To make the maximum impact for good with your life:
keeping doing the simple things that you love and are good at.
It might be called the ‘horse chestnut principle’. If a conker can avoid being stolen by squirrels or collected by children, it can become a horse chestnut tree, huge and lovely.
Here’s an open letter, from a much-loved Sri Lankan Christian leader Ajith Fernando, to elderly theologian J I Packer. It’s a testimonial to Packer’s long lifetime, to Ajith Fernando’s consistent service, and to the compounding power of faithfulness.
“Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child.”
― Frederick Buechner
So stirred by this quote. I think we can pray in many ways. Sometimes it’s good to lift up people we love and situations we care about, working through our lists.
Sometimes we can worship.
Sometimes we work our way through a psalm, or a liturgy.
Some of us like to use the Lord’s Prayer as a set of headings or jumping-off points, a kind of road map to guide our thoughts.
But I wonder if this best sort of prayer is beyond all of these. It’s to do with unpacking our problems before Christ until we come to a place, not necessarily of understanding, but of peace.
Or clambering up an impossible problem in prayer, scrabbling for a foothold, until again, Jesus reaches down and gives us something to hold onto, something that holds us and gives us quiet, happy hearts. The view all around may be terrifying, but we are safe and snug, supported by some promise or gift of trusting that is beyond our understanding.
We have stumbled onto the rock that is higher than we are: Christ’s own trustworthiness. We don’t know how it happens, but it happens.
Not found in common books of liturgy, I reproduce it here with thanks to the peerless Neal Stephenson who puts the prayer into the mouth of Samuel Pepys. (Lithotomy is of course the removal of a gallstone.)
‘Lord of the Universe, Your humble servants Samuel Pepys and Daniel Waterhouse pray that you shall bless and keep the soul of the late Bishop of Chester, John Wilkins, who, wanting no further purification in the Kidney of the World, went to your keeping twenty years since. And we give praise and thanks to You for having given us the rational faculties by which the procedure of lithotomy was invented, enabling us, who are further from perfection, to endure longer in this world, urinating freely as the occasion warrants. Let our urine-streams, gleaming and scintillating in the sun’s radiance as they pursue their parabolic trajectories earthward, be as an outward and visible sign of Your Grace, even as the knobbly stones hidden in our coat pockets remind us that we are all earth, and we are all sinners. Do you have anything to add, Mr Waterhouse?’
“I believe in the grace of God. For me, that is where all these questions end”
and then this:
“then there he would be, fresh from the gallows, shocked at the kindness all around him.”
I can’t remember the last time I cried while reading a book. I could feel the sobbing welling up inside. It was doubly embarrassing because I was lying next to a pool in the Cote d’Azur on a brilliant blue day, and my wife was reading Bill Bryson.
Perhaps it was post-traumatic stress speaking after my coma and paralysis three years ago. The book I was reading had the weight of an old hymn, suffering graced in music.
Or perhaps it was because God was beautiful and humans, like mathematics, need infinity to make the sums come out right.
Either way, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is extraordinary.
Always nice to hear of someone finding their way home.
It was interesting to read of A N Wilson’s conversion back to the Christian faith, which he originally wrote about in 2009. Wilson is a writer, critic and rustler-of-feathers.
But in an engaging article, Wilson confesses he didn’t make a good swivel-eyed atheist and offers this suggestion as to why he turned back to Christianity:
The existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.
In another place–the Daily Mail, not a publication I usually have the honour of reading–he added this:
My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known – not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die.
One is from philosophy, one from theology. Each is an antidote to the popular idea that we humans are just annoying and insignificant growths on a small and remote rock.
Look at the people on the bus around you. Tattooed? Blue-rinsed? Unsavoury politics? Also precious. Cosmically significant. No, really.
Then look at your church if you attend one. Comically insignificant or cosmically significant? Or both? Read on.
Philosphy and science
The existence of mind in some organism on the planet is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness … This can be no byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here. Paul Davies 1
This says: through the people on the bus around (and others) the soulless, material Universe has developed, or been given, a soul. Quite cool.
Theology and mission
[History] has its action in the eternal being of the Triune God before the creation; it has its goal in the final unity of the whole creation in Christ; and meanwhile the secret of this cosmic plan, the foretaste of its completion, has been entrusted to these little communities of marginal people scattered through the towns and cities of Asia Minor. Lesslie Newbigin 2
And this says: The little Christian communities of the world, a couple of million of them, a speckling in the human species, are somehow the link between Creation and re-Creation. We carry in us the first streaks of eternity’s dawn. In the midst of all our poverty.
‘Once upon a time, Truth went about the streets as naked as the day he was born. As a result, no-one would let him into their homes. Whenever people caught sight of him, they turned away and fled. One day when Truth was sadly wandering about, he came upon Parable. Now, Parable was dressed in splendid clothes of beautiful colors. And Parable, seeing Truth, said, “Tell me, neighbor, what makes you look so sad?” Truth replied bitterly, “Ah, brother, things are bad. Very bad. I’m old, very old, and no-one wants to acknowledge me. No-one wants anything to do with me.”
Hearing that, Parable said, “People don’t run away from you because you’re old. I too am old. Very old. But the older I get, the better people like me. I’ll tell you a secret: Everyone likes things disguised and prettied up a bit. Let me lend you some splendid clothes like mine, and you’ll see that the very people who pushed you aside will invite you into their homes and be glad of your company.”
Truth took Parable’s advice and put on the borrowed clothes. And from that time on, Truth and Parable have gone hand in hand together and everyone loves them. They make a happy pair.’
(Yiddish Folktales, Pantheon Books, New York, edited by Beatrice Silverinan Weinreich, ISBN: 080521090)
As we read the four gospels, we see that Jesus never used scripture as a starting point except in the synagogue. He always used stories about everyday things. Perhaps surprisingly, it is never recorded that He even used a short narrative story from what we now call the Old Testament.
Jesus was not a theologian; he was God who told stories (Madeleine L’Engle)
What science is good at. And what science isn’t good at. According to @rabbisacks
“Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization….But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every(one) should ask at some time in his or her life: “Who am I? Why am I here? How then should I live?”.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Not in God’s Name.
(Actually this is not a problem with science; just a necessary limitation worth recognizing)