Imagine rowing a boat on your own across a lake. The fears and joys are yours alone.
We are always alone. People may sit by our fireplaces–as it were–over many wonderful evenings and years. They may hug us and hold us, accepting each other as completely as two humans can.
But no-one knows us quite fully or quite truthfully. There are always veils. We are not entirely as we present ourselves, even to those we love the most.
Thanks to faith in Christ, though, I’ve discovered I’m never alone.
When I’m rowing alone across a lake, also known as living, Christ knows with me all the terror and the joy. Other loves may kindly watch, from the shore or other boats. Other loves may cheer and blow kisses. But he knows it all and we share it together.
A biologist friend of mine, a Christian, was telling me that what he saw through his microscope was … well … a bit ramshackle. It was a challenge, he said, to the idea of a Creator.
You would think a Creator would do something altogether more slick and wonderful. And of course, many biologists peer down their microscopes and do see shades of the beautiful and even the elegant. Perhaps biology is both wonderful … and a bit Heath-Robinson.
My friend and I were talking in our local Anglican church. And when I think of the words “bodged together” and “still a bit wonderful” the words “Church of England” follow quite naturally. The C of E did not spring, intricate, interlocking, gently humming with purpose, from its Maker’s hand, like an expensive watch. Nor, it appears, did Life.
We serve the God of cuckoo clocks.
Here’s my comic novel Paradise, which takes the themes of “redemption” and “ramshackle” to new heights, or possibly, depths. Free on Kindle as a gateway drug to the next ones in the series.
Channel your inner Yorkshireman. You know it’s good for you
My 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.
I am reading a book whose title I just couldn’t resist: Chasing Slow by the blogger and interiors-stylist Erin Loechner. It’s gorgeously designed book and often beautifully written and due to be released in February. (I’m seeing an advanced review copy.) At one point she writes something like this:
What I said:
I hate my job
I hate Los Angeles
I hate this house
What I meant:
Are we going to be OK here?
I quoted this to my wife and we had the following conversation:
Me: How is anybody supposed to understand that?
Cordelia: How can anybody not understand that?
Me: If she’s worried about whether or not they’re going to be OK, wouldn’t it be better to say something like, I don’t know, just to pluck a random example out of the air, ‘Are we going to be OK?’ I mean, wouldn’t that be a bit clearer?
Me: (continued, expanding on the theme as, on rare occasions, I have been known to do) Her poor husband is probably already scanning the jobs pages, or the house listings. On the grounds that she’s just said she hates her current ones.
Cordelia (sighing) : Because it’s a kind of dance.
Me: What is?
I’ve been married for 27 years. I’m never going to get this.
Netflix’s software engineers put into Netflix a program called the ‘chaos monkey.’ Its job is to go through Netflix’s servers, randomly wreaking havoc.
Why do they do this? Because they wanted to be ‘constantly testing our ability to succeed despite failure.‘ Chaos monkey taught them to build programmes that continue to work with bad stuff happening all around. The random, mindless destructivity leads to better systems.
As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.
Evil is God’s chaos monkey, and the world is better for it.
This is the best time of year to experience ‘Peak Bookshop’. All the titles for Christmas shopping will be in. (Or should be.)
Sort your way past the:
Celebrity puff pieces
Old horses being flogged (regular bestsellers hatching another well-timed Christmas hardback)
… and find the stuff that makes bookshops great. That makes bookshops still great despite being gutted and filleted by Amazon: a curated collection of original, brilliant, beyond-our-experience insight. Storytelling round a global campfire. Human minds on sale, packaged for easy consumption. The best thinking, expressed in the best ways, all ready for us to engage with, dream with, laugh with, lose ourselves in, ponder, be shaped by.
The only way we can know about God is if he tells us. We can’t leave the Universe, look at him, and come back, because we remain part of the Universe. Where we go, it goes. But God is outside the Universe.
So we won’t know anything about God without a revelation from God.
That means listening to someone who thinks they have a revelation from God.
And that is, as I said in the title, like offering our email addresses to spammers. The world is full of people who think God is speaking to them. A lot of them are kooks.
What do we do?
As I wrote in my book More than Bananas, I think the only tool in our box is our total human response. So this must involve:
What the community around us thinks
What the community who believe in revelation is like
A certain element of risk
(Note: More than Bananas is currently available as a free download as a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to my other writing.)
The people I know who are outside of the Christian faith would not respond too well to Bible verses like this:
But you were once darkness — now you are light in the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8)
I see their point. I would rather call my neighbours and colleagues funny, courageous, kind, hospitable, warm-hearted. And so on. Rather than, you know, ‘darkness.’
Of course the Apostle Paul (for it is he) is writing at this point not to outsiders to the faith, but to insiders, and surely he is encouraging them in their self doubt, and reminding them of God’s kindness. He uses a different language when he is stirring people to follow Christ in the first place.
But it raises the question: what are we actually talking about here? Is faith a thing? Or is it just a religious rebranding of an unchanged heart?
I think it’s a bit like re-purposing a good, old, disused building or taking on a neglected allotment (an allotment in the UK is a patch of land that you can rent cheaply to grow vegetables). An old allotment actually may contain all kinds of treasures, fruit trees, brambles, an asparagus patch. But it is overgrown.
A new owner comes. The bindweed and the ground elder don’t vanish overnight. Both before the change and afterwards, the allotment is a mix of good crop and weeds. But after the new owner comes, it has new direction, new planting, new purpose, intentional ground clearing, a new direction and a new destiny. And it’s still easily neglected, plagued with slugs, not necessarily all that fruitful.
What came before wasn’t worthless. It contained real treasure. Yet the upheaval and change is real too. Darkness and light.
/Around 2008 an atheist SF writer named John C Wright prayed this:
Dear God. There is no logical way you could possibly exist, and even if you appeared before me in the flesh, I would call it an hallucination. So I can think of no possible way, no matter what the evidence and no matter how clear it was, that you could prove your existence to me. But the Christians claim you are benevolent, and that my failure to believe in you inevitably will damn me. If, as they claim, you care whether or not I am damned, and if, as they claim, you are all wise and all powerful, you can prove to me that you exist even though I am confident such a thing is logically impossible. Thanking you in advance for your cooperation in this matter, John C. Wright.”
The collapse of civilisation is, on current evidence, greatly exaggerated.
In the UK, teenagers are sobering up, youth courts are closing, fewer children are getting pregnant, crime is falling. Establishment hypocrisy and bullying (some of it ascribed to the church) is being exposed. Casual racism and discrimination are being challenged and people who were formerly above the law now seem to be being thrown in jail. And unlike my dad or my grandad, neither my son nor I have been obliged to serve the country as a soldier and, like them be shot at, shelled or gassed.
It may not last. But across the world (hard though it may be to believe), a smaller proportion of humanity is being killed by conflict, childbirth, childhood diseases, or mosquitos than in any human memory, living or collective.
An inconvenient grace
This is awkward in some church circles, especially in Europe and the West, where a story of national decline is as familiar as the story of Noah’s Ark:
Fewer people have a Christian outlook
God-centred morality is being replaced by harm-centred morality
National law is diverging from Biblical reference points.
The losses of living faith are I think real–witness the hulking, empty churches that surround us and once did buzz with people at least some of whom actually believed. But these losses of faith have happened in the middle of rising prosperity and health.
What then has been lost? May I suggest (among many things too complicated for me to understand) it is the shelter from the storm?
It’s what happens the typhoon hits. In my observation people who don’t know Jesus don’t do too well when crises and losses come. It’s like they haven’t anywhere to go, no one to lean into when great sorrow pours down from the sky or erupts within bodies or families.
This is so massively, incomparably different for those of us in churches and with faith in Jesus. We are just as angry, just as confused, just as wretched, but unjustly held and undeservedly loved. And superrationally happy.
That’s the loss.
The arms of love that comfort me would all mankind embrace.