The eternal worth of what we do now

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I’m intrigued by the question of how or if the things we do each day matter in the lights of the eternity that our Christian faith is embedded in.

As we know, the New Testament teaching is that everything has an end:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.1

Even if you don’t believe in an apocalypse, you still believe it in a modified form: we’re all going to die eventually, as are the institutions we serve, our country, perhaps even our species. One way or another, the lights are going out.

So if the world is going to end, why work to improve it? If everything is going to be destroyed, why do politics? Why breed fruit trees? Why engineer beautiful buildings? Why even redecorate the house?

Here are some reasons:

  1. We have an intuition that we must.
  2. Even if we accept or partly accept an apocalyptic worldview, the best strategy is to build, love, work, beautify until the end. It is the same as for those with a terminal illness: keep living until you die.
  3. A couple of Bible metaphors come to our help. Think ‘seed’ or ‘bride’. Both get prepared over a long season. Both experience some dramatic, even apocalyptic change: the seed gets buried and dies. The bride gets married. Afterwards, it’s a new age. But it is also a continuation of everything that went before: there’s discontinuity and continuity.

Today we paint tiny pictures, miniatures. These little acts are a kind of anticipation or even a statement of faith in a better world. Somehow our work loads eternity up so that after death and resurrection, and in Christ, our horizons will unfurl like a flower in a new age. Nothing of beauty or worth or diligence will be destroyed; all will be caught up again and fulfilled in unguessed ways in eternity.

I think and hope.

Go far, go slow

Reasons not to panic

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Hillary Clinton is fond of quoting an African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together.’

I read an example today of the human species collectively going far. ‘Between 1968 and 2017, the world’s population increased by 113 percent from 3.55 billion to 7.55 billion. Over the same time period, the average global food supply per person per day rose from 2,334 calories to 2,962 – a 27 percent increase.’ 1.

So the population doubled, but the food supply more than matched it. Back in 1968 educated voices were looking at likely population increases and saying things like ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over … hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.’2 Today obesity is a bigger cause of death than the diseases of hunger.

Somewhere in all of this, perhaps, is a lesson that when we have far to go as a species, or a community — think global warming for example– it is OK to have prophetic types warning us of dire consquences, perhaps, but we have to travel together.

At the heart of art

The impulse to create beauty

I’ve just returned from four days of investigations at a hospital, trying to see if I’m a candidate for a heart transplant. I also talked to other patients on my hospital corridor, who have walked farther down the trail of suffering and patience than I have ever ventured. This is the second time I’ve gone through this exercise and I have come home with my head rather full, and the introvert’s need to sit at home for a long time and think about it all.

Somewhere in all that, I asked the question, What am I for?

Trying to answer that doesn’t involve me attempting to respond objectively and rigorously, even if I had the equipment or the courage, which I don’t. Instead, that question is a prompt to motivations and perhaps to temperament or psychological health. Another way of framing the same question is something like how do I feel about going on living? Or how much do I want to continue to exist and contribute?

There’s an answer to this around the idea of knowing and glorifying Christ, and that is my answer too, there is no meaning outside of him, but within that general answer there must be specific route-maps for each person. The tug of love, pulling us to go on living for someone else’s sake or some others’ sake is certainly a huge component of the vector.

I find another part though. I want to make beautiful things. In my world, this has to mean writing, and it has to mean writing something that someone reads, five minutes from now, or five weeks, or even five centuries, and that person’s thoughts and mine connect over all that distance, and the thing that has lit me up lights them up too.

I wonder if this isn’t the impulse behind all art, both the tawdry and the epic, and perhaps lots else too. Make something beautiful. Add to the stock of our herd’s insights, creativity, beauty and overall wealth. I’ve often envied a musician’s ability to dream up a melody that previously didn’t exist but that the whole world comes to know and indeed may even continue to know until the end of time. Think Hey Jude or Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s poem in his Ninth Symphony. Using words to combine thoughts in attractive forms is a micro-scale enterprise compared with that, and I do not say I am good at it, but it is what I have.

The Christian hope for history is the fulfilment of all things and one of the pictures is the New Jerusalem, the city of God, the fulfilled human community, lit up by the light of God’s face. A feature of the New Jerusalem is that its gates are always open. Nothing evil or mean or superficial is allowed in but what does flow in is the wealth of the nations, the baking and the architecture and the engineering and the melodies and the elegant theories and the eloquent art. The patiently and lovingly constructed treasures, dusted as they are – as they must be- with sprinkles of divine pleasure. What am I for? A piece of that.

Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

Radical meekness

Very hard to stamp out

Paul’s letters in the New Testament often contain instructions about family life and these cause a lot of trouble:

‘Wives, submit to your husbands’ is probably the most contentious. Here is the Christian faith at its most patriarchal apparently, digging in on the side of oppressing women.

Recently I wondered about this. Paul was writing, I think, to a society where the power imbalance and the justice imbalance were already ingrained. Men commanding, oppressing, even beating women was the norm, a society where a lot of couples were at war, an oppressive male, a scheming female.

When Paul wrote that wives should cheerfully submit to their husbands, it would completely disorient things.

So, in reverse, would a man acting kindly and considerately towards his wife.

Paul’s directions, in other words, were of a piece with the stuff Jesus was saying about praying for your enemies, blessing those who curse, turning the other cheek, carrying a load the second mile when you’ve been press-ganged to do the first. It was about upending oppression by radical, cheerful, irritating meekness.

It builds a new world and sets new norms. Radically meek women and tender men topple structures of pride and shame spouses into mutual decency. I think you have to add, though, there’s a context of normalcy here. I don’t think this applies in the abnormal and even criminal context of domestic abuse or coercive behaviour. People facing that stuff should get out and get safe and take their children with them. Paul’s teaching is about re-setting a societal norm, not licensing abuse. Still.

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay 

The slow inversion

Being turned inside out is slow

long and winding road
Image by Tayyab Bashir from Pixabay

I just read a PhD thesis of someone who tracked two dozen Palestinian Muslims who turned to Christ. 1

Each of these was following an against-the-herd choice, hard for any of us. They had things in common. Many had had dreams that had set or confirmed them on a journey. (The dream was never the end of the journey, interestingly.) Many read and re-read the New Testament. All took a long time, many of them, years.

Each of them was slow. This was a specialized sample and so it is risky to universalize it. But I think all true conversion is slow. Sometimes it’s the slow laying of groundwork before an instant-looking conversion. Often, maybe always, it’s slow work afterwards. As in my three novels of comic fiction, repentance is both the true start and the true marker of movement. It is a turning-to God as much as a turning-from dead stuff. Emptied and thirsty, back we go to the slow-dropping grace; fed up of the cave, we breathe the outdoor air and take in the view; out of sorts, we reach for a hug. Slow like life is slow, like seasons are slow, like growing is slow.

Slow and stop

Nothing is quite something

Image by ptra from Pixabay

Stop is the father of Slow. And Stop has exotic parents: it is the lovechild of hubris and reality. You are driving your car, radio on, happy, hubristic, and in a few panicked moments there is a bang and things happening quickly and then the crumpled metal and the stop.

Or there is the phone call that stops your world or the judgement or the letter or the diagnosis or the moment. That which was your careful construct of a life is a house of cards. You know this now because it has fallen down. You have been blessed with a dead stop. As you rebuild you will embrace Slow.

This all has Christian resonance because in that framework of thought the death of Christ is the only stationary point in an oscillating, surging, blushing, trilling Universe. The cross is the origin, coordinate (0,0), the place you have to go to orient yourself and find your way. It is the full stop. We enter into it, finding the death of hubris and the death of self in the death of Christ; finding a new pattern of life in the resurrection, fuelled by the Spirit of God. As the joke goes, Death is God’s way of getting us to slow down. .

Walking in Kingdom foothills

Without knowing it

I see this a lot.

I think Paul saw it too, when he wrote about ‘Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature (or naturally) what the law requires…’ 1.

These are people who do things because they are good or beautiful in themselves. Characteristically, staff in the UK’s national health service, in my experience, and teachers, and people in other areas of public service, do what they do to serve others rather than to gain prestige. Not all of course; but some.

The other day I heard of a property developer who, if he was deciding where to spend money, invested in good materials, high ceilings and big windows. Other housebuilders prefer fancy kitchens and bathrooms in what are otherwise cramped and mean buildings. Fancy kitchens might generate a quick sale; but the other developer is focussing resource on a home whose light and space will be delightful for generations.

It isn’t true of everyone, and all of us can be be public-spirited in one breath and mean or malicious in the next. But still. I meet a lot of people who are committed to public service, quietly doing their job with love and devotion, but they don’t share my faith or at least don’t speak ‘Christian’ the way I do. They have come to do what they do by some other route: personal choice, or nature, or instinct, or following the culture they learnt.

I like to think they are walking in the foothills of the Kingdom of God. They might not call it that, or recognize it as that, or even associate with that thought, but they feel the goodness in their bones.

Image by LadyLioness from Pixabay

Cathedral faith

Look beyond the fundraising

My old publisher started his life in a Brethren assembly but ended his days worshipping in a cathedral. The gathering of disciples in a simple room is so New Testament. Why move?

He isn’t here for me to ask. But I too am drawn to the old buildings – I think for these reasons.

  1. Permanent. Cathedrals were built to stand forever, through all time and times, like the Church does.
  2. Humbling. Still so today, they must have been extraordinary as they towered over thatch-and-plaster muddy villages.
  3. Universal. They welcomed and sheltered a whole community. (Admittedly this didn’t stretch to outsiders, such as the Jews.)
  4. Filled with beauty and music. Like heaven and earth itself.
  5. Reminding us of heaven. Just look up, and see stained-glass accounts of God and his saints.
  6. Watered by a stream of liturgy. Ancient, comprehensive, slowly flowing, varying but never changing completely, all the generations take turns to swim in it. Through it habits form (in theory) and cultures are shaped; by it we take our part in the unending flow of praise to God. Babies enter the cathedral, corpses exit it, the flow of worship goes on.
  7. Corporate rather than individual. Admittedly, bishops or Queens or crusaders get special tombs ; but for most cathedral worshippers, their main identity is in being part of the mass of humanity; without individual lives, there is no crowded heaven.

Image by Diego Echeverry from Pixabay

How careers change after mid-life

Your runny self becomes hard-boiled. But don’t worry.

Just read a fascinating article about how we all peak earlier than we think…

In a really helpful piece in the Atlantic, Arthur C Brooks talked about the difference between fluid and crystalized intelligence. The fluid sort is flexible and creative, problem-solving and innovative. The crystalized sort is more likely to draw on wisdom and experience from the past – runny versus solid intelligence, if you like.

The runny sort is what many of us use as we progress in our career, trying new approaches, showing flexibility, making creative leaps and discoveries. But our runniness starts to decline as early as our 30s and 40s.

The solid sort builds through life and you don’t lose it until until the very end.

This is why scientists (often post-docs) are young; Supreme Court justices are old.

The significance of significance

Brooks’ deeper point is that if you get your significance from your achievements when your intelligence was running all over the place, you may struggle when you no longer can make the same leaps.

He gives the example of Charles Darwin, who was famous early but rather lost steam in his 50s and didn’t end particularly well. Start-up founders, creatives of all kinds, mathematicians and scientists, lawyers, business people — anyone who’s done well with learning, changing, driving change, beware. You’re seizing up faster than you think.

The remedy to this career disillusion, Brooks claims, is to shift gears and try to exploit all those stores of solid, crystallized intelligence you’ve built up while running around changing the world. Try mentoring or teaching in some sense, resourcing others. Try wisdom rather than innovation. It may mean stepping back from the frontlines of fame and significance but that can only be good.

(The alternative to this, which he doesn’t suggest, is to attend meetings and be the person who says ‘we tried that years ago and it never worked.’)

This is fascinating in several different ways.

  1. We have seasons in our lives; resisting this truth is not a recipe for happiness. We have to shift gears. If our significance comes from our fresh ideas, our flexibility, our creative leaps, watch out.
  2. This is something we instinctively know. Of course old men have a different perspective from young guys. It was always so: the young men of the village play cricket, the old guys nurse their pints of beer and watch. The mistake of us baby boomers is that in our 50s and 60s we think we can still do it on the dancefloor. Perhaps we are fooled by how good health care is now, or perhaps we don’t labour in the body-crushing occupations of our ancestors. Or perhaps no previous generation has been this pampered and this stupid.
  3. For me personally, my fiction-writing self has often felt fear that I won’t be able to be make the creative leaps of the past. That’s actually frightening. On the other hand, to write further books about the same people and in worlds already dreamed up is an enticing prospect, and I observe that many of my favourite writers did exactly that: they were like musicians on tour again, playing the old hits. Meanwhile my non-fiction writing self feels differently. After decades of reading and thinking, I’m getting to lay out the stuff that’s been crystallizing in my heart.
  4. And for all of us, the gear change may involve putting more weight on relationships than our glittering career, stepping back, pushing others forward, finding significance outside a string of achievements: choosing slow.

The revolutionary effects of non-violence

It really works

I’m enjoying thinking about non-violence and radical submission.

Following Jesus’ example on non-violence and foot-washing, the principle of radical submission became embedded in Christian ethics.

Slaves were told to be excellent slaves, even if they served less-than-excellent masters. Enemies were to be fed and watered. Women, newly freed from oppression by the gospel, were told to fit voluntarily within the old patriarchal structures. They undermined it totally, throwing men completely off balance, by being unusually sweet and nice. Rulers were smilingly obeyed. Taxes were stumped up. Early on in the piece, a Roman governor (from memory, the younger Pliny) complained that the Christians treated the pagan dead with more kindness than the pagan living were managing to do.

When you treat an oppressor thoughtfully, charitably, kindly and well, you weaponize shame. ‘I’m giving you a chance to disgrace yourself,’ we say. ‘Don’t miss the opportunity.’

And even if that particular enemy is immunized against shame, his mother won’t be, his children won’t be, his support network won’t be. The more he shames himself by being cruel and sneaky to the kind, the more his authority shrivels away.

This has such powerful resonances for today. Hong Kong residents gather in their tens of thousands singing Christian worship songs (for example). This is much harder for the authorities to deal with than (for example) violent lawlessness. They have a playbook for violent lawlessness. They are rather less certain how to crack down on a church picnic.

It’s easy to say

Of course this is easy to say. Much, much harder to live out. Look at Zimbabwe, looted and ransacked by its leaders, peacefully opposed, but generations of suffering has not yet brought the needed change.

Look at the rise of autocracy and populism around the world. Yet, still, we have to insist that peacemaking and radical submission and love are the marker posts on the true path to transformation.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity. Psalm 37:10-11