Slow food is about seasonal ingredients, patiently nurtured, carefully prepared, lovingly cooked.
The ingredients of ‘slow mission’ are people and the Christian gospel; and also, seasons, brokenness, diversity, giftedness and time — things we need to keep reminding ourselves of.
Slow mission is about trying to make the world better by applying the whole gospel of Christ to the whole of life. It’s about using what gifts we have for the common good. It moves at the pace of nature. It respects seasons. It is happy with small steps but has a grand vision. It knows of only one Lord and one Church. Making disciples of ourselves is as important as making disciples of others. Diversity is embraced. Playfulness is recommended.
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‘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?1. 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.’2.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.’3.
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.
Still slightly obsessing about the so-called ‘Lord’s prayer’; so fascinating that the first half of it is big global things and the second half is local, personal things, sky-wide things and fingertip things.
The prayer for daily bread, that kicks off the second half, is intriguing. There’s a one-off appearance of a word: ἐπιούσιος (epiousios). This word only appears in the two references to the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6 and Luke 11), and nowhere else in the New Testament, and nowhere else in Greek literature anywhere. Ever. At all. Rowan Williams, who was an archbishop once, and who lives in our city, says the exact meaming has remained ‘elusive’. Indeed. Guesses include the word ‘needful’. ‘Give us each day our needful bread.’
It may also be related to the verb ἐπιοῦσα (epiousa) which seems to mean, ‘to come later.’ Williams suggests ‘bread of tomorrow’ I think, and that makes sense since it follows from the lines about ‘your kingdom come’ and ‘your will be done’. Give us each day a foretaste of tomorrow, as it were. Alternatively, it might mean, give us what we will need today for what will come later today.
Either way, it’s the ‘daily’ I like. It is interesting how much prayer in practice and in my observation is conveniently shuffled into the future. Now at one level this is fair enough: the answer may happen in the future. But Jesus teaches us to pray about today, pray about what you need today, today, today. Give me the needful bread today. Give me a taste of the future today. Give me it today. Not necessarily everything I’m going to need, but everything I’m going to need today.
I’ve seen prayer for healing done so badly. I’ve watched churches pray for people with cancer. Heal them sometime, in the future, please, at some point, ideally before they peg out. Pray this way if you want but it is not what Jesus taught us to do. Give us what we need for today, today.
‘The one thing that can keep communities alive and health services viable.’
I am one of those who has enjoyed the pandemic journalism of Private Eye’s ‘MD’ who being both a practising doctor and a human being can understand and communicate stuff that journos (who often lack the right number of degrees) and politicians (who might be a bit detached from the truth) may not be so hot on. In pandemic-world, I think, journos and politicians are both talking about face-covering while actually attempting to cover something else, and I don’t mean the story.
So. MD (real name Phil Hammond apparently) on health in this week’s Eye (I mean the week I am writing this blog, which is about two weeks behind you reading it. I don’t blame you for this. It’s hard to ask readers to read stuff that hasn’t been published yet.)
The basic ingredients of health are well-known, well-evidenced and fairly easily remembered using the mnemonic CLANGERS, as in: Connect; Learn; (be) Active; Notice; Give back; Eat well; Relax; Sleep.
Friendship and a feeling of belonging; an ability and curiousity to learn and adapt; purposeful physical and mental activity; observation and appreciation of the environment; compassion for others; food that is both delicious and nutritious; an ability to switch off and relax and regular, restorative sleep — collectively these daily joys of health are more powerful than any drug. The privileged can do them every day, even in lockdown. If we all managed them, we would barely need the NHS. But if you’re living with debt, discrimination, depression, domestic abuse, drug addiction, dementia, etc, they are much harder to achieve.
The focus on prevention, helping others and lifestyle medicine is a lot cheaper and more enjoyable than medicating for diabetes and depression. Indeed it’s the one thing that can keep communities alive and health services viable.
MD has put some of his wisdom into a cheery YouTube video just here:
And if you are a regular reader of MD you can parenthetically notice that writers are often different in person than they are on paper, often gentler, as here.
The solution to weariness and world-weariness, it seems, is not ‘no work’ but the right work. ‘Come to me’ says Jesus, if you are weighed down and tired out by the loads you’re carrying, and I will give you ‘rest.’ But the ‘rest’ he offered was a ‘yoke’. (He must have raised an eyebrow or two when people heard this. Mostly the word ‘yoke’ is about slavery.) But Jesus redefines his yoke as ‘easy’ or ‘kind’ or ‘kindly’ and the burden he asks us to bear is lightweight, a non-burdensome burden, like a day-sack rather than a full pack.
The ‘rest’ is a yoke. This speaks so strongly to the idea of vocation. We all have seen examples of when someone gets a job and it is exactly the job they always wanted. Or it is, at least, quite near to being the job or role they always wanted. They wake up, look around at the day, and feel happy. Mostly. Circumstances have aligned well for them. This is so freeing and brings such contentment.
It’s also makes us re-evaluate things like ‘rest’ or ‘retirement.’ Real rest is an easy yoke, a harness but not a heavy one, a work that suits, a work that to us, seems easy and light. It would seem.
Here’s what I learnt this week. It came from reading the ‘Lord’s prayer’ in Greek in Luke 11. You can strip it down as follows – the first three requests setting the framework, the next three filling in the human-level detail.
Setting the framework
‘sanctified’ – set apart as holy
be your name
‘let be done’
The human-level detail
‘give us the needful bread’
like we forgive those who owe us
‘lead us not’ into fiery trial; ‘deliver us from evil’
Fatherly company in a rough world
And then later on in the same teaching session, Luke has Jesus talk about asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13).
This all reminds me of ways you can dismantle Genesis 1. That passage on creation starts with the Holy Spirit brooding over primeaval chaos. And then has two lots of three, as follows:
Setting the framework
Light and darkness; day and night
Sky (or heaven) and earth
Land and sea; trees and grass
The human-level detail
Sun and moon as light and calendar markers – measuring our days
Animals and birds everywhere
Men and women as subregents of the animals; ‘cattle’ as a thing; vegetation for food
Genesis 1 is a picture of God ordering the primeval chaos, making it fit for humans, and then settling in to work with them — this settling in is God’s ‘rest’ of day 7.
The prayer that Jesus taught in Luke 11 has resonances with Genesis 1: first, setting a framework of God’s rule; then promoting God’s rule at a human level. Genesis 1 is a hymn of creation; Luke 11 is a prayer of new creation. Both end with God and people either in a harmonious creation or building towards a harmonious new creation. Both are universal and both are personal. This comparison may be rather contrived; but it is fun to see the two passages in dialogue.
“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”
Albert Michelson, Light Waves and Their Uses (1903), 23-4. 1
It was probably a shame that Michelson, first American winner of the Nobel Prize, came up with this quote, since it was his careful experiments on the way the speed of light never varied that provided the initial information behind Einstein’s 1904 theory of relativity.2.
It was a further shame that he wrote in 1903, just at the edge of quarter -century of discovery and theory that would turn physics upside down – the most exciting twenty-five years physics has ever known. Physicists since (arguably) have just been adding footnotes
What do we learn from this? Arguably, beware certainty in scientists. Think of this. Over here (I won’t draw it but you can imagine it) is the totality of reality. Over here (I won’t draw it either) is Science, a tool for exploring this reality. This is all very fine, except for the problem that since we do not know what the totality of reality is, we have no way of judging how good our tool is. It might be, for example, like a torch that only lights up the shiny things in a vast cave. Or it might be like an optical telescope, blind to X-ray sources that light up the sky. Or it might be like a child’s understanding, or like a fly’s, relying (in the case of the child) in a badly incomplete model or (in the case of a fly) on a deep cognitive lack.
Scientists generally, in my observation, are not good at looking at the acts of faith that underlie their discipline. What part does prejudice play? Or confirmation bias? How limited is our ability to perceive? How observable is the Universe? Science proceeds on assumptions that the Universe is generally observable, that human failings are ironed out by the need to replicate results, and, more broadly that it ‘works’. By which they/we mean: ‘when we shine a light into the cave, we can see shiny things.’
We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know if we can know what we don’t know. And we don’t know, if we can know what we don’t know, how we will know it.
I am writing this around the time of the longest day, the time they call in St Petersburg, which is even further north than I am, the ‘White Nights.’
It’s my favourite time of year, light and pollen everywhere, and often in the evening I will stand outside and try to sniff the air and store the moment. It’s the sort of moment you need to store given there is also, every year, the phenomenon known as January, when it’s dark, or cold, or bleak, or grey, or all four.
But really it’s a hopeless exercise. There is something about the White Nights that can’t be stored or even experienced for a moment; the joy of the stilled creation, the still-warm stones, the crashing of birds and squirrels in trees overstuffed with leaves.
C S Lewis wrote a lot about desiring this elusive joy, and discovered a German word, sehnsucht,to describe it. Desiring elusive joy is a familiar experience. What does it mean? Is it just a product of a deficient mental model of reality? We anticipate a meaning, even a joy, in creation but we can never find it because it is an artifact of our pattern-hungry brains, not a real thing in the Universe?
There’s another explanation which I much prefer. There is such a being as God, such a thing as the Kingdom of God, and these hints of joys are like straws blown over to us from that field — so they are not soap bubbles that look good but are empty and must pop, but signs that out there, over there, somewhere, to be hunted down, now hinted at, is a realm of joy that we yearn for and have not yet fully entered. We are hungry for a reason; we yearn for joy for a reason.
A lesson on self-isolation from the Cappadocian Fathers
I am reading a book called Trinity by Roger Forster. Forster, bearded, successful early, kinda trendy, around forever, is the evangelical equivalent of Richard Branson. A little bit anyway.
Forster points out so helpfully that the classical Greek view of God–thanks Aristotle–was that because he was perfect, he couldn’t change.1 Being the Uncaused Cause, on that analysis, made you like a classic sculpture: a perfect 10, but made of marble.
Forster–whose learning is impressive even if he veers around a little like a car with a puncture–compares this cold Greek slab with the God of the Cappadocian Fathers. They joined a fourth-century theological ruck alongside Athanasius, pushing back the Arian heresy and making sure a trinitarian God was a mark of orthodox Christianity. Forster writes: ‘The doctrine of the the trinity is truly important because God is personal, He is communal, He is loving, He is altruistic – and He is all of those things forever and ever.’2
It so happens the Cappadocian Fathers were themselves a trinity: Basil of Cesarea; his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa; and their big friend Gregory Nazianzus.
They were an example of inspired and super-smart Christians fighting the mighty Greeks on their home ground–a battle which, a thousand years later, people we now know as scientists had also to do: people like the devout Johannes Kepler, who freed natural science from its Grecian obsession with the perfectly circular.
The Cappadocian Fathers saw the Trinity as a kind of dance: as Forster says, ‘where the partners move around one another, each giving way to the other and then changing the direction, or changing the lead, but each one always in perfect symphony and synchrony.’3. Their word for this was perichoresis, which is a word I look forward to you using when you next see a dance routine.
It is a lovely picture though: God interdependent in his self-sufficiency. No wonder, then, that the creation that sprang out of the divine bosom, if we believe it, was itself a perichoresis of mutual service and supply. We breathe out; plants breathe in. Male and female he created them. We are one body, with many members. Perichoresis is everywhere. Which is why human thriving is not centred on achieving alone but on belonging and contributing.
Be it therefore enacted by the King’s most excellent Majesty … that from and after the first day of May One thousand eight hundred and seven, The African Slave Trade, and all manner of dealing and trading in the Purchase, Sale, Barter, or Transfer of Slaves, or of Persons intended to be sold, transferred, used, or dealt with as Slaves, practised or carried on, in, at, to or from any Part of the Coast or Countries of Africa, shall be … utterly abolished, prohibited, and declared to be unlawful.
These words were part of the Royal Assent given to the bill that abolished slavery on March 25, 1807. The then Prime Minister William Grenville described it as ‘the most glorious measure that had ever been adopted by any legislative assembly in the world.‘
It was the work of many, but perhaps supremely the work of William Wilberforce, who as a back-bench MP, had introduced an anti-slavery bill many times, only to see it defeated. In 1791 Wilberforce had said ‘Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name … [our descendants] will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to our country‘.
Church of England bishops opposed it. It was evangelicals (within and outside the Church of England) and Quakers who led the fight. Public campaigning and mobilizing popular opinion played a part. At one point, a quarter of the country was boycotting West Indian sugar — thanks to women, mostly, who did most of the sugar-handling in the UK, then as probably now.
I was re-reading this story today 1 and two things struck me again: the fact it was the evangelicals who led the fight; and the fact it didn’t matter that it was slow.
We are seeing sights we never expected to see. Recently I made a rare foray outside our home to drive to our allotment. (Can’t cycle, might bump into someone, car is isolated.) I passed the fish-and-chip van that arrives every Saturday noon at our estate, with a line of people each 2m apart.
In the village I saw a hand-made A-frame sign: ‘Thank you NHS’ and I was reminded of Nigel Lawson’s saying that the NHS is the nearest thing the English have to a religion.
Outside the local supermarket a small queue was standing patiently, also maintaining their distance. Everything was quiet and orderly. I wondered about this. (We are having everything delivered so I haven’t seen the inside of a shop for some time.) Are only a few people allowed in the shop? Do they feel the same pressure as you feel when you are the only person in the bathroom and someone is standing outside? That would not suit my supermarket shopping where half the point is visiting aisles full of things you don’t need, picking up something that might form the ingredient for a new and interesting meal, carrying it around the shop for a while and then putting it back.
So that’s what’s going on in the world. It will be fascinating to see what changes persist when, as I hope, things get better. More Zooming, I suppose, or the equivalent. We’ve been having family get togethers each weekend for both my and my wife’s side of the family; everyone’s had a crash course. Going out for a meal again will be nice. Seeing grandchildren other than down a phone, extra nice.
Some of the seminars I’ve seen, such as the one just below this paragraph, are fundamentally optimistic about what this reshuffling of things will do for the ministry of the Christian Church:
We’ll see. Meanwhile I have to confess to a happy lockdown. Working from home as usual, bit more time for focussed work, company of my wife, summer flooding the garden early.
Even though pubs and high streets are still declining.
My childhood landscape included church buildings being sold and other church buildings displaying painted thermometers outside as they looked for donations for a new roof. Media portrayals of vicars portrayed them as nice but useless. The tone, back in the 1970s, was that churches were like other sunset British industries, poorly managed, needing government aid , ripe for selling off.
I wonder if it will change. Last year legendary researcher Peter Brierley counted 40,100 church buildings in use in the UK — more than than all the pubs. He noted that new builds and old buildings repurposed for new congregations were at least matching sell-offs, at trend that surprised him:
Although some Anglican, Roman Catholic and Methodist church buildings have closed in recent years, this loss has been outweighed by the growth of new Evangelical and Pentecostal church congregations.
Migration to the UK is another factor behind the buoyancy in the number of church congregations. One of the first things that new communities do when arriving in the UK is to set up a place of worship. These new congregations often gather in non-traditional spaces such as converted cinemas, warehouses or shops.
Although much has been written about the decline in church going in recent years, the number of Christian congregations and church buildings in the UK has remained remarkably stable.
I wonder if the aftermath of Covid-19 will change things more. Surely things have moved on from the 1970s. In all the long recession, churches have been the backbone of the foodbank provision. Many times they are providers of youth work or family care when councils have cut provision. Some (like our own church) run day care for the elderly. Street pastors help those youngsters experimenting with too much alcohol on Friday nights. Churches and Christians are at the core of the community help in Covid-19 in my very limited observation. Churches have not gone the way of British Leyland, the National Coal Board, or British Steel, or British shipbuilding.
I have the idea that in this country people may stumble across the Christian church like finding an old coin, brushing off the dirt, and realizing it’s still worth something. We’ll see.