I am writing this around the time of the longest day, the time they call in St Petersburg, which is even further north than I am, the ‘White Nights.’
It’s my favourite time of year, light and pollen everywhere, and often in the evening I will stand outside and try to sniff the air and store the moment. It’s the sort of moment you need to store given there is also, every year, the phenomenon known as January, when it’s dark, or cold, or bleak, or grey, or all four.
But really it’s a hopeless exercise. There is something about the White Nights that can’t be stored or even experienced for a moment; the joy of the stilled creation, the still-warm stones, the crashing of birds and squirrels in trees overstuffed with leaves.
C S Lewis wrote a lot about desiring this elusive joy, and discovered a German word, sehnsucht,to describe it. Desiring elusive joy is a familiar experience. What does it mean? Is it just a product of a deficient mental model of reality? We anticipate a meaning, even a joy, in creation but we can never find it because it is an artifact of our pattern-hungry brains, not a real thing in the Universe?
There’s another explanation which I much prefer. There is such a being as God, such a thing as the Kingdom of God, and these hints of joys are like straws blown over to us from that field — so they are not soap bubbles that look good but are empty and must pop, but signs that out there, over there, somewhere, to be hunted down, now hinted at, is a realm of joy that we yearn for and have not yet fully entered. We are hungry for a reason; we yearn for joy for a reason.
Not a programme, or a strategy, but a course of life.
We know how this ends.
Everyone dies, the Universe expands and cools, the last lights go out. It isn’t this.
It is — according to Christian theology — this. A resurrected Universe thrives. All things are united together in Christ.
I have written about how you can understand this in terms of the physicist’s idea of entropy. The little localized patches of low entropy that already exist, known to us as ‘life’, are the forerunners or harbingers or early hints of a total low-entropy takeover of time and space.
Another way of saying the same thing is the language of heaven and earth. Heaven is the low-entropy, eternal, invisible dimension or realm where Christ reigns. Perhaps it surrounds in some way our physical Universe. When people turn to Christ and lean into him, heaven enters their souls. They have a presence somehow in these heavens, ‘seated in heavenly places in Christ.’1 They belong to eternity, but they reside on earth. They belong to God’s people, to Jesus, and their future is secure. Yet they live on earth. What is their job? Their lives become about bringing the qualities of heaven into earth. They are routes by which heaven leaks into earth. Which is why prayer is important, as is weakness and perseverance, and the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. Eventually, heaven will burst out and flood over earth and Christ will be ‘all in all’. ‘Death’, as the Apostle Paul put it, ‘is swallowed up by victory’. 2
A lot of the New Testament lights up when we realize this. This is why we pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ 3, why ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness’ 4, why we ‘groan’5, why Paul tells the Colossians to bear fruit ‘in every good work .. [with] great endurance and patience’ 6, why ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ 7.
Here is a theology of slow mission. We pray, and do, and bear, and endure on earth. But we are not building the kingdom of heaven on earth like you build a cathedral. We are engaged in an act of life-giving. It is like when a plant puts all its strength into preparing a seed head.
It is also like the ways mothers live by pouring life into their children. The children live on into a future the mother doesn’t see. The mother doesn’t see the future because death stands between her and it, and that future is far removed from her current experience of protesting, messy babies. But she lives and gives life and her loving work will endure beyond death, bearing fruit in ways she will perhaps never guess. The coming of the Kingdom of God in the end will be a bridal day for a squalling creation.
This is why mission is and should be slow. Because it isn’t a programme; it’s a work of love. It’s why every little corner matters, as well as every grand vision. It’s a pursuit of Christ in the large and the small. We pour in all the knowledge of Christ and all the beauty and justice and patience and faith and love that we can, into this world, tugged along in our course by the Holy Spirit. We live, reluctant coals blown on by Jesus. We also groan: weak, sorrowful, disappointed, set back again and again. What we finish won’t look finished, until it all dies and rises again, and then we will see in Christ that it was.
I’ve just returned from four days of investigations at a hospital, trying to see if I’m a candidate for a heart transplant. I also talked to other patients on my hospital corridor, who have walked farther down the trail of suffering and patience than I have ever ventured. This is the second time I’ve gone through this exercise and I have come home with my head rather full, and the introvert’s need to sit at home for a long time and think about it all.
Somewhere in all that, I asked the question, What am I for?
Trying to answer that doesn’t involve me attempting to respond objectively and rigorously, even if I had the equipment or the courage, which I don’t. Instead, that question is a prompt to motivations and perhaps to temperament or psychological health. Another way of framing the same question is something like how do I feel about going on living? Or how much do I want to continue to exist and contribute?
There’s an answer to this around the idea of knowing and glorifying Christ, and that is my answer too, there is no meaning outside of him, but within that general answer there must be specific route-maps for each person. The tug of love, pulling us to go on living for someone else’s sake or some others’ sake is certainly a huge component of the vector.
I find another part though. I want to make beautiful things. In my world, this has to mean writing, and it has to mean writing something that someone reads, five minutes from now, or five weeks, or even five centuries, and that person’s thoughts and mine connect over all that distance, and the thing that has lit me up lights them up too.
I wonder if this isn’t the impulse behind all art, both the tawdry and the epic, and perhaps lots else too. Make something beautiful. Add to the stock of our herd’s insights, creativity, beauty and overall wealth. I’ve often envied a musician’s ability to dream up a melody that previously didn’t exist but that the whole world comes to know and indeed may even continue to know until the end of time. Think Hey Jude or Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s poem in his Ninth Symphony. Using words to combine thoughts in attractive forms is a micro-scale enterprise compared with that, and I do not say I am good at it, but it is what I have.
The Christian hope for history is the fulfilment of all things and one of the pictures is the New Jerusalem, the city of God, the fulfilled human community, lit up by the light of God’s face. A feature of the New Jerusalem is that its gates are always open. Nothing evil or mean or superficial is allowed in but what does flow in is the wealth of the nations, the baking and the architecture and the engineering and the melodies and the elegant theories and the eloquent art. The patiently and lovingly constructed treasures, dusted as they are – as they must be- with sprinkles of divine pleasure. What am I for? A piece of that.
Am enjoying reading the NT transliterated (Greek and English together) on a phone app. My ignorance of Greek is a great help because any dim grasp of a thing feels like a discovery, even if it would be steamrollered flat by a proper scholar.
Here’s one. There is a Greek word which means ‘aspire to’ or ‘make it your ambition to.’ Paul uses it of himself when he says he was ‘making it his ambition’ to spread the gospel. (Romans 15:20).
Then he writes to the Thessalonians, ‘Make it your ambition to…’ (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and we might expect him to write the same thing. This is what we evangelicals tend to sign up to in our faith, at least notionally, and in our songs, and are certainly urged to do from pulpits.
But what he actually says is ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life’.
Rowan Williams’ enjoyable little book Being Disciples (SPCK) has a whole chapter on daily bread which is interesting.
He talks about the need for bread in the wider context of our humanity and being those who need to receive as well as give.
He also notes ‘the odd Greek word that is used in the Gospels for “daily bread” whose exact meaning has proved elusive’ but it could have meant in the original Aramaic that Jesus
was telling us to pray for the gifts of the coming kingdom to be received in the present … The need, the hunger, we must learn to express is a need not simply for sustenance but for God’s future. What we need is the new creation, the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’ (p42)
We are made in the image of a creative God and our creativity can bring him glory.
The arts are also an asset in mission work:
The arts are personal – they are heart-to-heart. Artistic expression and response prevent the Christian faith being reduced to formulas, programmes, or clichés.
The arts are intimate. Our complex selves respond not just to facts or emotion, but also to the sense of beauty or ugliness. The creative arts add extra dimensions to a person’s encounter with God.
The arts are daily bread. Humans hunger for stories and beauty just as they hunger for bread or God. Christian arts can enlighten a dulled world, sustain Christians in trials, and spark hope in hopeless situations.
The arts seed further creativity. The best art stirs people to reflect and create fresh art. In this way Christian art reproduces itself and extends the interaction between the risen Christ and the human species.
The arts bind communities together. Collective sung worship, or aesthetically pleasing buildings or rituals, for example, can unite people in communal devotion to God. We know ourselves to be part of something greater than our own individual faith.
The arts can find soft places in hard hearts. Among the multiple reasons that Jesus told stories was, first, because everyone enjoys a story, and second, because a story can start someone on a journey towards God even when that person is not willing at that time to seek him.
The arts are ‘wasteful’. Art is not usually economically justified. Rather, like when an expensive bottle of pure nard (grown only in the Himalayas) was poured on Jesus, the arts are an expression of unfettered love.
I first wrote this as part of a 52-week world prayer guide which I have been working on through 2018 and 2019. You can find out more about this project, and sign up for the full blessing, at Lausanne.org/pray
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.
This is a short extract from a longer article that got the original author into hot water.
I recommend it as a long read.
Like hot water, it stings a bit but it’s really good once you’ve climbed in. Super article that (arguably) upsets all the right people.
The gospel that infuses the body of Christ is about the restoration of broken relationships …Poverty is a broken relationship with God, with my neighbor, with the earth, and the broken places inside me.
Our task as the followers of the true healer is to help mend these fissures we find in life. Without this understanding we easily become purveyors of I’m here and you’re over there. The truth is that because I am broken, through my wounds I get to heal somebody else who also, in some strange way, begins to heal me as well. Jesus said that because of the injury and death he experienced, he could heal us. In humility we follow his lead and offer ourselves as his agents in sacrificial love.
I see a clamour all around me; the need to justify our existence. The writer and playwright Alan Bennett captured it perfectly. He talked of one of his relatives who said this as they drove in the car:
‘Do you see that gasworks over there? That’s the second biggest gasworks in Europe. And I know the manager.’
Or I remember interviewing someone once, a salesperson, I forget about what, but I noticed his office wall covered with meaningless plaques about his achievements. Sad that his company felt the need to trade in these things; sadder that he displayed them.
If you are a normal healthy adult it is of course good and necessary to be productive. One of the reasons people fear retirement is because all that valid affirmation of their identity is taken away, replaced with the three simple letters ‘OAP’. This is perhaps why, for example in places like the BBC, old people hang onto their jobs, long after the spark of talent that got them the job in the first place has turned to smoke.
I think it is an art and a skill to learn how to be content with whatever prestige or affirmation the world has dealt you. In my case, none. So worth learning though. After living through days when I needed a mechanical hoist to drop me onto a toilet, I have to confess to frequent moments of upwelling delight in enjoying the simple things of life like family and friends and food and fellowship and worship; and as for using my own spark of talent, writing (in my own eyes at least) beautifully; and doing all this before and for God.
In my former life, before I was sick, I viewed the simple things merely as a platform to higher and greater achievements. Five years after serious illness, I return to this place and see it for the first time as the true location of happiness and worth.
Now that the World Cup is upon us (and if you still care about this ethical mudbath, this sleaze-fest) you may well find yourself taking up your job again as ceremonial centre of the Universe.
They scored because you went out to the bathroom.
If you hadn’t reached for the nachos when they were taking the corner, the ball would have gone in.
You, the ceremonial centre of the Universe, have messed up for the whole nation.
Don’t move now for the rest of the match
It’s instinctive. As well as being stupid. I’m told it’s also everywhere. All over the world, people are appeasing gods, making offerings, avoiding taboos, looking at things, not looking at things, all so that the Universe will come out right.
A few problems with this idea
It’s also, of course, a theme of the Bible. People are at the centre of things. The Universe is this way because humanity rebelled.
Much of science’s long story has been about de-throning us from this (surely illusory) sense. No, it obviously wasn’t us that turned a perfect creation into a wounded and crying one. Dinosaurs were getting cancer long before any humans were even around.
That’s a big subject, a fascinating and fruitful one, and one I wrote more about in More than Bananas (see below).
I only note today something I missed in More than Bananas. This: once you bring Christ into the equation, everything changes again. Creator and owner; upholder of everything; the one who pays the cosmic utility bills, Christ is the centre of the Universe. By choosing to clothe himself in our humanity, he has brought humanity back to the heart of things along with him – back from our obscurity among dust and muck on Planet III.
Our funny bodies, mid-sized in terms of the Universe, and still carrying artefacts of our evolutionary past, have a cosmic significance through Christ. He has made us the firstfruits of all that will one day return to him.
A mystery, and not particularly helpful for the footy, but still.