Go far, go slow

Reasons not to panic

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Hillary Clinton is fond of quoting an African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together.’

I read an example today of the human species collectively going far. ‘Between 1968 and 2017, the world’s population increased by 113 percent from 3.55 billion to 7.55 billion. Over the same time period, the average global food supply per person per day rose from 2,334 calories to 2,962 – a 27 percent increase.’ 1.

So the population doubled, but the food supply more than matched it. Back in 1968 educated voices were looking at likely population increases and saying things like ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over … hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.’2 Today obesity is a bigger cause of death than the diseases of hunger.

Somewhere in all of this, perhaps, is a lesson that when we have far to go as a species, or a community — think global warming for example– it is OK to have prophetic types warning us of dire consquences, perhaps, but we have to travel together.

Ten years can be too short

For greatness

My scientist son suggested that we humans like projects that take no more than a decade. A prime example is President Kennedy’s 8-year goal of getting to the moon in the 1960s. More recently, the New Horizons expedition to Pluto, about which my son and I have both been reading, took around a decade to realize its primary goals (launched 2006, flew by Pluto 2015). Reducing a new langugage to writing and translating the New Testament into it? About 10 years. Many big infrastructure projects – the HS2 rail link and the Hinkley C nuclear plant here in the UK, for example – are sold on a ten-year frame, even if ‘time frame’ is eventually found to be the wrong metaphor as dates and costs balloon ludicrously out of shape like bubble gum in the mouth of a kid.

Ten years is a nice period in a career and a life. We can commit ourselves to a major piece of work, and we can also buy a house and keep the kids in the same school. We can envisage and enjoy ten years. Longer than ten years …. man, it’s never going to end.

Decade-long projects can work extremely well – like the moon landings and New Horizons or like the 2012 London Olympics. Perhaps they work well because they allow for a certain thoroughness and excellence. They work less well when they are just the cloak for much longer projects that would never start if people knew how long they would take or how much they would really cost. (Think: a lot of defence projects.)

Yer can we improve even on a decade-long planning horizon? Possibly.

Doing the grand

  1. Many things have a multi-century grandeur about them. Think of the spread of humans around the world from Africa. How many thousand thousand journeys did that take? How about the slow accumulation of science, technology and power over the millennia, compounding like the investment it is. It has transformed us as a species. How about the development of life on earth, another compounding investment, leading to at least one species that is self-aware and planet-dominating: given several billion years, atoms learned arrangements that made them capable of consciousness.
  2. I can also think of a couple of Christian-inspired projects that were expected to last many decades and successfully did. One is building cathedrals. Another was a 24-7 prayer meeting begun by the Moravians in (what is now) East Germany, and which they sustained for a century. The cathedrals still stand as magnificient holy places across Europe. Has any completed cathedral ever fallen down? I don’t know. The 100-year prayer meeting preceded a great explosion of Christianity that occupied the eighteenth century, and led to Christianity becoming a global faith.
  3. One of the reasons we Christians may find the Kingdom of God puzzling sometimes, and Jesus’ current reign as King, is that he likely doesn’t work on the scale of a decade. He might be working on a scale so impossibly grand that our short lives, buzzing around as we do, miss the scale of his holy ambition.

Being the collagen

Still another way of not being tied into (admittedly attractive and fruitful) human-sized ten-year projects is to lay foundations or build structures that will stand the test of decades. I still remember Steve Jobs moving Apple to the Unix-based operating system OS X. It was a change, he thought, that would be a good foundation for decades to come. Nineteen years after the release of OS X 10.0 ‘Cheetah’, and years after Jobs’ own death, OS X is still powering Macs.

Good workmanship is another way of building across the generations. I used to live in a multi-room mansion. The people who worked maintaining this old property knew where money had been spent originally and good work done; they also knew where corners had been cut, cheap work done, and the results plastered over.

Building to last is such a wonderful thing. Even if it is not followed up, people will look back and see the quality work that was done and lament its loss and be inspired themselves. Quality work is like collagen in living cells, giving structure to the mush and laying down a standard for centuries to come. It is timeless. In the case of bone, which I understand as being collagen plus grit, the skeleton long outlasts the body it supported.

This is so totally inspirational and so deeply motivates us to the patient, the thorough, the well-thought-out, the experienced and the slow. Whatever your field, imagine doing work that centuries later people will still look back on and admire! That is not immortality, but it is a stepping stone over which many generations can tread on their way to even greater things for the human species.

The slow inversion

Being turned inside out is slow

long and winding road
Image by Tayyab Bashir from Pixabay

I just read a PhD thesis of someone who tracked two dozen Palestinian Muslims who turned to Christ. 1

Each of these was following an against-the-herd choice, hard for any of us. They had things in common. Many had had dreams that had set or confirmed them on a journey. (The dream was never the end of the journey, interestingly.) Many read and re-read the New Testament. All took a long time, many of them, years.

Each of them was slow. This was a specialized sample and so it is risky to universalize it. But I think all true conversion is slow. Sometimes it’s the slow laying of groundwork before an instant-looking conversion. Often, maybe always, it’s slow work afterwards. As in my three novels of comic fiction, repentance is both the true start and the true marker of movement. It is a turning-to God as much as a turning-from dead stuff. Emptied and thirsty, back we go to the slow-dropping grace; fed up of the cave, we breathe the outdoor air and take in the view; out of sorts, we reach for a hug. Slow like life is slow, like seasons are slow, like growing is slow.

Meanings of slow

Try steady. Thorough. Patient

Fail.
Image by Igor Yastrebov from Pixabay

Now that I’m telling people I’m writing about Slow, I have to keep defining what it is. It’s a metaphor really, the opposite of another metaphor, fast, as in fast food.

In this context it means methodical and single-focussed. When a counsellor sits down with a client, and has booked out the whole morning, she’s going to be slow. That’s all she’s going to do this morning. She isn’t going to let her phone interrupt. She’s put aside her other responsibilities. All she’s going to do is unwrap her client’s soul until both client and counsellor can see the true person. It’s slow because it’s thorough, thoughtful and single-minded. Slow is that habit of doing things well, perhaps from first principles, focussed, practising a craft.

Slow is also patient. Cricket (in its longer forms) is slow because it is a test of routines and patience. Allotment gardening is slow because you have to sow and reap and bury, overseeing life and fruit and death, at the same pace as the seasons. The Christian faith is slow because you hourly walk paths of spiritual discipline that carve out contours in lives and culture and history. Centuries are shaped by the hourly habits of the worshipper.

All of Christian discipleship is slow: healing is slow, holiness is slow, forming a marriage or family or a child is slow. Nurturing a Christian community is slow. Love and faith crystallize into faithfulness in all its splendid forms and are slow.

Learning a skill is slow. Those who have found enduring wealth or fame or celebrity have usually embraced slow: the person who sells out stadiums has learnt her craft and polished her art in clubs and pubs. Flash-in-the-pan wealth or fame, I think, can be instant, up like gunpowder rocket, down like the stick.

Slow glows with divine light. Somebody is lit up by something, and they love it, and work to perfect it, and do it over and over again. There’s a holiness about watching someone, adult or child, quietly doing what they love to do; they have found something, they have connected with a stream that doesn’t stop flowing, whose source is God.

Slow and stop

Nothing is quite something

Image by ptra from Pixabay

Stop is the father of Slow. And Stop has exotic parents: it is the lovechild of hubris and reality. You are driving your car, radio on, happy, hubristic, and in a few panicked moments there is a bang and things happening quickly and then the crumpled metal and the stop.

Or there is the phone call that stops your world or the judgement or the letter or the diagnosis or the moment. That which was your careful construct of a life is a house of cards. You know this now because it has fallen down. You have been blessed with a dead stop. As you rebuild you will embrace Slow.

This all has Christian resonance because in that framework of thought the death of Christ is the only stationary point in an oscillating, surging, blushing, trilling Universe. The cross is the origin, coordinate (0,0), the place you have to go to orient yourself and find your way. It is the full stop. We enter into it, finding the death of hubris and the death of self in the death of Christ; finding a new pattern of life in the resurrection, fuelled by the Spirit of God. As the joke goes, Death is God’s way of getting us to slow down. .

The trouble with truth

We might need to drizzle humility over our convictions

Start with the Reformation. You have printed Bibles around the place. You have corruption in the Church. So you start saying:

The Bible is truth!

This gives you a lever to overthrow the old idea, which was perhaps even often unstated: tradition is truth. A new truth-claim lets you unsettle the old world.

After that initial crowbar job, other things pile in with their claims. Hence:

That which is discovered by reason is truth.

Or:

That which is established by the Scientific Method is truth.

And

Establish all the facts and you establish the truth!

And because humans are complicated and clever:

All claimed ‘truth’ is just a way of bullying people and all claims to truth are simplistic and over-ambitious.

And

The truth we believe is a construct inside our head. The objective truth outside our head is the only truth but it is forever unknowable since we can only know what has made its way into our head, and that which has found its way inside our head is only a tiny unrepresentative subset of the ‘real’ truth outside.

Or what about

Truth is actually found in music or art or poetry, a chimeral thing that we occasionally encounter, but never grasp, and obviously beyond words.

Worse, I can’t think of a reliable way of judging between all these competing claims. How can you test the truth of truth? Though there are workarounds. For example, I prefer my Ryanair pilot to believe her flight instruments rather than her inner aesthetic sense. And if the air traffic controller said she was coming in too low, I would rather she believed him than accused him of abusing power for his own sexist reasons.

Where this gets us

I don’t know where this gets us, but I do think those who slickly think they have this whole Truth business nailed — the sort of people who say, ‘I’ll deal with your questions, just give me a moment’ — might be missing something.

How careers change after mid-life

Your runny self becomes hard-boiled. But don’t worry.

Just read a fascinating article about how we all peak earlier than we think…

In a really helpful piece in the Atlantic, Arthur C Brooks talked about the difference between fluid and crystalized intelligence. The fluid sort is flexible and creative, problem-solving and innovative. The crystalized sort is more likely to draw on wisdom and experience from the past – runny versus solid intelligence, if you like.

The runny sort is what many of us use as we progress in our career, trying new approaches, showing flexibility, making creative leaps and discoveries. But our runniness starts to decline as early as our 30s and 40s.

The solid sort builds through life and you don’t lose it until until the very end.

This is why scientists (often post-docs) are young; Supreme Court justices are old.

The significance of significance

Brooks’ deeper point is that if you get your significance from your achievements when your intelligence was running all over the place, you may struggle when you no longer can make the same leaps.

He gives the example of Charles Darwin, who was famous early but rather lost steam in his 50s and didn’t end particularly well. Start-up founders, creatives of all kinds, mathematicians and scientists, lawyers, business people — anyone who’s done well with learning, changing, driving change, beware. You’re seizing up faster than you think.

The remedy to this career disillusion, Brooks claims, is to shift gears and try to exploit all those stores of solid, crystallized intelligence you’ve built up while running around changing the world. Try mentoring or teaching in some sense, resourcing others. Try wisdom rather than innovation. It may mean stepping back from the frontlines of fame and significance but that can only be good.

(The alternative to this, which he doesn’t suggest, is to attend meetings and be the person who says ‘we tried that years ago and it never worked.’)

This is fascinating in several different ways.

  1. We have seasons in our lives; resisting this truth is not a recipe for happiness. We have to shift gears. If our significance comes from our fresh ideas, our flexibility, our creative leaps, watch out.
  2. This is something we instinctively know. Of course old men have a different perspective from young guys. It was always so: the young men of the village play cricket, the old guys nurse their pints of beer and watch. The mistake of us baby boomers is that in our 50s and 60s we think we can still do it on the dancefloor. Perhaps we are fooled by how good health care is now, or perhaps we don’t labour in the body-crushing occupations of our ancestors. Or perhaps no previous generation has been this pampered and this stupid.
  3. For me personally, my fiction-writing self has often felt fear that I won’t be able to be make the creative leaps of the past. That’s actually frightening. On the other hand, to write further books about the same people and in worlds already dreamed up is an enticing prospect, and I observe that many of my favourite writers did exactly that: they were like musicians on tour again, playing the old hits. Meanwhile my non-fiction writing self feels differently. After decades of reading and thinking, I’m getting to lay out the stuff that’s been crystallizing in my heart.
  4. And for all of us, the gear change may involve putting more weight on relationships than our glittering career, stepping back, pushing others forward, finding significance outside a string of achievements: choosing slow.

How not to pray for someone with cancer

Don’t pray for a future healing. Find today’s grace.

Don’t pray for instant total healing.

Well, do if you must, but it may be that you are really responding to your own rage and pain rather than listening to God. The Psalms do this a lot.

But consider the poor schmuck you are praying for: there might be a better way.

First, remember the context. Suffering is everywhere. Cancer is everywhere. Our seemingly–lonesome path has already been worn down by millions of heavy footsteps and many others are queuing behind us. This can help us past our self-obsession. And we can learn to look with fresh eyes on the human species. So much struggle. And what a brave lot we all are.

Second, reflect that even complete healing (whatever that is) is just part of wider and slower package that includes elements of rehabilitation, reflection and repentance. God continues tenderly to love and form us. Our cancer is not separate from our disciple’s walk or our life’s work of glorifying God. It’s just another thing.

Third, think about the Kingdom and the gospels: ‘People would … beg [Jesus] to let the sick at least touch the edge of his cloak. And all who touched it were made well.’ 1 Remember the ‘all’. We are members of the all.

Just praying ‘God somehow take all this away,’ is entirely understandable. But, given everything, it is an ill-considered and unhelpful place for your prayers or your church’s prayers to land. Don’t focus your hopes on an encounter in the misty future that will make everything all right again.

Touch the edge of the cloak today. Pray for grace for today, for healing today. Pray for God’s help today: the fear and anxiety to be replaced with peace. The pain soothed. The stresses on everyone eased. A good night, rather than a dark one. Pray prayers of thanksgiving for the goodness of God and for the worth and value of the person being prayed for.

We are on very solid ground praying for peace today, dumping our worries and fears today, praying for good communication with each other today and finding ways to thank God and esteem each other’s love today. Find today’s grace.

Touch the cloak again tomorrow. Some of the tomorrows may include further investigations or treatment. Pray about those. Some of those days may include miraculous tumour-shrinkage or joyous remission. Wonderful. Keep pressing on with the rehab, the reflection, the repentance.

Mistaking the peace for the promise

A final thought, sometimes missed: it’s possible to mistake God’s peace for God’s promise. Especially when you’re desperate. When you just want horrible news to unhappen, and you pray and find peace, you can think God has said something when he hasn’t. He may indeed have something to say on the matter but that isn’t it and then wasn’t the time. What does the peace mean, then? It means he’s here, like always.

The revolutionary effects of non-violence

It really works

I’m enjoying thinking about non-violence and radical submission.

Following Jesus’ example on non-violence and foot-washing, the principle of radical submission became embedded in Christian ethics.

Slaves were told to be excellent slaves, even if they served less-than-excellent masters. Enemies were to be fed and watered. Women, newly freed from oppression by the gospel, were told to fit voluntarily within the old patriarchal structures. They undermined it totally, throwing men completely off balance, by being unusually sweet and nice. Rulers were smilingly obeyed. Taxes were stumped up. Early on in the piece, a Roman governor (from memory, the younger Pliny) complained that the Christians treated the pagan dead with more kindness than the pagan living were managing to do.

When you treat an oppressor thoughtfully, charitably, kindly and well, you weaponize shame. ‘I’m giving you a chance to disgrace yourself,’ we say. ‘Don’t miss the opportunity.’

And even if that particular enemy is immunized against shame, his mother won’t be, his children won’t be, his support network won’t be. The more he shames himself by being cruel and sneaky to the kind, the more his authority shrivels away.

This has such powerful resonances for today. Hong Kong residents gather in their tens of thousands singing Christian worship songs (for example). This is much harder for the authorities to deal with than (for example) violent lawlessness. They have a playbook for violent lawlessness. They are rather less certain how to crack down on a church picnic.

It’s easy to say

Of course this is easy to say. Much, much harder to live out. Look at Zimbabwe, looted and ransacked by its leaders, peacefully opposed, but generations of suffering has not yet brought the needed change.

Look at the rise of autocracy and populism around the world. Yet, still, we have to insist that peacemaking and radical submission and love are the marker posts on the true path to transformation.

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


	

The art of fighting for a cause

Re-reading the passion narrative in Luke, I noticed — sadly for the first time — that Christ was crucified as a political actor for political reasons.

Of course there was a bigger story going on, the one celebrated in the gospel, Christ dying to reconcile humanity to God.

But as far as everyone on the ground was concerned, it was politics. And seeing it in this light is fascinating. Jesus was out to ‘get’ the ruling religious authorities in Jerusalem. They had stolen religious affairs for their own good, not the common good. They were running the religion business so that they did well out of it: best seats at the banquets, top places in the synagogues.

Jesus campaigned against them. First he started a popular movement, going from town to town preaching and building large crowds. Then he spent some months training followers. Finally he invaded the Temple and taught right in their faces. This was incendiary stuff and everyone knew it.

But how did he ‘win’?

He chose the path of non-violence. He let them beat him, try him unjustly, crucify him.

Yet instead of stamping his movement out, as they hoped, within weeks it had thousands of followers, some of whom were themselves willing to die for him.

Over coming decades, the movement grew, and it split the autocracy still trying to control Jerusalem as Pharisees started to believe.

Finally the Temple was swept away by the Romans. Meanwhile the size of the Church grew, at its widest estimate, to a third of the human race.

The power of non-violence today

I saw this same dynamic when I was writing a book on Algeria. The White Fathers, a Catholic order, decided to stay in the country as the situation deteriorated into civil war in the 1990s. As very public Christians, they were obvious targets for the Islamic militants who were half of the civil war. (The state was the other combatant.) I remember hearing of three White Fathers, friends of a friend of mine, who were gunned down in cold blood one morning. The small Christian cemetery was filled with Muslim friends at their burial. One wrote to the newspaper saying something like, ‘I want to live like they do.’

This was not, presumably, was the Islamic militants intended: Christ and Christ’s peaceful ways were exalted. That which was supposed to be stamped out, lived.

Interesting.