A man’s guide to a heavy cold

A handy to do list

Never mind that your wife earns more than you and your children have mastered the remote control. The tallest tree in the forest is shaking. It is an existential crisis. You must immediately put these guidelines into place.

  1. Your cold should be the sole topic of conversation. Nothing can be as important. It’s essential that you keep your loved ones up-to-date. Listlessness. Aches. Snot-rate. General mood. Likelihood of it going to your chest. They need to keep abreast. You are thinking only of them and trying either to ease their worries. Or of course, preparing them for the worst.  
  2. Your needs must come first. Again, you are only thinking of others. Of course someone must be sent to stock up on Lemsip; there are only a dozen sachets left.  Never mind that your wife was planning a nice roast chicken for this evening; a takeaway curry is essential. The curative effects of takeaways are well-known and it could make all the difference. How many Indians do you know with a heavy cold? Exactly.
  3. The recovery position. Many doctors, often the male ones, who will know, recommend slouching in front of the TV, in your dressing gown, with the sport on. Make sure you are surrounded by range of salty snacks with beer to hand. You don’t know whether nuts or nachos will set you on the road to wellness, and so you must be prepared. 
  4. Sex. This is very important. Wave aside your loved one’s anxiety–‘I thought you were ill!’. You are ill, very ill, but you are doing it for her. She needs cheering up probably, carrying the burden of care as she does. Even in the torrid depths of your suffering you are thinking of others. You are a true man. 
  5. You are allowed to express yourself through unrestrained bodily functions. Belching, breaking wind, smacking your lips together: these are signs of you cooperating with your body in its mighty struggle. They are not rude or disgusting. It is the triumph of Life over Death.
  6. Delusions. Your family may struggle with delusions such as can you please take out the recycling? Or could you mend my bike? This is their stress speaking and it is important to refuse, gently if possible but firmly. The wellbeing of the whole family is on a knife-edge. Do not weaken. 

Is it fun being an Angel?

Another in my series of Magazine Articles I Was Asked to Write

Here’s a piece I originally wrote for a Christmas issue of Impact Magazine in Singapore. OK, it isn’t Christmas yet but it’s all fast approaching. It did get me thinking about the angelic stuff we don’t read about.

Do they practice their songs? Who writes them? Can they all sing in tune?

When an angel is sent to find someone (Elijah in the desert, Mary in Nazareth), how do they find them? Do they ever get lost? In one of his books, Terry Pratchett has the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse stopping off for a drink on the way, and never leaving the bar. 

John Milton has them doing athletics in Hell (as I mention in the text)

So with such noble predecessors in this genre, here goes… 

 

All we really know about angels is what the Bible tells us, and the Bible doesn’t tell us very much.

Breakfast is served
One thing we never see, for example, is an angel making a mistake. Elijah is hungry, exhausted and depressed under a broom tree. Journeying (let us presume) from heaven, an angel locates the right country, the right desert, and even the right broom tree. Then he fills a jar of water, lights a fire, finds some flour and oil, bakes bread, and gives Elijah a gentle tap on the shoulder. The account in 1 Kings 19 doesn’t say whether he also coughs politely and says, ‘Room service’ or perhaps ‘Broom service’  but the care of the weary prophet could not be more tender. Angels are good at their jobs; the Bible doesn’t say how they learn the skills.

Or take the angel that slips into the prison where Peter is sleeping, bound, you remember, by two chains between two soldiers, in Acts 12. First he brings some light into the room. Then he gives Peter a poke, or possibly a kick. Presumably the angel has remembered to sedate the guards since it is hard to imagine the Apostle being woken without giving out a mighty snort or wondering loudly what is going on. The angel then looses the chains, helps Peter to dress, reminds him to take his cloak, dodges the sentries, and makes the iron prison door open all by itself. Peter emerges blinking in the moonlight. The angel leads him down a further street before vanishing. I can picture the Apostle Peter as one of these people who finds waking up a challenge. But eventually he realises what has happened, his head clears, and he sets off for the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, to bring an unexpected end to the church prayer meeting.

How do the angels do this?

Worship

Or take worship. Perhaps this is the main work of the angelic host. Angelic choirs celebrated the Creation: God in his answer to Job talks about the time when ‘the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy’ (Job 38:7). Angels celebrated the Incarnation, giving a bunch of shepherds and a flock or two of sheep the most extraordinary musical moments ever seen on earth (see Luke 2:9). And Revelation portrays angels helping bring about the birth of the new heavens and the new earth, rejoicing all the while. The beginning, the middle and the end of the world are all celebrated by major compositions and performances.

But we never know more than this. Who writes the music? Are there auditions for the best parts? Do these choral occasions require many weeks of practice, learning when exactly when to come in with the next ‘Worthy are you O Lord’? Do they play (as we perhaps assume) Western classical music, or is there room for R&B, Jazz, or garage or house?

Or take the complex and difficult issue of angels at war. In our age of rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, would angels still appear with drawn swords, as they did to Balaam and David? Who does the procurement for these weapons? Do the same suppliers also equip the bad angels?

The hobbies of bad angels

Perhaps the greatest writer to think about these questions was the seventeenth-century Puritan, John Milton, in his epic poem Paradise Lost (which you can read, with helpful notes, on the internet).

Most of Milton’s poem is about the bad angels, who, as many critics have observed, Milton seems to find more colourful than the good ones. In Book II, Satan heads off to try to precipitate the Fall of Man. The rest of the Satanic host occupy themselves in Hell until he gets back. Milton lists some of their hobbies while they wait:

• Hold an angelic Olympic games, ‘Upon the wing, or in swift Race’
• Practice the arts of war: ‘Armies rush/ To Battel in the Clouds’
• Form a singing group: ‘Others more milde / Retreated in a silent valley, sing / With notes Angelical to many a Harp’
• Argue about ‘Providence, Foreknowledge, Will and Fate,’ like students at a Bible college and (also like students at a Bible college) ‘found no end, in wandring Mazes lost.’
• Explore. Unfortunately, since it is Hell they are exploring, they only find,‘many a dark and drearie Vaile … and many a Region dolorous.’

The end of it

Enough speculation. It might be fun being an angel because of the occasional James-Bond-like assignment. It might be fun to be given a meal by some generously hospitable Christian who is unaware that his guests are angels at all (See Heb 13:2). It might be fun to compose some angelic music and have it performed in front of the Throne of God.

But what certainly is fun is hanging around God’s throne and Christ’s church. There’s all these people coming to Christ every day, each one causing rejoicing among the angels in heaven (see Luke 15:10). Hebrews 12 talks about ‘thousands of thousands of angels in joyful assembly,’ like a happy football crowd, hanging around the church.

And there’s worship of God himself. Some people wonder how worship can be all that enjoyable: some of us get tired of it after half an hour on earth. How will we feel after half a million years? How might it be for the angels?

Perhaps there are a couple of answers to this. First, surely for both people and angels, being in God’s presence isn’t only about giving out: we are nurtured and nourished by God’s presence like a tree in the sunshine. We don’t just worship God, we bask in him, feed on him, walk with him, enjoy his love. The glory of God is sunshine to the soul. Reptiles can spend large parts of the day having a good bask. Perhaps the angels do too.

Second, there’s variety. One of God’s promises to us, the church, is this:

… in the coming ages he … [will] show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:6-7)

Notice how it says ‘coming ages’, not ‘coming age’. The idea perhaps is age following age of seeing grace’s ‘incomparable riches’, fresh epochs, leading to fresh discoveries.

So we don’t know too much about how the angels operate. In truth, we know almost nothing. But seeing God at work in the church, as they do, and spending times wrapped up in the presence of God, as they surely are—it’s got to be fun.

 

And then I got really creative and created my own comic spiritual world which occasionally intersects with the Biblical one. Paradise is a free download, ideally like your first hit of a drug. Then you get to pay for the rest.

Fear and Healing

Above all, guard your heart…

I attended a lecture about disability and the role of the mind.  Fascinating. So important to (try to) tackle our fears. Here are a few quotes:

It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has

Hippocrates

Patients with the same illness or injury can have widely different perceptions of their condition and these perceptions can lead these same two patients down very different illness projections

Petrie K and Weinman J Clinical Medicine 2006;6:536-9

* The most powerful negative driver in all chronic conditions is fear

* Fear leads to avoidance of the activity/situation

*’Avoiders do not have different demographics, pain or medical history from other back sufferers but they do have a greater fear of pain & reinju

Waddell 1998

In plainer English, quite a lot of how you fare with a disease depends on the state of your heart. 

Here’s a book we were referred to — about back pain but with much wider applicability. Given the price, maybe ask a doctor friend to lend it to you!

Six uses of suffering

If you’ve got it, use it.

Lonely walk at night

When it comes your way, and if you can’t avoid it, you may as well use it. I did a recent talk and found one strategy for suffering and six uses.

Strategy

The strategy is simple, even cliched: use your suffering to get face to face with God. ‘In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God will guard your hearts.’1

Uses

As you keep doing that — same field, same labour — fruit follows:

  1. Joy and peace. Inexplicable, but a fruit of coming to God with thankfulness. Not that you are thankful for the suffering; you are thankful for the goodness of God in the midst of it.
  2. Character. So: suffering + taking it God =  peace. Repeat this many times and individual experiences of grace and peace accumulate into lines and traits in our soul. Character is shaped. Suffering doesn’t rock you like it did. Think seasoned timber — many storms and seasons have gone into it.
  3. A clean out. Urgency to deal with the pain can cause us to act. How much of this pain is my fault? What parts can I put right?  ‘Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?’2
  4. Know that your comforts will comfort others. As Paul wrote: ‘[God] comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in trouble.’ 3 People who’ve been through stuff can speak the same language as those who are going through stuff; no-one else can speak that language natively.
  5. Discover the secret of power in Christian service: weakness. Paul again: ‘I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight … in hardships … for when I am weak, then I am strong.’ 4 Popeye opens a can of spinach; we lay our pain before God with thanksgiving to him for his goodness. Same effect. 
  6. Exercise your hope muscles. There is honestly nothing like despair, nothing like the deepest night, for making you remember that day will come. ‘Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning … I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”‘5

On not taking risks

Horse Ploughing show.My friend Miriam Cowpland shared this gem from her own reading of  the devotional writer A W Tozer

In Tozer’s book ‘Paths to Power’ there is a chapter entitled ‘Miracles follow the Plough’. He contrasts two types of ground: fallow ground (fallow meaning ground which has been left for a period of time without being sown), and ground which has been broken up by the plough. The fallow field has chosen safety, security and contentment. But, says Tozer, at a terrible price. ‘Never does it see the miracle of growth; never does it feel the motions of mounting life nor see the wonders of bursting seed nor the beauty of ripening grain.’

In contrast the cultivated field has yielded itself to the ‘adventure of living’. ‘Peace has been shattered by the shouting farmer and the rattle of machinery: it has been upset, turned over, bruised and broken, but the rewards come hard upon its labours.’

I’m sure you can see the parallels which Tozer then goes on to draw with our lives: the fallow life that doesn’t want to be disturbed, that has stopped taking risks for the sake of fruitfulness, contrasted with the life that is marked by discontent (at fruitlessness), yearning for the work of God, willing to be bruised and broken so that seed can be planted.

Which kind of field am I? What kind of field are you?

Breaking up the fallow ground begins with seeking God. Prayer, deep longing crying out to the Lord for Him to work in us, in our teams, in our places of ministry – this is where it begins. Are we doing that?

Counting things to get to sleep

Just don’t do the sheep thing

Entre para por sobre con contra de desdeCounting sheep to get to sleep is one of those memes that should have been deleted from our collective consciousness years ago – along with other mother’s-knee nonsense like ‘a watched kettle never boils.’ (Have mothers’ knees not heard of the laws of thermodynamics?)

For those of us who spend many hours in bed but not asleep, there are many better things to do.

First, recognize insomnia is a gift, a free pass to get some extra mental stuff done while the rest of the world snores and snuffles to the grave. It is perhaps an unwanted gift, like singleness, but it is nevertheless a gift.

Insomnia is a gift, a free pass to get some extra mental stuff done while the rest of the world snores and snuffles to the grave.

Two, try to connect to God. I have found this such a help. It doesn’t matter if it’s a spotty connection, or if your mind wanders, or if you fall asleep in the attempt. God has seen us at our worst and it’s still OK.

I heard once of a very old lady who climbed into bed each night and started bringing up memories of all the people she’d loved or former friends who had already died. She remembered them with thanks to God, dozens or perhaps hundreds of them. Instead of feeling lonely I imagine she felt herself surrounded by a cloud of supporters who had loved her and gone ahead to eternity.

Or you can pray through the alphabet. Pray for something beginning with A. It doesn’t matter what – something. There’s only you and God there: you have fun together.  Pray for artichoke farmers. Or Australians. Or people who remind you of apes. Then move onto B. Or for an extra challenge, start with Z and work backwards. 

Insomnia’s a gift. Just don’t do the sheep thing.

Long read: a gospel worth believing

broken cupThis is a short extract from a longer article that got the original author into hot water.

I recommend it as a long read. 

Like hot water, it stings a bit but it’s really good once you’ve climbed in. Super article that (arguably) upsets all the right people. 

The gospel that infuses the body of Christ is about the restoration of broken relationships …Poverty is a broken relationship with God, with my neighbor, with the earth, and the broken places inside me.


Our task as the followers of the true healer is to help mend these fissures we find in life. Without this understanding we easily become purveyors of I’m here and you’re over there. The truth is that because I am broken, through my wounds I get to heal somebody else who also, in some strange way, begins to heal me as well. Jesus said that because of the injury and death he experienced, he could heal us. In humility we follow his lead and offer ourselves as his agents in sacrificial love.

Steve Haas

On not being famous

Or even successful

Contentment
Not my photo, nor my former dog, but I recognize the pose. Thanks to flattop341@flickr.com for this creative commons photo.

I see a clamour all around me; the need to justify our existence. The writer and playwright Alan Bennett captured it perfectly. He talked of one of his relatives who said this as they drove in the car:

‘Do you see that gasworks over there? That’s the second biggest gasworks in Europe. And I know the manager.’

Or I remember interviewing someone once, a salesperson,  I forget about what, but I noticed his office wall covered with meaningless plaques about his achievements. Sad that his company felt the need to trade in these things; sadder that he displayed them.

If you are a normal healthy adult it is of course good and necessary to be productive. One of the reasons people fear retirement is because all that valid affirmation of their identity is taken away, replaced with the three simple letters ‘OAP’. This is perhaps why, for example in places like the BBC, old people hang onto their jobs, long after the spark of talent that got them the job in the first place has turned to smoke.

I think it is an art and a skill to learn how to be content with whatever prestige or affirmation the world has dealt you. In my case, none. So worth learning though.  After living through days when I needed a mechanical hoist to drop me onto a toilet, I have to confess to frequent moments of upwelling delight in enjoying the simple things of life like family and friends and food and fellowship and worship; and as for using my own spark of talent, writing (in my own eyes at least) beautifully; and doing all this before and for God.

In my former life, before I was sick, I viewed the simple things merely as a platform to higher and greater achievements. Five years after serious illness, I return to this place and see it for the first time as the true location of happiness and worth.

Trusting in the slow work of God

Even when it’s annoying

I’ve several times had the experience where there’s been:

  • A good plan, to do a good thing
  • Lots of the pieces in place
  • Some missing piece, or some circumstance, that just slows everything down.

It doesn’t necessarily stop, this great project, but it barely crawls along. Snails overtake it. This isn’t what we bought into. Hope sags. I look at the vision ahead and the progress so far and do some rough calculations and realize I’ll have to move some of our milestones into the next century.

What is happening? So unprofessional. And if this is a Christian-inspired thing we’re trying to do, what is God doing? Doesn’t he care? If appearances are any guide, he is sitting on the hillside beside the lake while we are rowing into a gale. Couldn’t he, you know, lend a hand? Is that too much to ask of one who all-powerful and everywhere-present?

I only have two answers to this.

  1. God may have a different view of how important my contribution is,  and may therefore be relaxed about completing his work in the cosmos despite me paddling my canoe with no paddle provided.
  2. There’s a phrase in a dusty corner of the Old Testament concerning offerings to God: ‘handfuls of finely ground incense’ (Leviticus 16:12).

Entropy, miracles and the Kingdom of God

Messier 1 (M1), Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula, a stellar explosion, a little hard to put back into an ordered state. Photo: Robert Sullivan/ Hubble – creative commons @flickr.com

That brilliant and entertaining atheist Steven Pinker has defined ‘the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.’ 1

That might need a bit of explaining, not least to me. Entropy is, crudely, the measure of disorder in the universe. A low-entropy state is an ordered state; high entropy is a  disordered one. Because disorder is much more likely than order, disorder (high entropy) tends to be what everything leads to.

So you have a cold gas tank next to a hot gas tank. Open a valve between the two, and soon the temperatures of the two tanks will be the same. This is because there are many more ways for molecules to mix randomly than there are for all the hot molecules to be in one place and all the cold ones in another.  (This tendency for entropy to increase over time is the well known Second Law of Thermodynamics.)

Or consider all the molecules in your body. To get them all working together in some vast machine, called you, is hugely rare compared with all the possible way of arranging those molecules that do not result in a living you. This is one of the reasons we spend much, much longer being a corpse than we do being a living body; it’s just so much easier for all the molecules.

The only way to keep entropy low in this system– to keep your molecules in order — is to take energy from elsewhere, for example by eating a bag of french fries. So you can artificially maintain a local low-entropy state (your life and existence)  by adding energy from the outside (eating french fries).

A fridge works the same way. It keeps at a low temperature, compared with the rest of your kitchen, by taking energy from the grid and pumping heat out of the fridge into the kitchen. It’s a local low-entropy system. Your freezer compartment, more so. You and your fridge/freezer, therefore, thermodynamically speaking, are brother and sister.

Hence Pinker’s statement that the purpose of existence is to keep entropy locally as low as possible. So we feed babies, we heal sicknesses, we clean up mess, we order information pleasingly. Our whole life is about borrowing energy from elsewhere to keep our low-entropy show, otherwise known as human life and culture, on the road.

Because the Second Law always wins, this is a battle we must eventually lose — as individuals, as a species, as a planet, as a galaxy and maybe as a whole Universe.

Maybe.

Rereading the Kingdom of God in entropy terms, possibly.

Now we depart from Pinker.  Its interesting–at least to me– to re-read the Kingdom of God in terms of entropy.

When Jesus walked on earth, he clearly went round reducing entropy wherever he went: healing the blind, curing lepers, stilling storms (does that reduce entropy? I hope so), raising the dead and so on.

There are several  interesting thoughts that arise from this, none of which I am qualified to follow up.

  1. It is a mystery of physics why the Universe started in a low-entropy state. It is much more overwhelmingly likely (you would think not knowing any better) to start in a high entropy disordered state, if only because there are just so hugely many more disordered states out there than ordered ones. (Just like Tolstoy said: unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way; so many options.) Of course we don’t really know if some as-yet-unguessed physics made a low entropy beginning inevitable, but at the moment, it isn’t obvious. A low entropy beginning to the Universe is easy to explain theologically (though not cosmologically): God likes to start a new story on a fresh sheet of paper.
  2. Jesus evidently didn’t borrow energy from elsewhere when he went about decreasing entropy. At least we don’t read of it. He stills the storm in Galilee, but it didn’t get colder in Samaria. He feeds 5000, but not by sucking energy from elsewhere in the Universe, which is the kind of thing farmers do when they feed 5000 people – they take energy from the sun and grow crops. Jesus lowered entropy without borrowing energy from elsewhere
  3. That leads us to a thermodynamic definition of a miracle: ‘an inexplicable local lowering of entropy’. This kind of thing is impossible for us creatures, but is easy if you are God, who, it is claimed, created the whole show and holds it all up with the word of his power.
  4. Hence, the ability to decrease entropy without borrowing from elsewhere is a good thermodynamic definition of divinity.
  5. The new heavens and the new earth also seem not to be bound by the Second Law. Paul talks of a day when ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:21).
  6. So the final state of the Universe is a lower entropy state than now, not, as we would expect from the Second Law, a higher one. It is brought into order in Christ, not decaying into heat death. Paul talks  in Ephesians 1 about ‘ … when the times reach their fulfillment—[God brings] unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.’ (Ephesians 1:9-10)
  7. The Bible describes a universe starting in a low-entropy state and finishing in a low-entropy state, with all the business of the Second Law being merely a wrinkle in eternity due somehow to the rebellion of humans.
  8. This (maybe) helps us put miracles onto a more coherent footing. They are not merely  impulsive acts by a God whom (I like to think) occasionally lets his heart rule his head. They are the outliers of a low-entropy eternity breaking into our increasing-entropy, jumbled universe, the first rolling pebbles of the avalanche.
  9. See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears,a] we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. John 3:1-2 NIV.