The end of a claustrophobic life

Midlife: A Philosophical Guide
I read a wonderful description of middle-age angst the other day, written by a 41-year-old. He called it:

‘a disconcerting mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness and fear.’ 1.

The best thing was remembering feeling exactly that–perhaps when I was in my forties too– but not now feeling it anymore.

What changed?

For me it was a years of ill-health and disappointment. My heart stopped in 2011, though happily they managed to re-start and fix it. Then in 2013 I spent a month in a coma and the following couple of years in and out of wheelchairs.

At work, from 2008 onwards  I had ten years of painful transition from a publishing contract to a self-publishing life. 2 I sell fewer books but now I write and teach things that refresh and renew my spirit (occasionally, they help other people too).

In that desert time I think I found three things that really mattered: worship, relationships, and vocation.  Add in a couple of others (recovered health, financial security, kids doing great) and I have been able to make the following Bible text my screensaver:

In my distress I cried out to the Lord

The Lord answered me and put me in a wide open place

Worship, relationship, vocation; not claustrophobia, a wide open space.

It feels like a discovery.

The need to unknow

Uncertainty and scepticism strengthen faith

The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs‘.

Bible paraphraser J B Philips wrote this in 1961. ‘While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.

He went on to describe the dangers of not letting your understanding of God grow along with everything else:

It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday School age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by great effort of will, he does this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.

(J B Philips Your God is Too Small, (Collier/Macmillan 1961) p 7).

Your God is too small

by J. B Phillips [The Epworth Press]
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I found these references to J B Phillips in David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey’s enjoyable astronomical tour Star Struck (Zondervan 2016), p261.

Star Struck

by Dr. David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey [Zondervan]
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Happy failure

The value of oops and downs

oopsWith the start of a new academic year looming, this is one my better subjects: failure. The kind of failure I’m thinking of is not some kind of accidental slip-up, a bit of inattention.

I mean the failure that comes despite careful planning and good counsel and, if you’re a Christian, diligent prayer. Despite your best efforts, it didn’t work out. However you spin it, it didn’t succeed.

Here are notes I made while reflecting on my failures and disappointments:

  1. We are in process with God, his ways are not ways, and ‘failure’ and ‘success’ look different to him than they do to us.
  2. Failure is a normal part of life.
  3. It is a false spirituality to think that we are immune from failure, and so must re-define it as success.
  4. There are puzzles in this Universe we will never solve.
  5. It’s good to be reminded to put our motivation and trust in God, not in our own success or our own selves.
  6. God’s presence, in the midst of failure or while pursuing an ultimately failed attempt, is an enduring sign of his favour. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.’
  7. There’s a freedom and joy that comes from belonging to the community of the failed, the got-it-wrong.

When God breaks your stuff

To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart…

(Broken...I was pleased to receive this thoughtful story for the blog.)

‘I was such a good missionary. I had given up so much. Surely God would respect that. Right?’

A cross-cultural worker writes of her experience of paring down her worldly goods ready for a simple life among people much poorer than herself, and then finding that within her first 12 months the precious things she had taken from home were mostly broken or damaged by visitors to her home.

She describes her pain and anger with God, followed by brokenness at the recognition of her resentment; the resulting surrender to God and the realisation ‘that people are always more important than things. Always.’

The title grabbed my attention because I too have pondered over similar issues. Not that I have lost crockery or ornaments. Having never been much attached to goods and chattels, I would have difficulty filling two plastic barrels, let alone the 20 that this lady writes of! But that doesn’t mean that other things don’t become precious to me…

Looking back over more than 35 years in mission I have thrown myself into my work, seeking always to honour God, to build up and encourage others. By and large I have enjoyed the ministries God has led me into. These have been for the most part low-profile, with the occasional up-front speaking engagement. I have long recognised God-given leadership gifts and have often been aware of my own insecurities in this role. At the same time, aspirations and ambitions have at times risen to the surface and have had to be laid before God. In asking Him to ‘rank me with whom You will,’ I have frequently been surprised at where He has taken me.

The vision fades

For me, the breaking has come in a different way. I look back over two periods of my life when as part of a leadership team I have given of my best, often going beyond the call of duty, to get a team to the ‘performing’ stage.

In the first case, decisions began to be taken that unwound the changes we had led. Had we failed to communicate the new vision adequately? Or had people simply gone along with it at the time for the sake of peace? Slowly we watched the ministry drift, lose personnel, and forget the original vision.

In the second instance, I stepped down and the new leadership team that took over proved to be overstretched with other responsibilities. That led to dissatisfaction and drift and eventually new leaders were appointed. But they proved to be an unhappy choice, failing to gain the support of the staff.

To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart is painful – doubly so when it happens the second time! As a former leader I felt I couldn’t interfere. There were days when I had to work hard to avoid adding my comments to the critical voices around me (to my shame I have to say, not always successfully.) As I struggled with my feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment at those who appear to be making poor decisions and ultimately at God Himself for allowing this to happen, I could only watch and pray and ponder…

Did I as a leader miss something significant? Where did I/ we go wrong? Could I have done more to prevent things falling apart? Have other parties been at fault? (Don’t we all want to place the blame at someone else’s door?) This was my life’s work – what is there to show for it? Have I wasted my days building a house of hay and straw, only for it all to come tumbling down? And then, of course, the big question: Where is God in all of this?

The God Question has been the easiest to answer. Over and over again He continues to reveal His love and His grace. He is the unchanging One and in those ongoing revelations of grace I have been reminded that God is loving and kind and altogether on my side! He tests the motives of our hearts and takes us through the refining fire. It is after all His work, not mine, and who am I to argue with Him? It is He who permits ‘men to ride over our heads’. As time has gone on Psalm 66:10-12 has enabled me to put things in perspective. I can only conclude that God has been there all along and continues to work out His purposes, even when the walls come tumbling down.

At the end of the day He will be glorified.

The same psalm speaks of God bringing us to ‘a place of abundance.’ This too is part of my story. Not only have I discovered afresh the love and faithfulness of a Heavenly Father, but I am surrounded these days by people who are choosing to follow Jesus. Playing a small part in their discipleship and practical support is an incredible privilege, with its own joys and sorrows. Through difficult days God has indeed brought me to a place of abundance.

Evangelical mission: notes for the future

Potted intro to a new day

| 5 |If evangelical mission was software, we are seeing the launch of version 5.0. Borrowing from other church historians (especially Ralph Winter) here’s a simplified version history.

Missions 1.0: nothing at all

Shortly after the Reformation, the Catholic mission orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits had the fields all to themselves. Through these brilliant missionaries, with their mass-baptism programmes and their culturally sensitive outreach to elites, the Catholic church gained more converts than it had lost through the European schism.

Mission 2.0: The invention of the NGO

The mission agency was invented at the end of the 18th century. It was a Swiss-army-knife-type operation that developed all the necessary skills to recruit and manage a flow of Christians from the Protestant world (mostly Europe and the US) to the non-Christian countries, and also to the Catholic and Orthodox lands.

Mission 3.0: Inland

A generation or so after NGOs got a foothold on the coasts and trading posts, a new wave of pioneers took the gospel beyond coastal cities like Shanghai or Kolkata into the inland regions. This was the era of leaders like Hudson Taylor, trusting God for missionaries in every province of China, and of a new generation of NGOs like the China Inland Mission, the Unevangelized Fields Mission and the Heart of Africa Mission (later WEC).

Mission 4.0: Unreached peoples

Fast forward to 1974 (and pass over other developments like two world wars, the liberal/conservative split and Pentecostal and charismatic renewal). An understanding of unreached peoples took hold in the missions community. Even though a church was present in every country, many people were still isolated from the gospel by cultural barriers. Missions 4.0 built networks to discover and reach every cultural group–hence NGOs like Wycliffe Bible Translators and Gospel Recordings; books like Operation World; and strategies and networks that tried to catalyze new Christian movements so that everyone could meet Christ within a language and culture in which they felt at home.

Missions 5.0 Pluralism

Just as computer software has had to adapt from life on a single PC to appearing on many interlinked devices of differing shapes and capacities, so the simplicities of Mission 2.0 have been replaced by an increasingly universal pluralism. Cultures are all shaped by the same forces. Universally, people are moving into cities, leaving poverty and its diseases behind, getting access to travel and information. And cultures are being jumbled together. Ever-more people work with, live next to, or worship alongside people from different cultures. Ever-more unreached peoples have Christian near-neighbours.

Evangelical mission is still based on its original version 2.0 coding, despite extensive tweaks at versions 3.0 and 4.0 that extended its life. It’s time for a re-write.

The need of the hour is to spread vision and skills for cross-cultural mission onto a variety of ‘devices’ such as local Christians, local churches, local specialist agencies, short-term trippers, schoolchildren, students, professionals, refugees, migrants and retirees. This is evangelical mission 5.0. Mission agencies, instead of being swiss-army-knife, we-can-do-it organizations, need to be–I would argue–like ‘the cloud’, resourcing everything everywhere, knitting networks together and in those ways making cross-cultural kingdom-spreading a realistic option for Christians in every context.

Not sulking, just thinking hard

That’s our story anyway.

What brought this post on was hearing a lecture from Catholic historian Eamonn Duffy.

In its pre-reformation days, we were told, the Church happily contained many strands of thinking under its ample skirts. Later Reformation criticism (against dubious fundraising through selling indulgences for example) were openly discussed and campaigned against by people such as Erasmus, within the Catholic fold.

After the split, however, the Church of Rome convened the  Council of Trent, better known perhaps as the Almighty Catholic​ Sulk 1 and made a perverse point of adopting all the dodgy stuff as it had been central all along. The split hardened what once was fluid.

Nothing new here of course. The estranged halves of a split each get busy digging trenches. But it’s everywhere.

Is this what faces our Brexiteers as they try to negotiate Tessa May’s beloved Deep and Special Partnersnip with the EU? Will we, instead, find our former partners in full Council of Trent mode? Hope not.

Doesn’t it explain our own country a bit as well? In our church context, some nationalities, like the Chinese, approach the Christian faith in a rational manner: they turn up at church to learn what it is about. This keeps happening in our church.

Many of my fellow Brits, however, seem to reject even a mention of the gospel in what seems to me like an irrationally unfriendly way, like divorcees, like the bruised survivors of a split. The West, someone said, is haunted by the Christian faith.

What is the answer? It took hundreds of years for Catholics and Protestants to resume friendly relations. Let’s hope history really is moving quicker than that.

Horrible hype

‘I’m getting old,’ I complained to my wife. Old enough to see some much hyped Christian things crumble and fall. So sad. Today I was reminded of two.

Years ago I’d visited my publishers for a day of interviews and publicity shots. They’d shown me an exciting book they were hyping:  Taming the Tiger. A few years on, large parts of it were revealed as sham- after its author scooped prestigious awards, spoke widely, and distributed 1.5m copies.

After the original publisher withdrew it (and also went into administration, though that was probably from publishing me rather than publishing Taming the Tiger) another took it on, reluctant to waste a good bestseller.

Second, in a few days time from today, a pastor called Kong Hee, whom I spent an hour interviewing back in the 1990s in Singapore when he was pastor of ‘City Harvest Church’, starts a three-year prison sentence. He is guilty of misdirecting some $35m of church funds, largely in an attempt to launch his wife as a crossover Christian-maintream singer. I liked him when I met him.

Yesterday I read in my beloved Psalm 45 the prayer to the Messiah-King: ‘ride out on behalf of truth, humility and justice.’

 

‘They did not wait for his plans to unfold’

Bad, very bad.

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Psalm 106: vv 12-13:

‘Then they believed his promises

and sang his praise

‘But they soon forgot what he had done

And did not wait for his plans to unfold.’
Enough said.

The (second) greatest story ever told

A Christmas CarolI only re-read one book every year (apart from the Bible). I have an audio version of A Christmas Carol and I listen to it every Christmas season without fail. It’s huge fun and it’s about repentance.  What more could you want?

It’s also interesting for two other reasons:

  1. It’s nearly perfect. For me A Christmas Carol is the textbook for popular storytelling. Everything opened up at the beginning is resolved at the end. Everything is vivid and passionate. The dramatic tension never stops, building like a symphony through scene after perfect scene to the final explosion and the shattering and remaking of Scrooge.
  2. It shows how a novelist can change culture. All of us in the West draw on this text when we think about Christmas. Dickens edited the world by scribbling stories. He’s a reminder of why people should write; in a story-dominated world, culture is jerked and pulled across the stage by the story-tellers. If you want Christmas to be about something other than snow and the wretched jingle of sleighbells-something like a gleeful, subversive transformation of an old sinner–write a book.

My novel Paradise isn’t about Christmas. But it is subversive and is supposed to be funny.  A recent Amazon review from someone who described herself as an “extremely liberal atheist” was kind enough to say “Truly excellent! … I can’t wait to read his next work.” Which was nice. Courtesy of internet bookshops, I’ve been able to make Paradise a free download. Happy Christmas.

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