This is the best time of year to experience ‘Peak Bookshop’. All the titles for Christmas shopping will be in. (Or should be.)
Sort your way past the:
Celebrity puff pieces
Old horses being flogged (regular bestsellers hatching another well-timed Christmas hardback)
… and find the stuff that makes bookshops great. That makes bookshops still great despite being gutted and filleted by Amazon: a curated collection of original, brilliant, beyond-our-experience insight. Storytelling round a global campfire. Human minds on sale, packaged for easy consumption. The best thinking, expressed in the best ways, all ready for us to engage with, dream with, laugh with, lose ourselves in, ponder, be shaped by.
The people I know who are outside of the Christian faith would not respond too well to Bible verses like this:
But you were once darkness — now you are light in the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8)
I see their point. I would rather call my neighbours and colleagues funny, courageous, kind, hospitable, warm-hearted. And so on. Rather than, you know, ‘darkness.’
Of course the Apostle Paul (for it is he) is writing at this point not to outsiders to the faith, but to insiders, and surely he is encouraging them in their self doubt, and reminding them of God’s kindness. He uses a different language when he is stirring people to follow Christ in the first place.
But it raises the question: what are we actually talking about here? Is faith a thing? Or is it just a religious rebranding of an unchanged heart?
I think it’s a bit like re-purposing a good, old, disused building or taking on a neglected allotment (an allotment in the UK is a patch of land that you can rent cheaply to grow vegetables). An old allotment actually may contain all kinds of treasures, fruit trees, brambles, an asparagus patch. But it is overgrown.
A new owner comes. The bindweed and the ground elder don’t vanish overnight. Both before the change and afterwards, the allotment is a mix of good crop and weeds. But after the new owner comes, it has new direction, new planting, new purpose, intentional ground clearing, a new direction and a new destiny. And it’s still easily neglected, plagued with slugs, not necessarily all that fruitful.
What came before wasn’t worthless. It contained real treasure. Yet the upheaval and change is real too. Darkness and light.
It’s kind of basic to being a Christian. We want to know God’s will and follow it. You can’t call Christ ‘Lord, Lord’ and then go off and ignore what he says. We have to pursue obedience.
But for me the Christian life only works when we pursue joy as well.
My experience is that we try to do things faithfully and obediently but without joy we can manage to a certain extent—and we have to, because we all have to do stuff we don’t particularly like doing.
But if that’s all we do, and we do it for a long time, we start to run out of steam, get cynical, feel trapped. We may not know how it happened—we never wanted it to happen—but we know it has happened or is currently now happening. Externally we can look fine but internally, we know things are not so good.
(Of course the other side is true too. If we merely pursue pleasure and happiness, that too becomes rather empty.)
A kind of repentance
Somehow—it seems to me—the fruitful place is when we are under the influence of both faithfulness and joy. We obey Christ. But we lean towards, move into, preferentially choose, those tasks and roles that seem to answer a deep longing in our hearts, those things that nourish us, those things we love. ‘I have food’ said Jesus to the disciples, ‘of which you know nothing.’ He found joy and nourishment in his obedience.
Choosing joy as well is obedience is a kind of repentance. Why? Because it is turning away from a focus on jobs to be done and gaps to be filled and turning back to Christ himself. It is realizing, again, we have an audience of just One, and everything we do we do for him. It is seeking to have him re-create us again, a bit more in his image. It’s admitting our need and helplessness, not looking to him for a medal.
First light: it isn’t dark: the sky is brightening, day is inevitable. But it isn’t day either, because the Sun has yet to rise in all its glory, transforming everything.
When the Sun rises, it touches the mountaintops first. The church is very like these mountains. We are positioned there in the night-time landscape. We ourselves are a mixture of darkness and light. But what makes us different is that without any merit on our part, without us even particularly doing anything, the Sun is shining on us.
Here in the night-time, we are already enjoying the day-time. God brings a little day-time to us, and through us a light is cast on a twilit world.
Something real has happened to us if we turned to Christ. The New Testament boldly states that when Christ gives someone a new heart, it’s a piece of the world to come: ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!’
Then—like that sunlit mountain—we are a sign of something, and an example of something, to the world around.
As has been often observed, the old paradigm in the West is Christendom, and it’s disintegrating.
We now need to rethink this new day. But we have help.
The prophet Jeremiah also saw two paradigms in his own lifetime. He saw the idea of God’s-people-as-a-country, with its surface-mounted devotion, corrupt and hollow, collapse — the end of one paradigm.
At the same time he called on Jewish exiles in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7).
This was astonishing. God’s people are no longer a nation, Jeremiah was saying. They were to be more like a network. In his way, Jeremiah was as radical as Moses, radical enough to see what of Moses to scrap.
No more separation from the non-Jewish people around you, Jeremiah told the people of God: get stuck in. Keep your faith, but build a good city along with them.
No more Promised Land: now the God of the Promise, present with God’s people in every land.
No longer propping up an abandoned structure: now they were starting a new build. No longer a national focus: now a global one.
This echoes down into the New Testament, and is our call now.
The collapse of civilisation is, on current evidence, greatly exaggerated.
In the UK, teenagers are sobering up, youth courts are closing, fewer children are getting pregnant, crime is falling. Establishment hypocrisy and bullying (some of it ascribed to the church) is being exposed. Casual racism and discrimination are being challenged and people who were formerly above the law now seem to be being thrown in jail. And unlike my dad or my grandad, neither my son nor I have been obliged to serve the country as a soldier and, like them be shot at, shelled or gassed.
It may not last. But across the world (hard though it may be to believe), a smaller proportion of humanity is being killed by conflict, childbirth, childhood diseases, or mosquitos than in any human memory, living or collective.
An inconvenient grace
This is awkward in some church circles, especially in Europe and the West, where a story of national decline is as familiar as the story of Noah’s Ark:
Fewer people have a Christian outlook
God-centred morality is being replaced by harm-centred morality
National law is diverging from Biblical reference points.
The losses of living faith are I think real–witness the hulking, empty churches that surround us and once did buzz with people at least some of whom actually believed. But these losses of faith have happened in the middle of rising prosperity and health.
What then has been lost? May I suggest (among many things too complicated for me to understand) it is the shelter from the storm?
It’s what happens the typhoon hits. In my observation people who don’t know Jesus don’t do too well when crises and losses come. It’s like they haven’t anywhere to go, no one to lean into when great sorrow pours down from the sky or erupts within bodies or families.
This is so massively, incomparably different for those of us in churches and with faith in Jesus. We are just as angry, just as confused, just as wretched, but unjustly held and undeservedly loved. And superrationally happy.
That’s the loss.
The arms of love that comfort me would all mankind embrace.
It’s not actually a Biblical idea; which is a problem.
I was galvanised when I first came across this phrase. Actually, since galvanised means ‘using electricity to coat something with zinc’, I wasn’t literally galvanised, but you know what I mean. The electrodes sizzled and cracked and I sat up sharply. A burst of electricity, and I had a new resilience.
Don’t die with your music still inside you. This was a sustaining thought during the dark period that followed my month-long coma in 2013. I tried to get back to health, for two reasons. To enjoy time with my family again. And to write the stuff that had been going on in my heart all my life. That phrase about ‘my music’ and ‘not dying’ was a sword for the fight.
I did recover, and it’s wonderful, and the stream of books I wanted to write has started to dribble. (See the sites for my fiction and my non-fiction.) I encourage everyone everywhere to take that phrase to heart and do something about it, whenever they can.
But as an idea, it isn’t quite true. It chimes with many Biblical themes: gifting, vocation. Everyone serving each other by doing what they love to do most.But does it account for the obstacles and traps? For the stumbles in a broken world? For the person who gave themselves to caring for others rather than expressing the deep longings of their heart? For the child you lost or never had? For the fact that sometimes in our lives the night-time blinds are drawn in the middle of bright day?
Is it true that, for love’s sake, some people do ‘die with their music still inside them’? Or does the brokenness of the world sometimes prevent it?
In truth, I think, everything in this pre-death life is just a preliminary. It’s just the starter for the eternal meal, and we don’t always even finish the starter. Our ‘music’ is not just for this life, but for eternity. Let’s hope some will emerge now, but anyways it will emerge later. It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright now, that means it’s not the end.
Eternity isn’t just about marvelling over the unfolding creativity of God. We were built in his image. Through the unravelling ages we will be creating—letting out the music—alongside him.
My colleague Flora, from the mission where I work, wrote this:
Two years ago I took time out from ministry, having got near breaking point. This was the result of at least 8 years of trying to cover more than one leadership role. My time out enabled me to recognise that I also have an inbuilt tendency to fill gaps rather than let things fall apart. It has been hard to step away and see others struggle because I am no longer picking up pieces.
Five months of rest and reflection led me to realise I could not go back to team leadership. One of the problems when you are gifted in different areas and good at multi-tasking is discerning what God wants to do through you. In recent years I had come to recognise that at heart I am a mission mobiliser, encouraging people into the adventure of sharing the gospel cross-culturally. Part of my struggle was that I had become tied to a desk. Also, I knew that as a mission mobiliser with no time or opportunity to develop personal experience of cross-cultural evangelism I was at a severe disadvantage.
As I laid this before God I found Him opening up areas of ministry I would never have imagined. Eighteen months on I am in regular contact with refugees and asylum seekers of different nationalities in my city and have a number of Muslim friends. Through my church I am now involved in evangelism and discipleship, primarily with Iranians. Recently I had the joy of helping to baptise six new followers of Jesus!
At the same time God has opened up doors of opportunity and influence locally and nationally as a mission mobiliser.
Flora’s story echoed with me. Perhaps there are seasons when we have to fill gaps and serve our organisation. But it drains us, and it we know it. Unless gap-filling is our particular gift, there comes a time when we have to get out, rethink, and get into what we love and are good at. For Flora, it took a sabbatical; for me illness.
A friend who is nursing a very sick wife wrote about how much they were enjoying talking and eating and Bible study and TV. That resonated with me.
Conversation, company, meals, devotion and story-telling: you don’t know how valuable they are till you’ve lost a lot of other things.
Illness can make you do that, pan for the gold. When a flow of suffering washes normal life away, you realise that gleaming among the residue was the treasure you’d been wanting all your life.
We often stumble into this gold, and then stumble away from it again.Maybe suffering or illness helps refine our tastes. It’s interesting to compile a list of what does or doesn’t have this life-giving, joy-giving quality. Here’s my attempt — you may disagree:
People creating something together, for example in a sports team or an orchestra or a village fete
Pottering in the garden
Being happily part of a family
People accumulating together but without community: queues, traffic jams, tourism
Eating ‘al desko’
Looking at a screen into the small hours
Death by Powerpoint
‘Slow mission’, I think, is about choosing these things — things that will exist in some form in eternity — over the things that will pass away?