Just started Justin Welby’s new book ‘Reimagining Britain’. The introduction is intriguing:
‘British Values’: have come to mean ‘democcracy, the rule of law and respect for other’.
As a phrase they strike the wrong note somehow
These values are necessary (obviously) but not sufficient for the task of ‘re-imagining Britain’
‘I suspect, and argue here that there are values that come out of our common European history and Christian heritage, which have been tweaked and adapted in each country and culture.’
Given the amount being written these days, and the great rumble of the Brexquake shattering everything around us (my phrase), ‘this really is one of those rare moments when we have both the risk and the opportunity of rethinking what we should do and be as a country.’
A rare moment to change direction, by redigging some old wells. Super stuff. This is slow mission. Bring it on. Looking forward to the rest of the book and hoping to blog further about it.
I bought this book, counter-intuitively, by walking into Waterstones and handing over my credit card – full-price, hardback, from a high street store that pays UK tax. Then I went to a coffee shop to blog about it. Life is deeply, wonderfully good that I get to do these things.
But here’s a reference for those of us, me at the top of the list, who also happen to appreciate Amazon:
‘The internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around.’
It is, he goes on, a behaviour explained by neuroscience. ‘When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush … the brain’s pleasure centres light up.’ So we flick though the internet, snacking as we go. Stuffing our faces with fast food, we malnourish ourselves.
It’s a deep loss. He quotes another researcher who says, ‘we are too addicted, too weak, and too distracted to do what we all know is important.’
Perhaps he’s exaggerating his own case, but he also suggests a remedy:
‘I’ve conclude that a commitment to reading is an ongoing battle, somewhat like the battles against the seduction of internet pornography.’ We have a construct ‘a fortress of habits’ to buttress deep, good, thoughtful reading. Of deep, good, thoughtful books.
I’ve several times had the experience where there’s been:
A good plan, to do a good thing
Lots of the pieces in place
Some missing piece, or some circumstance, that just slows everything down.
It doesn’t necessarily stop, this great project, but it barely crawls along. Snails overtake it. This isn’t what we bought into. Hope sags. I look at the vision ahead and the progress so far and do some rough calculations and realize I’ll have to move some of our milestones into the next century.
What is happening? So unprofessional. And if this is a Christian-inspired thing we’re trying to do, what is God doing? Doesn’t he care? If appearances are any guide, he is sitting on the hillside beside the lake while we are rowing into a gale. Couldn’t he, you know, lend a hand? Is that too much to ask of one who all-powerful and everywhere-present?
I only have two answers to this.
God may have a different view of how important my contribution is, and may therefore be relaxed about completing his work in the cosmos despite me paddling my canoe with no paddle provided.
There’s a phrase in a dusty corner of the Old Testament concerning offerings to God: ‘handfuls of finely ground incense’ (Leviticus 16:12).
That brilliant and entertaining atheist Steven Pinker has defined ‘the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.’ 1
That might need a bit of explaining, not least to me. Entropy is, crudely, the measure of disorder in the universe. A low-entropy state is an ordered state; high entropy is a disordered one. Because disorder is much more likely than order, disorder (high entropy) tends to be what everything leads to.
So you have a cold gas tank next to a hot gas tank. Open a valve between the two, and soon the temperatures of the two tanks will be the same. This is because there are many more ways for molecules to mix randomly than there are for all the hot molecules to be in one place and all the cold ones in another. (This tendency for entropy to increase over time is the well known Second Law of Thermodynamics.)
Or consider all the molecules in your body. To get them all working together in some vast machine, called you, is hugely rare compared with all the possible way of arranging those molecules that do not result in a living you. This is one of the reasons we spend much, much longer being a corpse than we do being a living body; it’s just so much easier for all the molecules.
The only way to keep entropy low in this system– to keep your molecules in order — is to take energy from elsewhere, for example by eating a bag of french fries. So you can artificially maintain a local low-entropy state (your life and existence) by adding energy from the outside (eating french fries).
A fridge works the same way. It keeps at a low temperature, compared with the rest of your kitchen, by taking energy from the grid and pumping heat out of the fridge into the kitchen. It’s a local low-entropy system. Your freezer compartment, more so. You and your fridge/freezer, therefore, thermodynamically speaking, are brother and sister.
Hence Pinker’s statement that the purpose of existence is to keep entropy locally as low as possible. So we feed babies, we heal sicknesses, we clean up mess, we order information pleasingly. Our whole life is about borrowing energy from elsewhere to keep our low-entropy show, otherwise known as human life and culture, on the road.
Because the Second Law always wins, this is a battle we must eventually lose — as individuals, as a species, as a planet, as a galaxy and maybe as a whole Universe.
Rereading the Kingdom of God in entropy terms, possibly.
Now we depart from Pinker. Its interesting–at least to me– to re-read the Kingdom of God in terms of entropy.
When Jesus walked on earth, he clearly went round reducing entropy wherever he went: healing the blind, curing lepers, stilling storms (does that reduce entropy? I hope so), raising the dead and so on.
There are several interesting thoughts that arise from this, none of which I am qualified to follow up.
It is a mystery of physics why the Universe started in a low-entropy state. It is much more overwhelmingly likely (you would think not knowing any better) to start in a high entropy disordered state, if only because there are just so hugely many more disordered states out there than ordered ones. (Just like Tolstoy said: unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way; so many options.) Of course we don’t really know if some as-yet-unguessed physics made a low entropy beginning inevitable, but at the moment, it isn’t obvious. A low entropy beginning to the Universe is easy to explain theologically (though not cosmologically): God likes to start a new story on a fresh sheet of paper.
Jesus evidently didn’t borrow energy from elsewhere when he went about decreasing entropy. At least we don’t read of it. He stills the storm in Galilee, but it didn’t get colder in Samaria. He feeds 5000, but not by sucking energy from elsewhere in the Universe, which is the kind of thing farmers do when they feed 5000 people – they take energy from the sun and grow crops. Jesus lowered entropy without borrowing energy from elsewhere
That leads us to a thermodynamic definition of a miracle: ‘an inexplicable local lowering of entropy’. This kind of thing is impossible for us creatures, but is easy if you are God, who, it is claimed, created the whole show and holds it all up with the word of his power.
Hence, the ability to decrease entropy without borrowing from elsewhere is a good thermodynamic definition of divinity.
The new heavens and the new earth also seem not to be bound by the Second Law. Paul talks of a day when ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:21).
So the final state of the Universe is a lower entropy state than now, not, as we would expect from the Second Law, a higher one. It is brought into order in Christ, not decaying into heat death. Paul talks in Ephesians 1 about ‘ … when the times reach their fulfillment—[God brings] unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.’ (Ephesians 1:9-10)
The Bible describes a universe starting in a low-entropy state and finishing in a low-entropy state, with all the business of the Second Law being merely a wrinkle in eternity due somehow to the rebellion of humans.
This (maybe) helps us put miracles onto a more coherent footing. They are not merely impulsive acts by a God whom (I like to think) occasionally lets his heart rule his head. They are the outliers of a low-entropy eternity breaking into our increasing-entropy, jumbled universe, the first rolling pebbles of the avalanche.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears,a] we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. John 3:1-2 NIV.
A lot of people feel insignificant when they look at images like this.
That’s certainly an understandable response, but actually I think that’s a philosophical choice that we make. I think there’s another option, which is to think of how significant we are, not because we occupy a particularly important space in the universe – but because we are able to look around ourselves and comprehend something about the universe we live in, and to realise that we are actually at a stage in the evolution of the universe where life like us can exist and contemplate our purpose and our meaning. That’s where I think you get beyond what science alone can address – some of these deeper questions of meaning.
This blog is called ‘slow mission’ but sometimes our world doesn’t slow. It crashes. Something hits us that brings us to a complete halt.
There are too many terrible things out there even to start listing them but you know the kind of thing. First the initial shock and mess to clear up – perhaps an adrenalin-fuelled few days or weeks until the funeral or the separation is final or you emerge from Intensive Care.
Then a slow surveying of the scene, and wishing life could go back to before, and therealization that it can’t or won’t. Perhaps the process of realization takes many months and takes us through all the phases of grieving. We stay unhealed if we don’t move through all the phases, staying angry or bitter perhaps.
But later in the process we realize something wonderful. The breaking was the start of the healing. Down among the broken people is where the healing lives. Blessed are those who mourn. Those who have lost see and receive things that those who have never lost have never seen. The only truly unhealed people are the unbroken ones.
Now that the World Cup is upon us (and if you still care about this ethical mudbath, this sleaze-fest) you may well find yourself taking up your job again as ceremonial centre of the Universe.
They scored because you went out to the bathroom.
If you hadn’t reached for the nachos when they were taking the corner, the ball would have gone in.
You, the ceremonial centre of the Universe, have messed up for the whole nation.
Don’t move now for the rest of the match
It’s instinctive. As well as being stupid. I’m told it’s also everywhere. All over the world, people are appeasing gods, making offerings, avoiding taboos, looking at things, not looking at things, all so that the Universe will come out right.
A few problems with this idea
It’s also, of course, a theme of the Bible. People are at the centre of things. The Universe is this way because humanity rebelled.
Much of science’s long story has been about de-throning us from this (surely illusory) sense. No, it obviously wasn’t us that turned a perfect creation into a wounded and crying one. Dinosaurs were getting cancer long before any humans were even around.
That’s a big subject, a fascinating and fruitful one, and one I wrote more about in More than Bananas (see below).
I only note today something I missed in More than Bananas. This: once you bring Christ into the equation, everything changes again. Creator and owner; upholder of everything; the one who pays the cosmic utility bills, Christ is the centre of the Universe. By choosing to clothe himself in our humanity, he has brought humanity back to the heart of things along with him – back from our obscurity among dust and muck on Planet III.
Our funny bodies, mid-sized in terms of the Universe, and still carrying artefacts of our evolutionary past, have a cosmic significance through Christ. He has made us the firstfruits of all that will one day return to him.
A mystery, and not particularly helpful for the footy, but still.
The wonderful Private Eye has published its shortlist of journos who are in the running for its Paul Foot prize for investigative journalism this year. They are:
Gordon Blackstock (hundreds of orphans buried in unmarked graves from a home run by a Catholic order)
Carole Cadwalladr (Cambridge Analytica)
Amelia Gentleman (Windrush)
Madison Marriage (sexual harassment at a charity fundraiser)
Sean O Neill (Oxfam workers sexually abusing disaster victims in Haiti)
Buzzfeed (the work of Russian hitmen in the UK)
Our world is a place where journalists are mocked as creators of ‘fake news’ by people who are unworthy of their political office.
In many countries, even countries that like to think of themselves as civilized, journalists are treated as traitors or enemies. Every year journalists are killed.
It’s true that the UK press scene embraces the worst of human conduct as well as the best. But it’s worth celebrating these people. They are unearthing injustice, annoying those in power, refusing to shut up.
Regular readers will know that I am weary and wary of approaches to the Christian faith that come out of a business-speak textbook:
I wonder instead how much real work for the Kingdom, and better work, is done in coffee shops or over lunches.
It’s an approach with form. Remember Acts 2, ‘They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts‘ (v 46). No sooner was the Holy Spirit poured out than the church lunch became a thing.
Less well known is how good this is for our well-being. Newspaper reports recently cited an Oxford University study that found ‘the more people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied about their lives’, and that the only two factors that really mattered in long-term survival after a heart attack were (a) giving up smoking and (b) having friends. 1
So let us march to the New Jerusalem, stopping frequently for lunch.
An article I wrote for my friends at Impact magazine, Singapore
Prayerlessness requires real effort on our part.
When the Holy Spirit brushes against your soul, you have to brush him off. When you see a need, you have to suppress the desire to bring it to God. When you sense a flame rising in your heart for God or eternity, you have to douse it.
Practice, of course, helps. With dedication you can coat your heart with a solid shell that resists most holy urges. But even so, if we are Christians, every day we are buffeted by any number of nudges, longings, sorrows, questions and needs that prompt us to go and find God. It’s hard work to dodge them all.
The root cause
I think the reason for our prayerlessness is mostly the same reason that we don’t eat a proper diet, read improving books, make that call to a friend, or learn the piano. It’s that in the moment, we decide to play Candy Crush or flick through our social networks instead. We say no to prayer when we should be saying yes, or yes to some attractive thing when we should be saying no to it, and the accumulation of thousands of those moments eventually hardens and forms us into what we are and will be: I didn’t learn the piano, I didn’t look after my body, and I’ve just declined my millionth invitation to meet Jesus in prayer.
Yes, we are urged to pray
Do we need to pray? Er, yes:
‘Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people’ (Eph 6:18). ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’ (Phil 4:6). ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful’ (Col 4:2). ‘Pray continually’ (1 Thess 5:17). ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people’ (I Tim 2:1). ‘Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed’ (James 5:16).
Then we notice that Jesus was quite happy to live as human being, but he did not seem to manage life as a prayerless human being. Sometimes he stayed up late to pray. Sometimes he got up early. Sometimes his disciples just caught him praying. Ministry decisions? He prayed. Healing? ditto. Feeding thousands? Ditto ditto. Personal crises? In the desert, in the garden, didn’t matter. He called on God. He called on God until he was satisfied. You would say there was something of a pattern there.
What if you’re too busy?
Perhaps you are too busy?
I refuse to believe anyone is too busy to pray. To my way of thinking, the busiest people most of us ever meet are parents with young children. Babies poop, cry, need comfort, get hungry, get mad and never hesitate to alert the authorities with a live-stream of loud requests. They tend not to be all that patient either. Parents of such creatures, especially when not helped by others, are busier than a general fighting a war. Show me a young mum doing most of the caring of two small children and I will show you a sleep-deprived zombie who is too busy to finish a sentence, let alone a meal, and for whom a bathroom break is a triumph of battlefield planning.
And yet she has time to pray. When the kid is sleeping, or undergoing air-to-air milk refuelling, or being wheeled up and down a corridor in the pit of night, she has time to reach out to God. Her prayers may not be coherent, but that doesn’t matter. Coherence can be overdone. She’s slurping an energy-drink at the spiritual ringside, ready for another round.
Honestly, you’re not too busy to pray.
So what is the cure?
Is there a cure? There is.
First. Understand you can be more fluent in the things of God and prayer. Look around your church. Some people have mastered it. Some people know God and walk with him every day. There are even some people–plenty of people actually—who are quiet and hesitant in social settings, but when they are switched over to prayer-mode they turn confident and eloquent. When they start to pray, these people are like an academic walking into a library or an alcoholic opening a bottle of Scotch. They’re home. Heaven is their happy place, even while they keep one foot on earth. You can be a bit more like them
Second. Understand what happens when you pray and what happens when you don’t. To turn to God in prayer is to access a secret, invisible world where you can pull levers that change things on earth and where you can come face to face with Christ.
Missing out on prayer, on the other hand, means that part of us lies forever fallow. Part of us that could be fruitful, colourful, playful, remains unploughed, unsown, and the butterflies must flutter elsewhere. All of us have areas of our life like that: but our prayer life never needs to be one of them.
More than that, if you don’t pray you’re mostly stuck with earthly solutions to everything. This is greater deprivation than losing your phone.
Third. There are a million possible solutions to the issue of prayerlessness. I suggest they all flow from a single principle. Combatting prayerlessness requires some mixture of discipline and spontaneity. This is the same way we become fluent in other areas of life, such as keeping fit or learning a musical instrument.
We have to build in some regular habits, but we also have to remind ourselves that keeping up the habit is not the aim. Enjoying God and being with him is the aim. It’s like practising the piano. We don’t practise so that we can say ‘I practised’. We practise so that we can make music.
How do we practise prayer? It surely varies with each individual and each season of life. Here’s my list; your friends will have other lists.
Schedule a regular time- either a part of a day or a number of minutes in the day. You might start small: ten minutes. Then you might get more ambitious.
If you’re married, get into the habit of praying together every day. My wife and I do this every night. We didn’t always. But it’s a good habit.
Decide that you are going to pray even when the situation is non-optimal. It isn’t perfect to pray in the corridor at work as you walk to the toilet; but it’s not a bad moment to turn over whatever’s on your mind before God.
If you can’t get alone, write or type your prayers. People will think you are just fooling with your phone.
Reclaim your insomnia. Can’t sleep? Pray. Stay in bed if you like. So your mind drifts? Well, steer it back. Non-optimal, half-sleepy prayer is better than no prayer at all, like a sleepy kiss is better than no kiss at all. Stop waiting for everything to be perfect.
Don’t always use words. It’s OK just to be in God’s presence. Sometimes you don’t have words.
Alternatively, it’s OK to speak words if that helps and it’s OK just to pray in your heart if that helps.
Sign up for some regular prayer food. This can help broaden your horizons. I recently started working with the Operation World prayer ministry. They have an app that you can access every day and thus pray for the world over a year. Couple of months in, I’ve kept up. (See Operationworld.org.) Many groups have similar initiatives.
Try things. Pray through the alphabet – pray for something beginning with A, then something beginning with B, and so on. Pray through the psalms. Use the Lord’s prayer as a set of headings.
Try a total immersion method. If your church has 24-7 prayer room, or prayer event, sign up for an hour and see what happens.