/Around 2008 an atheist SF writer named John C Wright prayed this:
Dear God. There is no logical way you could possibly exist, and even if you appeared before me in the flesh, I would call it an hallucination. So I can think of no possible way, no matter what the evidence and no matter how clear it was, that you could prove your existence to me. But the Christians claim you are benevolent, and that my failure to believe in you inevitably will damn me. If, as they claim, you care whether or not I am damned, and if, as they claim, you are all wise and all powerful, you can prove to me that you exist even though I am confident such a thing is logically impossible. Thanking you in advance for your cooperation in this matter, John C. Wright.”
In a single month a while ago I made four visits and had four snapshots of quiet revolution.
A tour round Jimmy’s Nightshelter in central Cambridge
Taking some furniture to be recycled at the Emmaus community north of Cambridge
Buying some fairly traded food at the Daily Bread Cooperative in the North of Cambridge
Popping in to see the manager of our own St Martin’s Centre for the elderly.
Each place exuded peace and a kind of a quiet well-ordered-ness. Each place runs through the hands of many volunteers and a number of full-time staff who are not paid well. Each fights almost daily battles with bureaucracy and politics that threaten to capsize the whole ship. Yet each provides a vital service to a large part of a city.
Each is an expression of Christian faith that is unsung, long-term, wholly appropriate for the 21st century.
Then I read this quote — more appropriate to regions outside Europe, but still relevant.
‘Alongside the political, economic, social and technological revolutions … which have commanded enormous media attention and coverage … there has been this far less trumpeted, but equally important revolution in the status and standing of worldwide Christianity. Few have taken on board what is happening.’ (Kenneth Hylsom-Smith To the ends of the earth ISBN 978 1 842 274 750)
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.