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:

  • 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


  • 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?

Why violence has fallen

Stephen’s Pinker’s wonderful book The Better Angels of our Nature describes the fall in violence over thousands of years. You have to read the book if you don’t believe me, but I find it convincing.


For example: we have a much less chance of being caught in a vendetta or blood feud than if we were all hunter-gatherers 5000 years ago. Crucifixion, cannibalism, the rack and the whip, these days, are deployed only in the world’s darkest holes, not in its finest civilisations. These days–in Europe–we worry about battery hens or foxhunting or whether a cow died well; in the past we worried about slave trading or state executions.

We still have evil and violence in the world but, per capita, per life, there is much less of it.

Wars, of course, are more problematic but even here the facts are surprising. No war has killed more than World War II, true, but World War I only ranks fifth or sixth in the list, out-cataclysmed by three Chinese wars and the Mongol conquests. If you adjust for world population at the time, neither of the 2oth century’s showpieces make the top ten.

So, violence has declined.


Pinker has five general reasons:

  1. ‘Leviathan’: by this he means, following Thomas Hobbes, government and the power of the state. If they punish the person who robs me, I don’t have to. And if they police the streets, it’s possible fewer people will want to rob me in the first place. Anarchy is bad for us. Government, though it brings its own problems, is preferred.
  2. ‘Gentle commerce’: the more we trade, the less we fight.
  3. Feminization: It does tend to be the chaps who do the violence; as women gain more influence, violence declines.1
  4. ‘The expanding circle’. The more we mix, and appreciate each other, and put ourselves in each other’s shoes, the less likely we are to fight. Maybe education works, too. Sounds soppy, but, hey.
  5. ‘The escalator of reason.’ This is about applying logic to problems rather than pride or prejudice.

I find this powerful stuff. Take your favourite dysfunctional country, and apply this lot, and things will get better. That is what is happening around the world, and why we now have–for example–the EU rather than the 100 years’ war.

But he missed the chilli out of the curry

I  find these arguments necessary and enlightening, but not sufficient. On my reading Steven Pinker is a wonderful scholar but he keeps dodging Jesus. Like many who boast the title ‘humanist’, he is happy talking about the Old Testament, about crusades, inquisitions, and witch-burning, but he refuses to look Christ–the not-retaliating, against the death penalty, blessed-are-the-peacemakers Christ–in the face. He underplays the role of radical Christians in (for example)  fighting slavery, inventing the whole idea of the NGO and being decisive in civil society, also known as being salt and light.

(This might not be his fault. If he is a behavioural psychologist he is destined to be shaped by his environment and anyone who spends as much time as he does with social scientists is bound to lose his grip in certain areas.)

It matters, though, even in a book so brilliant as his. Take drug addiction in the UK. ‘Leviathan’ gets druggies their own apartments, on methodone rather than heroin, with a care worker, using clean needles and with good free healthcare. It’s harm reduction and it’s loads better than nothing.

But I could dig up stories about hundreds of former addicts who are off drugs entirely, and embedded securely in loving networks of family, community and work. And they would attribute the change to Christ. Government ministers have visited centres in the UK and seen this and asked, ‘couldn’t you do it without the religious stuff?’. The answer, of course, is ‘feel free’. But when it comes to rescuing druggies, fishing the inebriated out of ditches, running day care for the elderly, the humanists honestly seem a bit thin on the ground. Perhaps his curry is lacking a dash of chilli.


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 finished2. 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.


Storytelling: In praise of World Book Day

This is to remind discouraged writers everywhere. All these are from flickr; thanks to their creators for making them available.
Reading Well

reading time

Shared readingreading
Reading for my new born kid
Reading the newspaper in a saturday afternoon
CL Society 334: Walking and reading

Sunny reading
Reading a touristic guideReading III
"He who reads a lot and walk a lot, seen a lot and knows a lot."
That moment when you're reading a book...
Reading list
Reading at the demo 2

On not being sucked into the vortex of someone else’s urgency

Evangelists, and apostolic, entrepreneurial Christian types generally, seem to be the unsettling opposite of ‘slow mission.’ They dash about. The apostle Paul seemed always to be in a hurry.

Rush Hour at Guwahati Club, Guwahati

This can make the rest of us feel uneasy. These people are out evangelizing the world while we are digging allotments, playing games, visiting Aunts or watching cricket. Do they show up us slow mission types as wicked, lazy servants?

Here’s why that isn’t—or at least might not be—the case.

  1. Much of what is achieved in haste seems either to evaporate altogether or need re-doing more slowly.
  2. In my experience, some evangelists cut corners. They might be slapdash with relationships, or with money, or with the speed limits. Their evangelistic zeal is a kind of coverall to hide their character defects.
  3. God in any case has his ways of slowing evangelists down. Paul kept being put in jail, and arguably did his best work there, writing half the New Testament.
  4. Slow mission is not about laziness. When you follow your love and your passion, you work harder and for longer than when you work at anything else. Duty can take you a long way, but devotion will take you further. 
  5. Evangelists’ love and passion is in winning people. That’s their thing and their devotion. Wonderful.  But it shouldn’t–should it?– be foisted on the rest of us as if it were the final word in discipleship or obedience.

Why God keeps you waiting

I am reading a series of devotional books by F B Meyer (1847 – 1929), one page on each chapter of the Bible.

From an entry on Psalm 62:

‘[Abraham] was left waiting till nature was spent… till all that knew him pitied him for clinging to an impossible dream. But as this great silence fell on him, the evidence of utter helplessness and despair, there arose within his soul an ever-accumulating faith in the power of God…

‘This is why God keeps you waiting.’

The world is getting less violent (and why it matters)

‘Of the increase of his government and peace, there will be no end’. And so it proves….

Having got my eyesight back after two years of drug-induced cataracts, I am enjoying some heavy-duty reading again. Steven Pinker’s book is getting me very excited. His thesis is that violence in the human species is continuing a dramatic fall, stretching over millenia, dating indeed from the agricultural revolution. Because this is so counter-cultural, he needs the book’s 900 pages to prove it and hypothesise about it.  Bill Gates’ cover blurb (‘one of the most important books I’ve read — not just this year, but ever’) is for once more than the polite puffing of friends.

The book is so counter-cultural because those  of us who read the news in the 60s, 70s and 80s saw a world going to pot1; Pinker shows this was just a counter-cultural eddy against a much longer flow, and the fall in crime in the 1990s and beyond is merely a resumption of that old norm. Totally fascinating.

So much to think about! (This is me speculating, not Steven Pinker)

1. So history has a direction after all and ‘human progress’ means something? The twentieth century rather left that 19th-century view bleeding in the street.

2.  Here is evidence-for me–though certainly not for the convinced non-Christian Steven Pinker–that Christ is King and ‘of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.’ It is not the case that the world was going bad until Jesus came and fixed it. But it can surely be argued that here we have the ‘left hand of God’ and the ‘right hand of God’ working together. God guides human history generally into a more fruitful and less violent place; and at the epicentre, accelerating this trend and filling it out with revelation, is the life, death and resurrection of Christ and the peace-making activity of his people. I don’t think Prof Pinker would enjoy this conclusion (I would like to write another blog about his so-called humanism and measured disapproval of the Christian faith) but I find it a bit stunning– a large body of unsuspected social-science evidence that beautifully complements natural theology, not completely unlike the body of physical evidence that leads physicists to conclude the Universe began in a moment of creation at the Big Bang.

You gotta read the book.




Slow mission values

Marwa Morgan ‘It’s still early for the moon to rise’ @Flickr

‘Slow mission’ is about huge ambition–all things united under Christ–and tiny steps.

I contrast it with much talk and planning about ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ which happens in the parts of church I inhabit, and which have an appearance of spirituality, but make me sometimes feel like I am in the Christian meat-processing industry.

Here’s a summary of slow mission values, as currently figured out by me:

Devoted. Centred on Christ as Saviour and Lord. Do we say to Christ, ‘Everything I do, I do it for you.’ Do we hear Christ saying the same thing back to us?

Belonging. We sign up, take part, dive in, identify, work with others, live with the compromises. Not for us a proud independence.

Respecting vocation. Where do ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger’ meet?2. Vocation is where God’s strokes of genius happen. That’s where we should focus our energies.

To do with goodness. Goodness in the world is like a tolling bell that can’t be silenced and that itself silences all arguments.

Observing seasons. ‘There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’3.The world will be OK even if we check out for a while. (Note: our families, however, won’t be.)

Into everything. We are multi-ethnic and interdependent. We like the handcrafted. We are interested in all humanity and in all that humanity is interested in. Wherever there’s truth, beauty, creativity, compassion, integrity, service, we want to be there too, investing and inventing. We don’t take to being shut out. Faith and everything mix.

Quite keen on common sense. We like to follow the evidence and stick to the facts. We like to critique opinions and prejudices. We don’t, however, argue with maths. Against our human nature, we try to listen to those we disagree with us. We’re not afraid of truth regardless of who brings it. We want to be learners rather than debaters.

Happy to write an unfinished symphony. Nothing gets completed this side of death and eternity.  What we do gets undone. That’s OK. Completeness is coming in God’s sweet time. ‘Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.’4.

Comfortable with the broken and the provisional. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for right, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the laughed-at. This also implies a discomfort with the pat, the glib, the primped, the simplistic, the triumphalistic and the schlocky.

Refusing to be miserable. The Universe continues because of God’s zest for life, despite everything, and his insouciance that it will all probably work out somehow. In sorrows, wounds and in the inexplicable, we join God in his childlike faith.

Slow mission: Absent-minded squirrels

What’s a walnut tree for? We might think, er, ‘walnuts’.Cluster of Black Walnut fruit

But really, a walnut tree has two jobs. If at the end of its long life, just before being shafted by a fatal bolt of lightning, a walnut tree could note that (a) it’s been a good walnut tree during its time on earth and (b) it can see five younger walnut trees thriving around it, then it’s OK.

Along the way, it has nurtured dynasties and empires of squirrels and an ecosystem of bugs and birds. Lovers sheltered from the rain and carved their initials on its bark. Families picnicked under its branches. Perhaps it served a makeshift cricket stump. Its lifted people’s hearts, magnificent in the landscape. During the first week in October for five hundred years, generations have gathered its nuts. Even after its death it might have become an interesting line of coffee-tables or (for a certain vintage of male human) a must-have car-dashboard.

During its long life, then, it was fruitful in all kinds of ways that seemed slow and a distraction to the main task. Yet this indiscriminate fruitfulness was its successful ‘strategy’. Those five young walnut trees probably grew because squirrels took some nuts, buried them, and then forget where they left them.

So with ‘slow mission’. We understand Christ’s last command, make disciples of ourselves and of all the nations. But our ‘strategy’ is indiscriminate fruitfulness: being what we are, where we are, as best as we can be. In God’s economy, forgetful squirrels, and time, will do the rest.