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


	

The art of fighting for a cause

Re-reading the passion narrative in Luke, I noticed — sadly for the first time — that Christ was crucified as a political actor for political reasons.

Of course there was a bigger story going on, the one celebrated in the gospel, Christ dying to reconcile humanity to God.

But as far as everyone on the ground was concerned, it was politics. And seeing it in this light is fascinating. Jesus was out to ‘get’ the ruling religious authorities in Jerusalem. They had stolen religious affairs for their own good, not the common good. They were running the religion business so that they did well out of it: best seats at the banquets, top places in the synagogues.

Jesus campaigned against them. First he started a popular movement, going from town to town preaching and building large crowds. Then he spent some months training followers. Finally he invaded the Temple and taught right in their faces. This was incendiary stuff and everyone knew it.

But how did he ‘win’?

He chose the path of non-violence. He let them beat him, try him unjustly, crucify him.

Yet instead of stamping his movement out, as they hoped, within weeks it had thousands of followers, some of whom were themselves willing to die for him.

Over coming decades, the movement grew, and it split the autocracy still trying to control Jerusalem as Pharisees started to believe.

Finally the Temple was swept away by the Romans. Meanwhile the size of the Church grew, at its widest estimate, to a third of the human race.

The power of non-violence today

I saw this same dynamic when I was writing a book on Algeria. The White Fathers, a Catholic order, decided to stay in the country as the situation deteriorated into civil war in the 1990s. As very public Christians, they were obvious targets for the Islamic militants who were half of the civil war. (The state was the other combatant.) I remember hearing of three White Fathers, friends of a friend of mine, who were gunned down in cold blood one morning. The small Christian cemetery was filled with Muslim friends at their burial. One wrote to the newspaper saying something like, ‘I want to live like they do.’

This was not, presumably, was the Islamic militants intended: Christ and Christ’s peaceful ways were exalted. That which was supposed to be stamped out, lived.

Interesting.

Why undercooked ideas make you grumpy and cross

I’ve had to swallow two arguments recently with fellow-Christians because having the argument would have been less worthwhile than the friendship or whatever that it would have taken away. One (a surgeon, though admittedly only an orthopedic surgeon if I remember) didn’t believe in evolution. The other, a management consultant, thought we might allow the possibilities of a Young Earth because ‘science is changing all the time.’

Wrong, and wrong, and wrongity wrong wrong. My friends were trying to pay a bill with the wrong coin. Neither had arrived at their wacky ideas through studying science. It was their attempts at Bible study, which were also not very good, that they had hurled like a custard pie into a scientific discussion, that led them astray. This you cannot do. You have to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s: critique science with the methods of science. Critique theology or bible-exegesis with better theology or bible-exegesis.

The same problem happens in reverse, of course, when scientists stray from their proper bounds and ask questions, for example about why anything exists. Science is equipped to measure, watch, count, predict. Surely it’s ill-equipped to find a rationale for being itself.

We know in part (in science); we know in part (in theology). Stirring two half-cooked things together and thinking a fully cooked meal will magically pop out is not going to work.

You can only have fruitful dialogue between science and religion when you stop nipping down shortcuts. Mostly this involves, like walking through an airport, by just following one path to the end, albeit with a friendly glance now and then through the glass to see what the other people in the different corridors are doing.

A recipe for incomplete knowledge and messy contradiction? That shows we’re on the right lines.

Slow mission and the arts

Wonderful wastefulness

We are made in the image of a creative God and our creativity can bring him glory.

The arts are also an asset in mission work:

The arts are personal – they are heart-to-heart. Artistic expression and response prevent the Christian faith being reduced to formulas, programmes, or clichés.

The arts are intimate. Our complex selves respond not just to facts or emotion, but also to the sense of beauty or ugliness. The creative arts add extra dimensions to a person’s encounter with God.

The arts are daily bread. Humans hunger for stories and beauty just as they hunger for bread or God. Christian arts can enlighten a dulled world, sustain Christians in trials, and spark hope in hopeless situations.

The arts seed further creativity. The best art stirs people to reflect and create fresh art. In this way Christian art reproduces itself and extends the interaction between the risen Christ and the human species.

The arts bind communities together. Collective sung worship, or aesthetically pleasing buildings or rituals, for example, can unite people in communal devotion to God. We know ourselves to be part of something
greater than our own individual faith.

The arts can find soft places in hard hearts. Among the multiple reasons that Jesus told stories was, first, because everyone enjoys a
story, and second, because a story can start someone on a journey towards God even when that person is not willing at that time to seek him.

The arts are ‘wasteful’. Art is not usually economically justified. Rather, like when an expensive bottle of pure nard (grown only in the Himalayas) was poured on Jesus, the arts are an expression of unfettered love.

I first wrote this as part of a 52-week world prayer guide which I have been working on through 2018 and 2019. You can find out more about this project, and sign up for the full blessing, at Lausanne.org/pray

On finding your first love … again

In praise of the crazy act of love

Heart at airshow

Just coming down personally from a busy few months. With emails whittled down, files organized, commitments met, mostly, and the things shifted off my desk towards their final destination. A cup of tea in the sun and some mental unpacking.

And a reminder. The first love. That best, freest, sweetist thing I am capable of giving to my soul’s Lover. Not so much the good, proper, dutiful, obligation-fulfilling stuff that rightly fills much of my life. But the crazy act of love, unconsidered, unweighed, ill-judged. The thing done for the love of doing it and for the love of my creative Creator who loves me; the thing planted in our walled garden, for just the two of us. That thing. Do that.

The joy of ticking boxes

and outsourcing thought

My maths teacher wife tells me her kids hate nothing more than thinking. She gets protests: ‘Miss, my brain’s going to boil over’, for example. ‘Miss, this is child cruelty, making us think.’

What kids really like, she goes on, is working through a page of exercises and getting a page of ticks for everything they got right. Tick (check) tick tick. Wonderful.

The preference for ticking (checking) boxes instead of thinking obviously starts early and perhaps never leaves us.

As many of us remember, a few years ago the UK parliament, (then in normal times) had an expenses scandal. Some politicians 1, it turned out, had been drinking from a tax-payers’ fountain like camels just returning from the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. Very few had broken the law. They had cleared the expenses with the parliamentary authorities. What they had actually done was outsourced their thinking and replaced it with ticking boxes. It wasn’t breaking the rules to get your moat cleaned, or your birdboxes nailed up, or a new kitchen, so, whoopie do. It must be OK.

Fortunately, another much-loved set of people in our society, the journalists, did their thinking for them. It may have ticked the boxes, they pointed out, but was it right? You are the highest court in land – what were doing, outsourcing your integrity?

Politicians are just like us, only blow-up versions of us, so we must do this kind of thing ourselves all the time.

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.

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