A friend of mine for more than 25 years has just died. He was a soldier, then a taxi driver, then in his final couple of years he worked at our local hospital, helping clear the rubbish from the wards and driving a vehicle than carried all this waste, snaking through the underground corridors. He struggled with health conditions all his life, a chest that wouldn’t sweep out infections, and he had been given just a few years to live when a teenager. He swallowed antibiotics every day. He sometimes swelled with arthritis until a new medication was found, and for many years plugged himself into a C-PAP machine, like a vacuum cleaner, every night.
He stayed a soldier in civilian life, gleaming shoes, immaculate taxi, always on time. For several decades he had contracts to shuttle materials between Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge and the nearby Papworth Hospital, the pioneering transplant centre. The contract only ended when Papworth become the Royal Papworth and moved onto the Addenbrooke’s site. Carrying radioactive materials for transplant purposes, he never let the patients down, and took on extra work, like taking mail between departments that otherwise might miss the collections. He told me once of a girl he’d taken home from the city centre, almost too drunk to give her address, certainly too drunk and incapable to pay her fare. He took this vulnerable girl home, knocked on her door, handed her over to her father, made sure she was safe, like she was his own daughter, and went on his way.
He was the beating heart of our men’s breakfast group, instigator of our weekends away in the Lake District, organizing them himself for many years, army style, with rations allocated and he would have had us travelling in convoy if we’d let him. He sought old army friends out and welcomed them in. He loved a curry. He loved his family and quietly fought his infirmities, every day, to keep going for them. His self-medication took him hours in a morning, and yet he was early to work every day. He had an encounter with Christ almost the first time he walked into our church (his daughter was at Sunday School) and followed him faithfully ever afterwards. I love his example of an ordinary life, each ordinary day, like his shoes, burnished, gleaming with grace.
Someone kindly sent me a book about the church that first discipled me after I committed my life to Jesus in my teens. It isn’t that big a church even now, but people will publish books about anything these days and it was a good read, partly because I knew many of the people and partly because, a generation later, you can look back with a bit of perspective.
The church was founded by four then-young people, refugees from the rather liberal Methodist tradition that was embodied in dozens of churches around West Yorkshire. They started, in true late ’60s Christian style, with a coffee bar in a church basement. Then they rented some premises of their own and ran their own services, listening to sermons on reel-to-reel tapes. They employed a 24-year-old pastor and his wife, church members numbers 5 and 6. (Pastors are always male in this tradition.)
When I arrived at the church about nine years later, it already felt like a proper church, with a membership of perhaps 50 or 70. In the few years I attended, before leaving West Yorkshire for university in London, it was busy acquiring and fitting out a new building. Since then it’s seen two or three churches come into being in other little Northern market towns, all in the FIEC, reformed evangelical fold. It’s moved again, into a still bigger building. People have retired.
They welcomed me, befriended me, taught me, loved me and gave me a grounding in faith I’ve drawn on ever since, and I’m still in occasional touch with two of the early leaders. Add up those who stayed and those (like me) who moved on, the churches must have played a part in the lives of hundreds of us.
There was a level of ambition, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Much of its most successful work was among young people, a so-called ‘social event’ one Friday, a Bible study the next. And camps and things. And church teas. And hospitality. And of course the regular work of maintaining a church community and preaching the Bible.
It was the quiet power of faithfulness that struck me. Baking flapjacks. Buying self-raising flour to make cakes for church teas. Hosting unruly teenagers year after year. Vaccuuming the house before, and probably after the meetings. All the work of running camps. Prayer. On and on, over forty years. There really was nothing spectacular, no radical innovation (except the gospel itself) no ‘quick wins’, just the awesome inertia of faithfulness, everybody doing their bit, again and again and again.
We were talking with a couple recently who were part of a church that had turned itself inside out. They had sold their (Baptist) church building, and moved into a community centre that was owned by a mental health charity. The charity, a non-religious outfit, had been set up to provide community-based care but were short of volunteers. The church had volunteers but no building. Bringing the two together brought two half-formed visions together. Fascinating (even if I’ve somewhat garbled the story).
Much more could be done. I have sometimes wondered if a church, instead of employing a family worker or a youth worker, could employ a professional mental health nurse. She or he could supervise lay work in the community and provide professional backing. Many community mental health needs can be met by lay people. They are often at the level of dropping in on someone for a cup of coffee, or phoning them to make sure they’ve taken their meds, or helping with cooking, shopping or budgeting. Such community concern (also known as ‘friendship’) can be transforming in the life of someone struggling alone with mental health issues.
Similarly, I am very impressed by the work of legal aid charities, who provide free legal services. Some of this work doesn’t need trained lawyers – for example helping people get justice via disability or Special Educational Needs tribunals. It just needs suitably skilled and trained volunteers. A church could easily pay a legal professional to manage a community law centre who could in turn lead a team of enthusiastic (though trained) amateurs and perhaps the odd intern.
Imagine a community legal centre or mental health centre that became a worshipping community on Sundays and the evenings!
These are all examples of churches turning themselves inside out, or perhaps more strictly, dissolving their outer structures and seeking fluidly to fit themselves to pre-existing vulnerabilities in the community. Solid at the core, fuzzy or fluid at the edges. Becoming less like bacteria and more like viruses perhaps. The churches get to do all the good they want to, the community gets served. Better, surely, than worshippers in a building, and needy people in their homes, each alone in their own way.
What does a revolution look like? Most of them involve armed thugs, which is hardly a good start.
That kind of revolution –which is most so-called revolutions — is only a revolution in the sense once defined by Terry Prachett: they call them revolutions because everything goes round and round.
What does a real revolution look like, one that actually changes things? The Kingdom of God, heralded and inaugurated in the New Testament, is supposed to be such a thing. What would it look like?
A culture where leaders are accountable, to law, to being sacked by the people they rule.
A culture grown kinder so that people are more patient, more honest, more generous, more likely to share your load.
A culture where personal integrity is valued. Personal integrity forms, drip by drip, over a lifetime, like a stalagmite. Once formed, and if genuine, it reaches deep and extends far into the networks of people around us. When it connects with the integrity of others it provides a scaffold upon which decent human cultures can grow and thrive.
A healing culture. That would be nice: people restored to joy and usefulness as part of a community, love flowing, even as lives bloom and decay.
A worshippingculture. Perhaps all cultures are worshipping cultures; but this would be worshipping the maker rather than the made.
A culture committed to living at peace: in harmony with creation; with forgiveness and forbearance to others at its heart; aiming to restore the broken.
A learning culture, so that we are curious about the world around us; able to experiment; able to fail; willing to change.
A culture committed to changing. I think much of what is loosely called ‘progress’ fits here. We can learn stuff and discover how to do things better. I personally prefer, for example, hi-tech, unnatural births over having all these dead babies or mothers taking up needless space in graveyards. Free markets distribute the good things of the earth around with great efficiency. Property rights and the rule of law ensure that the whole of society rises together, like boats on a rising tide. Unjust leaders get moved on. The Old Testament appears to regulate rather than abhor all these things.
A remembering culture that knows other generations walked this way too and knew and did stuff and are owed respect at times.
A respectful culture, sensing the preciousness and autonomy of every human, and letting that inform our corporate life.
A creative culture, valuing playfulness, and invention, and engineering, and hypothesising, and art, and music, and literature.
An ambitious culture, ambitious for human thriving, dreaming of still more goodness piled on the goodness of earlier years, like bank upon bank of clouds in the sky, all reflecting the sun from different angles.
A culture committed to the long term. I’ve walked round a reservoir in the Peak District that was built in the 1930s, built to solve permanently the need of nearby cities for water. Ninety years on, our generation and culture doesn’t have to worry so much. Then in the 1940s Clement Attlee, that modest man ‘with much to be modest about’ in Churchill’s phrase, implemented across the nation the ideal of free healthcare for everyone. Eighty years on, for all the problems, we still stand in the good of that. What will we add? Imagine, for example, if we solved the problem of generating electricity sustainably; imagine if future generations hardly had to worry about flicking a power switch. Imagine if we found better ways of keeping warm, or feeding ourselves, or doing construction, or living alongside a thriving Earth. What gifts all that would be to generation after generation, to the grandchildren of our grandchildren, leaving them free to work on other stuff.
A hopeful culture – when all the above is ripped apart, or becomes a monstrous idol of its own self, when everything is back to square 1 or square minus 10: still straining for ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’ (as George Herbert wrote) that make us stand and go again.
A lot of people can see the bits of the future, and quite a lot of us have the extra talent of somehow taking hold of a bit of the future and wrestling it down into the present.
‘I can imagine a day when cars are electric,’ someone might say. Or maybe an executive in a car company might say, ‘I predict one day there’ll be a lot of electric cars on the road.’ Both are seeing the future but not necessarily doing anything about it.
Someone else might say, ‘I’m going to build and mass-produce electic cars.’ Such people don’t just see the future. They drag it into the present.
Lovers, farmers, teachers and entrepreneurs do this all the time. Perhaps nearly all of us do it sometime, when we look at some future target or goal and move from ‘that would be nice’ to ‘I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.’
The world of the prophet
True in everyday life, this is also true in Christian discipleship. The Christian faith adds quite a bit to our innate human ability to drag the future the into present. We add God and prayer to the equation, and also the theological sense that there is a good future held in God’s hands. It can be sampled, if not fully fulfilled, in our ordinary lives here. Even more controversially, perhaps, God can promise us things.
This leads us to the world of the prophet, or intercessor, that lonely place where someone has taken hold of God, or God has taken hold of someone, who will pray and work and agitate and cry and pray again until the future is born on earth, because God has led them into that lonely place. They feel he has promised them something and they have altered their life around that promise.
This is a subtle and difficult place. Because we can be completely wrong. Think of the pastor counselling a series of young men in a church, all of whom think God has promised them the same girl will be his wife. We can also be incompletely wrong, in that God has genuinely promised something, but we have embellished it over the months, and our embellishments don’t happen, even if the promise does. Or we can be wrong in that God was promising and we were wearing tin ears, so the fulfilment of the promise comes as a total surprise (think of the disciples’ response to the resurrection).
But for all the misuse, there is good use. Think of the two characters, Simeon and Anna, around Jesus’ first presentation at the temple. They had waited decades, into great old age, and possibly the temple authorities thought they were a bit mad, but Simeon was finally able to say, ‘you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen…’ 1. Note that in Simeon’s and Anna’s cases, the temple authorities’ robust common sense may not have been a good guide. This unlikely pair each saw something and held onto it, improbable as it was.
That quiet, burdened person in your church may be bearing the future in a womb of lonely prayer somewhere. Or it may be a false pregnancy. Or even (to mangle the metaphor) a bit of both. Be kind to them.
Wherever you ripe fields behold, Waving to God their sheaves of gold, Be sure some com of wheat has died, Some saintly soul been crucified; Someone has suffered, wept and prayed, And fought hell’s legions undismayed.
Arthur S Booth-Clibborn, ‘There is no gain but by a loss’.
I had to speak #the other week on the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13: ‘love is patient, love is kind.’ I did think that, though Paul then goes off on a bender of ethical description that gets poetic and astonishing in its simplicty and range (love always hopes, always perseveres), you could almost stop just at those two phrases: love is patient, love is kind.
Kindness is hard to argue against in any ethical system, perhaps, but patience, I think, has to have a reason. A motto of Silicon Valley is ‘move fast and break things’. Revolutions, it can be argued, are all about timing, seizing the moment. But love is patient. Why? Isn’t there a lot to be angry and impatient about?
I think it only works because ours is not the main hand on the steering wheel. God is taking the universe somewhere, somewhere good. And a patient life is a long meditation on the goodness of God.
I have supplied copies of the pre-publication edition of my book Bread to about 40 people by now, and some have come back with comments. At one point my book talks about ‘doing small things well’ even if ‘big things have collapsed all around you’ (p 39 of the draft).
Both my suppliers-of-comments applied that idea helpfully to aging and decline. I hadn’t thought of that. In my book I’d applied it to failure and shattered hopes. Perhaps I should start thinking about decline: certainly I notice that on walks that I have taken for thirty years, formerly with our dog, and now alone, lots of extra hills and slopes have apparently been fitted. I couldn’t probably manage a dog now though that is strictly speaking a health issue rather than age in my case.
The fun part about decline, my correspondents tell me, lies precisely in doing small things well even when big things have slipped out of one’s grasp. How wonderful, when declining, to aim to be the sort of person who lifts the spirits of everyone who they meet. How wonderful to be joyful, kind, giving, happy, even as the body seizes up.
And you meet people like that. For them the downward slope to physical dissolution is rather overtaken by the upward slope towards the glory of God.
A fine thing to aspire to, as the night falls.
You can still download a free pre-publication copy of Bread just here:
And a reminder: I do welcome comments, via the comment section here, and I especially welcome honest reviews. To do those, go to your favourite review site (Amazon, for example) and just share a few honeyed words about what you think. Readers are smart: be honest about the deficiencies; it won’t necessarily stop them buying the book. I think you may have to wait till after publication day on Feb 19 2022 to paste in your honeyed words.
Just a single statistic caught my interest recently. In the early 1970s, traded goods were about 30% of world output. So, two-thirds of goods were made and used locally. In the early 2010s, that traded-goods figure had risen to 60%, meaning two thirds of goods were made elsewhere and shipped to where they were needed.1 Locked away in that little statistic, maybe, is loss and sorrow and Brexit and Trump and populism and nationalism.
When I was growing up in 1970s England, to see ‘MADE IN ENGLAND’ stamped on a thing was a thing. And it was everywhere. Slowly that ended. Now, the handtools and toys we buy are mostly made in China. This expansion of trade has brought prosperity to much of the world and cheap prices and more and better stuff.
But in the (thankfully) now past agonies over Brexit in our country, I observed nostalgia and loss over the way we don’t make our own stuff any more. It may be that that sense of loss has driven populist or nationalist politics all over the former stuff-making regions of the earth. In it is a hint of gaining the whole world (the free trade economists were right) but losing our soul.
Then I look at things editors pick as good news stories. Building windfarms the size of Yorkshire in the North Sea, for example. People who build and repair windfarms spend weeks on ships, climb creaking columns in gales, replace sprockets, rehang blades, loosen corroded big-end bearings — I don’t know what they do — but it is hard physical work to be proud of. Or someone else, further down the coast, is growing herbs in a vertical farm.
These are good news stories because they are about people saving the earth, but they are also hands-on, tiring, providing for your local community, reducing our dependence on others and fostering independence and self-sufficiency and they feel good.
Kind of like finding your soul again. Interesting.
Being a further exerpt from my forthcoming book ‘Bread’ about how to simplify and refocus our lives.
The story so far. Trauma makes you re-evaluate. When I did this, two things stood out as a uniquely life-giving and worth investment: belonging and creating. This section is about belonging.The hospital stories belong back in 2013, not anything more recent.
My search for what really matters – belonging
Crowds vs. networks
‘Belonging’ is one way of saying ‘being part of a network’. A network, as I mean it here, is a group of people linked by relationships.
Not all collections of people are networks. Here’s what aren’t networks: queues, crowds, traffic jams, flocks of tourists. Here are some examples of what are, or can become networks: a sports team, a squad of soldiers, an orchestra, a village fete, a live event when performers and crowd are feeding off each other, a classroom, a family. All these can become sustaining communities that people love and fight for.
What’s the difference between a crowd and a network? Human relationships. Crowds that aren’t networks are life-draining; networks of people, working together, are life-sustaining. I have been in traffic jams so profound that they turn into networks because drivers leave their vehicles and start talking with each other. A sports team can be transformed once it stops being a crowd of stars—or a crowd of mediocrities—and works as a networked, relational whole.
Networks let us pool and share our talents. They provide resources, guidance and self-worth. They protect us from external foes and, by setting norms, they save us from ourselves. And they satisfy our deep needs to belong and contribute.  …
Networks and life-support
As well as being our superpower, networks are our source of meaning and life.
I have two scrapbooks in my study from my coma-month in May 2013. One was created by my family, one by the Intensive Care staff. They document what was going on with me in ICU, and in the world outside. My family have stuck in some of the cards and emails they received while I was ill. They also pasted news reports I might have liked. And they added in the letters they wrote to me. I cannot read these books (or, it turns out, write about them) without the tears flowing.
They are so extraordinarily moving, almost intolerable, these scrapbooks. While I lay on my back plugged into medical machinery, a middle-aged, red-faced white man, the sort that you wouldn’t look twice at, heart disease fodder, my loved ones laboured under a burden of care and fear and fought my death like tigers. They read my books to me, they talked to me, they read Terry Pratchett novels. A doctor saw my mum mopping my brow and asked her why she was doing that. ‘He’s burning up,’ she told him. The doctor turned, walked away, visited the other ICU ward, and came back with an ice-blanket, the only one in the hospital and got me wrapped in it.
Each day, the ICU staff tenderly washed and shaved me.
Normally we moderate our expressions of love. Normally our loving hearts beat for each other under a coating of banter, criticism and everyday chat. Sometimes the coating is so thick we wonder if a heart beats under there at all. Death or near-death or the threat of death strips the coating away and we briefly feel the raging incandescence of human love. I think it is the greatest thing in the world. My coma-books are like me enjoying my own funeral without having to die: everybody’s kind to me and they don’t mention my faults. Their love also repaints my insides with sunshine.
A couple of weeks after I left ICU, but before I was finally discharged from hospital, my wife wheeled me round to the unit again. She was hoping to fill in some of the gaps in my memory. I was surprised to find that the nurses seemed to know me; I didn’t know any of them. My wife pointed things out. That was the room where the doctor told her that I wasn’t expected to survive the night. That nurse was the one assigned to me when I was hallucinating that it was our daughter’s wedding day, and I was trying to get out of bed, and almost weeping with frustration that I couldn’t …
I told this nurse from my wheelchair how sorry I was for causing all that bother, and I thought later how she was one of those people in the hospital who transcends treating you as a nurse only and treats you as a fellow human sufferer too. She wasn’t paid to care as much as she actually did care, and what a thing it is to find (as I often did in hospital) medical staff journeying well beyond professional expertise into deep humanity, caring for me.
It is overwhelming how important networks are to us. I don’t know how often you ask questions like, what have I achieved? What was the point? What am I proud of? Or even Why do I bother continuing to live? For me, the answer to all of that is being part of a network of people who apparently love me as much as I love them. Nothing else compares. I’ve been a writer all my life but in all the millions of words I’ve sprayed about the place, happy though that has been, that career has not offered the quality of meaning or healing or worth that can compare with the simple discovery of being loved by my loved ones. The loving network trumps everything.
 I’m indebted to Nicholas A Christakis and James H Fowler’s Connected(New York: Little, Brown 2009) for their insights. Theirs is the best book on networking that I’ve ever seen.
This slice of ‘Bread’ sums up what lessons I think adversity or suffering can teach. Smarty-pants readers, like you, will recognize where we have eventually landed after a long journey … the Beatitudes.
My search for what really matters – slice the 6th
Let’s collect up and summarize the lessons of adversity:
We are ordinary.
We are poor.
We are broken.
There will be losses.
Time compounds things, so it’s a good idea to live with integrity in both the large and the small. Integrity will still be holding your hand when charisma, success, pride, and boasting, and your good looks, even yours, have fallen away.
Approaching problems and joys a day at time, or a moment at a time, means you tackle them a scale you were built for and can manage.
Our life in the midst of others—belonging to others, making peace with others, exposing our lusts and terrors, our darknesses, to the kind light of others—is key to walking the long distance of life well. Suffering shared can lead to deep connection which is life.
Hoping and resolving to do something right and good, or to live towards the doing of something good, is a mighty weapon in the fight to reclaim your mind from itself. Even if it’s slow. Even if feels like small steps forward after a catastrophic fall. Why? You find you are working with the grain of the Universe. The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book with the title Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. What a magnificent insight. (Perhaps I should read the book.) There is a course of life for us that is fruitful, being what we are, doing what we do, some good thing. It might be quite ordinary. Progress may be slow. Seasons may change while we await its fulness. But it is the path of life.