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.

by - [-]
Price: £8.99 - - -

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!

The pain-reducing effects of dancing together

The joy of team

VIMOS’s last embrace

Researchers at Oxford University did an experiment with communal dancing.

They gathered a group of strangers and taught them different dance moves. Then they put four of these strangers together and gave each person headphones. So any given foursome could have:

  • Same dance moves, different music
  • Same music, different dance moves
  • Same music, same dance moves.

After the dance floor experience, they tested their pain threshold by tightening a blood-pressure cuff on each of them.

It turned out that the synchronized dancers (hearing the same music and doing the same moves), had a much higher pain threshold than the others. 1

Why is this? Perhaps we have become wired to be rewarded when we work alongside other people toward a greater end. There’s a health-giving benefit to being a harmonious part of a team effort. Most of us have felt this at one time or another, the sense of wellness from a team of people achieving something together by each doing our bit.

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.

Eating

Why we should do more of it


Congratulations to writer Michele Guinness, whom I have not met or even read very much. Her story Chosen of being a Jewish person and meeting Christians (and eventually becoming one herself) has not been out of print in 35 years and is being re-issued by Lion in a new edition in October.

She still has loads to teach us, not least about eating. This is from an article in Together, magazine for Christian retailers, July/August 2018:

My first visit to a church was a shock to the system – so gloomy and dull. The congregation chanted “and make thy chosen people joyful” as if they were at a funeral … A greater understanding of Jesus’ worldview is liberating. It brings colour and richness, significance and celebration, wonder and joy to the Christian faith.

When I first became a Christian it seemed to me that around 50% of the New Testament was lost on Christians … I think it is more relevant than ever to encourage families to invite in the neighbours, single friends and children of all ages to celebrate at home together with story-telling and symbol, food and worship around the table.

Highlighted below is her book about celebrations, The Heavenly Party.

Reimagining Britain

How wonderful if it happened

Just started Justin Welby’s new book ‘Reimagining Britain’. The introduction is intriguing:

  • ‘British Values’: have come to mean ‘democcracy, the rule of law and respect for other’.
  • As a phrase they strike the wrong note somehow
  • These values are necessary (obviously) but not sufficient for the task of ‘re-imagining Britain’
  • ‘I suspect, and argue here that there are values that come out of our common European history and Christian heritage, which have been tweaked and adapted in each country and culture.’
  • Given the amount being written these days, and the great rumble of the Brexquake shattering everything around us (my phrase), ‘this really is one of those rare moments when we have both the risk and the opportunity of rethinking what we should do and be as a country.’

A rare moment to change direction, by redigging some old wells. Super stuff. This is slow mission. Bring it on. Looking forward to the rest of the book and hoping to blog further about it.

 

I bought this book, counter-intuitively, by walking into Waterstones and handing over my credit card – full-price, hardback, from a high street store that pays UK tax. Then I went to a coffee shop to blog about it. Life is deeply, wonderfully good that I get to do these things.

But here’s a reference for those of us, me at the top of the list, who also happen to appreciate Amazon:

Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope

by The Most Reverend and Rt Honourable Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury [Bloomsbury Continuum]
Price: £10.94 - - -

 

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.

 

One lunch at a time

Don’t mobilize, metabolize.

Breakfast in Catalonia (author pic)

Regular readers will know that I am weary and wary of approaches to the Christian faith that come out of a business-speak textbook:

Strategy!

Outreach!

Mobilisation!

I wonder instead how much real work for the Kingdom, and better work, is done in coffee shops or over lunches.

It’s an approach with form. Remember Acts 2, ‘They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts‘ (v 46).  No sooner was the Holy Spirit poured out than the church lunch became a thing.

Less well known is how good this is for our well-being. Newspaper reports recently cited an Oxford University study that found ‘the more people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied about their lives’, and that the only two factors that really mattered in long-term survival after a heart attack were (a) giving up smoking and (b) having friends. 1

So let us march to the New Jerusalem, stopping frequently for lunch.

The theology of time-invariance

Running time backwards is theologically illuminating

Hourglass
Grateful thanks to Crispin Semmens for making this photo Creative Commons on Flickr.

I have occasionally accused theologians of lacking the imagination of theoretical physicists.1

Take, for example, the idea of running time backwards. Some physical theories and processes have no problem with this. For example, a gamma ray decays into a positron and electron. A positron and and electron combine to become a gamma ray. This process can happen whether time is going backwards or forwards. 2

Other physical processes only work in one direction, from the present to the future. Put a tank of hot air next to a tank of cold air and open a valve between them, and they will equalize their temperatures irreversibly; you can’t go back; this process only happens when time is moving forward.

In physics, the reversible, timeless things are often quantum-sized. The irreversible, time-bound things are bigger and more in the general category that might be called ’emergent’, which is about the behaviour of lots of things together.

So: in physics, for some processes, the flow of time doesn’t matter. For other processes, it does. Let’s call the first processes ‘timeless’ or ‘eternal’. Then hand over to the theologians.

Send in the beards

Theological processes can also be divided into the timeless and the time-bound. As subjects of these processes, we get to enjoy both.

A life-changing encounter with God is eternal. That is why the apostle Paul can look both forward and back in time and see the same thing, as he does in the book of Ephesians: ‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight‘ and then he talks about how  God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace. 3

Christ’s sacrifice for sin is eternal. John’s picture of the Lamb is ‘the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.’ (Rev 13:8) the Lamb who has ‘just been slain’ (implied in Rev 5:8) and eternally bearing the scars of his slaying when he showed his disciples his wounds.

Perhaps ‘Paradise’ is eternal. The Fall story is about Adam and Eve evicted from where they could live forever, into a realm of time and death. But on the cross Jesus promises the thief that that very day he will enter a Paradise that evidently still exists.4

Whereas:

  • This creation, and its story, is time-bound, a long evolution.
  • The formation and growth of the church is time-bound.
  • History is (of course) time-bound

All of these, note, are emergent things, the sum of many things acting together.

This is wonderful. We find there is, in time, everything to play for; but at the same time, in eternity, everything is settled.

I feel the need for John Milton at this point:

Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,   
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,   
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;   
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,   
Which is no more then what is false and vain,  
And meerly mortal dross;   
So little is our loss,   
So little is thy gain.   
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,   
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss   
With an individual kiss;   
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,   
When every thing that is sincerely good   
And perfectly divine,  
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine   
About the supreme Throne   
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,   
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,   
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,  
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,   
  Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.