A slight problem with science

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)

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When suffering filters out the non-essentials

seek simplicity

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:

Does:
  • People creating something together, for example in a sports team or an orchestra or a village fete
  • Pottering in the garden
  • Conversation
  • Meals together
  • Storytelling
  • Belonging
  • Being happily part of a family

Doesn’t:

  • People accumulating together but without community: queues, traffic jams, tourism
  • Email
  • Meetings
  • Eating ‘al desko’
  • Looking at a screen into the small hours
  • Death by Powerpoint
  • Being famous
  • Being wealthy

‘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?

The joy of memorizing whole books

That said, I’ve only memorized two, and both were Bible books. Between about 1993 and 2005, I memorized Mark’s Gospel (whose 16 chapters is about 11,000 words) and somewhere later in the noughties I memorized Ephesians (whose six chapters is only around 2,500 words). I think I averaged about a chapter a year, and I was also reading the whole Bible each year usually, plus any special research projects. So it wasn’t my sole focus. And I was raising kids and holding down a job and so on.

Is it hard? Not at all. If like me you read the Bible devotionally anyway, you might as well. Like learning a language, only early death can stop you.

How do I do it? A bit at a time with lots of revision.

How did I start? I memorized a few psalms, to sort of convince myself I could do it.

What are the benefits?  I found them huge. Here are some:

  1. You really, deeply reflect on every word. It feeds your soul. This really is something. It’s like crossing a landscape by foot or narrowboat rather than on a motorway. Mark is (I think) the collection of stories Peter told while he was visiting the churches. You’re almost with him there in the audience, at that first telling among the smoking oil lamps. Wonderful. Meanwhile Ephesians is that astonishing, eagle-eyed view of the whole destiny of the Universe, and the church in its small acts of reconciliation and worship is somehow at the beating heart of it. There’s nothing like these two views. (Except, I suppose, other Bible books.)
  2. You can do it odd moments. When I lived in Singapore, I did it during my bus journey to work.
  3. It’s great for when part of your work is preparing talks or (as in my case) writing books. So much material is already in your head, pre-digested. I do find myself quoting Mark or Ephesians quite a lot.
  4. Loads of old people do sudokos to keep Alzheimer’s at bay. Fair enough. (I am not yet old.) But honestly, you can do a lot better. I noticed Ephesians was a lot easier to memorize than Mark, and not just because it was orders of magnitude smaller. I think maybe my brain got better at it.

How do I keep the memories fresh? In principle, I go through the whole two books again every year, often during a retreat day. I recite them out loud. My medical adventures of the past few years have disrupted that schedule, but I’ll get back to it. I have the book open when I recite it, because I have forgotten parts over the years.

It’s a good question whether I should take the necessary couple of months to get right back up to speed and be able to do the whole thing without opening the book: I tend to think that isn’t worth it, unless I was going to present that material in public or something.

How does it differ from other Bible memorization schemes? Well it’s probably personal taste, but I like the organic approach of tackling a whole of an author’s work. I prefer this to memorizing scripture nuggets out of context. This may be work for you, but I find it a bit forced.

Should I have a go? Up to you. Let me know how you’ve got on in about 12 years.

 

 

 

Things to do when you’ve missed your train at Kings Cross (part 1)

The British Library1.No, don’t go to platform 9 3/4 and watch the tourists photographing each other. Come out of the station, skip past St Pancras, and walk into the British Library.

2.Breathe deeply. Relax. It may look like a Young Offenders’ Institution, but this is an holy place.

3. Climb the broad stairs to the dimly-lit room where they keep their treasures.

4. Try not to get too excited.

5. Find the folio in which Handel hand-wrote the Hallelujah Chorus. It is open at the last page, the final, endless A-le-lu-ia, and you can see Handel’s spidery lines, his scribblings-out, his squashed semibreves, his desperate haste. This is not the forensically typeset version of the printed score. It is Handel’s own untidy and spontaneous penmanship.

(This is a photo of a facsimile, not the original, just in case you thought I’d done a bad thing.)Handel - in his own hand!

6. Reflect. Here’s what the all-knowing Internet says about Messiah:

In 1741, Handel composed Messiah and what we know now as the Hallelujah Chorus. While designing and composing Messiah, Handel was in debt and deeply depressed; however, the masterpiece was completed in a mere 24 days.

Despite his mental and financial state, the Hallelujah Chorus’s birth story is a glorious one. After Handel’s assistant called for him for a few moments, the assistant went to Handel’s work area because he received no response from Handel. Upon entering the room, the assistant saw tears emerge from Handel’s eyes. When the assistant asked why Handel was crying, Handel proclaimed, “I have seen the face of God.” 1

In front of Handel would have been the manuscript that’s now in front of you.

Here’s the internet again“Considering the immensity of the work and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition.”

7. Reflect some more. Life wasn’t going well. But a gifted person, in the place God meant him to be, doing the thing God gifted him to do, met God, created something beautiful, and 275 years later, the world is still reverberating.

A problem with miracles

You just can’t rely on them…

beauvaisOn Ascension Day 1573, just after the congregation had filed out of the building, the cathedral tower at Beauvais in Northern France fell through the roof. A monument to mediaeval hubris (it was, for a few short years, the tallest building in Europe), it  has never been finished1. But because the tower fell just after church, nobody died. A miracle?

1755On All Saints’ Day 1755 the Great Lisbon Earthquake struck, while the churches and Lisbon cathedral were packed with worshippers. Thousands died. Meanwhile the non-churchgoers, picknicking or partying away from the city, survived the quake and also the following fire and tsunami.

Christians 1, Atheists 1.

 

On why Atheists and Christians should be friends

And how mismatched are?)Here are some reasons:

1. We all have to share the planet and be good neighbours.

2. We all agree (I think) that humans are both wonderful and ‘born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward.’ We disagree why. Is it because we are created good and fell from God (as the Christian account has it) or because our intelligence and reasoning skills sit atop a brain still programmed by (some) unhelpful routines that evolved millions of years ago? Is that even different? Either way, we have a shared space to explore celebrations and remedies.

3. We can enrich each other. I have to admit that Christians (with some notable exceptions like the Quakers and the Salvation Army) have not historically been the leading proponents of fighting for some things that are now commonly held as precious, such as gender equality. Christians tend to put up with things rather than upset them. Sometimes, radical, pioneering atheists force me to go back and ask fresh questions of the Bible. They challenge sloppy thinking. Which can only be good. Perhaps we Christians can return the favour, because I have to report that sometimes in my observation the champions of pure reason do trip on their own shoelaces, especially in the face of Christ.

4. I’d like to hear the best things that atheism has to offer; and like to offer the best things I know of Christ in return. So our debate is about our comparing our good points, more than dredging up our bad.

5. In all this, it is quite fun winding each other up. At least atheists are interested in God, which is more than I can say for most people in the West.

6. We can convert each other, which is a lot more possible in  a place of peaceful dialogue than trench warfare, lobbing chosen texts at each other. And this is a good thing, a free-market in ideas.

 

A book wot I wrote for atheists and Christians to enjoy.

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Slow mission: Slow is beautiful

Slow is beautiful

None of the big things hurry. Tides don’t hurry; seasons don’t; sunrises and sunsets don’t; love doesn’t. It takes two decades to turn a baby girl into a young woman. It took 10 billion years to create the earth, then four billion more for the earth to nurture self-aware and God-aware creatures. God doesn’t rush. Jesus never rushed. There is a time and a season for every activity under heaven.