Sices of Bread – 3

Another pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book

(placeholder cover: my real cover is still being designed as I write this)

One of my lockdown projects was to compile a book about how difficulty and trauma can cause us to rethink our lives and, if we are fortunate, how we can then go on to live simpler, better and more meaningful days. Without having anything particularly to boast about, and also because of lots of other things have gone in the right direction for me, this is where I find seem to find myself (at the moment). So I wrote about this, and called the book ‘Bread‘. I’m serializing it here on my blog and here’s the 3rd slice.

The story so far: adversity can cause a rethink of our priorities. Now read on…

Bread

My search for what really matters

So: adversity or loss or infirmity or disappointment or something has brought us to crunching halt. We are looking out at a landscape with a sobriety and clarity that is aided by our low mood. We are beginning to realize that there is quite a lot that is more important behind the glitzy and temporary frontage to a life of success, wealth or popularity. These are helpful thoughts, sobering. What do we do now? What parts of our mental landscape do we stop visiting? What new paths do we tread down?

The place not to visit

I want to suggest that the main place not to visit is the broken dream. I’m not saying you should never go there. But you should go there to clear up, say your goodbyes, tie everything off. You have lost and it is good to mourn.  So visit the broken dream if you must, but visit it less and less, let it go back to nature. It’s always going to be part of you, but it is a better part of you when it shapes a new future, rather than when it is a decaying present you are trying to primp, or when you are using it to define who you are today. You need to define yourself by something other than your loss, your sorrow, your ill-health, your former hopes, or your former state.

Instead of mooching around your broken dream, enjoying the gothic scene of heartbreak, your loosened hair romantically draped over the headstone of your loss, you might want to ask a few questions now that the urgency of your loss has passed.  Don’t feel the need to answer these hurriedly. Mull them over. Work them into your life.

What have I not lost?

What do I love?

Whom do I love?

What do I value?

Point your feet where these answers direct you. Keep asking the questions, and keep walking in the answers. You won’t fix everything in an afternoon, or a year, or in the rest of your life, but you will be walking the right road and you will at times find yourself in the green pastures and quiet waters that you have always wanted.

Slices of ‘Bread’ – 2

Being the second extract from my book on how to simplify your life

A second pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book , ‘Bread’.

This passage is about how unexpected troubles can set us on the path to rethinking our lives.

Bread

My search for what really matters (second slice)

In any crisis your body gives you an emergency shot of the panic juices. A course of fight-or-flight hormones may take you through a crash, or a hospital treatment, or a birth, or a breakup, or the funeral arrangements or whatever other intense time you must rise to.

Two things will then happen. You will have a bit of a tumble emotionally as the hormones leak away and normal tiredness takes over. And, second, because the intensity of the storm has passed, you can inspect your new world.

This season can be a blessing because it can give you a clear sight of what to do. It’s like clearing up after a party. The mess! The stains in the carpet! What are you going to do? Time for the cleaning gloves

So. The house is quiet again, and there’s a new post-trauma world to explore. What to do? Some thoughts:

You were broken already. You might feel that now you are wounded and before you were whole. I’m sorry to report that this picture is wrong. You might feel like a broken egg now, but you were never the whole egg. You were already cracked, back in the shop. All that’s happened is that you’ve revised your mental model of yourself. You always were needy, but you used to cover it well.

yellow paintedsmiley face eggs
Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com

Decide it’s work time. You’ve already vaguely suspected there are things to sort out in your life, but the calamity brings them into the open. The singer Debbie Harry explained her drug-taking: ‘Drugs aren’t always about feeling good … Many times they are about feeling less.’[1] True, but avoiding the pain with pharmaceutical assistance keeps forever dropping you back at the start, each time with a little more clearing up to do. You are made of better stuff.

Take time. You’ve done rushing for a bit. You can take some breaths, re-evaluate, start small.

Feel the fire. This is the best bit. There’s a fire burning inside you. Still. This is so cliched a thought that it may call song lyrics to your mind. I will survive! There’s something inside so strong! It’s probably best for everyone if you don’t actually sing—you are not a rock star for a reason—but on the bright side you have discovered something about yourself. You will go on. You will push on. We humans didn’t take over the world because we’re a species of wimpy losers. So the party’s over and your home is wrecked? On we go. On we go. The cracks let the light in. The breaking is the start of the mending.

Where are we heading here?

Where are we heading? Towards a rethink. Convalescence after hospital nightmares gave me the moment, and the need, to shut down some old mental pathways and open some new ones.  I sadly cannot declare final victory in this fight, but I do think that much of the time I have persuaded my brain to walk down a more promising road.

The breaking is the start of the mending

Suffering is our friend here. How do you see the new mental pathway that needs to be cut? That’s the clarity of low mood. What powers the cutting of the path? The fire inside you and your determination to see a better day, or at least another day. How does the path become well-trodden and familiar? By you taking it, day after day after day.  Facing adversity well, every day, sometimes every hour, builds a resilient brain. In the end you’ll have carved a fresh path with many delights where you love to walk.

More next week…


[1] Debbie Harry in her memoir Face It.

Slices of bread – 1

Being an excerpt from my new book about how to simplify your life and find what really matters.

So my second lockdown project was to spawn a new book about how serious illness led me to slim down and perk up my life. Here’s my preliminary cover, while my graphic designer friend is beavering away on a proper one.

On the grounds that everyone is entitled to my opinion, I’m planning to serve up a few extracts over the summer weeks. Here’s the opening salvo.

Bread

My search for what really matters (part 1)

We should reckon on 30,000 days in our lifetimes – 82 years. After that (if even we get that far) we will find ourselves mostly filling our days fending off the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics roughly means everything breaks, nothing lasts, order breaks down, we’re all going to die. Nothing in the Universe pushes back for long against the Second Law.

Thirty thousand days puts a cap on how many of anything we will do: how many books or boxsets we can enjoy, or create, how many cities we can live in, how many hot dinners we’ll have. We’ve got one ration of weddings, birthdays, weekends away, meals out, drinks with friends, quiet nights in, or moments to tell someone we love them. We’ve got a few decades to serve in a career or two, and perhaps raise some children. It might feel it will go on forever. It won’t, and in a hundred years we will all be dust and so will those we love.

If you feel any of these:

  • Life is passing me by
  • I’m not doing what I want to do
  • I’m not happy
  • I’m wasting my days

This book is for you. I’ve kept it short, because, hey.

It’s a personal story of discovery. My background is some years of life-and-death medical adventures, including my death in 2011 (reversed by electric shocks to the heart) and a four-week coma in 2013. People who spend a long time in Intensive Care end up paralyzed, so during the year and a half after 2013 I had to learn again how to eat, swallow, walk and go to the toilet.  Eventually I put the wheelchair in the garage and resumed a life that feels, at the time of writing, restful, purposeful and happy. I still may have thousands of days unused if I’m, as my dad says, ‘spared.’

Life is the opposite of the countryside in that you see the widest views at the lowest points. I think most people learn things about themselves during adversity. I had time to ask questions like ‘What am I for?’ and ‘What am I hoping for?’ and ‘What I am spending my time on?’

I found answers that are good enough for me. I think they are the lessons everyone learns, but those of us who have been force fed these things through medical events, perhaps, are forced to face them quicker. I found them simple enough and roughly these:

  1. Suffering helps us focus on what really matters and can stop us heading down dead-end paths in the quest for fame, success or respect.
  2. Belonging is key to long-term thriving.
  3. So is purpose.

This book, them, is about how to simplify your life, and how to make you less restless, more content and more productive. I hope it helps. None of it is complicated. Some of it will happen to you anyway. Maybe this book will help you recognize and cooperate with the ripening and mellowing that is already underway in your life.

More next week, if you can bear the tension.

Why good people do bad things sometimes

We’re sneaky, clever, and at war with ourselves

I recently finished my friend Andrew Chamberlain’s novel Urban Angel, which is a gritty story of people trying to do good things despite themselves, despite their circumstances, and despite supernatural interference.

The part of the book that really got me thinking and that I really enjoyed was his unvarnished exploration of how and why people who are signed up to serve God do bad things. His fictional treatment was I think better than most non-fictional treatises (such as this post, for example), and an intriguing, rare, read.

What it isn’t, I have come to think, is simple ‘hypocrisy’, as in, knowing the right thing to do and deliberately doing another thing and hiding it. I think it’s a lot more subtle. We Christians are more like the British Labour Party, creaking under the strain of internal warfare as different parts of us seek to take over the whole. Here are some of the participants in the war:

  1. An honest desire to serve the God who has loved us and given himself for us.
  2. A sudden, unexpected, animal attraction.
  3. An indulging of said animal attraction, at least so far as letting it make its case to the rest of our human person. Maybe more than once, and with variations.
  4. A blanking out from the mind of the inevitable consequences.
  5. An exercise of crazed theological reasoning to give ourselves a free pass toward indulging said attraction.

After that, anything can happen. Throw in, as Andy Chamberlain doesn’t, but as much recent actual history does, a power imbalance, say between a powerful man and a rather vulnerable victim, add some privacy, and boom, chaos, hurt and destruction.

Scary. Scarier than the demons who also make their way into Andy’s book, but are conveniently dispatched. Andy’s to be congratulated for laying it out so bare.

Quiet revolutionaries in the workplace

It could be us

Here’s some aspirational stuff on what the Christian faith can do for those of us who work with others. This is from Katherine Alsdorf who herself used to work with Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in New York, and co-authored a book with him.

If we as the people of faith can work with purpose, partnering with God in his love and care for the world, if we can admit our mistakes more readily because we experience God’s grace, if we can love others and serve them because we’ve been loved and served, if we can find hope that helps us persevere because we believe in his kingdom that will end all brokenness and wipe away every tear, then, I think the faith and work movement will be the forefront of evangelism.

Are you jealous of your coworker? The gospel can change that. Do you fear that you’ll fail at what you’re doing? How does the gospel calm your fear? Are you having trouble getting up in the morning to face work? Or trouble stopping work in order to rest. As a matter of fact, work is a bit of an idol factory. It leads us to overvalue success or money or security or recognition or comfort. And the gospel helps us to root out those idols and turn to Jesus for our salvation. And when we do that, we change. Our hearts change. I love it. I love it when it happens to me and when I see it in others. I see people change from hating to loving their colleagues, from fearing failure to stepping out in faith. This gives a good start in applying the gospel to work and our work lives.

The big silence, or the long eternity

Each has its appeal

Am still enjoying astrophysicist Katie Mack’s book ‘The end of everything.’ She’s a funny and smart guide through the physics of either end of the Universe. Having sketched out various ways of everything ending, her epilogue makes some space for thinking about what it all means. Some of this is delicious to think about.

Whatever legacy-based rationalization we use to make peace with our own personal deaths (perhaps we leave behind children, or great works, or somehow make the world a better place), none of that can survive the ultimate destruction of all things. At some point, in a cosmic sense, it will not have mattered that we ever lived. The universe will … fade into a cold, dark, empty cosmos, and all we’ve done will be utterly forgotten.

Katie Mack, The End of Everything p 206.

She asks fellow astrophysicists what they think about this. ‘Sad’ says UCL cosmologist Hiranay Peiris. ‘I suppose it makes me start thinking about the problems we face as a civilization on a much shorter timescales. If I’m going to worry about anything, it’s gonna be those, not the Heat Death [of the universe]’ says another cosmologist, and former comic, Andrew Pontzen.

Others warm to the idea. ‘I just like the serenity of it’ says Pedro Ferreira. ‘So simple and clean.’ Renēe Hloẑek calls it ‘cold and beautiful’ the way the ‘universe just sorts itself out.’

I found myself sneakily liking these thoughts, despite spending a lot of time being a Christian and believing in eternity. In a universe that just shuts down and switches off, some thorny problems go down with it, not least eternal suffering, which might cheer up Fydor Dostoyevsky or James Joyce a bit. (Or my querulous demon Stub in my Jamie’s Myth trilogy.)

On the other hand, Katie Mack also quotes Iranian-born physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed: ‘I don’t know how [to find a purpose to life] that doesn’t transcend our little mortality … I think a lot of people at some level …. will do science or art or something because of the sense that you do get to transcend something. You touch something eternal. That word, eternal: very important. It’s very, very, very important.

We only know of one place in the universe where parts of the universe worry about this stuff at all: us, and here. And among us, among the many reachings-out to eternity that happen, we also have the story or rogue data point of the resurrection of Christ. Which could be a breaking in of the eternity that Nima Arkani-Hamed says is so important, and could be something whose consequences overtake cosmology itself. Interesting.

How my wife and I view my office differently

Once my son left for post-graduate studies in the USA, at, as I like to mention, an old New England school called Harvard1, we decided to turn his bedroom into an office.

Given the scale of clean-up required, we were pleased to get it done inside six months. Ever since it has been a congenial homeworking space for me from which torrents of gleaming prose pour out to my dozens of readers.

She and I look at the space differently. I see a happy place, where dust-motes whirl in the sunshine, where I am surrounded by tech, and where I have all I need for life and godliness, namely, silence, solitude, interesting books, a congenial view and the Internet.

My wife, looking at the same space, sees a different country. I mean look at the dust, the tea-stains. And it stinks in here. Moths are building dynasties in the corner. The carpet is littered with pills which grandchildren will come and eat and then die horrible deaths. Your desk, if you can call that pile a desk, is a monument to a deranged mind.

My wife has superb taste: she married me. It just shows how even the good can be off sometimes.

My review of Exiles on Mission

You may like to see my review of Exiles on Mission which I posted on Amazon and Goodreads. True, it’s also printed in the column opposite for a while, but I am so enthusiastic about this book that I wanted to plug it a little more.

This book is the distillation of years of thoughtful teaching (at Regent College in Vancouver) and it shows. Whereas many books of Christian teaching are worked-up sermons, this feels more like a boiled-down course and would be enormous fun to work through in a group setting over a term or so. The diagnosis (my analogy, not his) is that the Church is like a cruise liner with the tide having gone out. Crew and passengers are busy trying to keep everything going. But really, rather than hoping for the tide to come back in, we need to engage with the new reality.

I am reluctant to summarize a b0ok that is so measured and thoughful, but it seems that the beaching of the Church is mostly an opportunity and call to re-think our view of the world, realize that Christians are already distributed widely through it, and for us all to learn how to follow Christ in whatever places we’ve landed. We should be ambassadors, he argues, and not the sort of ambassadors who are just dishing out a few passports; the kind who are engaging with the culture’s stories and helping compose new ones. The apostle Paul talked about the church as ‘pillar and foundation’ of the truth, and so it became in the Roman Empire, supplanting the previous cultural settlement.

In terms of a book trying to engage seriously with the teaching of the Bible and contemporary church and its mission, rich with further avenues to explore, this is about the best thing I have read in years.

Rediscovering relevance

Surprisingly, the gospel is about everything.

Am so enjoying Paul Williams’ Exiles on Mission, as I may have mentioned before on this blog. I try to set aside some time each day to read a chapter. This is good practice, except that I’m reading it in our conservatory and the April sun is high and I keep get the overwhelming urge to lean back, close my eyes, and think about what he’s just written.

But I have been snapping out of myself. The chapter I read today was all about translating the gospel into our post-Christian culture. Another way of saying this is rediscovering the relevance of the gospel in this time and in this place.

This is so important because the Good News can seem irrelevant– not only to people who don’t know what it is, but also, perhaps, we Christians secretly admit, to ourselves. How can this message of grace be of interest to decent people with prosperous lives and a decided disinterest in suddenly taking up church attendance? Why would they want to do that?

Of course seasons come around for us all when the bottom falls out of our world and we perhaps realize that we’ve needed a rock to lean on for a long time. And with anyone, anywhere, who knows what God can set off in someone’s head and heart, a hunger that only Christ can answer. (That’s part of my own story of coming to faith incidentally.)

But with all that, still, the gospel can feel like a thing for the rougher edges or special seasons of the average life, not the whole. And for the private lives of individuals, rather than the whole world. And so many metaphors of salvation that are reissued forth from your standard church don’t reliably work in the outside world. (‘Don’t you feel you’re in a courtroom, and you’ve done loads wrong? Well, suddenly the judge’s son steps up and says, “I’ll pay your fine and”… sounds familiar, huh? Oh, you seem to have gone.)

Relevance rediscovered

I’m oversimplifying a detailed chapter, but you can imagine two steps:

  1. Fit your chosen story within the Bible’s grand narrative of life, the universe and everything.
  2. Carefully figure out some action resulting from this new perspective — do something.

What is the Bible’s ‘grand narrative’? As has been observed, it can be seen as a drama in several acts:

  1. Creation. God made the Universe, for us to thrive in along with him, and even though God says so himself, it’s very good.
  2. Fall. And we rebel, and alienate ourselves from God and each other and generally mess things up.
  3. Israel. God gets to work redeeming the story, at first with broad brushstrokes, like the Law.
  4. Between the Testaments… it isn’t quick. Things have to brew. But finally we get to:
  5. Jesus. God’s translation of himself into human form demonstrates, then inaugurates, then welcomes us to join, a Kingdom where God is ruling.
  6. Church And this message is embodied and carried everywhere
  7. New Creation. Until God calls time and establishes a new creation, filled with the scarred and remade people out of all humanity, stocked with all the good and beautiful from the old, and they live with him in this new day, thriving together, forever.

So: rethink your chosen story in this light, then act on what you’ve discovered. This was an exercise that Paul Williams got his students to do, but here are a couple of examples that I made up. (When I was sitting in the sunshine in the conservatory with my eyes closed, you might have thought I was asleep, but I was thinking.)

  • Foreign debt
  • Youth justice

Foreign debt

Foreign debt. Remember the years up to the millennium when many poorer nations had borrowed money, then spent it or seized it, and were now spending more on interest payments than they were on things like education? What’s the unredeemed story here? How about: These people entered into loans quite transparently. If they spent it on yachts rather than clinics, that’s their problem. Why punish the taxpayers of donor nations for the corruption of recipients?

What would it look like if you infected this unredeemed story with God’s story? Christ is lord of all and intends people to thrive. There is greed and sin and people stealing the money rather than spending it on the poor. There is also, under God, redemption and a further chance to thrive. And Christ is Lord of all. And it isn’t all that expensive for donor nations who anyway could have been more careful the first time round. That can then lead to action: why not drop the debt, on condition that the interest payments saved are spent on the poor, on things like health and education? A campaign around the millennium started with this kind of thinking (in, I think, Tear Fund). It led to a clear call to action, that was taken up enthusiastically by trades unions, campaigners of various kinds, and eventually governments. Debts were indeed forgiven and thousands of children got an education who otherwise wouldn’t. This was, among many other things, the gospel, properly thought-through and applied to our culture, causing a wildfire.

Youth justice

Youth justice. Here’s the unredeemed story. Frequent or serious offenders cause massive amounts of misery and should be locked up.

Now let’s infect it with the God story: What damaged these children? What damage have they done? What evil has been done to them and what evil have they done? All can be put right under a God who made them in his own image, made them for better than this, who provides forgiveness and the power of a new start through Christ, and who intends them to thrive and do well in a beautiful creation. A huge change has happened in youth justice in recent years in cases where young people are found dealing drugs far from where they usually live. After suitable enquiries, it’s quite normal now to treat these children not as young criminals but as vulnerable kids who’ve been groomed by drug gangs and are being exploited. Today they are treated under modern slavery law, as victims, rather than drug law, as dealers. Law enforcement goes for the gangs instead. I have no idea if Christian reflection was behind this change. But it was reflection in a Christian direction. And it has been deployed across every youth court in the nation.

The conclusion

Suddenly, everything we touch and everything we do becomes relevant, even urgent. We can ask of it, ‘How can express the Kingdom of God through this?’ Or we could pray, as someone taught: ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven.’

Unity: the ignored superpower

I am curious how the church, or perhaps especially the splintered Protestant church, doesn’t talk all that much about unity. Three Bible references come obviously to mind.

Unity means:

A) A blessing (Psalm 133)

B) A demonstration of the multi-layered wisdom of God to the powers-that-be (Ephesians 3:10-11)

c) The whole world knowing that Jesus is God’s son. (John 17: 20-21, 23)

Much of what the church seeks by other means is actually achieved by unity. I note also that the mindset that creates unity (humility, meekness, peacemaking, that stuff) is the same as the mindset behind the Sermon on the Mount and the same qualities that mark real disciples. Meanwhile we have our maps, goals and strategies (certainly the part of the Church that I inhabit does). Perhaps the humble work of peacemaking and quiet living will take us far further than our tools and workshops.

Image by Hans Schwarzkopf from Pixabay