminded that God is loving and kind and altogether on my side! He tests the motives of our hearts and takes us through the refining fire. It is after all His work, not mine, and who am I to argue with Him? It is He who permits ‘men to ride over our heads’. As time has gone on Psalm 66:10-12 has enabled me to put things in perspective. I can only conclude that God has been there all along and continues to work out His purposes, even when the walls come tumbling down.

At the end of the day He will be glorified.

The same psalm speaks of God bringing us to ‘a place of abundance.’ This too is part of my story. Not only have I discovered afresh the love and faithfulness of a Heavenly Father, but I am surrounded these days by people who are choosing to follow Jesus. Playing a small part in their discipleship and practical support is an incredible privilege, with its own joys and sorrows. Through difficult days God has indeed brought me to a place of abundance.

‘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