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 inventor of the Big Bang Theory on God and science

A priest does cosmology

Big Bang Fireworks
Rare photo of the Big Bang, taken by God  on his iPhone 7 and only recently released

The inventor of the Big Bang theory (sorry to disappoint, but I mean the actual theory, not the TV series) was a Belgian priest called Georges Lemaitre.

The Catholic Church was fond of Lemaitre, and hugged his theories perhaps even a little too warmly, relishing the way Lemaitre’s idea of a moment of creation became mainstream. In a reversal of the Galileo-vs-Urban VIII fixture, Lemaitre had to persuade Pope Pius XII not to be too enthusiastic about what was, after all, just a science theory.

Lemaitre also explained his take on why Christians should embrace science:

Does the Church need Science? Certainly not. The Cross and the Gospel are enough. However nothing that is human can be foreign to the Christian. How could the Church not be interested in the most noble of all strictly human occupations, namely the search for truth?’

For Lemaitre, you could two two sources to learn about God: revelation, and the natural world.

The quotes were taken from Star Struck (2016), a brave attempt by Evangelical astronomer David Bradstreet and writer Steve Rabey to hint to zealous Young Earth Creationists that they might be, er, wrong.

‘Just mercy’

American gulag.

Which country currently has locked 2.3m people in its prisons? Which country has jailed nearly 3,000 children for life with no possibility of parole? Can’t be North Korea (country isn’t big enough). Isn’t China. Stalin is dead so it’s not Russia either.

Welcome to the USA, home to between a quarter and a third of all the world’s jailed, the exceptional nation.

Bryan Stephenson is an African-American lawyer who set up a practice to offer legal support to death-row prisoners and to children who were jailed for life.

He worked in Monroe County, home of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. In a great irony, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is celebrated widely in Monroe County, but does not seem to have made much difference to the courts, where African-Americans, especially poor ones, face a fierce fight to get justice.

It’s an astonishing book – both for the stories it tells, and its glimpses of grace. I cut and pasted a few bits below.

No HIstorical parallel

‘When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole … one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.’ (pp 14-15)

Youth justice

‘Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.’ (p 15)

Further consequences of mass incarceration

We ban poor women and, inevitably, their children from receiving food stamps and public housing if they have prior drug convictions … Some states permanently strip people with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result in several Southern states disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. (p16)

A principle

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. (p 17-18)

Alabama’s racist constitution

‘The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro.’ (Section 102 of the Alabama constitution.) This was only voted down in a statewide ballot in 2000AD; still, 41% of voters opposed it. (It had been unenforceable since a Supreme Court ruling in 1967)

Redemption and mercy

I have discovered, deep in the heart of many condemned and incarcerated prisoners, the scattered traces of hope and humanity–seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.’ (p17)

‘The true measure of [our society’s character] is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated and the the condemned.

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community … Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive … The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and–perhaps–we all need some measure of unmerited grace.’ (p18)

Just Mercy: a story of justice and redemption

by Bryan Stevenson [Scribe UK]
Price: £9.99 - - -

A business leader ponders commitment to Christ 

Is 51% control enough for God?

‘… It was if my life had shares and God wanted 100 percent control of it. A divine tug-of-war ensued. Why would God want all of me? Could there be a joint venture? Could I carve out a special deal to suit me? What about a partnership? Was 50/50 not a good arrangement. It became clear that true freedom was to be found in full surrender to the love of God. It did not come to me easily, nor at once. I got there in stages. I recall praying that God would take 51 percent of my life–control but not whole ownership. I remember the churning an d the heated deliberation within myself as this plan did not seem to achieve the desired objective. I saw then, and recognize now more fully, the arrogance of negotiating with God and the foolishness in believing I had anything to offer God. I recall praying: “Lord have all of me. Only don’t abandon me.” In that moment, I realized that the God who loved the entire world also loved mean and would stay faithful to me, even when I was not faithful to him, as has sadly often been the case.

‘What struck me at once was the immediate change in every area of my life…’

Ken Costa, banker, in his helpful book God at Work.

by - [-]
Price: £10.99 - - -

Is evangelism biblical?

Only evangelicals believe this.

Breaking bread, juice, dinner party, Broadview townhouse, Seattle, Washington, USAHere’s a question.

Is evangelism something you should ‘do’? Is this how we should think?

  1. I am a Christian
  2. The world needs to know the gospel
  3. Led by God, I must go and tell it/them.

I’ve believed this is the right thing to do for decades but never much liked the idea, and not been too good at it either.

There’s an alternative:

  1. The Kingdom is coming
  2. Turn to the King and follow him

I like this much better. Why are these two ideas different?

The first seems to be fatally flawed in that it casts me as the good guy and the expert and the world as the needy thing to which I am sent like a spiritual paramedic. I am broken, as truly broken as the world is, we all know this, I want to communicate this. We evangelicals like to talk about ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’: good so far. But having the wrong starting point really doesn’t help this communication effort. When I climb into the spiritual ambulance, put the blue lights on, and race helpfully towards you I am obscuring the message of our mutual need.

The second approach starts with broken me and sets as my duty ‘following Jesus’ rather than ‘evangelizing’. Go where he leads; do what he wants me to do; become what he wants me to become; and strive to form disciples en route.

The first feels like a marketing campaign, the second feels more like a pilgrimage – and also more natural, normal and slow.

There’s some Biblical heft behind the second idea (as well as personal preference). It’s what Jesus himself said and did, right from the start on the Galilee lakeside: the Kingdom is coming: embrace it.

It’s what he sent out his apostles to preach and demonstrate.

Even the Great Commission in Matthew, the final peak of Christ’s teaching, is not (as is often taught and I myself have taught) ‘go and make disciples’. It is best translated, ‘in your going’; ‘as you go’; or (I paraphrase) ‘on your way through life’, ‘make disciples of all the nations.’

I don’t think all the evidence is in my favour and I am deliberately overstating things. Just a few days ago I heard of more than 50 students making a profession of faith after what looked a lot like an evangelistic campaign in their university. Paul and other apostles clearly strategized, preached, believed they had the answers and set out to teach the world. They behaved like good evangelicals. But they were gifted evangelists. And they were only a part of the Church’s response to Christ; they had their limitations too. And perhaps campus evangelistic missions are more like the exception in church growth, not the rule.

We are not all evangelists. Teaching us all to behave like evangelists is an evangelical weakness, a weakness that’s obvious to everyone (except ourselves). We thereby seem to love to instruct people in the right way to live–not an attractive quality–rather than admitting the truth, which is that we are all hippos together in the glorious mud–but Christ has come among us.

Keep a pencil handy

Because eternity’s at your shoulder

lined paper

Today someone, armed just with a pencil and paper could make something that will last forever.

It might be a pencil sketch, or a melody, or a novel, or a theorem.

As long as there are people, that picture or song or story or insight will live on. Even if humans are out-evolved by (let us say) intelligent machines, they may be wise enough still to treasure these divine relics.

And our art may add to the furniture in an eternal age to come. The Bible’s Book of Revelation says ‘The glory and honour of the nations’ will be carried into City of God (Rev 21:26).

Once there was a time when Picasso had not sketched a dove, when Handel had not written the Hallelujah chorus, when no-one knew the magical relation between e, i, pi, 1 and zero, when no-one had ever written a gospel or a sonnet.

Today or tomorrow some art will be created that will loved for a thousand or ten thousand years.

Two thoughts

Two obvious thoughts flow:

  1. How can anyone believe we are not made in the image of God? That we are not his sketches, melodies, novels, theorems? That he didn’t create us to create this stuff to celebrate his glory of which he contained too much to keep to himself?
  2. Buy a pencil-sharpener.

 

‘They did not wait for his plans to unfold’

Bad, very bad.

CIMG2561.JPG

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.

On following the money

Channel your inner Yorkshireman. You know it’s good for you

UntitledMy late accountant friend, a fine Christian, used to work out the health of things by ‘following the money’. It sounded a bit mercenery to me, but I’ve come round to liking it a lot for its diagnostic power.

If the money isn’t working, your vocation, ministry, organization is not in good health. (Discuss.)

Last night I went through in my head the stories of several friends who followed a Christian vocation or a business idea and just couldn’t make the money work. They tried for a long time. Often, others told them it wasn’t going to work. All suffered quite a bit. In the end each had to give up and do something else. I’m not saying they were wrong to try, but the subsequent let-down wasn’t painless.

Interestingly, of all them changed direction and got jobs that paid and that were also a toned-down version of their original dream. They found a middle way that included earning a living as well as being fruitful and happy.

Our men’s breakfast group at church was looking at this the other week, and we were surprised how emphatically the Bible came down on the side of common sense — channelling, as it were, its inner Yorkshireman. Follow your dreams by all means, but first make the money work.

This is difficult!  In pursuit of vocation, dream, calling, or business idea, many of us have to face opposition, shortage, severe financial hardship. So how do you know if your current-financial-hardship-in-pursuit-of-dream is

(a) a merely necessary stage in your eventual success or

(b) a sign from God that you have located the wrong tree. (Good effort for barking up it but, wrong tree.)

Some common sense surely helps here. Living an indebted life isn’t good. Failing to look after your family definitely isn’t good. And finally and definitively running out of money is sometimes a great mercy.

Craftsmen! Fight the horns!

Take back control by using the unfair weapons of generosity, wit and grace.

Mercado Medieval‘Craftsman! Fight the horns!’ is not a battle-cry I hear that often, perhaps for obvious reasons. 1

I like it though. You who are Bible scholars will recognize it from the the prophet/poet Zechariah. He talks about ‘horns’ (nasty, sharp, heavy, brutal things) let loose in the nation, but then ‘craftsmen’ come along and de-horn the horns. (Zechariah 1:18-21)

A better translation for ‘craftsmen’ might be ‘blacksmiths’ because I’m told the word is a generic one for any worker in metal.

What I really like is that the solution to the horns is not bigger horns. It’s skilled people, people doing their jobs beautifully and well. The book of Daniel has a ‘little horn’ that undermines the big ones. Same sort of idea, perhaps: in neither case is the solution major horn-on-horn combat. The New Testament takes this further with the simple ‘overcome evil with good.’

2016 seems (to me) like a vintage year for horns. I really want to fight horn with horn, but the fight is against thuggish misconceptions, not people. I have to face the possibility, however slight, that the ‘huddled masses’ who are today ‘yearning to be free (of foreigners)’ are actually good people exactly like me, only with differently configured flaws.

I suspect the best way to oppose the horns is to give humility, courtesy, generosity and craftsmanship a go.

(Which means giving up a lot of really enjoyable malicious humour. Pity…)