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.
The great missiologist Paul Hiebert thought of this first and taught me it. He even wrote a paper on it. 1 So I’m just reproducing his ideas really.
Theologians do get into a pickle when trying to describe conversion, the way by which a person turns to Christ.
They get even more confused when they try to apply their theories to people who are other than sentient adults – unborn babies, children, those with severe learning difficulties, for example.
As Paul Hiebert pointed out, an understanding of set theory could help.
A ‘set’ is a collection of things: a tea-set, for example, is a collection of things you need to serve tea.
The set of all Christians
What does the ‘set’ of all Christians look like? Your average theologian will probably reach for the ‘bounded’ set, which means:
Everything that is within this walls (that I define) is in the set. And everything outside the walls, isn’t.
How do you define the walls? Here are some ideas:
All the baptized
All who profess faith
All who (as I was once asked on the streets in Cambridge when I claimed to be already a Christian) ‘have been baptized as an adult and baptized in the Spirit and speaking in tongues as an initial evidence’ (I won’t say whether I passed or not).
The problem is that none of the walls work when faced with the Biblical evidences of God’s grace.
This may be because the ‘set’ of the Christians is not a bounded set.
The centred set
Let’s suggest another type of set: the ‘centred set’. Members of the set are not defined by the boundaries around them, but by their relationship to the centre, which is Christ. If you’re heading toward to the centre, you’re in the set.
If not, you’re not.
People a very long way away, but following a sniff of grace are in the set.
People who look really near (like the religious) but are not oriented to the centre at all, are not in the set.
This (it seems to me) fits much better with the Biblical data. I leave proving this as an ‘exercise for the reader’.
I talked about some of this in my book More than Bananas, which you are invited to download for free from Internet bookshops:
Running time backwards is theologically illuminating
I have occasionally accused theologians of lacking the imagination of theoretical physicists.1
Take, for example, the idea of running time backwards. Some physical theories and processes have no problem with this. For example, a gamma ray decays into a positron and electron. A positron and and electron combine to become a gamma ray. This process can happen whether time is going backwards or forwards. 2
Other physical processes only work in one direction, from the present to the future. Put a tank of hot air next to a tank of cold air and open a valve between them, and they will equalize their temperatures irreversibly; you can’t go back; this process only happens when time is moving forward.
In physics, the reversible, timeless things are often quantum-sized. The irreversible, time-bound things are bigger and more in the general category that might be called ’emergent’, which is about the behaviour of lots of things together.
So: in physics, for some processes, the flow of time doesn’t matter. For other processes, it does. Let’s call the first processes ‘timeless’ or ‘eternal’. Then hand over to the theologians.
Send in the beards
Theological processes can also be divided into the timeless and the time-bound. As subjects of these processes, we get to enjoy both.
A life-changing encounter with God is eternal. That is why the apostle Paul can look both forward and back in time and see the same thing, as he does in the book of Ephesians: ‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight‘ and then he talks about how God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace. 3
Christ’s sacrifice for sin is eternal. John’s picture of the Lamb is ‘the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.’ (Rev 13:8) the Lamb who has ‘just been slain’ (implied in Rev 5:8) and eternally bearing the scars of his slaying when he showed his disciples his wounds.
Perhaps ‘Paradise’ is eternal. The Fall story is about Adam and Eve evicted from where they could live forever, into a realm of time and death. But on the cross Jesus promises the thief that that very day he will enter a Paradise that evidently still exists.4
This creation, and its story, is time-bound, a long evolution.
The formation and growth of the church is time-bound.
History is (of course) time-bound
All of these, note, are emergent things, the sum of many things acting together.
This is wonderful. We find there is, in time, everything to play for; but at the same time, in eternity, everything is settled.
I feel the need for John Milton at this point:
Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.
We Christians, I thought the other day, look at the world through a drinking straw. We search the whole realm of nature for familiar markers of God at work that we can note and approve of: Bible-studying, praying, church-going.
People who encounter us feel this. They feel themselves scrutinized and judged through a drinking straw. We don’t see the totality of them, or care about their world really; we’re only interested in what fits through our drinking straw. Unsurprisingly, they are not attracted.
There’s another way of looking at God’s work: the eyedropper. In this picture, the activity of God is like a drop of ink dripped into a clear liquid. The liquid could be a moment in time, or a human soul, or the whole world, or the whole universe. (The scale doesn’t matter; the principle is the same.) God colours the whole.
This seems to me a more Biblical picture. The Kingdom of God is the mustard seed that takes over the garden, the yeast that ferments all the flour, the feast at the end of the time to which all humanity is invited. ‘God so loved the world that he sent his Son.’
Who are we?
So are we evangelicals drinking-straw servants of an eye-dropper God, the narrowly-focussed in the service of the Wide? It can certainly seem that way. Our services are all about Jesus, our noticeboards are full of people all doing Jesus-themed things. Our Sunday Schools could be site of the old joke, where the new teacher asks the kids ‘what’s got a bushy tail, lives in trees and eats nuts?’ And after a long silence a kid pipes up, ‘I’m pretty sure the right answer is “Jesus” but it sounds like a squirrel to me.’
Drinking straw servants?
Drinking straw servants of an eyedropper God? It’s an easy charge, and I think we are somewhat guilty, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Here’s why. There is a place in love for infatuation. There is a season for a deep, greedy, obsessive searching for and finding God. There’s a time to get the drinking-straw perspective deep into your heart. When you decide to marry someone, you spend time, in love, obsessively rearranging your mental furniture. Perhaps it’s similar when you make Christ your Lord.
But I don’t think we should get stuck here. Oh God, give us breadth. Securely loved, with the basics settled, we are all the better set up to see God’s life dripping everywhere, and to cooperate with it.
Sometimes organisms make things easy for each other
‘[Fungi] are often completely essential to the trees they form a relationship with, and can even pass nutrients from one plant to another. This is yet another example of how the ‘red in tooth and claw’ picture of the living world is only one side of the story. Cooperation is every bit as important as competition. It is thought that fungi helped plants to transition onto land, and that in fact nearly every major transition in the evolution of living things involved a new type of cooperation. In other words, in the struggle for survival, a bit of snuggling is often needed.‘