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.
Again I’m writing about healing, partly because I’m living it, partly because what I picked up from many years as a Christian now seems so wrong and there is so much rethinking to do.
I’m still rethinking, and I’m still breathing, both of which I feel are important.
The last few weeks: we bought a disabled buggy, a wonderful little thing, and took it on holiday. (It folds into the car.) We were with our daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren and there was much walking on the prom and the cliff-tops, all of it now painless and easy. Nor was anyone needed to push me around in a wheelchair. And I could give the kids rides. So now in God’s riches I have an electric bike for longer journeys around Cambridge and an electric buggy for when I am with others.
Then yesterday I took the train down to my specialist heart centre in London where they retuned the pacemaker in my chest. A week or so before that, after phone calls from me, I had downloaded the pacemaker data and sent it to the hospital via a piece of kit that lives under our bed. The hospital looked at it and called me in and did the necessary reprogramming. Amazing. It is early days for this treatment but I feel less breathless and my wife tells me I am no longer blue to look at. Those guys at the hospital (both female guys as it happened) don’t just measure your ECG; they modify it and tweak it. They don’t take an ECG lying down. They press buttons and see what happens. Such fun!
This techno-assistance, though, seems a far cry from the New Testament where the Lord Jesus or the apostles did their stuff and immediate physical transformation appears to have happened. My electric buggy and the retuning of the extraordinary electronics that supply my heartbeat seem a different order of a thing to that. Why can’t (as Naaman asked) a prophet just wave his hands over me and make me well? Does this techno-medical intervention really count as ‘healing’ at all? Or is it a second-best solution for those whose lives are so cold and lacking in faith and zeal that the real healing stuff never happens to them? What is healing after all?
The New Testament contains hints that what I have heard doctors call the ‘psycho-social’ parts of healing are important, just as are the physical deliverance parts. Ten lepers were cleansed: only one came back to say thank you. Was there a lingering psycho-social unhealing among the healed lepers? Body fine, head in wrong place. Demons are driven out of the Gaderene demoniac. He is seen sitting clothed and in his right mind. But Jesus tells him to go home to his family, rather than joining the band of disciples. Is that to complete his healing? To address the pyscho-social roots of what got him in such a state in the first place? As it is, Mark records that the former demoniac takes up a speaking ministry in the Ten Towns, and Mark is silent over whether or not that was what Jesus really intended for the man. Interesting.
Then I watch friends, with a cancer diagnosis say, put their lives on hold until the treatment is completed. I observe, I think, I might be wrong (I hope I am), that they are putting all their eggs in the physical healing basket. Zap the cancer, go back to the life we had before. Nothing else matters.
I am so not so sure that this is right. (Of course I have to allow for the fact that I am sitting in my garden, at my ease, contented, writing this, not suffering some medical emergency or hospitalization which would indeed require a lot of effort and focus.)
But still. I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that. All good gifts come down from the Father of lights who does not change as the shifting shadows: buggies, pacemakers, holidays, instant miraculous physical transformations, play, vocation, nice food, people you love and good relationships with God and others.
I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that.
Of course, you have to qualify that idea. There are seasons of emergency actions, long wintry paths of mourning, times of brute endurance of the deeply unpleasant. It’s hard to speak of ‘thriving today’ in the face of those. But still. Healing is thriving. Healing is enjoying our lives, nourished by God’s daily bread, despite everything, in these ramshackle tents of ours, before they are replaced for good with the eternal mansions of glory.
We recently watched the documentary on BBC iPlayer about Alexi Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. So moving and astonishing. At the same time I am listening to an audio book called Putin’s People by Catherine Belton, a book I bought because it was a way of supporting a journalist who was being dragged through the courts by the oligarcocracy. She and Harper Collins fought them off I believe.
So I am on an intensive Putin course at the moment. And Alex Navalny and his wife Yulia and their children are such a breath of fresh air in all the thuggishness. Brave, of course, but witty too and perhaps there is no better way to profoundly disturb an autocrat than to joke about him. The documentary showed how the sinister and powerful FSB, successors to the KGB, tried and failed to poison Navalny’s underpants. Such grim incompentence is a joy to behold. Then, thanks to OSINT (open source intelligence) characters like the people at Bellingcat, he and they were able to find the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the death squad. And ring them up.
In some of the most compelling TV I have watched this year, Alex Navalny then pretended to be a senior FSB type asking for a report from the poisoner. And he got it, to the astonishment of those listening. Possibly that would mar the promotion prospects of the poor FSB man who was tricked. All this stuff was broadcast around the world, to the extreme discomforture of the people in charge in Russia.
And then Navalny went back. To immediate arrest and jail in some bleak corner of Siberia. What courage. What sacrifice. What cost. What a relief that there are still such people in this world, this world of thugs and autocrats. And now, without wishing to be unduly political, Russia has the wrong person in jail and the wrong person in charge.
What will happen next? What will happen next is that someone has taken the slow, brave path, a cheerful smile against the murderers and thieves. Surely it will resonate.
For my birthday, my gifted wife suggested I visited a bookshop every month and bought a book.
Here’s some advice from celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes on how to use a bookshop:
A bookshop is not like a railway booking office which one approaches knowing what one wants. One should enter it vaguely, almost in a dream, and allow what is there freely to attract and influence the eye. To walk the rounds of the bookshops, dipping in as curiosity dictates, should be an afternoon’s entertainment.
John Maynard Keynes quoted here in Tom Fletcher ‘Ten survival skills for a world in flux’ (2022), p 66.
I don’t have a problem entering vaguely, almost in a dream (I apply the same technique to Indian buffets; practice makes perfect) but I failed in my March Waterstones assignment, in that I went to the bookshop but couldn’t decide which book to choose. Today was better. I came back with this:
Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity is unsettling reading, but really worth the time and a few pots of tea.
Why do people join religious movements? His answer goes against what we would like to say, which is that we heard the truth and decided to believe it.
Having researched new religious movements he suggests the reasons people join are things like:
(other things being equal) when they have or develop stronger attachments to the group than they have to non-members (p18)
When they are people of no religion, the ‘religiously inactive’ (p19)
When the networks remain open, so that new people can continue to join (p21)
It would seem that these assumptions work for any new religion or movement; which is why, as we observe, people do join wacky and diverse groups, and then become arch-defenders of their new beliefs. The buzz they get from belonging outweighs the crazy they are obliged to believe.
But then, having joined, they argue that it was the group’s teaching all along that made them join.
This is interesting in all sorts of ways.
It does chime with my experience. Most of the people I know became Christians in the context of a friendly network. Though it isn’t true of all my friends, and it wasn’t true of me. (I much prefer to lurk on the edge of networks than actually to join them.)
it will always be easier for a non-religious person to start believing than for a person with a prior religious attachment. The rapid global rise in the non-religious is thus not the end of religion so much as a vast new opportunity for religions both good and bad.
For us Christians, we have to ask, did this process happen to us? Is that how we found ourselves in a church? Is that why we believe what we say we believe? Was it just sociology? If not, why not?
How do we know what is or isn’t true after all? I suspect that point is something to do with (a) what happens in the long years after we join a group. How do our beliefs change? What does the weathering of life do to them? (b) the personal experience of the life of faith: how does what we claim to believe chime with what we feel and who we are and what we are becoming? and (c)what is the fruit of the movement we are part of?
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’.
Entropy always gets us in the end. This is the idea that, however well you are holding things together at the moment, it won’t last, it will fall apart, you will fall apart, your carefully tended life will be decomposed down again to the basic atoms. We’re all going to rot and die. This much we all know.
Life is the temporary holding back of the forces of disarray. And we celebrate it. A new baby, a new leaf, they stake out a defensive position against the chaos that must come, and we are encouraged to see this act of entropy-defiance.
This is also why shopping is such fun, and unboxing a new purchase. We’re sampling, however momentarily, the unblemished.
I am still slowly reading my New Testament in Greek, looking up the words I don’t know, greatly helped by the fact there are apps for that. The first letter of Peter (1 Peter 1:4), talks about our ‘inheritance’, which is where we who cast in our lot with God through Christ are actually heading. It uses three words, all beginning with ‘a-‘ (or actually alpha of course), meaning ‘not-‘:
aphtartos: not decaying
amiontos: not stained
amarantos: not fading
You could add ‘not porcelain.’ It’s not static. Just earlier in the same passage this hope is called a ‘living hope’. That’s the future: not decaying, not stained, not fading, not static.
Let’s count ducklings. You have one duckling over here, and another duckling over there and so there are two ducklings in a subregion of total time and space that includes both the ducklings and you, the observer.
But there are serious problems with this.
How do you know the two ducklings are separate entities? One apparent duckling could be simply a reflection of a real duckling. Given the link between ducklings and ponds, this is not unlikely.
Or of course perhaps only one duckling exists in the whole universe, and all the the other ducklings are themselves resonances or echoes of this Single Universal Duckling.
Such a posited Single Universal Duckling would have to encompass all the possible ages of ducklings as observed throughout the Universe in order to match observation. This would be an extraordinary entity: smeared across time but confined in space, an Eternal Single Universal Duckling or ESUD. Hatching from an egg would also be difficult: the ESUD would have to be hatched, hatching and not hatched all at once, all in some realm of reality that is simultanously beyond human grasp but not beyond a duck’s rear end. This is possible but perhaps unlikely.
So to reiterate, for 1 +1 to equal 2, you not only have to actually have two entities, but there has to exist the means to confirm that the two entities are indeed two entities and not reflections or projections of a single entity and you, and the ducklings, have to be in on the secret.
The conclusion? (This, by the way, is the conclusion of all scientific papers everywhere and at all times) More research is needed.
Publishers call these things ARCs or Advanced Review Copies. I’d love you to have one and then if at all possible leave an honest review somewhere (like on the sites where it is offered for pre-publication). Reviews, as you know, are a currency of the Internet.
Even if you don’t feel up to reviewing it, please help yourself anyway. I’m very fond of this book and would love you to see more than the brief extracts I’ve already shared.
I will also very much welcome any comments and criticisms you may have. My wife was the first reader of the ARC and has already pointed out one or two risqué jokes that I will take out of the edition that finally appears on Feb 19, as well as other mistakes and inappropriateness. So if you want the version with risqué jokes and inappropriateness included, now’s your only chance.
Do share this with anyone you think would like it. I’ve set a download limit of 500 on the number of ARCs that can be issued and the offer all ends on Feb 18.