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plumsSlow 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.

A fresh entry comes out about once a week. The idea is to learn together and encourage each other. Comments and guest blogs are welcome. Each entry is bite-sized, 500 words or less. Please do subscribe, join in, enjoy.

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Slow mission values

Marwa_Morgan-It's_still_early_for_the_moon_to_rise
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?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.

The hidden plague

loneliness

lonely

Fascinating article in about a great source of un-wellness in our society1: loneliness. 

‘In Britain 7.7m people live alone … Seventeen million adults in Britain are unattached. More than 1m older people feel lonely all or most of the time, and most of them do not feel able to admit their loneliness to family and friends. Loneliness is one of the chief reasons people contact the Samaritans, though often callers find it hard to admit it. “People who call us sometimes feel that loneliness is not a good enough reason for calling,” says Nick, a long-term Samaritans volunteer. “They feel ashamed or embarrassed, as though feeling lonely isn’t something serious.” Three out of four GPs say they see between one and five lonely people a day; only 13% feel equipped to help them, even though loneliness has a detrimental effect on health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Only 22% of us have never felt lonely.’

‘In the autumn last year, the body of 68-year-old Marie Conlon was found in her flat at Larkspur Rise in Belfast. She had been dead for nearly three years. In a statement, her family said they were “shocked and heartbroken” at the death of the “beloved sister”. Call be cruel, but how beloved could she have been if they hadn’t seen or spoken to her since the beginning of 2015? I popped into my local funeral directors to learn how often they were presented with bodies which had lain along in flats until they began to decompose. The lady in charge that day was wary of my questions, and made me promise not to give her name. But yes, she said, this happens quite regularly–bodies lie undiscovered until neighbours complain of a smell.’

Justin Welby’s ‘Reimagining Britain’

The Brexit referendum was the moment the ceiling fell in; but the dripping had been a problem for some time. Justin Welby’s book ‘Reimagining Britain’ is what happens when an Archbishop joins a crowd of workers leaning on shovels, looking at our nation, sucking their teeth and saying that this is going to take some fixing.

I like our Archbishops a lot. Archbishop Sentamu actually does stuff, like fasting, actually going hungry, which is a step up from most members of the order Primate, who usually only do stuff metaphorically (like ‘wrestling’ with a Bible text).

In Justin Welby, meanwhile, it is so refreshing to have an archbishop who doesn’t look like he’s just stumbled out of a library and can’t find his way back.

My liking for the Archbishops may make me too kindly disposed to this book; but even if it has flaws, it’s a really enlightening read.

Archbishop Welby is striving to ‘reimagine Britain’ after the loss of a Christian backdrop, the rise of pluralism, and above all, after the divisions brought to light by the Brexit referendum.

It’s a good fight and it needs someone, just as the nation needed an Archbishop Temple when Britain was being previously reimagined at the end of WWII. Welby believes Christians can lead this reimagining; in fact they must.  

Government-issue British values

The government’s response to the retreat of Christendom seems to have been to ask some poor civil service intern to write up a set of  ‘British Values’ on half a sheet of A4.1 This is to replace what grew through the toils of scholars, monarchs and martyrs in the last millennium and a half. They are:

  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • individual liberty
  • mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

Welby rightly rejects these as too flimsy and attempts to replace them.

‘When faith is increasingly privatized, it leaves a vaccuum which relativism in belief or a great plurality of incommensurable beliefs is unable to fill … There is a need for a generous and hospitable metanarrative within which competing truths can be held.’

He goes on  ‘It will be a suggestion of this book that Christian faith, centred on love-in-action, trusting in the sovereignty of God rather than political power, provides the potential for such hospitable and generous holding.’ (p 17)

 

So he first suggests a set of values, then attempts to reimagine aspects of British life with reference to them. 

Justin’s values

The Archbishop’s suggested values for reimagining Britain are ‘community’, ‘courage,’ and ‘stability’. If those sound too wishy-washy, suspend disbelief for a moment.

Community is about the way we all belong to each other, a note distinctly lacking in political discourse at the moment. After the referendum, the leavers didn’t say ‘let’s be magnanimous, let’s move forward together’. Instead we had, ‘You lost, get over it.’

Courage means giving room for animal spirits of competition, innovation and creativity.

Stability is basically a commitment to compromise, combined with a caution that gives room for bad stuff to happen without causing everything to collapse. Compromise! Forethought! Caution! Imagine!

So it’s good stuff. These are good directions to urge our society to head.

The best bit

The best part of the book for me was the reminder that Christians can rest on two truths: God is good, and God is King. In depressing days like these, I like the freedom to hope.  

My books of the year

If you have the kind of shopping-basket mind that ends up at the checkout with all kinds of stuff from random parts of the shop, books beat Netflix any day for idiosyncracy and eclecticism, and they usually beat podcasts or blogs for cogency and completeness.

Didn’t quite make the list:

Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemolu, James Robinson. Useful hypothesis about about the essential elements of a prosperous nation, spoilt a little by special pleading and being a bit kludgy. Still, if the world’s politicians read this and acted on it, the world would perk up one feels.

The Beautiful Cure by Daniel M Davies. The story of advances in immunotherapy didn’t quite it spark for me. This rise of a new therapy that perhaps actually deserves the tired phrases ‘world-changing’ and ‘revolutionary’ is (at least on the evidence of this book), a Samuel Johnson still yet to find its James Boswell.

This year’s favourites

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward. This best of White House reporters did his thing with Trump. It made my list, but at the bottom, because (a) it only confirmed what you kind of knew and (b) all the main actors had resigned already by the time I read the book and (c) it’s kinda depressing.

Chasing New Horizons by Allen Stern, David Grinspoon. Wonkish but fascinating history of how to conceive a probe to Pluto, sell it to NASA, build it, launch it, make it work: getting under the skin of how big science is done. Slight caution: history is written by the winners — but still fascinating.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. Sweet, witty retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew which I read in a single evening and then went back to several times, just to revel in Anne Tyler’s deftness and grace as a storyteller. Plot, character, dialogue, background: everything is beautifully primped. It ain’t profound or deep but it’s funny, refreshing and satisfying.

The Mission of God’s People by Chris Wright. Compelling vision of the Church’s vocation to the world and to creation. Best mission theology title for me since Lesslie Newbiggin’s The Open Secret, which 30 years ago helped redirect my career.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling. We’ve long been fans of Hans Rosling’s TED talks in our house. But his book — his final offering to the world– about the relentless rise of good news about the world and how we are programmed to avoid and disbelieve it, is the best thing he’s done. Read it while it’s still warm (some of its stats. are as recent as 2017).

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The most enjoyable apocalypse I’ve ever read, and one of Terry Pratchett’s very best.

The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End by Cixin Liu. Actually this has been a couple of years’ project. This science fiction series is the best SF I’ve read in years. Like a musician who keep introducing key changes, Cixin Liu just keeps unfolding astonishing ideas, ramping them up and up. The books aren’t flawless and can drag in places, but collectively are thought-provoking hard SF that I kept boring my physicist son with.

And my favourite…

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S Frederick Starr. This is the rather untold story of the oasis cities and great thinkers who (geographically) connected the Byzantines, the Arab World, China and India and (historically) kept the golden thread of rational thought and inquiry alive between the Roman Empire and the Europeans. I found it compelling and totally fascinating and would be sad if I didn’t travel through this book again. It turns out that the ‘Arab’ and Muslim empire, at its best, was powered by Central Asian and Persian thought.

In European times, discovery of a single volume by these thinkers was enough to spark off bits of our own Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. A wonderful unearthing and piecing together of missing historical treasure. Makes you want to visit Central Asia as Frederick Starr did and see dusty one-horse Afghan cities and recite Ozymandias or something:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Daily bread, by which I mean books

Loved this quote from preacher J John who was quoting Baptist minister C H Spurgeon.

Spurgeon was commenting on a passage in Paul’s letters where he told his friend Timothy to bring the books he left behind:

St Paul – he’s inspired yet he wants books. He’s been preaching 30 years and yet he wants books. He’s seen the Lord yet he wants books. He has had a wider experience than most people yet he wants books. He has been caught up to the third heaven and heard things it is unlawful to utter yet he wants books.  He has written the major part of the New Testament yet he wants books.

J John Defining the Future in Together (magazine for Christian booksellers) 34, Nov-Dec 2018, p 33

Feeding the ducks

Took grand-daughter to local park to feed ducks. Of course there have been developments in duck nutrition recently and the council have put up signs: don’t feed bread to the ducks. Try something like frozen peas.

I remembered this and brought peas from freezer. Threw at ducks. Most of the peas sank. Ducks swam away. This is unprecedented behaviour for ducks. Grand-daughter enjoyed eating the frozen peas.

Not sure what I take away from this.

Two podcasts I like

Am enjoying two podcasts that open a space for humane, sensible discussion between Christian viewpoints and non-Christian ones. Courteous, thoughtful, probing.

So refreshing after BBC current affairs programmes, of which I am getting fed up. Memo to the BBC:

  1. Good radio is not just getting two people to argue.
  2. ‘Balance’ is not achieved by putting a scientist against a flat-earther
  3. Presenters are often rude, talk too much and interrupt too much
  4. Courtesy is lovely

Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable podcast is just delicious and so is Elizabeth Oldfield’s The Sacred. Both presenters set a standard for thoughtful discussion. Love it.

Waiting

Sir William Tendring. 1408

I don’t know if you’ve ever wondered, why did God take so long? God made promises to Abraham but then Jewish history meandered for 2000 years until Jesus came.

One thought is that through that long wait everything had been tried –slavery, empire, exile; theology, literature, philosophy– but nothing had been found to satisfy the human soul or give coherence to the human story. History’s crayon, like a brass-rubbing, only revealed the outlines of a missing King.

I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.’ (Lamentations 3:24)

A man’s guide to a heavy cold

A handy to do list

Never mind that your wife earns more than you and your children have mastered the remote control. The tallest tree in the forest is shaking. It is an existential crisis. You must immediately put these guidelines into place.

  1. Your cold should be the sole topic of conversation. Nothing can be as important. It’s essential that you keep your loved ones up-to-date. Listlessness. Aches. Snot-rate. General mood. Likelihood of it going to your chest. They need to keep abreast. You are thinking only of them and trying either to ease their worries. Or of course, preparing them for the worst.  
  2. Your needs must come first. Again, you are only thinking of others. Of course someone must be sent to stock up on Lemsip; there are only a dozen sachets left.  Never mind that your wife was planning a nice roast chicken for this evening; a takeaway curry is essential. The curative effects of takeaways are well-known and it could make all the difference. How many Indians do you know with a heavy cold? Exactly.
  3. The recovery position. Many doctors, often the male ones, who will know, recommend slouching in front of the TV, in your dressing gown, with the sport on. Make sure you are surrounded by range of salty snacks with beer to hand. You don’t know whether nuts or nachos will set you on the road to wellness, and so you must be prepared. 
  4. Sex. This is very important. Wave aside your loved one’s anxiety–‘I thought you were ill!’. You are ill, very ill, but you are doing it for her. She needs cheering up probably, carrying the burden of care as she does. Even in the torrid depths of your suffering you are thinking of others. You are a true man. 
  5. You are allowed to express yourself through unrestrained bodily functions. Belching, breaking wind, smacking your lips together: these are signs of you cooperating with your body in its mighty struggle. They are not rude or disgusting. It is the triumph of Life over Death.
  6. Delusions. Your family may struggle with delusions such as can you please take out the recycling? Or could you mend my bike? This is their stress speaking and it is important to refuse, gently if possible but firmly. The wellbeing of the whole family is on a knife-edge. Do not weaken. 

‘The best bit of furniture in my house’

I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable … Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library.
Charles Spurgeon

Charles H. Spurgeon (2011). “We Shall See God: Charles Spurgeon’s Classic Devotional Thoughts on Heaven”, p.298, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Quoted here.

Is it fun being an Angel?

Another in my series of Magazine Articles I Was Asked to Write

Here’s a piece I originally wrote for a Christmas issue of Impact Magazine in Singapore. OK, it isn’t Christmas yet but it’s all fast approaching. It did get me thinking about the angelic stuff we don’t read about.

Do they practice their songs? Who writes them? Can they all sing in tune?

When an angel is sent to find someone (Elijah in the desert, Mary in Nazareth), how do they find them? Do they ever get lost? In one of his books, Terry Pratchett has the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse stopping off for a drink on the way, and never leaving the bar. 

John Milton has them doing athletics in Hell (as I mention in the text)

So with such noble predecessors in this genre, here goes… 

 

All we really know about angels is what the Bible tells us, and the Bible doesn’t tell us very much.

Breakfast is served
One thing we never see, for example, is an angel making a mistake. Elijah is hungry, exhausted and depressed under a broom tree. Journeying (let us presume) from heaven, an angel locates the right country, the right desert, and even the right broom tree. Then he fills a jar of water, lights a fire, finds some flour and oil, bakes bread, and gives Elijah a gentle tap on the shoulder. The account in 1 Kings 19 doesn’t say whether he also coughs politely and says, ‘Room service’ or perhaps ‘Broom service’  but the care of the weary prophet could not be more tender. Angels are good at their jobs; the Bible doesn’t say how they learn the skills.

Or take the angel that slips into the prison where Peter is sleeping, bound, you remember, by two chains between two soldiers, in Acts 12. First he brings some light into the room. Then he gives Peter a poke, or possibly a kick. Presumably the angel has remembered to sedate the guards since it is hard to imagine the Apostle being woken without giving out a mighty snort or wondering loudly what is going on. The angel then looses the chains, helps Peter to dress, reminds him to take his cloak, dodges the sentries, and makes the iron prison door open all by itself. Peter emerges blinking in the moonlight. The angel leads him down a further street before vanishing. I can picture the Apostle Peter as one of these people who finds waking up a challenge. But eventually he realises what has happened, his head clears, and he sets off for the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, to bring an unexpected end to the church prayer meeting.

How do the angels do this?

Worship

Or take worship. Perhaps this is the main work of the angelic host. Angelic choirs celebrated the Creation: God in his answer to Job talks about the time when ‘the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy’ (Job 38:7). Angels celebrated the Incarnation, giving a bunch of shepherds and a flock or two of sheep the most extraordinary musical moments ever seen on earth (see Luke 2:9). And Revelation portrays angels helping bring about the birth of the new heavens and the new earth, rejoicing all the while. The beginning, the middle and the end of the world are all celebrated by major compositions and performances.

But we never know more than this. Who writes the music? Are there auditions for the best parts? Do these choral occasions require many weeks of practice, learning when exactly when to come in with the next ‘Worthy are you O Lord’? Do they play (as we perhaps assume) Western classical music, or is there room for R&B, Jazz, or garage or house?

Or take the complex and difficult issue of angels at war. In our age of rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, would angels still appear with drawn swords, as they did to Balaam and David? Who does the procurement for these weapons? Do the same suppliers also equip the bad angels?

The hobbies of bad angels

Perhaps the greatest writer to think about these questions was the seventeenth-century Puritan, John Milton, in his epic poem Paradise Lost (which you can read, with helpful notes, on the internet).

Most of Milton’s poem is about the bad angels, who, as many critics have observed, Milton seems to find more colourful than the good ones. In Book II, Satan heads off to try to precipitate the Fall of Man. The rest of the Satanic host occupy themselves in Hell until he gets back. Milton lists some of their hobbies while they wait:

• Hold an angelic Olympic games, ‘Upon the wing, or in swift Race’
• Practice the arts of war: ‘Armies rush/ To Battel in the Clouds’
• Form a singing group: ‘Others more milde / Retreated in a silent valley, sing / With notes Angelical to many a Harp’
• Argue about ‘Providence, Foreknowledge, Will and Fate,’ like students at a Bible college and (also like students at a Bible college) ‘found no end, in wandring Mazes lost.’
• Explore. Unfortunately, since it is Hell they are exploring, they only find,‘many a dark and drearie Vaile … and many a Region dolorous.’

The end of it

Enough speculation. It might be fun being an angel because of the occasional James-Bond-like assignment. It might be fun to be given a meal by some generously hospitable Christian who is unaware that his guests are angels at all (See Heb 13:2). It might be fun to compose some angelic music and have it performed in front of the Throne of God.

But what certainly is fun is hanging around God’s throne and Christ’s church. There’s all these people coming to Christ every day, each one causing rejoicing among the angels in heaven (see Luke 15:10). Hebrews 12 talks about ‘thousands of thousands of angels in joyful assembly,’ like a happy football crowd, hanging around the church.

And there’s worship of God himself. Some people wonder how worship can be all that enjoyable: some of us get tired of it after half an hour on earth. How will we feel after half a million years? How might it be for the angels?

Perhaps there are a couple of answers to this. First, surely for both people and angels, being in God’s presence isn’t only about giving out: we are nurtured and nourished by God’s presence like a tree in the sunshine. We don’t just worship God, we bask in him, feed on him, walk with him, enjoy his love. The glory of God is sunshine to the soul. Reptiles can spend large parts of the day having a good bask. Perhaps the angels do too.

Second, there’s variety. One of God’s promises to us, the church, is this:

… in the coming ages he … [will] show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:6-7)

Notice how it says ‘coming ages’, not ‘coming age’. The idea perhaps is age following age of seeing grace’s ‘incomparable riches’, fresh epochs, leading to fresh discoveries.

So we don’t know too much about how the angels operate. In truth, we know almost nothing. But seeing God at work in the church, as they do, and spending times wrapped up in the presence of God, as they surely are—it’s got to be fun.

 

And then I got really creative and created my own comic spiritual world which occasionally intersects with the Biblical one. Paradise is a free download, ideally like your first hit of a drug. Then you get to pay for the rest.

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