‘Arm them against the gray impersonal powers’

The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown was helped out of his alcohol-soaked obscurity by the other famous twentieth-century Orkney poet Edwin Muir.

George Mackay Brown attended Newbattle Abbey College, south of Edinburgh, a college for mature students, while Muir was warden. Muir’s recognition and encouragement changed Brown’s life. After Muir’s death, Brown wrote a play about him and puts these words, concerning the students, in Muir’s mouth:

Never be hard on them. Never let them feel they’re wasting their time. My time as well. The whole treasury of literature is there for them to ransack. Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty. Arm them against the gray impersonal powers. They press in on every side. More and more.

George Mackay Brown in Richard Harries Haunted by Christ, SPCK 2019

‘Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty’ … an astonishingly uncommon sentiment today.

Slow mission and the arts

Wonderful wastefulness

We are made in the image of a creative God and our creativity can bring him glory.

The arts are also an asset in mission work:

The arts are personal – they are heart-to-heart. Artistic expression and response prevent the Christian faith being reduced to formulas, programmes, or clichés.

The arts are intimate. Our complex selves respond not just to facts or emotion, but also to the sense of beauty or ugliness. The creative arts add extra dimensions to a person’s encounter with God.

The arts are daily bread. Humans hunger for stories and beauty just as they hunger for bread or God. Christian arts can enlighten a dulled world, sustain Christians in trials, and spark hope in hopeless situations.

The arts seed further creativity. The best art stirs people to reflect and create fresh art. In this way Christian art reproduces itself and extends the interaction between the risen Christ and the human species.

The arts bind communities together. Collective sung worship, or aesthetically pleasing buildings or rituals, for example, can unite people in communal devotion to God. We know ourselves to be part of something
greater than our own individual faith.

The arts can find soft places in hard hearts. Among the multiple reasons that Jesus told stories was, first, because everyone enjoys a
story, and second, because a story can start someone on a journey towards God even when that person is not willing at that time to seek him.

The arts are ‘wasteful’. Art is not usually economically justified. Rather, like when an expensive bottle of pure nard (grown only in the Himalayas) was poured on Jesus, the arts are an expression of unfettered love.

I first wrote this as part of a 52-week world prayer guide which I have been working on through 2018 and 2019. You can find out more about this project, and sign up for the full blessing, at Lausanne.org/pray

What happens after Islamism

People get fed up of it

In some states of Nigeria, the northern ones, where around the turn of the century they declared shari’a law for Muslims in a dozen provinces a few years ago, they are cutting the numbers of religious police. In Kano province their budget has been cut by a third, and they no longer patrol the (‘Christian’-run) bars and betting shops, hauling off Muslims.

Economist, ‘Nigeria’s vice cops feel squeezed’, April 13 2019

In Saudi Arabia, controversial crown prince has greatly restricted the powers of the religious police, forcing them to work office hours only and only produce written reports rather than taking direct action. One newspaper reported in 2018, ‘many restaurants in Riyadh are now seen humming with music and mixed-gender crowds, a scene unimaginable until two years ago.’

https://www.straitstimes.com/world/middle-east/saudi-religious-polices-decline-under-spotlight[

In Egypt, the Economistreported in Nov 2017, how a young puritanical preacher in the town of Mansoura used to have a congregation that overflowed the mosque into the nearby street (and that was not unusual). ‘Now he barely half-fills the mosque,’ and complains, ‘we’re in decline.’ This, according to the newspaper, ‘is true in many places in the Arab World’.

The joy of ticking boxes

and outsourcing thought

My maths teacher wife tells me her kids hate nothing more than thinking. She gets protests: ‘Miss, my brain’s going to boil over’, for example. ‘Miss, this is child cruelty, making us think.’

What kids really like, she goes on, is working through a page of exercises and getting a page of ticks for everything they got right. Tick (check) tick tick. Wonderful.

The preference for ticking (checking) boxes instead of thinking obviously starts early and perhaps never leaves us.

As many of us remember, a few years ago the UK parliament, (then in normal times) had an expenses scandal. Some politicians 1, it turned out, had been drinking from a tax-payers’ fountain like camels just returning from the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. Very few had broken the law. They had cleared the expenses with the parliamentary authorities. What they had actually done was outsourced their thinking and replaced it with ticking boxes. It wasn’t breaking the rules to get your moat cleaned, or your birdboxes nailed up, or a new kitchen, so, whoopie do. It must be OK.

Fortunately, another much-loved set of people in our society, the journalists, did their thinking for them. It may have ticked the boxes, they pointed out, but was it right? You are the highest court in land – what were doing, outsourcing your integrity?

Politicians are just like us, only blow-up versions of us, so we must do this kind of thing ourselves all the time.

The hidden plague

loneliness

lonely

Fascinating article in about a great source of un-wellness in our society1: loneliness. 

‘In Britain 7.7m people live alone … Seventeen million adults in Britain are unattached. More than 1m older people feel lonely all or most of the time, and most of them do not feel able to admit their loneliness to family and friends. Loneliness is one of the chief reasons people contact the Samaritans, though often callers find it hard to admit it. “People who call us sometimes feel that loneliness is not a good enough reason for calling,” says Nick, a long-term Samaritans volunteer. “They feel ashamed or embarrassed, as though feeling lonely isn’t something serious.” Three out of four GPs say they see between one and five lonely people a day; only 13% feel equipped to help them, even though loneliness has a detrimental effect on health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Only 22% of us have never felt lonely.’

‘In the autumn last year, the body of 68-year-old Marie Conlon was found in her flat at Larkspur Rise in Belfast. She had been dead for nearly three years. In a statement, her family said they were “shocked and heartbroken” at the death of the “beloved sister”. Call be cruel, but how beloved could she have been if they hadn’t seen or spoken to her since the beginning of 2015? I popped into my local funeral directors to learn how often they were presented with bodies which had lain along in flats until they began to decompose. The lady in charge that day was wary of my questions, and made me promise not to give her name. But yes, she said, this happens quite regularly–bodies lie undiscovered until neighbours complain of a smell.’

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.

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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?