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 as thriving

‘Slow’ healing — part 3

157/365 On the Mend 060609They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed. (Mark 6:56)

Can this happen today? It can, if we re-define ‘healing’ as ‘the start of healing’ or simply ‘enjoying the experience of thriving’.

I ought to say I believe what Mark is reporting: people reached out to Jesus with a  whole GP’s surgery of stuff (rashes, cataracts, cancers, anxieties, fears, depression, strokes, diabetes, whatever) and emerged, blinking, stretching, smiling and completely well. But I believe this is exceptional, perhaps because Jesus’ healings were doing double duty both as acts of mercy and as signs of the Kingdom.

In the context of what I am calling ‘slow healing’, though, I believe everyone can encounter Christ and begin to thrive. The thriving is healing’s germination. How much physical healing happens now and how much is deferred to eternity is of course rather important to us, but it is secondary in the grand scheme.

The grand scheme is:

  1. Encounter Christ
  2. Thrive in his goodness in this life and the next
  3. Receive downpayments of physical and relational wellness in this life
  4. Ultimately be completely whole, physically and relationally.

All who touched him were healed. Still true today?

A new introduction to the Christian faith

The Puzzle of ChristianityThe Puzzle of Christianity by Peter Vardy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Apart from the title — which more to do with the author’s brand than what’s actually inside the book — this is a clear, illuminating, irenic introduction to the Christian faith. It steers admirably away from a sectarian party line and respects critical scholarship while also realizing that critical scholarship can itself be criticized and is anyway often a long way from the lives and preoccupations of actual Christians.

Many opponents of Christianity prefer to criticize straw men (?persons) rather than the real thing, which is usually better thought out, more nuanced, more aware of its own failings and rather harder to dismiss with a single rhetorical swipe. Vardy’s picture includes the warts, but I think it’s a fair and deeply attractive portrait of the past and present of Christianity.

In our (Anglican) church we are seeing a number of Chinese academics adopt the Christian faith; this text will serve very well as a fine, just, heart-warming introduction to the wider context of what they are getting themselves into.

View all my reviews

The fractal God

It’s all the same to him

first fractalIf you find something that has a pattern and you crank up the magnification and see the same pattern, you’ve found a fractal — an object that’s self-similar at different scales.

Nature is full of them. Tree branches fork the same way when they are the size of trunks or the size of twigs. Rivers split the same way into deltas and streams and trickles. All broccoli is roughly fractal but there is an insanely fractal variety called Romanesco, ideal for feeding to mathematicians. Snowflakes are fractal.

‘Fractal’ is a helpful lens for looking at God and God-stuff. For example:

Parables of the Kingdom are fractal. When Christ taught about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed that grew to be a great plant, what was he talking about? A word that grips the heart? A change of behaviour that influences a community? A mass-movement that changes a continent? All of them. Parables are true at many different scales, because all are curated by the same God.

Faithfulness is fractal. God shepherds our whole lives, and our tiniest moments. It is, therefore, worth praying for something as big as a whole good life, and as fleeting as a car-parking space. Both are an appeal to the kindness of God, just at different scales.

His mercy is fractal. Of course he cares for the whole flock, but he also puts his coat on and heads out for the lost sheep; scale doesn’t come into it. He values the lost teddy bear as much as the lost Bible translation.

Transformation is fractal. The resurrection of Christ (which from our perspective happened at a single point in history and at a certain location) is the same sort of thing as the re-creation of the whole Universe. The essence is the same, the scale is different. And in our current setting, small-scale victories have a place in his purposes just as large-scale ones do.

His peace is fractal. Our anxieties exist at many different scales. Sometimes, for example, we suffer big and small losses at the same time. And sometimes God seems to deal with the wrong scale at the wrong time. Little gifts from him give testimony to his intricate touch; at the same time the big things, the things that really matter, seem to be all unfixed. It’s natural to resent this, but in another way we should welcome God mending the small things as a reminder that he also has the big things in hand.

His pleasure is fractal.  I don’t think God is more pleased by 25000 people worshipping in a tent as he is by one person’s act of quiet submission or patience. He possibly nudges the angels to point it out either way. ‘Look at my servant Job!’

Of course God works in fractal way, exercising the same attention with  the very small and the very great. Since he is infinite, all the scales probably look much the same to him.

Four things to think about when praying for healing

Four Point Decoration by MeThese pointers:

  1. It’s all about Jesus.
  2. It’s now and not yet
  3. It’s internal and external
  4. It comes in weakness

are how the Kingdom of God is breaking in (as I blogged earlier). Healing is a part of the kingdom, so we can think about it in the same way. As follows:

  1. It’s all about Jesus. Healing is about meeting Christ, and about his priorities for us.  We put ourselves in his hands and ask him for help. He is King: kings act. The blind beggar called out, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ meaning ‘So you’re the King? Do your job.’
  2. It’s now and not yet. Some healing comes now; all will come later. The exact blend of what you get now and what you get later is up to the King. But we must focus on the now: too much healing prayer (in my experience) focusses on some vague future point which is a cop-out.
  3. It’s internal and external. Healing is never really about a single organic solution. It’s also always about our heart and our relationships. It accepts Western medicine which focusses on repairs, but extends far beyond it. So, for example, the person with a stomach ulcer clearly doesn’t just need a cure for ulcers. Healing prayer embraces all this wholeness, one reason why it is encouraged to happen within the wider context of the church’s leadership and pastoral care structure (as in James 5:14).
  4. It comes in weakness. So our approach to the sick (and when praying for ourselves) is gentle, tentative, loving; not desperate to prove something.

Here comes the sun

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

SunriseI welcomed the chance recently to dig around and ask the question  “what (actually) is the Kingdom of God?” If you had to answer a quiz about it, what would you say? Here are five things.

  1. It’s wrapped up with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and him sending the Holy Spirit. His death fixed things up between us and God. His resurrection was the first drop of new wine into the old wineskins of the world, and it broke a tomb. His Ascension was his coronation. Sending the Spirit to revolutionize human lives was his first act in office.
  2. It’s now and not yet.  It’s breaking in among but this is just the first installment. The rest is yet to come. So we enjoy peace now which is an appetizer for the peace that will break over the whole world at the end the age.
  3. It’s internal and external. It’s about transformed hearts and revolutionizing society. It weaves together the quietist and the activist strands of the Christian faith.
  4. It grows. Like a mustard seed or yeast, tiny but resolute, it can be poisoned, stamped out, wiped out, set back, but it keeps coming.
  5. It comes in and through weakness. Hence the Beatitudes: ‘Happy are you who are spiritually bankrupt.’

Rowing a boat alone across a lake

Behold the terror and the joy

 

Lonely BoatingImagine 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.

 

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.)

The unreconciled

A few cheerful thoughts

Tree by the laneIf you block off every channel by which grace might come to your soul, I agree, like an autumn leaf or a dead branch, finally you will fall from the tree.

But God’s mercies are new every morning, rising like the sun. We Christians believe God came in the person of his Son with the aim of reconciling humanity and creation to himself for eternity. And he is kind and dogged in his pursuit of us.

What about those we feel have already gone, lost from us? It seems necessary to believe they’ve fallen into darkness, but it’s a darkness scented with mystery and kindness. One of my favourite bits of poetry anywhere is this:

Lift up your eyes and look about you:
    All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
    and your daughters are carried on the hip.
Then you will look and be radiant,
    your heart will throb and swell with joy (Isaiah 60:4-5)

The children they thought were lost forever are carried back to them, all grow’d up. It is poetry. Still…