‘Arm them against the gray impersonal powers’

The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown was helped out of his alcohol-soaked obscurity by the other famous twentieth-century Orkney poet Edwin Muir.

George Mackay Brown attended Newbattle Abbey College, south of Edinburgh, a college for mature students, while Muir was warden. Muir’s recognition and encouragement changed Brown’s life. After Muir’s death, Brown wrote a play about him and puts these words, concerning the students, in Muir’s mouth:

Never be hard on them. Never let them feel they’re wasting their time. My time as well. The whole treasury of literature is there for them to ransack. Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty. Arm them against the gray impersonal powers. They press in on every side. More and more.

George Mackay Brown in Richard Harries Haunted by Christ, SPCK 2019

‘Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty’ … an astonishingly uncommon sentiment today.

Local businesses, and daily bread

Something to be proud of

I did some copywriting work once for a charity called ‘Feed the Hungry’ (FTH). I enjoyed reading up on their philosophy. If I’m stating it right, they believed every community had God-given ways of sustaining themselves. FTH’s job was to catalyze the community to find and start deploying that source of ‘daily bread’. Then FTH would move on, job done. Even the poorest communities, they believed, could find, under God, a way of sustaining themselves.

Their theology is an expansion upon the prayer Jesus taught us: ‘Give us today our daily bread’.

Maybe these ideas don’t just apply to the poorest communities. The rich world is pockmarked with towns that have lost their old source of daily bread.

For example, in the town I grew up in, the biggest industry was making asbestos conveyor belts for the coal-mining industry. We had a school trip there once, to give us some ideas of the working life, which for some of us was just a few months away. This may be news to some, but the market for asbestos conveyor belts isn’t what it was.

What has replaced local industry? Government jobs and chain-store jobs. What’s been lost? Local pride. My home town also used to manufacture cast-iron drain-hole covers, and as a kid I would point it out if I found one in some distant street somewhere. We were famous! Our drain-hole covers were the finest, or perhaps the cheapest, but they were something.

A council in the NW of the UK (Preston maybe?) has pushed against the trend by trying to spend its council money locally. They get a local start-up to supply school dinners (for example), instead of hiring one of the established national providers. Like FTH, this council is trying to catalyse new initiatives that eventually might sustain themselves.

Economists grumble that everyone did what that council is doing, it would on balance be less efficient. That council are arguably wasting tax-payers’ money by not choosing the cheapest provider. But the extra inefficiencies may be worth it. I wonder if part of ‘daily bread’ is growing local businesses? And if it is worth some effort to catalyse that? That daily bread is not just about sustaining an individual but sustaining a community? That that can be an aim of prayers and faith? I wonder if a return to proud local businesses (even if they manufacture lowly drain-hole covers for a grateful nation) might be one way to dispel the powerlessness that many feel?

Slow mission and the arts

Wonderful wastefulness

We are made in the image of a creative God and our creativity can bring him glory.

The arts are also an asset in mission work:

The arts are personal – they are heart-to-heart. Artistic expression and response prevent the Christian faith being reduced to formulas, programmes, or clichés.

The arts are intimate. Our complex selves respond not just to facts or emotion, but also to the sense of beauty or ugliness. The creative arts add extra dimensions to a person’s encounter with God.

The arts are daily bread. Humans hunger for stories and beauty just as they hunger for bread or God. Christian arts can enlighten a dulled world, sustain Christians in trials, and spark hope in hopeless situations.

The arts seed further creativity. The best art stirs people to reflect and create fresh art. In this way Christian art reproduces itself and extends the interaction between the risen Christ and the human species.

The arts bind communities together. Collective sung worship, or aesthetically pleasing buildings or rituals, for example, can unite people in communal devotion to God. We know ourselves to be part of something
greater than our own individual faith.

The arts can find soft places in hard hearts. Among the multiple reasons that Jesus told stories was, first, because everyone enjoys a
story, and second, because a story can start someone on a journey towards God even when that person is not willing at that time to seek him.

The arts are ‘wasteful’. Art is not usually economically justified. Rather, like when an expensive bottle of pure nard (grown only in the Himalayas) was poured on Jesus, the arts are an expression of unfettered love.

I first wrote this as part of a 52-week world prayer guide which I have been working on through 2018 and 2019. You can find out more about this project, and sign up for the full blessing, at Lausanne.org/pray

On finding your first love … again

In praise of the crazy act of love

Heart at airshow

Just coming down personally from a busy few months. With emails whittled down, files organized, commitments met, mostly, and the things shifted off my desk towards their final destination. A cup of tea in the sun and some mental unpacking.

And a reminder. The first love. That best, freest, sweetist thing I am capable of giving to my soul’s Lover. Not so much the good, proper, dutiful, obligation-fulfilling stuff that rightly fills much of my life. But the crazy act of love, unconsidered, unweighed, ill-judged. The thing done for the love of doing it and for the love of my creative Creator who loves me; the thing planted in our walled garden, for just the two of us. That thing. Do that.

The slow pushback on the autocrats

Underneath the headlines, autocrats keep being foiled

Just read the annual letter by the head of the American-based Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth.

He talks about the slow pushback on the autocrats. Messy, partial, grassroots, ragged and often not making the headlines, it makes the tyrants lives harder and more complicated and at times, impossible. Poor them.

In some ways this is a dark time for human rights. Yet while the autocrats and rights abusers may capture the headlines, the defenders of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are also gaining strength. The same populists who are spreading hatred and intolerance are spawning a resistance that keeps winning its share of battles. Victory in any given case is never assured, but it has occurred often enough in the past year to suggest that the excesses of autocratic rule are fueling a powerful counterattack.

Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch, 2019 Keynote

He adds

… new alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, have mounted an increasingly effective resistance. Political leaders decide to violate human rights because they see advantages, whether maintaining their grip on power, padding their bank accounts, or rewarding their cronies. This growing resistance has repeatedly raised the price of those abusive decisions. Because even abusive governments weigh costs and benefits, increasing the cost of abuse is the surest way to change their calculus of repression. Such pressure may not succeed immediately, but it has a proven record over the long term.

He then offers an impressive survey of current human rights abuses and how in many cases unorthodox groupings have added to the headaches for the autocrats.

I like this. It’s a very ‘slow mission’ way of opposing evil.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity.

Psalm 37:10-11 NIVUK

Mission as being where Jesus is

This (from Rowan Williams, Being Disciples) is one of the most attractive reasons for the mission enterprise that I have read.

Being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks and keeps. Jesus chooses the company of the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased; so that is where you are going to find yourself …

That is why so many disciples of Jesus across the history of the Christian Church –and indeed now — find themselves in the company of people they would never have imagined being with, had they not been seeking to be where Jesus is: those who have gone to the ends of the earth for the sake of the gospel; those who have found themsevles in the midst of strangers wondering, ‘How did I get here?’ People like Thomas French, a great missionary figure of the nineteenth century who spent much of his [p12] ministry as bishop in the Persian Gulf at a time when the number of Christians in the area was in single figures, and who died alone of fever on a beach in Muscat. What took him there? What else except the desire to be where Jesus was, the sense of Jesus waiting to come to birth, to come to visibility, in those souls whose lives he touched — even though, in the long years he worked in the Middle East he seems to have made no converts. He wasn’t there first to make converts, he was there first because he wanted to be in the company of Jesus Christ — Jesus reaching out to, seeking to be born in, those he worked with and loved so intensely. It’s the apparent failure, and that drama of that failure, so like the ‘failure’ of Jesus abandoned on the cross, that draws me to his story, because it demonstrates what a discipleship looks like that is concerned with being where Jesus is, regardless of the consequences.

Rowan Williams Being Disciples (pp 11-12)

What happens after Islamism

People get fed up of it

In some states of Nigeria, the northern ones, where around the turn of the century they declared shari’a law for Muslims in a dozen provinces a few years ago, they are cutting the numbers of religious police. In Kano province their budget has been cut by a third, and they no longer patrol the (‘Christian’-run) bars and betting shops, hauling off Muslims.

Economist, ‘Nigeria’s vice cops feel squeezed’, April 13 2019

In Saudi Arabia, controversial crown prince has greatly restricted the powers of the religious police, forcing them to work office hours only and only produce written reports rather than taking direct action. One newspaper reported in 2018, ‘many restaurants in Riyadh are now seen humming with music and mixed-gender crowds, a scene unimaginable until two years ago.’

https://www.straitstimes.com/world/middle-east/saudi-religious-polices-decline-under-spotlight[

In Egypt, the Economistreported in Nov 2017, how a young puritanical preacher in the town of Mansoura used to have a congregation that overflowed the mosque into the nearby street (and that was not unusual). ‘Now he barely half-fills the mosque,’ and complains, ‘we’re in decline.’ This, according to the newspaper, ‘is true in many places in the Arab World’.

Prayer as birdwatching

Sometimes it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening.

Am still enjoying Rowan Williams on discipleship. In fact I’ve not got much further than the first chapter. Which is all about discipleship as just hanging around in God’s presence, much like students in the past, or indeed disciples, used to share not just lectures but their whole lives with their teachers.


‘I’ve always loved that image of prayer as birdwatching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view, and sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening. I suspect that, for most of us, a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that. But the odd occasions when you do see (p5) what T. S. Eliot (in section IV of “Burnt Norton”) called “the kingfisher’s wing” flashing “light to light” make it all worthwhile … this sort of expectancy … is basic to discipleship.’

Rowan Williams Being Disciples, pp 4-5

The joy of ticking boxes

and outsourcing thought

My maths teacher wife tells me her kids hate nothing more than thinking. She gets protests: ‘Miss, my brain’s going to boil over’, for example. ‘Miss, this is child cruelty, making us think.’

What kids really like, she goes on, is working through a page of exercises and getting a page of ticks for everything they got right. Tick (check) tick tick. Wonderful.

The preference for ticking (checking) boxes instead of thinking obviously starts early and perhaps never leaves us.

As many of us remember, a few years ago the UK parliament, (then in normal times) had an expenses scandal. Some politicians 1, it turned out, had been drinking from a tax-payers’ fountain like camels just returning from the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. Very few had broken the law. They had cleared the expenses with the parliamentary authorities. What they had actually done was outsourced their thinking and replaced it with ticking boxes. It wasn’t breaking the rules to get your moat cleaned, or your birdboxes nailed up, or a new kitchen, so, whoopie do. It must be OK.

Fortunately, another much-loved set of people in our society, the journalists, did their thinking for them. It may have ticked the boxes, they pointed out, but was it right? You are the highest court in land – what were doing, outsourcing your integrity?

Politicians are just like us, only blow-up versions of us, so we must do this kind of thing ourselves all the time.

Where I’ve been

Not very far actually

One or two people have kindly written to ask if I’m OK given that the blog has been silent for a couple of months. In fairness, I have a track record of being blue-lighted to hospital.

Happily it’s just been busy-ness this time. I’ve spent most of the last 12 months as lead author on a 52-week free world prayer guide for churches. I’ve done this with a long-time colleague from the Operation World ministry and with people from the Lausanne Organization.

It’s been great fun but actually getting the project dressed nicely and out the door, especially in January, didn’t leave a lot of time for blogging or (more to the point) thinking, Since I have a lead time for blog entries, that meant it all fell silent in February.

It’s been good fun and you can see the fruits of our labours at lausanne.org/pray, and you can sign up too if you wish.

Meanwhile I’m looking forward to working on some half-cooked ideas and throwing them out into the maelstrom of words that swirls around us each day. I’ve also been working on some audio for the site in case your ears are feeling left out.

Affectionately,

Glenn