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.
Our local flock of free-range turkeys have left the farm for their one-way trip to the dinner table.
It will come as a shock to them. Perhaps they thought they’d understood life well, with its regular rhythms of sleeping, running about, gobbling and eating.
Their mistake was that they didn’t know they were created by and for someone, namely the Christmas consumer. Perhaps, for the turkeys, this was a good thing.
It’s not a good thing for us, though, and I think this is where the purely material life falls over. All may seem fine. But then something big intrudes: love, death, the quest for meaning.
I’ve seen this too many times, thriving, self-sufficient people laid low. What worked for them everyday, the life they’d figured out, suddenly didn’t work any more. They’d missed the truth that they were made by and for someone. They didn’t include God or eternity in their calculations; they found they were were talking turkey all along.
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.
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.
‘…The standard model is clearly not the “ultimate answer”, with regard to particle physics, because it contains many unexplained features and “ragged edges”, despite its undoubted success. It involves about 17 unexplained parameters that simply need to be taken from observation.’ 1
Then he talks about quantum field theory and the frequent need to ‘renormalize’ equations. ‘Renormalizing’ means, for example, when the maths yields an infinite negative mass or an infinite negative charge, arbitrarily to add infinite mass or infinite charge so that the problem goes away and you get values that meet experiments. Or to put it another way, the ‘twin criteria of agreement with observation’ and ‘mathematical consistency’ are ‘incompletely fufilled’ (p665) and ‘there is no accepted way of obtaining finite answers without such an “infinite rescaling” procedure applied not necessarily only to charge, or to mass, but to other quantities also’ (p678).
Physicists, possibly, can get away with much in the murky cellars of mathematics because the rest of us are ill-equipped to go down and supervise.
“What are you doing down there?’ we call.
‘Oh, I’m just renormalizing,’ they reply, amid the clink of bottles.
Those of us who are not unsupervised quantum physicists still live under tiresome restrictions: at GCSE, we can’t arbitrarily add numbers to make our equations come out right. In the bank, we find opposition to us renormalizing our overdrafts by suggesing the bank adds an infinite amount of positive-but-theoretical money. So tiresome!
Yet this is not to throw stones at physicists, who in my view have by their mathematical fluency made much more progress on paradoxical issues than (say) theologians (who are usually just restricted to human languages).
But it is to say that physics isn’t quite the purring engine, not quite the lonely pinnacle of rarefied human thought, that we might like to think.
And so, for example, when New Atheists claim that Quantum Field Theory and its like does away with the need for a Creator, since everything just pops spontaneously out of a quantum vacuum, we should remember these arguments are held together, at a fundamental level, by duct tape.
Quotes are from Roger Penrose’s magnificent The Road to Reality, which has sadly reminded me what three years of undergraduate study proved: in physics, I can hum the tunes but can’t do the lyrics.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1: 2-4).
It sounds impossible, or at least inappropriate. In the midst of suffering, James tells us to ‘rejoice’, to give thanks, to worship. Do we thank God for the suffering? No. Do we thank God that the suffering is making us a better person? No, I don’t think so.
Instead, in the middle of things–I think it means–we turn to God and thank and worship him for who he is.
He hasn’t stopped being kind, reliable, powerful, purposeful, true. Despite our personal eclipse, the sun still shines. That exercise shapes us in good ways and helps put us on top of our troubles rather than them being on top of us.
Best of all about this verse for me is the phrase ‘of many kinds’. James is telling us how to process trouble and sorrow of every kind whether it’s the small frustration of missing the post with a birthday card or the unhealed pain of a loved one lost.
(Originally written for a series of Lent devotions whose title I have forgotten)
With seasons changing so obviously outside, here’s a good question: does the soul have seasons? I dug out some notes from my friend Susan Sutton who is much better read in this stuff than me.
Clearing, cleaning, ploughing, planting
Maintaining. Things are flowing. You know who you are. Not hurried or worried. Life is good
Harvesting. Busy, fruitful lots to show for your work
These can reflect stages in our whole life.
But they can also guide us through loss. A sudden loss of health or a loved one may be like a storm that batters us and takes us in a single day from a harvest season into a bitter winter; but spring returns.
Here’s how prayer works. The overflow from God’s heart spills over into our hearts. The overflow of our hearts pours into his. We are entangled together, God and us, like two quantum particles. What stirs one, stirs the other.
When many people are moved to pray, some great wave of desire is stirring in God’s heart and flowing into many of us.
Or alternatively, something mighty maybe stirring in many hearts and slopping over to God’s heart.
Back and forth the waves flow.
When two or three agree together in prayer it will be done for them. Why? because the act of tuning your hearts so that they resonate together before God necessarily tunes them together into God’s own frequencies.
This has practical uses.
So much of prayer, surely, is scrambling around trying to find out what to believe in for today. Where in the buffeting of desire or longing or fear is the place we can anchor our souls for the day? Tomorrow is another day. But today’s calm place is what resonates with God today and where he wants to lead us today.
Our beautiful, warless world, where I could be entranced by the purest mathematics for all eternity.
Any human who arrive here, gazing at our violet landscapes, might well have believed they have entered Heaven.
But what happened in Heaven?
‘What did you do there?’
After a while, didn’t you crave flaws? Love and lust and misunderstandings, and maybe even a little violence to lighten things up? Didn’t light need shade? Didn’t it?’ Matt Haig, The Humans p174
I like that.
I found Matt Haig’s happy book The Humans (about an alien who takes the body of a maths lecturer to stop human progress) irresistable. Not least because like some other books I know, namely my
own, it is set in Cambridge and also in some complete other world.
He uses the alien-being-human trope to explore fun, slanted views on human life, well worth a read. Here’s another:
They have no way of coming to terms with what are, biologically, the two most important things that happen to them –procreation and death … They have lived on this planet for over a hundred thousand generations and yet they still have no idea about who they really are or how they should really live. (p248)
It’s simple really. Look at these global figures 1
Annual rate of growth of Christians: 1.8% (roughly the same as population growth)
Annual rate of growth of worship centres: 2.4% (mostly because of the continuing rise of independent churches)
Every year, therefore, the number of worship centres increases faster than the number of Christians does. And–to a first approximation–every worship centre is an accounting unit. Each one needs a treasurer. So the demand for church treasurers is rising at 2.4% p.a. while the supply of church treasurers is only growing at 1.8% p.a.
This is what we journalists like to call a Looming Shortage. Don’t say I didn’t sound the trumpet.
‘The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs‘.
Bible paraphraser J B Philips wrote this in 1961. ‘While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.‘
He went on to describe the dangers of not letting your understanding of God grow along with everything else:
‘It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday School age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by great effort of will, he does this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.‘
(J B Philips Your God is Too Small, (Collier/Macmillan 1961) p 7).
The most important ingredient in a successful 21st century democracy? Nineteenth century Protestant missionaries.
Sociology scholar Robert Woodberry wrote this:
’Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.’
This remains true (on Woodberry’s analysis) after correcting for every other explanation you can think of, and he’s done work too to look at whether causation is involved (the one caused the other) or merely correlation.
Robert Woodberry is one of the depressingly-increasing numbers of people of whom I can say, ‘I knew his father’. (Prof Dudley Woodberry at Fuller Seminary taught me Islamics).
Woodberry fils has devoted years to careful data-gathering and analysis and has established a strong correlation between ‘conversionary’ Protestant missionaries and nations’ subsequent trajectories in literacy, poverty, women’s rights, and social capital.
Woodberry’s landmark paper, ‘The missionary roots of liberal democracy’ has won awards and intrigued sceptics:
“[Woodberry] presents a grand and quite ambitious theory of how conversionary Protestants’ contributed to building democratic societies,” says Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. “Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up. [It has] major implications for the global study of Christianity.”
It’s fascinating. Compare Ghana with next-door Togo; Canada with Argentina; and Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary with Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia. You have to read the paper for all the nuances. But still.
These quotes are all taken from Andrea Palpant Dilley’s cover story in Christianity Today, January 8 2014. Robert Woodberry has recently made the paper free as a pdf download and you find it here. For a less-gushy perspective on Woodberry see this thoughtful piece.