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.

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

The hidden plague

loneliness

lonely

Fascinating article in about a great source of un-wellness in our society1: loneliness. 

‘In Britain 7.7m people live alone … Seventeen million adults in Britain are unattached. More than 1m older people feel lonely all or most of the time, and most of them do not feel able to admit their loneliness to family and friends. Loneliness is one of the chief reasons people contact the Samaritans, though often callers find it hard to admit it. “People who call us sometimes feel that loneliness is not a good enough reason for calling,” says Nick, a long-term Samaritans volunteer. “They feel ashamed or embarrassed, as though feeling lonely isn’t something serious.” Three out of four GPs say they see between one and five lonely people a day; only 13% feel equipped to help them, even though loneliness has a detrimental effect on health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Only 22% of us have never felt lonely.’

‘In the autumn last year, the body of 68-year-old Marie Conlon was found in her flat at Larkspur Rise in Belfast. She had been dead for nearly three years. In a statement, her family said they were “shocked and heartbroken” at the death of the “beloved sister”. Call be cruel, but how beloved could she have been if they hadn’t seen or spoken to her since the beginning of 2015? I popped into my local funeral directors to learn how often they were presented with bodies which had lain along in flats until they began to decompose. The lady in charge that day was wary of my questions, and made me promise not to give her name. But yes, she said, this happens quite regularly–bodies lie undiscovered until neighbours complain of a smell.’

My books of the year

If you have the kind of shopping-basket mind that ends up at the checkout with all kinds of stuff from random parts of the shop, books beat Netflix any day for idiosyncracy and eclecticism, and they usually beat podcasts or blogs for cogency and completeness.

Didn’t quite make the list:

Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemolu, James Robinson. Useful hypothesis about about the essential elements of a prosperous nation, spoilt a little by special pleading and being a bit kludgy. Still, if the world’s politicians read this and acted on it, the world would perk up one feels.

The Beautiful Cure by Daniel M Davies. The story of advances in immunotherapy didn’t quite it spark for me. This rise of a new therapy that perhaps actually deserves the tired phrases ‘world-changing’ and ‘revolutionary’ is (at least on the evidence of this book), a Samuel Johnson still yet to find its James Boswell.

This year’s favourites

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward. This best of White House reporters did his thing with Trump. It made my list, but at the bottom, because (a) it only confirmed what you kind of knew and (b) all the main actors had resigned already by the time I read the book and (c) it’s kinda depressing.

Chasing New Horizons by Allen Stern, David Grinspoon. Wonkish but fascinating history of how to conceive a probe to Pluto, sell it to NASA, build it, launch it, make it work: getting under the skin of how big science is done. Slight caution: history is written by the winners — but still fascinating.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. Sweet, witty retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew which I read in a single evening and then went back to several times, just to revel in Anne Tyler’s deftness and grace as a storyteller. Plot, character, dialogue, background: everything is beautifully primped. It ain’t profound or deep but it’s funny, refreshing and satisfying.

The Mission of God’s People by Chris Wright. Compelling vision of the Church’s vocation to the world and to creation. Best mission theology title for me since Lesslie Newbiggin’s The Open Secret, which 30 years ago helped redirect my career.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling. We’ve long been fans of Hans Rosling’s TED talks in our house. But his book — his final offering to the world– about the relentless rise of good news about the world and how we are programmed to avoid and disbelieve it, is the best thing he’s done. Read it while it’s still warm (some of its stats. are as recent as 2017).

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The most enjoyable apocalypse I’ve ever read, and one of Terry Pratchett’s very best.

The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End by Cixin Liu. Actually this has been a couple of years’ project. This science fiction series is the best SF I’ve read in years. Like a musician who keep introducing key changes, Cixin Liu just keeps unfolding astonishing ideas, ramping them up and up. The books aren’t flawless and can drag in places, but collectively are thought-provoking hard SF that I kept boring my physicist son with.

And my favourite…

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S Frederick Starr. This is the rather untold story of the oasis cities and great thinkers who (geographically) connected the Byzantines, the Arab World, China and India and (historically) kept the golden thread of rational thought and inquiry alive between the Roman Empire and the Europeans. I found it compelling and totally fascinating and would be sad if I didn’t travel through this book again. It turns out that the ‘Arab’ and Muslim empire, at its best, was powered by Central Asian and Persian thought.

In European times, discovery of a single volume by these thinkers was enough to spark off bits of our own Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. A wonderful unearthing and piecing together of missing historical treasure. Makes you want to visit Central Asia as Frederick Starr did and see dusty one-horse Afghan cities and recite Ozymandias or something:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Daily bread, by which I mean books

Loved this quote from preacher J John who was quoting Baptist minister C H Spurgeon.

Spurgeon was commenting on a passage in Paul’s letters where he told his friend Timothy to bring the books he left behind:

St Paul – he’s inspired yet he wants books. He’s been preaching 30 years and yet he wants books. He’s seen the Lord yet he wants books. He has had a wider experience than most people yet he wants books. He has been caught up to the third heaven and heard things it is unlawful to utter yet he wants books.  He has written the major part of the New Testament yet he wants books.

J John Defining the Future in Together (magazine for Christian booksellers) 34, Nov-Dec 2018, p 33

Feeding the ducks

Took grand-daughter to local park to feed ducks. Of course there have been developments in duck nutrition recently and the council have put up signs: don’t feed bread to the ducks. Try something like frozen peas.

I remembered this and brought peas from freezer. Threw at ducks. Most of the peas sank. Ducks swam away. This is unprecedented behaviour for ducks. Grand-daughter enjoyed eating the frozen peas.

Not sure what I take away from this.