Though Jesus gave teaching a very high priority, it wasn’t all he did. Among other things, he healed, he averted a natural disaster or two, he enforced justice and he cooked fish for a men’s breakfast.
Nor was his time on earth an action-packed frenzy of spiritual activity, praying, healing and teaching.He first lived a good life, thirty years in a single village.
He set the pattern. That leads to two forces pulling on us: the urge to slip our moorings and head to do great things on some wide horizon; or the urge to stay where we are and live well. For each of us, the blend will be original.
Home and hearth; or follow your dream. I think for those of us lucky enough, life has enough seasons to do both. Happy Christmas.
These were Jesus’ first recorded words–as we have seen–as he started work on his Messiah start-up project.
He was capping the well of history: everything before was now ‘Old’ testament; from now on it was new.
How to summarize what he so neatly ended? Old Testament history can be read as picking out shapes in a stormy landscape.
The storms are the squalls of judgement and mercy, of alienation and return that sweep across history. The shapes underneath are the outlines of God’s coming kingdom: a King, a Shepherd, a healing of waywardness, a heart transplant, the flow of ‘living water’, peace being made,a people flourishing, a spreading multitude of followers.
Then the storm clears, and Christ, the Kingdom embodied, steps into the waiting sunshine.
‘Of the increase of his government and peace, there will be no end’. And so it proves….
Having got my eyesight back after two years of drug-induced cataracts, I am enjoying some heavy-duty reading again. Steven Pinker’s book is getting me very excited. His thesis is that violence in the human species is continuing a dramatic fall, stretching over millenia, dating indeed from the agricultural revolution. Because this is so counter-cultural, he needs the book’s 900 pages to prove it and hypothesise about it. Bill Gates’ cover blurb (‘one of the most important books I’ve read — not just this year, but ever’) is for once more than the polite puffing of friends.
The book is so counter-cultural because those of us who read the news in the 60s, 70s and 80s saw a world going to pot1; Pinker shows this was just a counter-cultural eddy against a much longer flow, and the fall in crime in the 1990s and beyond is merely a resumption of that old norm. Totally fascinating.
So much to think about! (This is me speculating, not Steven Pinker)
1. So history has a direction after all and ‘human progress’ means something? The twentieth century rather left that 19th-century view bleeding in the street.
2. Here is evidence-for me–though certainly not for the convinced non-Christian Steven Pinker–that Christ is King and ‘of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.’ It is not the case that the world was going bad until Jesus came and fixed it. But it can surely be argued that here we have the ‘left hand of God’ and the ‘right hand of God’ working together. God guides human history generally into a more fruitful and less violent place; and at the epicentre, accelerating this trend and filling it out with revelation, is the life, death and resurrection of Christ and the peace-making activity of his people. I don’t think Prof Pinker would enjoy this conclusion (I would like to write another blog about his so-called humanism and measured disapproval of the Christian faith) but I find it a bit stunning– a large body of unsuspected social-science evidence that beautifully complements natural theology, not completely unlike the body of physical evidence that leads physicists to conclude the Universe began in a moment of creation at the Big Bang.
Four words that changed everything: ‘the time has come.’
No moment was like that moment. It was like a plane at the beginning of the runway, or two armies gathered for battle, or a bride stepping into the aisle. It was the moment of silence; the indrawn breath; the kiss for luck before stepping onto the stage.
The long preparations are all done, Jesus was saying. Creation of the universe. Creation of the Earth. The shaping of homo sapiens after many earlier drafts. Abraham and his descendants meeting with God over two thousand years, a stormy relationship, wave after wave of revelation, judgement, return, of questions and answers and more questions.
Recently heard a talk by the chaplain of the Robben Island prison during Nelson Mandela’s time there. Apparently Mandela said to himself, when he finally regained his freedom, that unless he left the hate and bitterness behind, he would remain in prison, but this time in one of his own making.
A command to ‘preach the good news to all creation’ (which as we know is the last command Jesus gave on earth) can, for the Christian, awake our inner geographer. Where has the gospel not yet gone? How is it that people not been offered this meal, this treasure, this healing oil?
Yet at the same time the New Testament seems more devoted to how we live than where we preach. The church should ‘grow to become in every respect the mature body’ and this sends us deep rather than wide: caring for our own souls and for the souls of those around us.
So: spread good news through the world or try to foster justice and compassion in ourselves and in the community around us? Wide or deep? Obviously both, and both elements are covered by the word ‘disciple’ which Jesus used when he left us with the command to ‘make disciples of all nations’.
As if it were a cure for cancer, we Christians are urged, as far and as fast as possible, to spread the news of Christ’s resurrection and the new hope it fires up.
Or are we?
WEC International, the NGO in which I serve, has in its foundation documents ‘the evangelization of the world in the shortest possible time’. This is a Biblical idea: ‘run … the race marked out for us’ says the Book of Hebrews;‘make the most of every opportunity’, wrote Paul. Jesus told us to pray that workers would be ‘cast out’ into the harvest field. ‘Look forward to the day of God and speed its coming’ says 2 Peter. It is scandalous that the Universe has changed—Christ is risen— and many people have yet to hear.
At the same time, slow mission is also scriptural. Seeds take time to grow. Harvests await their season. No Christian has ever matured overnight. However much we try to speed things up with discipleship courses or fast-track leadership, God takes his own sweet time with our souls, and with his work. God’s kingdom seems to move forward not like an army, but like a family, at the pace of the youngest child. Most of us spend ordinary days doing ordinary things. Are we just marking time? Or is the collective quiet goodness of God’s people in itself a force for transforming the world?
To understand our place in God’s kingdom, probably we have to appreciate both ‘fast’ and ‘slow’, in a mix that is unique for us.
None of the big things hurry. Tides don’t hurry; seasons don’t; sunrises and sunsets don’t; love doesn’t. It takes two decades to turn a baby girl into a young woman. It took 10 billion years to create the earth, then four billion more for the earth to nurture self-aware and God-aware creatures. God doesn’t rush. Jesus never rushed. There is a time and a season for every activity under heaven.
‘Slow mission’ is about huge ambition–all things united under Christ–and tiny steps.
I contrast it with much talk and planning about ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ which happens in the parts of church I inhabit, and which have an appearance of spirituality, but make me sometimes feel like I am in the Christian meat-processing industry.
Here’s a summary of slow mission values, as currently figured out by me:
Devoted. Centred on Christ as Saviour and Lord. Do we say to Christ, ‘Everything I do, I do it for you.’ Do we hear Christ saying the same thing back to us?
Belonging. We sign up, take part, dive in, identify, work with others, live with the compromises. Not for us a proud independence.
Respecting vocation. Where do ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger’ meet?2. Vocation is where God’s strokes of genius happen. That’s where we should focus our energies.
To do with goodness. Goodness in the world is like a tolling bell that can’t be silenced and that itself silences all arguments.
Observing seasons. ‘There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’3.The world will be OK even if we check out for a while. (Note: our families, however, won’t be.)
Into everything. We are multi-ethnic and interdependent. We like the handcrafted. We are interested in all humanity and in all that humanity is interested in. Wherever there’s truth, beauty, creativity, compassion, integrity, service, we want to be there too, investing and inventing. We don’t take to being shut out. Faith and everything mix.
Quite keen on common sense. We like to follow the evidence and stick to the facts. We like to critique opinions and prejudices. We don’t, however, argue with maths. Against our human nature, we try to listen to those we disagree with us. We’re not afraid of truth regardless of who brings it. We want to be learners rather than debaters.
Happy to write an unfinished symphony. Nothing gets completed this side of death and eternity. What we do gets undone. That’s OK. Completeness is coming in God’s sweet time. ‘Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.’4.
Comfortable with the broken and the provisional. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for right, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the laughed-at. This also implies a discomfort with the pat, the glib, the primped, the simplistic, the triumphalistic and the schlocky.
Refusing to be miserable. The Universe continues because of God’s zest for life, despite everything, and his insouciance that it will all probably work out somehow. In sorrows, wounds and in the inexplicable, we join God in his childlike faith.
What’s a walnut tree for? We might think, er, ‘walnuts’.
But really, a walnut tree has two jobs. If at the end of its long life, just before being shafted by a fatal bolt of lightning, a walnut tree could note that (a) it’s been a good walnut tree during its time on earth and (b) it can see five younger walnut trees thriving around it, then it’s OK.
Along the way, it has nurtured dynasties and empires of squirrels and an ecosystem of bugs and birds. Lovers sheltered from the rain and carved their initials on its bark. Families picnicked under its branches. Perhaps it served a makeshift cricket stump. Its lifted people’s hearts, magnificent in the landscape. During the first week in October for five hundred years, generations have gathered its nuts. Even after its death it might have become an interesting line of coffee-tables or (for a certain vintage of male human) a must-have car-dashboard.
During its long life, then, it was fruitful in all kinds of ways that seemed slow and a distraction to the main task. Yet this indiscriminate fruitfulness was its successful ‘strategy’. Those five young walnut trees probably grew because squirrels took some nuts, buried them, and then forget where they left them.
So with ‘slow mission’. We understand Christ’s last command, make disciples of ourselves and of all the nations. But our ‘strategy’ is indiscriminate fruitfulness: being what we are, where we are, as best as we can be. In God’s economy, forgetful squirrels, and time, will do the rest.