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.
Sorry to be writing about healing again. But I keep learning new things. For the longest time I had two ideas about healing, which were complementary if incomplete:
See a doctor, and the result will be somewhere on the spectrum between no cure at all and a complete cure. Quite a lot of conditions can be eased, slowed, ameliarated, sometimes with pills, sometimes with pills and side effects and it’s great. Or at least it’s better than the alternative and it’s pretty good.
Visit the New Testament where there is a quite a lot of instanteous healing, and some instances of progressive healing. This observation influences a lot of Christian practice, both in high-octane mass healing meetings and also sometimes when people are prayed for ad hoc by their Christian peers.
I generally have come to prefer the medical route to (this particular) Christian-inspired paradigm. Each route, doctors or hoped-for miracles, leads to highs and some lows; the Christian route, as described, in my experience, tends to result in more lows than highs. One big reason for this is that doctors are better at managing expectations and describing likely outcomes than Christian pray-ers are. Plus, doctors are less likely to blame people for their sickness (even when they deserve it). Christians in my experience don’t usually blame the patient overtly but do say things like ‘God we don’t understand why you haven’t healed this person,’ while fixing a troubled eye on you. Doctors are professional and Christians are amateur and it rather shows.
I think God is active in both realms. In the week I write this, the much anticipated £1bn Astra-Zeneca headquarters has just opened, a short bus-ride from my home, further cementing Cambridge’s position as a biomedical centre, employing thousands of people, some of whom are friends of mine, busy researching and pioneering further medical cures.
Because of their work, all over the world, mothers will not be parted early from their children, granddads will get to play with their grandchildren, life will be extended and tragedy deferred or defused. God cannot not be in this great project for the common good.
What’s going on inside the head
I feel both these routes towards wellness are incomplete as they stand. And I know that doctors know this too and also talk about the ‘pyscho-social’ aspects of wellness. What is this? Two people can have identical MRI scans, say of their spines. One will say, ‘it’s terrible, my spine is crumbling’ and their disability, and bitterness, will cast a long shadow into their family. They will be a pain as much as their spine is. The other will say, ‘basically I’m fine’ and carry on much as before. Same crumbly spine: different head and heart.
A few weeks ago we visited a National Trust property with my family. I get breathless very easily. For the first time ever (I think) I borrowed one of their electric buggies. This all-terrain craft let me join everyone as we rambled round the gardens. It was wonderful: no pain, no breathlessness, no pretending to be interested in a leaf while my breathing caught up, no struggling to talk, no watching everyone get cold as they kindly adjusted to my slower-than-toddler pace. It felt like healing. It was healing. Of course, physically I was just as before; but in my head, where I live, I was thriving. Healing is thriving, being at peace, content, happy. It happens through Christ. My National Trust buggy was a healing. Really. Miss that and you miss quite a lot.
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.
This next extract from my forthcoming book is about doing little good things even when big things have collapsed around us.
My search for what really matters – part 5
All is not lost when all is lost
Here’s another path to tread in your head: do small things well even if big things have collapsed around you. Your great loss may not be as total as it seems; and your small acts of goodness add up. Roiled around by the mighty tides of time, the little good things can overwhelm the big bad thing.
We can demonstrate this at both smaller and larger scales. Imagine you made a mistake at work. Imagine the mistake was not just human error but due to carelessness, ill-temper or even malice. Then imagine two separate responses:
Cover up, minimize, self-justify
Apologize, admit your fault, ask forgiveness.
Which is the better ‘strategy’? Much more important, which has integrity? Which behaviour will, in the end, do you the most good? Which path leads to the least complicated life? And which path, over time, will get you the respect you seek, and we all need?
Think of defeat and victory on a larger scale. Think of Nelson Mandela. He was troublesome and didn’t renounce violence. The South African state locked him up for life, with hard labour, a victory for them and a setback for him. He was off the streets and mostly out of the newspapers.
Mandela spent his 50th birthday in jail. Then his 60th. And then his 70th. But it turns out that maintaining injustice in a society is like trying to hold a beach ball under water. While Mandela passed milestone birthdays, the South African state was exhausting itself. Internally, it was fighting to maintain injustice, against protests of every kind. Externally, it was facing a crisis of belonging: its membership of the club of civilised countries was being stressed by the general issue of national racism and the specific dunked beachball called Mandela. The real, jailed Mandela, working the limestone quarry on Robben Island, took every rare opportunity to study and lobby and organize.
Eventually time’s pressure on the state grew too much and the state folded. In his seventies, Mandela walked out of prison and into the presidency. The little good things he’d spent twenty years doing overwhelmed the big bad thing done to him. As president, he worked to reconcile the nation and he left when his time was up rather than clinging to office. In the contest, Mandela v South Africa, who won and who lost? How did the winner win and how did the loser lose? What part did time play? How did repeated small acts of integrity fare against large doses of injustice?
You may know by now that this book is a lockdown project, when I wanted to put down in order some of the things bouncing around my head and around this blog, about how a storm (in my case a medical storm) can usher in a time of healing and restoration and renewed focus. This happens to be my experience, at least from where I sit at the moment.
This extract looks at how adversity or suffering can lead us to a rediscovery of goodness. It’s a fairly long read, but I hope it may fit your weekend somewhere.
My search for what really matters – fourth slice
Suffering can also bring out the goodness in the depths, in the same way that a storm can refresh an ocean.
Goodness is an unusual experience for those of us not used to it, but we can acquire a taste. Suffering offers the moment to step out.
Think of relational goodness. We are wrapped in a web of relationships. Sometimes our relational threads stretch to surprising people. The love embedded here is not always expressed, but adversity brings it to the surface. Their love for you is suddenly exposed in cards, notes, visits, gifts, calls, prayers. And you respond. Adversity gets you and them to say things that you’ve always meant to say. Saying them is a great gift and blessing. Letting love and pride flow back and forth down these threads of love, sprinkling them with tears probably, is not just a help to healing and thriving. It is itself the primary act of healing and thriving. Further repairs to your body or circumstances that may or may not follow are secondary. If you are lucky enough to be surrounded by a web of love, and most of us are, adversity is the time to know this and invest in it.
What a treasure this is. In May 2011, in Palo Alto, California, a girl was sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework when there was a knock on the kitchen door. She went to open it and found Bill Gates standing outside. Upstairs the girl’s father, Steve Jobs, was ill with the cancer that would end his life. The girl let Gates in, and Gates and Jobs, the two rival tech titans, engineer and zen-gineer, spent time together. They talked, it is reported, about families and children and marrying well, and about Jobs’ plans for his yacht. Gates’ visit, it seems, was to maintain, perhaps to fix, but in any case to re-emphasize, a relational thread between the founder of Microsoft and the founder of Apple.
A friend of mine who was dying of cancer pointed out that one of the good things about her cancer was that she got time to say goodbye. Among other things, my friend arranged a party for all the women she trained with decades before. I observed her cancer was not a stressy round of treatments, anger, bitterness and disappointment but a kind of packing and farewelling for the next journey.
I agree that some adversity is better than other sorts for spurring relational goodness. In some adversity (illness, say), people send love and cards and you will feel their support; in other forms (a bad marriage, or bad breath, say), even your closest friends will fear to intrude and the shops tend not to stock cards.
But whether or not your adversity is the sort of adversity for which people send cards (Congratulations on 25 years of Irritable Bowels!), I still think any adversity can be manhandled into making you unearth good in yourself and those around you. So your anxiety or your IBS goes on and on? So does your resolve.
Set things right. Heal the relationships. Fix these things that you can fix and your whole world will be brighter. Setting things right means:
Saying the unsaid
Mending the broken
Straightening the bent
Tying up the loose ends
Here are some suggestions for adversity-propelled tentative steps towards goodness – both relational and personal:
Say everything good that needs saying to your loved ones. Don’t wait to regret not saying these things when you die.
Make peace with your enemies.
Get your affairs in order.
Work on your eulogy virtues, the things they will say at your funeral, like that you were kind, rather than your resume (CV) virtues such as your salesperson-of-the-year-runner’s-up award.
Sort out the God-and-eternity business in your soul.
Gratefully relish each ‘bright blessed day’, and ‘dark sacred night’.
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.)
I’m oversimplifying a detailed chapter, but you can imagine two steps:
Fit your chosen story within the Bible’s grand narrative of life, the universe and everything.
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:
Creation. God made the Universe, for us to thrive in along with him, and even though God says so himself, it’s very good.
Fall. And we rebel, and alienate ourselves from God and each other and generally mess things up.
Israel. God gets to work redeeming the story, at first with broad brushstrokes, like the Law.
Between the Testaments… it isn’t quick. Things have to brew. But finally we get to:
Jesus. God’s translation of himself into human form demonstrates, then inaugurates, then welcomes us to join, a Kingdom where God is ruling.
Church And this message is embodied and carried everywhere
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. 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. 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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.