The regular readers of this blog, both of you, will know I’ve been exerpting chapters from my new book over the past weeks. Well, it’s finally finished and I’m really pleased with it. Here is the cover art:
It is, I hope, a fun refresher on some of the big themes of discipleship. A refreshing refresher, perhaps. If you click on this link here you can help yourself to a free copy that you can read on your phone, laptop, tablet, or Kindle.
(This is what publishers call an Advance Review Copy and it’s intended to generate reviews and whatnot, which are very welcome, but mostly it’s nice to have something to give away after what has been a stressful 12 months for many of us.)
It will be available for sale in all formats after publication day on Feb 19th 2021. Do share this free link in the meantime with anyone if you think they’d like it; it stops working on publication day. After that the title will be available in its various formats at Amazon, Eden and the like and orderable from any other bookshop worthy of the name.
Another article dredged from my archives, lest I am ever guilty of deliberately harbouring an unpublished thought. It is due to appear in my forthcoming book ‘The Sandwich‘ and was written for the Singaporean magazine for which I used to work. I am pleased to report that the children described in the article both ended up with Master’s degrees from Cambridge University, and that we all survived their childhood. Somehow.
Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it (Mark 10:15)
Christ said we must become as little children to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Dear God, this is too much. Have we got to become such idiots? (Protestant reformer Martin Luther, c. 1538)
Our children normally have a banana for breakfast and I have got into the habit of ringing it up before we eat it.
‘Hello, are you a banana?
‘Would you like to be eaten today?
‘Oh, alright then.
‘OK Thanks! Bye’
Presumably this little game will one day cease to be entertaining for the kids in the morning. (I hope quite soon.)
However, I was doing this one morning recently when my five-year-old daughter suddenly spoke up.
‘It’s not the banana talking at all! It’s you!’
I looked at her out of the corner of my eye, Has she only just realized this? I thought. Has she thought all these months and years that you can ring bananas up? And that they talk back? I wondered what else was going on, unsuspected by me, between her ears.
‘You’re right’ I admitted. ‘It’s me.’
Wet and wild
I work from home, in an upstairs room overlooking our garden, so I sometimes get to watch our three-year-old playing on his own: tramping about in his red wellies (rubber boots), watering the plants, digging in the sandpit. He shovels out sand and heaps it into his tractor. He collects stones in a bucket. He stirs the sand round and round with a stick, all the time talking. ‘Mum, I’m a collector. I’m collecting things.’ ‘Mum, I’m baking a cake. It’s a chocolate cake. With lemons.’ His mind, I observe, seems like a home you’ve just moved into: all the furniture’s there, but it hasn’t been straightened out quite yet.
In his book Queen of Angels, science fiction writer Greg Bear writes about an age when psychotherapy and computer modelling are so advanced that therapists will be able to take computer-aided journeys round the landscape of people’s minds, investigating the country and solving deep traumas.
Brilliant and daring though he is, he never speculates on the insides of a child’s mind. I can imagine why: it’s too wild. Certainly my kids’ minds are like that, mad, happy tea-parties where disconnected ideas and talking bananas jostle together.
It can’t be true
A child’s mindset is interesting in the same way the roller-coaster ride called Space Mountain in Euro-Disney outside Paris is interesting: riding it you’re completely in the dark and you don’t know where you’re going to be thrown next.
But it’s also interesting because, as we know, a child’s mind is a holy thing, a thing we must emulate if we are to get in on the kingdom of God. A child’s mind is nearer to the kingdom of God than a grownup’s. How can this be? Here are two ideas:
Wonder. Children know about wonder; grownups have to relearn it. Remember the answer Jesus gave to John the Baptist’s question, ‘Are you the one that was sent?’: the Lord Jesus told the questioners ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.’ (Luke 7:22). ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him,’ says the apostle Paul (1 Cor 2:9). ‘Dear friends, now we are children of God,’ adds John, ‘and what we will be has not yet been made known.’ (1 John 3:2).
According to the New Testament, we are seeing the first, outriding snowballs of goodness tumbling down heaven’s mountainside into our lives; an avalanche will follow. As Christians we have every reason to develop a childlike capacity for wonder. Outrageous, lovely things really do happen. The future will be rich with them.
Relationship. Children have the enviable ability to have their problems solved with a hug. As grownup Christians we think a hug is not enough. But it is enough. ‘Peace I leave with you,’ says the Lord Jesus, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ (John 14:27). ‘Do not be anxious about anything,’ says Paul, shockingly; instead, ‘present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 4: 6-7).
It is characteristic of Jesus that in the toughest times he does not explain things. Instead, he showers us with love and peace. It isn’t (rational, modern) explanation or (shrugging, post-modern) escapism we need; it is enough to be loved. Children know it; adults forget it.
At the heart of the Universe — we need to remember– is not a series of laws, nor something blind and chaotic, but a Good Person whom we do well to know (as children easily accept). His normal speech is what we call the laws of universe; his special words of love are what we call signs and wonders; fail to see him and we miss everything.
Maybe we should not be so committed to edifices of adult thought. Maybe the foolish playfulness of God, the God of talking bananas, is a surer foundation. We need the playful mind of a child to keep up with the rampant gaiety of a good God. Try this song as a quick summary of all we need to know (though in our case sung to Jesus rather than to a lover):
‘I don’t believe in many things, but in You, I do, I do.’
I only re-read one book every year (apart from the Bible). I have an audio version of A Christmas Carol and I listen to it every Christmas season without fail. It’s huge fun and it’s about repentance. What more could you want?
It’s also interesting for two other reasons:
It’s nearly perfect. For me A Christmas Carol is the textbook for popular storytelling. Everything opened up at the beginning is resolved at the end. Everything is vivid and passionate. The dramatic tension never stops, building like a symphony through scene after perfect scene to the final explosion and the shattering and remaking of Scrooge.
It shows how a novelist can change culture. All of us in the West draw on this text when we think about Christmas. Dickens edited the world by scribbling stories. He’s a reminder of why people should write; in a story-dominated world, culture is jerked and pulled across the stage by the story-tellers. If you want Christmas to be about something other than snow and the wretched jingle of sleighbells-something like a gleeful, subversive transformation of an old sinner–write a book.
My novel Paradise isn’t about Christmas. But it is subversive and is supposed to be funny. A recent Amazon review from someone who described herself as an “extremely liberal atheist” was kind enough to say “Truly excellent! … I can’t wait to read his next work.” Which was nice. Courtesy of internet bookshops, I’ve been able to make Paradise a free download. Happy Christmas.
Give. It’s just good. Even if you haven’t much money. Even if you’re not sure it’s being spent well. It’s a way of saying ‘thanks, I’m alive’. It’s about being human — not just a recipient, not just a barely-manager, a giver. One tenth of our income is a principle that many have found life-giving, not as a rule, but as an opportunity or an aspiration, even if we are very poor or on benefits.
Don’t be stupid. There is a bit of a line here. It’s not automatically stupid to give most or all of your possessions away sometimes. But I don’t think giving should be pushing you into debt, and shouldn’t make you dependent on others, and you need to look after your loved ones. Wise advice might help here, clear your head.
Even in debt, you can give something. Giving away money, even just your 10%, might not be wise in those circumstances. But you can still give something–practical help maybe, a smile, a meal, whatever-and your generous heart will help heal both your struggles and the other person’s.
Get organizations to give. Your company; your sports club; your church; your nation. You have a voice here, however small. Argue for generosity and humanity. It isn’t all about us.
Plan most of your giving. Find some causes you like and believe in, and give to them steadily, year after year. It doesn’t have to be much, or showy. Just get stuck in. Do it at the beginning of the month or the end of the week, before the cash drains from you.
Index-link your giving. If your income goes up, so can your giving. If it goes down, so can your giving.
Get good value. It isn’t enough for a charity to have a heart-rending appeal. How efficient are they? What do they spend their money on? How much do they pay their chief executive? Do they mention that in their publicity? Charities range from fine to terrible. Orphanages, for example, aren’t brilliant. They are easy to set up in some countries, can be unaccountable, aren’t necessarily full of orphans and at the worst can be places of abuse. Our responsibility doesn’t end if we give to a charity just because it’s a charity. We have to think about value, or give to things we trust.
Keep some money aside for spontaneous, one-off, gifts. Some kid you know wants sponsoring. Somebody’s rattling a tin in your face for some good cause. Not your cause, not really your kid. Still, you’d be pretty hard-hearted if you didn’t set aside something for this kind of thing.
Review every so often. Maybe other causes have caught your eye. Maybe your interests have changed. Maybe one of your current recipients doesn’t seem to be spending its money so well any more. Move on. Keep it fresh.
Beware creating dependency in the people the charity is for. Are your gifts helping people grow, making them more like you, or are they dooming them always to be the needy person while you are the generous benefactor? None of this is easy and many charities struggle with it internally. But we have to try. (This is also why I don’t give money to homeless people on the streets in the UK.)
Beware of creating dependency in the charities themselves. Don’t respond to charity appeals. Honestly. Or hardly ever. It just encourages charities to make more appeals. They become dependent on sending out ever more gruesome descriptions of need, a race to the bottom. Don’t let them do it to you. Give steadily, regularly, whether or not there’s been an earthquake. There’ll be another one tomorrow.
Be a bit light-hearted. Giving is beautiful, as beautiful as great art or great science. Unlike art and science, however, it’s within the reach of all of us. It’s a kind of gift.
I’m delighted to have got my book ‘More than Bananas: How the Christian faith works for me and the Universe’ listed as free on the Amazon kindle store and the iBookstore.
This enables loads of people to download it. If they like it, to sign up for my non-fiction mailing list.
Prof Sir Colin Humphreys FRS of Cambridge Uni, someone to whom I sent a copy, said, ‘Your book is wonderful! I do hope that it is very widely read‘
I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, coming out of a lot of thinking — science, faith, meaning– some of it while in hospital coming out of a coma. Please help yourself, and give to your friends. And/or any enemies.