What is the point of anything, is a good question.
A good answer for Christians is that what we do is a foretaste, a foreword, a good go, an early attempt, a sign, instrument, and portent of the world to come. It will all be thrown away as juvinilia (the early output of the creatives). But like juvinilia it is connected, even contiguous, with all that is to come. Here are some metaphors:
We are seeds, due to perish, but also a kind of Noah’s ark bearing extracts from the old world into the new. Into the marigold seeds that I save for next year are poured a whole marigold’s summer of life. When we go to our grave, we take our marigold summer with us, into the next life. When the cosmos dies, somehow, the same happens. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)
2. Treasure and fine linen and the best of culture. The best of our earthly service is somehow returned to us, or to the cosmos, when the New Creation comes:
..Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:20-21)
For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) (Revelation 19:7-9)
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Revelation 21: 1o, 25)
This gives us a reason for every temporary act. We live in a world of death, and ends, and shadows, and half-built things, and things that fall down. But we build anyway, love anyway, serve anyway, invent anyway, create anyway, work anyway, because the best of it, whatever it is, we will see again and know it as our own, all spruced up and transformed through Christ.
Not long ago I was rootling through some computer files and I noticed a list I’d made of prayer requests. There were about seven items in the list, and I think five had already been answered. Looking again, two years further down, and with this list long forgotten, I realized the two remaining items could also be checked off.
This is so fascinating. Where will we all be in five years’ time? What will the world be like? The year 2020 has been a tremor in the normal heartbeat of life. Who would have thought about crashing economies, two million deaths, face-masks everywhere, people afraid to go on the train or to shake hands?
How will history record the past year?
After 2020, the great rises in living standards and shared wealth that had marked that previous quarter century resumed their astonishing and compounding progress
2020 marked the start of serious upheavals that continued for the rest of that dreadful century — called by some the world’s first true Dark Age.
I’ve sometimes wondered what it must have been to be born in my grandad’s generation (born 1899) and facing, but not yet knowing about, half a century of war, death, recession and a long tail of mourning and deprivation.
Or which year in our current century is most like 1913, that summer of the British at their mustachioed, imperialistic peak, a moment that looked like a new high plateau rather than (as it proved) a moment of teetering and fleeting poise, the sunlit dewy morning prior to the slaughter.
My rootling in my computer reminded me that whatever else the next five years will hold or the next 50, for that matter, they will be years of answered prayer. They will be years when our longings have been taken to God and years in which God, mysteriously, but from our perspective, and in response to our cries, spun a golden thread of kept promises and tender goodness into whatever wild tapestry is elsewhere being woven.
Toxic populism has muscled in on the news since 2016, filling our headlines in the way that radical Islam did for a few years before it. The roll-call of men (mostly men) who feel the need to take control, maintain order, and get on with repressing, is familiar across too many countries– just read the news.
It’s a (by now) familiar playbook
Give out jobs on loyalty, not merit
Erode all the things that stand in the way of an almighty state: laws, judges, newspapers, NGOs,anywhere where independent thought and criticism can thrive.
It isn’t, as we are seeing by now, a recipe for success. Cronies aren’t as good at running things as people who get jobs via merit and they pilfer the national good rather than fostering it. Some things, think Covid-19, can’t be insulted away or imprisoned. The flawed mental model of the autocrat cannot bear much reality, nor, for that matter, much wit.
How do you make societies resilient against this kind of thing? I struggle so much with this but I love the 37th Psalm, an extended meditation on the slow, resilient way:
Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; 2 for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
3 Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. 4 Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
7 Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
10 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.
35 I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a luxuriant native tree, 36 but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found.
37 Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace.[d]
Fascinating, longish quote. Perhaps this article will help lift a finger or two off the weighing scale and bring things back to balance.
Most historians of science [do not] support the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Renowned collisions, such as the Galileo affair, turned on politics and personalities, not just science and religion. Darwin had significant religious supporters and scientific detractors, as well as vice versa. Many other alleged instances of science-religion conflict have now been exposed as pure inventions. In fact, contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.
The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. It would be superfluous to rehearse Richard Dawkins’s musings on this topic, but he is by no means a solitary voice. Stephen Hawking thinks that ‘science will win because it works’; Sam Harris has declared that ‘science must destroy religion’; Stephen Weinberg thinks that science has weakened religious certitude; Colin Blakemore predicts that science will eventually make religion unnecessary. Historical evidence simply does not support such contentions. Indeed, it suggests that they are misguided.
So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.
Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism.
Consuming two outstanding bits of media got me thinking about kindness. The first was the film Marvellous, a true story about a man with learning difficulties who served as a kit-man for a professional soccer team and was eventually awarded an honorary degree. The other was the first series of the terrifying and brilliant Line of Duty, once on the BBC, then on Netflix, then, suddenly, just on the BBC again. Both lingered in the mind long after we disconnected our video projector. (If we watch TV, we like to take up a whole wall.)
Without giving too many spoilers, Line of Duty, a police procedural, had some scenes where a person with learning difficulties was horribly abused by a drug gang. In the trade this is called ‘cuckooing’, using a vulnerable person’s flat as a drug-distribution centre.
The big difference between the uplifting Marvellous and the horrifying Line of Duty was not the vulnerability of the people with learning difficulties. It was that one encountered kindness, and the other didn’t.
Which did get me thinking.
Kindness is such a potent, invisible power. I find it helpful to think about people whom I disagree with and remember when they were kind. It helps me defuse personal animosity. Kindness, if you’ve ever shown any, is what people will speak about at your funeral. It will moderate you and moderate what people think of you. Kindness is remembered and treasured. Such a small thing–weightless, odourless, like God–but secretly infiltrating our minds, and changing us.
This appears as the introduction to my blog and is about fruitfulness: personal, social, in every season, and tracing a pattern established before we were born and which will still apply after we are dust.
‘Slow mission’ is about huge ambition–all things united under Christ–and tiny steps.
I contrast it with much talk and planning about ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ which happens in the parts of church I inhabit, and which have an appearance of spirituality, but make me sometimes feel like I am in the Christian meat-processing industry.
Here’s a summary of slow mission values, as currently figured out by me:
Devoted. Centred on Christ as Saviour and Lord. Do we say to Christ, ‘Everything I do, I do it for you.’ Do we hear Christ saying the same thing back to us?
Belonging. We sign up, take part, dive in, identify, work with others, live with the compromises. Not for us a proud independence.
Respecting vocation. Where do ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger’ meet?1. Vocation is where God’s strokes of genius happen. That’s where we should focus our energies.
To do with goodness. Goodness in the world is like a tolling bell that can’t be silenced and that itself silences all arguments.
Observing seasons. ‘There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’2.The world will be OK even if we check out for a while. (Note: our families, however, won’t be.)
Into everything. We are multi-ethnic and interdependent. We like the handcrafted. We are interested in all humanity and in all that humanity is interested in. Wherever there’s truth, beauty, creativity, compassion, integrity, service, we want to be there too, investing and inventing. We don’t take to being shut out. Faith and everything mix.
Quite keen on common sense. We like to follow the evidence and stick to the facts. We like to critique opinions and prejudices. We don’t, however, argue with maths. Against our human nature, we try to listen to those we disagree with us. We’re not afraid of truth regardless of who brings it. We want to be learners rather than debaters.
Happy to write an unfinished symphony. Nothing gets completed this side of death and eternity. What we do gets undone. That’s OK. Completeness is coming in God’s sweet time. ‘Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.’3.
Comfortable with the broken and the provisional. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for right, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the laughed-at. This also implies a discomfort with the pat, the glib, the primped, the simplistic, the triumphalistic and the schlocky.
Refusing to be miserable. The Universe continues because of God’s zest for life, despite everything, and his insouciance that it will all probably work out somehow. In sorrows, wounds and in the inexplicable, we join God in his childlike faith.
The turn of the year isn’t a bad time to step back and look at the landscape in time and space across which we humans swarm. I did a summary of mission theology for our church’s Mission Sunday a few weeks ago. Here it is.
We can get a snapshot of mission theology, and the story since, by looking at three simple parables of the kingdom.
The banquet (Luke 14:15-13). The main ideas here are (1) A great party in heaven. (2) Some people refuse the invitation. (3) The master of the banquet orders more people to be invited- first the poor and disabled, then people everywhere, whether they are on the great thoroughfares or sheltering in the hedgerows.
2. The yeast. (Matthew 13:33). A very simple picture of how God’s rule extends from a tiny start to work through and transform a vast batch of flour in its entirety.
3. The mustard seed. (Matthew 13:30-31). A similar tiny start, but this time something grows so that birds can perch in. If yeast is about the invisible influence of the Kingdom, perhaps the mustard seed is about visible structures.
What do these parables look like after 2000 years (fifty generations) of Christian influence in the world?
We have a better sense just of how big the world is, and its complexity: 200+ countries; 7000 languages (though about 40% of these are small and endangered like Cornish or Manx); more than 10,000 ethnic groups, who typically marry among themselves and often speak their own language. Minority ethnic groups in the UK might include, for example, the Roma, Irish Travellers, Welsh-speaking Welsh, who exist alongside the majority British. All countries are a patchwork of ethnic groups, and most of our ethnic labels are fuzzy and situational (are you Asian, Glaswegian, Scottish, British or European? Or Catalan or Spanish? Or a Batak or an Indonesian?) Jesus’ command to ‘make disciples of all nations’ or ‘make disciples of all ethnic groups’ is thus like working inside a turning kaleidoscope. The overriding idea is not ticking off boxes on a spreadsheet but missing no one out and bringing a unity in Christ to all the diversity.
Refusal and the gospel going elsewhere. This is a clear pattern in history. People get blasé about the benefits of God’s rule among them. Paul writes of Jews (mostly) rejecting the gospel so it was taken to the Gentiles. This pattern repeats again and again – the gospel moves from those who are familiar with it to those who have not heard it. Christianity declines in Europe, stalls in Korea, grows in China.
The ‘yeast’ parable is surely about extending God’s rule into everything we influence, so far as it depends on us. It affects who we are and what we do every day. The ‘yeasty’ effect of 2000 years of God’s people in the world is impossible to untangle from other historical influences but is surely significant and is fascinating to speculate about. Why is forgiveness a virtue? Why do we believe in history at all, in progress, in transformation? Where does the idea of equality come from? Or the dignity of every human, or the value of a child? Some of these things have roots in the yeasty lives and behaviour of Christians.
The ‘mustard seed’ parable, if it is about visible structures, also has a story to tell. If you roughly count ‘census Christians’ (ie people who would notionally tick the Christian box on a census form, and who are, therefore, visible and countable), the numbers have climbed from 12, to 120, to 3000 (all in AD 33) to 522 million in 1900 (34.5% of the world) and to 2.4 billion (32.3%) in mid- 2020.1 Decline in Europe (another example of refusal) has been offset by growth in Africa, Latin America, China, and S E Asia.
Thus our challenge as a Church is to be everything we can be for God within the networks he has put us in; not to forget the poor and disabled; and to be generous-hearted and diligent in begetting good news to forgotten or neglected groups.
In which we explore myths and endless genealogies, but in a good way.
Even if your mum is a virgin
I have been spending more time than is good for me reading atheist websites. They like to throw stones at the Bible. So far it’s been dispiriting stuff, and not because of the quality of the arguments.
I could offer atheists an algorithm before sounding off about ‘Moab being my washpot’, or Cain and Abel, or Noah. Here’s the algorithm:
Consider whether or not people who take the Bible seriously may not also have noticed what you have noticed.
Consider whether they may or may not have explored the problem at a depth you do not seem to have appreciated.
Have you explored the literature?
Do you agree that first figuring out what the authors and compilers were trying to say to their original audiences is fairly important when handling ancient texts? The Bible is not a Penguin Modern Classic, tha’ knows.
Stop sounding like a Flat-Earther or a Biblical Creationist already, plucking random things from flawed popular reading and confecting an argument.
The genealogies in Matthew and Luke are an easy target. Even a rushed reading will conclude:
They contradict each other
They end with Joseph, who wasn’t even Jesus’ biological dad.
While this is an easy Aunt Sally for the atheist projectile, it’s also fruitful to apply our algorithm and think more deeply. Here are two thunks.
The best thing I’ve read on genealogy and ancestry is Adam Rutherford’s book A brief history of everyone who ever lived. (Dr) Adam Rutherford is a smart, fair-minded BBC producer and presenter, whom I have occasionally heard defending his atheism on the radio, though in a kindly, almost Anglican way, not with the stridency or rudeness of some. Dr Rutherford was more concerned with genetics than genealogy in his book but it explained beautifully some of the fun stuff around the topic. Of course we all have grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents in exponentially increasing numbers. But, there were fewer of them back then, not more. Which obviously means that everyone can trace several paths from Ancestor (A) (say, for example Charlemagne or Ghengis Khan) to Descendant (B), yourself. So, interestingly, even if there were nothing else going on in the New Testament genealogies, it would be right if they traced different paths from Abraham to Jesus. And the denizens of the ancient world obviously knew that.
The only two gospels that talk about the Virgin Birth are the same two gospels that give a genealogy of Jesus. Perhaps they are trying to tell us something. An Arab friend of mine who was a convert to Christ from Islam was stopped at the border of her Arab country as she tried to get home. It was a slightly tense moment. The customs person looked at her passport and her name. ‘Very good family’, he said, and welcomed her in. Which perhaps is the point. Of course Joseph was Christ’s stepdad. So, as the genealogies tell us, Christ had been adopted into a very good family. The two gospels that describe Christ’s nature (born of a virgin) also are at pains to point out his nurture (adopted into a regal family). I think.
While we are talking myths and endless genealogies, it might be worth mentioning another book:
I understand this book to be a thought-experiment about how a literal Adam and Eve, born several millienia ago, could have been common ancestors to all living humans. (Adam and Eve would not have been the only humans around at the time, and nor would they have been named ‘Adam’ or ‘Eve’.) This book has been praised by many for its scientific rigour and gentle spirit. It’s a bit of a surprise for those of us who have become comfortable with a non-literal Adam and Eve. I haven’t read this book yet but I have heard a presentation by the author, and it’s a fresh contribution to what arguably is a stale set of arguments.
This blog started life as a magazine article when I was on the staff of a Singaporean magazine intended for the Christian community. Like my other blogs over the past few weeks, I’ve included it in my forthcoming book, ‘The Sandwich.’ One of the joys of working for interdenominational organizations is the exposure to the many different silos within which Christian tribes shelter, each of us believing we’re uniquely blessed and special.
What we need is a new denomination.
I visited a Brethren church the other day, for the first time for about fifteen years. Things hadn’t changed much.
The church building still displayed the minimum possible aesthetic sense, designed (it wasn’t hard to guess) by deacons, all male. They hadn’t quite suppressed every splash of colour — it’s hard to completely stamp out human, and especially feminine, creativity — but they were certainly subsisting on the bare minimum. The hall was 1930s hospital style: dull dark wood and magnolia. The most recent addition was a 1970s chipboard hymnbook cabinet with a balsa wood veneer (artificial). Brethren don’t waste resources on Art.
We sang hymns, though, great eighteenth-century affairs loaded with fine doctrine like plum puddings. The singing was concerted, massive, and rousing — marred only by a few sopranos warbling out of control, like opera divas tumbling into the orchestra pit or stuka bombers that can’t pull out of a fatal dive.
When the people on the platform addressed the Almighty, you rather got the impression of the serf, cap in hand, going to the landowner. These were Brethren. A people who know their place in the scheme of things.
I felt at home at once. Here were my roots. Plain but godly. 1930s decor and 1790s doggerel, sin and magnolia. Nothing changes here. Hardly anything, indeed, had changed, since I’d left these pastures for charismatic ones a decade and a half ago.
Singing solid hymns that fed the brain and spirit was a nice change from my current church, where — as a contrast — spiritual ecstasy is expected fifteen minutes into each service, whether or not you feel like it first thing in the morning and whether or not you’ve got a headache.
In our church, we do not all sing together. We play tag with the worship leader. You know the game. You’re all ready for the second verse but he’s jumped back to the middle of the chorus. Just when you think you’re catching him again, he’s onto a second lap with the first verse. The musicians and the ‘waa waa’ girls are not far behind, but he dodges them astutely when they start getting near. Finally he helps us by repeating the line ‘He is worthy’ seven straight times, until less charitable members of congregation want to knock him on the head to get the music into a different groove. We hit the seventh ‘He is worthy’ with a great bashing of drums, like a Taoist funeral, and then blast off into singing in tongues or a ‘clap offering.’
In my church, we are not so much serfs addressing the Lord of the Manor as people frantically cranking a Van de Graaf generator, hoping the sparks will crackle. I sometimes look round at the upturned faces and hands and wonder, am I the only person in the church not enjoying this? Is anybody else — like me — faking it?
Hmm. And yet the charismatics and Pentecostals are the most successful missionary movement in history: from a standing start in 1900 to 400 million plus today. God’s at work among us. Sometimes — despite everything — the sparks do crackle.
Perhaps no denomination has it all. But I have the perfect way forward for the future: The Singapore Post-Denominational Church. We’ll pick-and-mix from what the current denominations offer to produce an unforgettable ecclesiastical experience.
Here’s my suggestions: We’ll look to the Brethren for the art and aesthetics. Flexibility and ecumenism? Call in the Bible-Presbyterians. Theological rigour? Charismatic choruses are just the job. A due sense of tradition and history? The new independent churches will supply all we need.
I’ll be the pastor, of course, and will lovingly fix my salary at an average of the top four pastoral renumerations in Singapore. Tithes will be high, but at least you’ll know I’m safe from being headhunted and will be able to devote myself wholeheartedly to the Post-Denominational cause.
Singapore Post-Denominational Church. Come along next Sunday. I guarantee, after the experience, you’ll love your own worship tradition all the more.
I worked, as you may know by now, for a Singaporean magazine in the early 1990s. Its target market was the Christian community and as the only inter-denominational show in town, so far as magazines were concerned, that meant we were the target market for lots of press releases. All the quotes in the article, which I’ve anonymized to save blushes, were real. And dispiriting. This article will be a chapter in my forthcoming book The Sandwich about living sandwiched in the interstices between God’s promises and the mysterious life of our home planet.
Sometimes you wonder.
We get lots of mail in the Impact office. Some of it is promotional. Here are some quotes from material lying around the office:
Pastor X is one of the strongest church leaders in the world today.
A man with a strong apostolic and prophetic mantle, Pastor Y is impacting the world.
Dr Z is one of the most anointed Bible teachers in the world.
Here’s a longer one describing someone’s ministry in Japan and inviting funds for the school that trained him:
At first they came by the dozens.
Then, they came by the hundreds
And finally, they came by the thousands.
And they stream across the playing field of a 60,000 seat baseball stadium to commit their lives to Jesus Christ.
It gets better:
This is happening in the inscrutable orient — in Japan, the country some have called the ‘missionary graveyard’.
The report goes on:
Closed. Until now. What has changed?
Who is God using to lead thousands of Japanese to publicly turn their faces to the cross — and their backs on centuries of religious tradition?
Aw, you guessed. A Japanese evangelist trained by the school.
The report fails to mention that responses like that were the normal pattern in Japan after World War II, and they were mostly for cultural reasons rather than spiritual ones. Japan’s churches have remained small, less than 1% of the population, despite hundreds of thousands of responses in large evangelistic meetings. It is astonishing that the school didn’t train its evangelists to understand this, and even more astonishing that they should be boasting about their ignorance of both history and culture.
Hype. A late-twentieth century disease, entirely absent from the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. (Can you imagine it? ‘Let’s put our hands together and welcome Paul, acclaimed author of Romans, one today’s most anointed missionaries…’) Chillingly present among the rag-tag-and-bobtail heretics who so damaged the Early Church.
Hype. There must be better ways for honest leaders with genuine ministries to promote what they’re doing. Let us pray:
‘From good people, doing good things, badly, Good Lord, deliver us.’