The GP, the JP and the MP

The UK oddly has three establishment-type jobs ending in the letter P, the General Practioner or family doctor, the Justice of the Peace or volunteer lay local justice, and the Member of Parliament.

I wish more people were writing about how these jobs are really vocations. We Christians, and especially those of us from the evangelical wing of the church, are in danger of seeing these jobs only as usefully senior roles that can add prestige and finance to the church, and perhaps can be a location for sharing the gospel with colleagues.

I wish there were more teaching that it is a vocation in itself to serve people justly and kindly and well. That is your Christian service. That is your main thing. It’s a lucky country that has good institutions, and good people serving faithfully within them.

The Bread also rises

This may not be all that interesting to you, but at last we have the proper cover for Bread:

I’m so grateful to my graphic designer friend Chris Lawrence for working on this. My next step is to tweak the text, again, and produce a so-called advanced review copy (ARC) to send about the place for reviews and comments and whatnot.

Thank you for putting up with this post, but it’s exciting, if only to me.

Hitchhiker’s Guide revisited

Just slightly more than 42 years since the radio show appeared, a friend of mine and I, on a long journey back to Cambridge from Northumberland, listened to the first six episodes. Such fun to revisit this astonishing programme, one of those high-watermarks that sometimes happens and is never repeated.

A few thoughts

The genius creativity

All this appeared in the first series:

  • Earth demolished for a hyperspace bypass,
  • the Hitchhiker’s Guide as an electronic book (before ebooks were a thing)
  • Vogon poetry
  • The Infinite Improbability drive
  • Appliances with personality
  • A depressed robot
  • Magrathea, site of bespoke planet building
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
  • The Ultimate Answer and the Ultimate Question
  • Jokes about misunderstandings of scale – -beweaponed battlefleet eaten by small dog
  • A people so unbelievably primitive that they still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea
  • Cosmic hitchhiking
  • The Babel fish
  • A long-awaited saviour turning up late, having got caught up with things
  • A philosophers’ trade union protesting about the arrival of computer-generated certainty.

No wonder (in my view) Douglas Adams never was as good again:he just poured creativity into the first series. Perhaps, in comparison, there wasn’t much left over for later use.

A few things I didn’t notice earlier

  • Adams’ can’t create women characters (only Trillion in Hitchhiker’s Guide). She was redeemed, quite a bit, in the movie but in her original radio script she was insipid and rather useless as a character, sadly.
  • Tech goes wrong. For me, this was the most deeply attractive thing about Hitchhiker’s Guide. In the SF I had consumed till then, tech worked. The doors never jammed in the Star Trek elevator. Arthur Clarke’s often revisited 23rd century had solved many of the world’s problems and its characters looked down on the 20th century. How refreshing in Douglas Adams to find mayhem, marketing and meaninglessness.
  • Earth is English, and the Universe is American. Zaphod is American, the police chasing him are American, as are radio stations ‘broadcasting round the Universe, round the clock’; The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation; Eddie the shipboard computer and his backup personality. A lot of the humour is actually played across the fault lines between English and American. (‘What is your name?’ ‘Dent. Arthur Dent.” ‘Well, Dentarthurdent…’). In this Adams follows other fantasy: Narnia is English, Tolkein’s Shire is England, JK Rowling’s wizarding world is (now with a splash of colour) is traditionally British, a Britain of amateurism, understatement, deference, bullying, cocoa and pyjamas.
  • Jeeves appears. The unflappable waiter in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe is a cut-and-pasted Jeeves. Adams was a fan.
  • Douglas Adams had great fun pursuing absurdity to the end. The computer Deep Thought is disgusted when compared to other computers and spends quite a bit of dialogue insulting them. The trigger-happy police spend a lot of dialogue explaining how they are really sensitive and caring individuals. Off-piste, off-plot conversation burrowing down into absurdity while the plot waits in the background, is comic gold.

Longevity and creativity

This whole piece is beyond the scope of the blog in which I’m putting it, but it is interesting to see how people sustain, or don’t, humour and genius. In my erratic and unsystematic reading, I can divide English humourists into two camps, the shooting stars and the planets- the burst of light, and the steady orbit.

The shooting stars Are the people who write one brilliant comic thing and though they may extend it in different ways, are never as good again. Into this go Kingsley Amis (did he ever do better than Lucky Jim?); Sue Townsend; Evelyn Waugh (very arguably, but did he do anything better in comedy and satire than Scoop?). Douglas Adams fits here of course. I found the later series of Hitchikers disappointing, even embarassing.

The planets

These are the humourists who manage to sustain a life of writing comedy. They just go round and round, spinning off books every few months. Think of P G Wodehouse or Terry Pratchett. How did they do it? I wonder if there weren’t several parts:

  1. Comic characters, and even single jokes, that they keep reusing
  2. A plot that usually ends with the stage reset for the next performance, like many successful TV series. Things either don’t progress at all (Wodehouse) or the world develops only slowly (Pratchett). In either case, it doesn’t get very far. Pratchett seemed to learn this lesson not long after writing the first Discworld novel, the Colour of Magic.
  3. They are often retelling the same story, just with minor variations. This does chime perhaps with human nature.

Conclusion

I don’t have one. But what a genius Douglas Adams was, and how much he enriched the lives of so many: not a bad legacy.

Slices of bread – 8 – doing something beautiful

Being an extract from my new book

If you’ve been with me over the summer, you’ll have seen that this book is about how adversity and suffering can change your life for the better. Better still, you can change your life for the better without the adversity and suffering (by reading the book). Suffering makes you realistic about you are — strips you down, perhaps. But two things can then build you up. Belonging — the art of belonging — is one (see last week). The second is vocation — doing something beautiful. Which is what this extract is all about.

Bread

My search for what really matters (8)

Don’t die with your music inside you

Vocation is about intentionally not dying with your music still inside you.

I was very ill when I first came across this thought and it was galvanizing. Since ‘galvanizing’ means ‘using electricity to coat something with zinc’, it wasn’t literally galvanizing, but it was a lifeline in the forever-January experience of convalescence. Then, and since, the idea of vocation has lit something in me that helped me fight to be well and stay well.

Don’t die with your music still inside you. Ask yourself. Other things being equal, feet still roughly on the floor, need for realism acknowledged, what would you love to do? I love asking this question of people. What gives you energy? What is fulfilling? What do you love? What would frustrate you if it were never let out? A famous theologian[1] described vocation as the meeting point between ‘your deep gladness’ and ‘the world’s deep need’. Where does that sit for you?

I hesitate to give it an upmarket name like ‘vocation’ because for some people it means cheerfully and faithfully doing ordinary things. For others, though, it might seem a long way from what they are now and you would never guess it. A person with a career in software wants to turn wood. A researcher would like to be a receptionist in a hospice. Others have found a love of counselling. I know a couple of people who find sanity and happiness through making time to paint. I know that in horrible places of infirmity I have been buoyed by the thought of writing something original, creative and quirky. This is vocation knocking: the chance to take something that belongs to you, and to give it out. Breathe deeply of it, and you oxygenate your soul.

Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people. And when we live out our vocation we furnish our lives with satisfaction and happiness. Vocation is bread for the hungry soul, a satisfying meal.

Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people.

I love watching people in their vocation. Someone came to our home to do some carpentry. His first love was restoring antique furniture. His eyes lit on our dining chairs, things that had tumbled to us down through our family as heirlooms. He knew which 19th century decade they were built in and named the style. He told us what he could do to them if he had them in his workshop for few days.

My son and I both have physics degrees. My physics degree helped me to ascend a few small hills and look across at mountain peaks of human thought. My son, though, climbs these peaks for fun. He knows how partial differential equations work, for example. He understands Maxwell’s equations, beautiful things that describe all of classical electromagnetism. I see him in a team experimenting on lone atomic particles that are in near-perfect vacuum and nearly at absolute zero. Even as a child he loved maths problems.

https://www.clothinghandy.store/products/and-god-said-maxwell-equation-t-shirt/?msclkid=02db63ba116a1ed5b8b50373f799087d

You stumble into vocation all the time. You wander into an office and find people who have time for you and all the resources you need. Someone bakes you a wonderful cake. You see a mum organizing her children or a teacher with her class interested and working hard and happy or arguing furiously with each other about finer points of maths.

Fine, you may say, but a vocation is a bit of a luxury if you’re a single parent just holding everything together or someone already buckling under the strain of just earning enough, or you are battling pain and depression, or you are in a toxic workplace, or you are retired. I am not so sure that you are right. For these reasons:

  • Thinking about vocation at least enables you to set a direction for where you’d like to go and what you’d like to be.
  • It probably also points to something you’re quite good at.
  • It points you to a higher ambition for your work than just as a vehicle to being solvent or (worse) rich, respected or lauded. These false gods shrivel your soul. Vocation nourishes it.
  • Even if you don’t change career, thinking about the work you love may change how you spend some of the odd scraps of time you already have. If you can’t be a professional musician or artist or footballer, be an amateur one. It still will feed your soul. Who knows where these small beginnings will lead? Take a step.
  • Change to your current circumstances might not be as impossible as you think. If, God forbid, you got a serious illness, or a divorce, you would change things around fast enough. Emails and schedules that tower above you now wouldn’t look that way then. They don’t matter so much really. The world won’t stop even if you stop. If you died tomorrow, someone would fix all the emails or finish the jobs. But that thing which is you, that thing you can give to the world, no-one else can do that like you do it.
  • Negotiate a compromise between vocation and career. This is why artists become graphic designers or would-be session musicians become tutors, or novelists get paid as journalists. Wiggle a little. 
  • Remember life has seasons. The pages turn. Kids grow up. Debts get paid down. The rush to complete qualifications passes. Workplaces change. If your life is a busy river, abuzz with boats and criss-crossed with bridges, so hooting with shipping that you can’t take it all in, it may not stay that way. This river will probably evolve into something fat and lazy as it nears the sea, weaving slowly through the bulrushes like a jazz solo. Maybe your vocation awaits a new season.  But start it now.

Your vocation is your chance to be big, beautiful you.  Do you really want to miss this?  So take some steps. Do something. Do something. Don’t die without giving us a song.


[1] Frederick Buechner

Why good people do bad things sometimes

We’re sneaky, clever, and at war with ourselves

I recently finished my friend Andrew Chamberlain’s novel Urban Angel, which is a gritty story of people trying to do good things despite themselves, despite their circumstances, and despite supernatural interference.

The part of the book that really got me thinking and that I really enjoyed was his unvarnished exploration of how and why people who are signed up to serve God do bad things. His fictional treatment was I think better than most non-fictional treatises (such as this post, for example), and an intriguing, rare, read.

What it isn’t, I have come to think, is simple ‘hypocrisy’, as in, knowing the right thing to do and deliberately doing another thing and hiding it. I think it’s a lot more subtle. We Christians are more like the British Labour Party, creaking under the strain of internal warfare as different parts of us seek to take over the whole. Here are some of the participants in the war:

  1. An honest desire to serve the God who has loved us and given himself for us.
  2. A sudden, unexpected, animal attraction.
  3. An indulging of said animal attraction, at least so far as letting it make its case to the rest of our human person. Maybe more than once, and with variations.
  4. A blanking out from the mind of the inevitable consequences.
  5. An exercise of crazed theological reasoning to give ourselves a free pass toward indulging said attraction.

After that, anything can happen. Throw in, as Andy Chamberlain doesn’t, but as much recent actual history does, a power imbalance, say between a powerful man and a rather vulnerable victim, add some privacy, and boom, chaos, hurt and destruction.

Scary. Scarier than the demons who also make their way into Andy’s book, but are conveniently dispatched. Andy’s to be congratulated for laying it out so bare.

My review of Exiles on Mission

You may like to see my review of Exiles on Mission which I posted on Amazon and Goodreads. True, it’s also printed in the column opposite for a while, but I am so enthusiastic about this book that I wanted to plug it a little more.

This book is the distillation of years of thoughtful teaching (at Regent College in Vancouver) and it shows. Whereas many books of Christian teaching are worked-up sermons, this feels more like a boiled-down course and would be enormous fun to work through in a group setting over a term or so. The diagnosis (my analogy, not his) is that the Church is like a cruise liner with the tide having gone out. Crew and passengers are busy trying to keep everything going. But really, rather than hoping for the tide to come back in, we need to engage with the new reality.

I am reluctant to summarize a b0ok that is so measured and thoughful, but it seems that the beaching of the Church is mostly an opportunity and call to re-think our view of the world, realize that Christians are already distributed widely through it, and for us all to learn how to follow Christ in whatever places we’ve landed. We should be ambassadors, he argues, and not the sort of ambassadors who are just dishing out a few passports; the kind who are engaging with the culture’s stories and helping compose new ones. The apostle Paul talked about the church as ‘pillar and foundation’ of the truth, and so it became in the Roman Empire, supplanting the previous cultural settlement.

In terms of a book trying to engage seriously with the teaching of the Bible and contemporary church and its mission, rich with further avenues to explore, this is about the best thing I have read in years.

Rediscovering relevance

Surprisingly, the gospel is about everything.

Am so enjoying Paul Williams’ Exiles on Mission, as I may have mentioned before on this blog. I try to set aside some time each day to read a chapter. This is good practice, except that I’m reading it in our conservatory and the April sun is high and I keep get the overwhelming urge to lean back, close my eyes, and think about what he’s just written.

But I have been snapping out of myself. The chapter I read today was all about translating the gospel into our post-Christian culture. Another way of saying this is rediscovering the relevance of the gospel in this time and in this place.

This is so important because the Good News can seem irrelevant– not only to people who don’t know what it is, but also, perhaps, we Christians secretly admit, to ourselves. How can this message of grace be of interest to decent people with prosperous lives and a decided disinterest in suddenly taking up church attendance? Why would they want to do that?

Of course seasons come around for us all when the bottom falls out of our world and we perhaps realize that we’ve needed a rock to lean on for a long time. And with anyone, anywhere, who knows what God can set off in someone’s head and heart, a hunger that only Christ can answer. (That’s part of my own story of coming to faith incidentally.)

But with all that, still, the gospel can feel like a thing for the rougher edges or special seasons of the average life, not the whole. And for the private lives of individuals, rather than the whole world. And so many metaphors of salvation that are reissued forth from your standard church don’t reliably work in the outside world. (‘Don’t you feel you’re in a courtroom, and you’ve done loads wrong? Well, suddenly the judge’s son steps up and says, “I’ll pay your fine and”… sounds familiar, huh? Oh, you seem to have gone.)

Relevance rediscovered

I’m oversimplifying a detailed chapter, but you can imagine two steps:

  1. Fit your chosen story within the Bible’s grand narrative of life, the universe and everything.
  2. Carefully figure out some action resulting from this new perspective — do something.

What is the Bible’s ‘grand narrative’? As has been observed, it can be seen as a drama in several acts:

  1. Creation. God made the Universe, for us to thrive in along with him, and even though God says so himself, it’s very good.
  2. Fall. And we rebel, and alienate ourselves from God and each other and generally mess things up.
  3. Israel. God gets to work redeeming the story, at first with broad brushstrokes, like the Law.
  4. Between the Testaments… it isn’t quick. Things have to brew. But finally we get to:
  5. Jesus. God’s translation of himself into human form demonstrates, then inaugurates, then welcomes us to join, a Kingdom where God is ruling.
  6. Church And this message is embodied and carried everywhere
  7. New Creation. Until God calls time and establishes a new creation, filled with the scarred and remade people out of all humanity, stocked with all the good and beautiful from the old, and they live with him in this new day, thriving together, forever.

So: rethink your chosen story in this light, then act on what you’ve discovered. This was an exercise that Paul Williams got his students to do, but here are a couple of examples that I made up. (When I was sitting in the sunshine in the conservatory with my eyes closed, you might have thought I was asleep, but I was thinking.)

  • Foreign debt
  • Youth justice

Foreign debt

Foreign debt. Remember the years up to the millennium when many poorer nations had borrowed money, then spent it or seized it, and were now spending more on interest payments than they were on things like education? What’s the unredeemed story here? How about: These people entered into loans quite transparently. If they spent it on yachts rather than clinics, that’s their problem. Why punish the taxpayers of donor nations for the corruption of recipients?

What would it look like if you infected this unredeemed story with God’s story? Christ is lord of all and intends people to thrive. There is greed and sin and people stealing the money rather than spending it on the poor. There is also, under God, redemption and a further chance to thrive. And Christ is Lord of all. And it isn’t all that expensive for donor nations who anyway could have been more careful the first time round. That can then lead to action: why not drop the debt, on condition that the interest payments saved are spent on the poor, on things like health and education? A campaign around the millennium started with this kind of thinking (in, I think, Tear Fund). It led to a clear call to action, that was taken up enthusiastically by trades unions, campaigners of various kinds, and eventually governments. Debts were indeed forgiven and thousands of children got an education who otherwise wouldn’t. This was, among many other things, the gospel, properly thought-through and applied to our culture, causing a wildfire.

Youth justice

Youth justice. Here’s the unredeemed story. Frequent or serious offenders cause massive amounts of misery and should be locked up.

Now let’s infect it with the God story: What damaged these children? What damage have they done? What evil has been done to them and what evil have they done? All can be put right under a God who made them in his own image, made them for better than this, who provides forgiveness and the power of a new start through Christ, and who intends them to thrive and do well in a beautiful creation. A huge change has happened in youth justice in recent years in cases where young people are found dealing drugs far from where they usually live. After suitable enquiries, it’s quite normal now to treat these children not as young criminals but as vulnerable kids who’ve been groomed by drug gangs and are being exploited. Today they are treated under modern slavery law, as victims, rather than drug law, as dealers. Law enforcement goes for the gangs instead. I have no idea if Christian reflection was behind this change. But it was reflection in a Christian direction. And it has been deployed across every youth court in the nation.

The conclusion

Suddenly, everything we touch and everything we do becomes relevant, even urgent. We can ask of it, ‘How can express the Kingdom of God through this?’ Or we could pray, as someone taught: ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven.’

Unity: the ignored superpower

I am curious how the church, or perhaps especially the splintered Protestant church, doesn’t talk all that much about unity. Three Bible references come obviously to mind.

Unity means:

A) A blessing (Psalm 133)

B) A demonstration of the multi-layered wisdom of God to the powers-that-be (Ephesians 3:10-11)

c) The whole world knowing that Jesus is God’s son. (John 17: 20-21, 23)

Much of what the church seeks by other means is actually achieved by unity. I note also that the mindset that creates unity (humility, meekness, peacemaking, that stuff) is the same as the mindset behind the Sermon on the Mount and the same qualities that mark real disciples. Meanwhile we have our maps, goals and strategies (certainly the part of the Church that I inhabit does). Perhaps the humble work of peacemaking and quiet living will take us far further than our tools and workshops.

Image by Hans Schwarzkopf from Pixabay

Slow: at the heart of knowing God

My friends John and Pauline Bagg have written a lovely book about walking with, knowing, and hearing from God. Unlike many a six-week ‘discipleship program’ it is agreeably slow. Here’s a quote:

We live in an age where we want the quickest solution possible. Relationships don’t beat to that rhythm. Intimacy, familiarity, and depth come over time, with effort and commitment. So, we have not written this to offer a ‘quick fix’. We are simply urging you to search hard for a treasure that is more satisfying and fulfilling then anything this world has to offer. Our hope is that more and more people will grow in their capacity to hear from God and be responsive to what He has to say. We long to see a renewed understanding of what it means to walk with God.

John and Pauline Bagg, Walk with me

I did (full disclosure) read a copy of this before publication and really enjoyed it.

The golden repair

The Japanese have a word for it: Kintsugi

I read recently about a Japanese way of mending broken pottery. Instead of getting out the invisible glue, dust your epoxy with gold leaf. Then repair the pot and show all the spidery, golden threads of the former break. Like this:

Resurrection, complete with scars. Image by SEBASTIEN MARTY from Pixabay

It’s called Kintsugi, apparently.(Apologies to you if you actually know about this stuff.) What does it say? This pot has history. It’s been broken. It’s been mended. A new beautiful thing has come out of the broken old. Beautiful before, it is beautiful again, but now with beautiful scars.

I read there are Buddhist roots to Kintsugi, the impermanence, the suffering. It has echoes for me though of something else: the resurrection of Christ, of people, of the cosmos. There was Jesus: ‘behold my hands and side’. Look at the scars. My new body, a glorious thing, bears the scars of its former suffering.

What will eternity be like? Will we be all sculpted bodies? Or wrinkled, scarred, golden-mended?