On not taking risks

Horse Ploughing show.My friend Miriam Cowpland shared this gem from her own reading of  the devotional writer A W Tozer

In Tozer’s book ‘Paths to Power’ there is a chapter entitled ‘Miracles follow the Plough’. He contrasts two types of ground: fallow ground (fallow meaning ground which has been left for a period of time without being sown), and ground which has been broken up by the plough. The fallow field has chosen safety, security and contentment. But, says Tozer, at a terrible price. ‘Never does it see the miracle of growth; never does it feel the motions of mounting life nor see the wonders of bursting seed nor the beauty of ripening grain.’

In contrast the cultivated field has yielded itself to the ‘adventure of living’. ‘Peace has been shattered by the shouting farmer and the rattle of machinery: it has been upset, turned over, bruised and broken, but the rewards come hard upon its labours.’

I’m sure you can see the parallels which Tozer then goes on to draw with our lives: the fallow life that doesn’t want to be disturbed, that has stopped taking risks for the sake of fruitfulness, contrasted with the life that is marked by discontent (at fruitlessness), yearning for the work of God, willing to be bruised and broken so that seed can be planted.

Which kind of field am I? What kind of field are you?

Breaking up the fallow ground begins with seeking God. Prayer, deep longing crying out to the Lord for Him to work in us, in our teams, in our places of ministry – this is where it begins. Are we doing that?

Old promises and new promises

Interesting to compare the promises given to God’s people in Old and New Testaments:

OldNew
Land of milk and honeyStreams of living water,
Jesus the Bread of Life
Victory over enemiesVictory over sin, death and the devil
Nations serve the people of GodNations join the people of God
Abundant harvestsAbundant fruitfulness
Everyone sitting under his own vine and his own fig treeSeated in heavenly places in Christ; nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
Promised LandNew Creation

Hope as a foundation

For thinking about your country

While I’m familiar with hope as a quality applied to persons (and myself) the idea of applying it to whole nations is refreshing.

 

…[Hope] makes an individual or a group, or even a nation, producers in their own drama, and not merely actors repeating the lines set  by others or by some mysterious fate.

The Christian undestanding is that hope is an essential … state of mind for all human beings…

..[Hope] makes an individual or a group, or even a nation, producers in their own drama, and not merely actors repeating the lines set by others or by some mysterious fate.

Francois-Xavier, Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan, wrote an account of more than a decade in prison in Vietnam after the Communist takeover of te south in 1974. His is a testimony of hope, despite torture, solitary confinement and a near certainty of death in prison, forgotten by the majority of the world. He was sustained by the presence of Christ, by Mass said each day with a grain of rice and enough rice wine to hold in the palm of his hand . He was sustained by the story, the narrative of hope that centre on the resurrection of Christ and his living presence with us now. He was not destroyed by circumstance, or a sense of fatalism, but neither did he have a false hope of survival, a vain optimism. The story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the  most powerful narrative shift in world history, enabling a small and scattered group of disciples full of despair to set a pattern and style of life that conquered the Roman Emprie without violvence.
(Reimagining Britain, pp 25, 26, 27)

Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope

by Justin Welby [Bloomsbury Continuum]
Price: £10.15 EUR 19,27 EUR 16,78 -

Eating

Why we should do more of it


Congratulations to writer Michele Guinness, whom I have not met or even read very much. Her story Chosen of being a Jewish person and meeting Christians (and eventually becoming one herself) has not been out of print in 35 years and is being re-issued by Lion in a new edition in October.

She still has loads to teach us, not least about eating. This is from an article in Together, magazine for Christian retailers, July/August 2018:

My first visit to a church was a shock to the system – so gloomy and dull. The congregation chanted “and make thy chosen people joyful” as if they were at a funeral … A greater understanding of Jesus’ worldview is liberating. It brings colour and richness, significance and celebration, wonder and joy to the Christian faith.

When I first became a Christian it seemed to me that around 50% of the New Testament was lost on Christians … I think it is more relevant than ever to encourage families to invite in the neighbours, single friends and children of all ages to celebrate at home together with story-telling and symbol, food and worship around the table.

Highlighted below is her book about celebrations, The Heavenly Party.

Reading

And the dangers of too much dopamine

BookstoreWhen even that gifted writer and reader Philip Yancey confesses that he is struggling to read books like he used to, you know there’s a problem.

In a recent article 1 he explains:

‘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.

 

 

Trusting in the slow work of God

Even when it’s annoying

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.

  1. 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.
  2. There’s a phrase in a dusty corner of the Old Testament concerning offerings to God: ‘handfuls of finely ground incense’ (Leviticus 16:12).

Entropy, miracles and the Kingdom of God

Messier 1 (M1), Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula, a stellar explosion, a little hard to put back into an ordered state. Photo: Robert Sullivan/ Hubble – creative commons @flickr.com

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.

Maybe.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. Hence, the ability to decrease entropy without borrowing from elsewhere is a good thermodynamic definition of divinity.
  5. 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).
  6. 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)
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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. 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.

 

When the world stops

The healing starts

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.

 

 

If you can hold the Universe together when all around are losing it…

Are you the ceremonial centre of the Universe?

World's Favorite Sport
Thanks to Rama V at Flickr.com for making this photo Creative commons!

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.

 

Heroes

Yes, really

journalist
jeanbaptistparis@flickr.com (Creative commons — thanks)

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.

More power to them.