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.
Paul’s letters in the New Testament often contain instructions about family life and these cause a lot of trouble:
‘Wives, submit to your husbands’ is probably the most contentious. Here is the Christian faith at its most patriarchal apparently, digging in on the side of oppressing women.
Recently I wondered about this. Paul was writing, I think, to a society where the power imbalance and the justice imbalance were already ingrained. Men commanding, oppressing, even beating women was the norm, a society where a lot of couples were at war, an oppressive male, a scheming female.
When Paul wrote that wives should cheerfully submit to their husbands, it would completely disorient things.
So, in reverse, would a man acting kindly and considerately towards his wife.
Paul’s directions, in other words, were of a piece with the stuff Jesus was saying about praying for your enemies, blessing those who curse, turning the other cheek, carrying a load the second mile when you’ve been press-ganged to do the first. It was about upending oppression by radical, cheerful, irritating meekness.
It builds a new world and sets new norms. Radically meek women and tender men topple structures of pride and shame spouses into mutual decency. I think you have to add, though, there’s a context of normalcy here. I don’t think this applies in the abnormal and even criminal context of domestic abuse or coercive behaviour. People facing that stuff should get out and get safe and take their children with them. Paul’s teaching is about re-setting a societal norm, not licensing abuse. Still.
I think Paul saw it too, when he wrote about ‘Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature (or naturally) what the law requires…’ 1.
These are people who do things because they are good or beautiful in themselves. Characteristically, staff in the UK’s national health service, in my experience, and teachers, and people in other areas of public service, do what they do to serve others rather than to gain prestige. Not all of course; but some.
The other day I heard of a property developer who, if he was deciding where to spend money, invested in good materials, high ceilings and big windows. Other housebuilders prefer fancy kitchens and bathrooms in what are otherwise cramped and mean buildings. Fancy kitchens might generate a quick sale; but the other developer is focussing resource on a home whose light and space will be delightful for generations.
It isn’t true of everyone, and all of us can be be public-spirited in one breath and mean or malicious in the next. But still. I meet a lot of people who are committed to public service, quietly doing their job with love and devotion, but they don’t share my faith or at least don’t speak ‘Christian’ the way I do. They have come to do what they do by some other route: personal choice, or nature, or instinct, or following the culture they learnt.
I like to think they are walking in the foothills of the Kingdom of God. They might not call it that, or recognize it as that, or even associate with that thought, but they feel the goodness in their bones.
One hundred generations, 4,000 years, stand between us and Abraham, and Genesis 12, and the dawn of recorded history.
Unrecorded history stretches back much further, perhaps 100,000 years or 2,500 generations. Think of daughters turning into mothers and mothers to grandmothers, chubby toddlers growing brittle and wrinkled. It’s happened a hundred times over the span of history. It’s happened perhaps 2,500 times in pre-history, a line of generations stretching around the world.
But weren’t humans few in those first 100,000 years? They were, but when you stack up the millenniums until they are a hundred millenniums tall, these few become a great company. Perhaps for every one person alive today, 14 have already lived and died.
Those of us who live or have lived in history compare with those from prehistory like the chocolate sprinkles compare with the cappucino, or like the slivery Colorado River compares with the Grand Canyon.
Where was God in all those generations? Fourteen human races have come and gone compared with the humans alive today. This is a problem if you believe humans need truth in order to really live, and 14 human races lived and died before truth made its appearance, dimly with Abraham, brightly with Christ.
Where was God in this buried crowd? It is a mystery.
History tells us the One True God haunted the human race, often lodged in the upper mists of high-piled spiritual hierarchies. Occasionally the mists lifted and a culture was lit by a gleam of monotheism.
The Egyptian Pharoah Tutankamen’s less famous father Akhetenan got the Egyptians to worship the one true God for a time (personified as the Sun), but Egypt soon reverted to its old ways. Similar movements may have happened in South American pre-Christian empires – bubbles of monotheism that floated above the turbid waters and then popped.
That was in history, and thus is in a sense knowable. What started, and how many times, among the 2,5000 generations of pre-history? Was it all darkness?
Re-reading the passion narrative in Luke, I noticed — sadly for the first time — that Christ was crucified as a political actor for political reasons.
Of course there was a bigger story going on, the one celebrated in the gospel, Christ dying to reconcile humanity to God.
But as far as everyone on the ground was concerned, it was politics. And seeing it in this light is fascinating. Jesus was out to ‘get’ the ruling religious authorities in Jerusalem. They had stolen religious affairs for their own good, not the common good. They were running the religion business so that they did well out of it: best seats at the banquets, top places in the synagogues.
Jesus campaigned against them. First he started a popular movement, going from town to town preaching and building large crowds. Then he spent some months training followers. Finally he invaded the Temple and taught right in their faces. This was incendiary stuff and everyone knew it.
But how did he ‘win’?
He chose the path of non-violence. He let them beat him, try him unjustly, crucify him.
Yet instead of stamping his movement out, as they hoped, within weeks it had thousands of followers, some of whom were themselves willing to die for him.
Over coming decades, the movement grew, and it split the autocracy still trying to control Jerusalem as Pharisees started to believe.
Finally the Temple was swept away by the Romans. Meanwhile the size of the Church grew, at its widest estimate, to a third of the human race.
The power of non-violence today
I saw this same dynamic when I was writing a book on Algeria. The White Fathers, a Catholic order, decided to stay in the country as the situation deteriorated into civil war in the 1990s. As very public Christians, they were obvious targets for the Islamic militants who were half of the civil war. (The state was the other combatant.) I remember hearing of three White Fathers, friends of a friend of mine, who were gunned down in cold blood one morning. The small Christian cemetery was filled with Muslim friends at their burial. One wrote to the newspaper saying something like, ‘I want to live like they do.’
This was not, presumably, was the Islamic militants intended: Christ and Christ’s peaceful ways were exalted. That which was supposed to be stamped out, lived.
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 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.
Congratulations to writer Michele Guinness, whom I have not met or even read very much. Her story Chosen of being a Jewish person and meeting Christians (and eventually becoming one herself) has not been out of print in 35 years and is being re-issued by Lion in a new edition in October.
She still has loads to teach us, not least about eating. This is from an article in Together, magazine for Christian retailers, July/August 2018:
‘My first visit to a church was a shock to the system – so gloomy and dull. The congregation chanted “and make thy chosen people joyful” as if they were at a funeral … A greater understanding of Jesus’ worldview is liberating. It brings colour and richness, significance and celebration, wonder and joy to the Christian faith.
When I first became a Christian it seemed to me that around 50% of the New Testament was lost on Christians … I think it is more relevant than ever to encourage families to invite in the neighbours, single friends and children of all ages to celebrate at home together with story-telling and symbol, food and worship around the table.
Highlighted below is her book about celebrations, The Heavenly Party.
That brilliant and entertaining atheist Steven Pinker has defined ‘the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.’ 1
That might need a bit of explaining, not least to me. Entropy is, crudely, the measure of disorder in the universe. A low-entropy state is an ordered state; high entropy is a disordered one. Because disorder is much more likely than order, disorder (high entropy) tends to be what everything leads to.
So you have a cold gas tank next to a hot gas tank. Open a valve between the two, and soon the temperatures of the two tanks will be the same. This is because there are many more ways for molecules to mix randomly than there are for all the hot molecules to be in one place and all the cold ones in another. (This tendency for entropy to increase over time is the well known Second Law of Thermodynamics.)
Or consider all the molecules in your body. To get them all working together in some vast machine, called you, is hugely rare compared with all the possible way of arranging those molecules that do not result in a living you. This is one of the reasons we spend much, much longer being a corpse than we do being a living body; it’s just so much easier for all the molecules.
The only way to keep entropy low in this system– to keep your molecules in order — is to take energy from elsewhere, for example by eating a bag of french fries. So you can artificially maintain a local low-entropy state (your life and existence) by adding energy from the outside (eating french fries).
A fridge works the same way. It keeps at a low temperature, compared with the rest of your kitchen, by taking energy from the grid and pumping heat out of the fridge into the kitchen. It’s a local low-entropy system. Your freezer compartment, more so. You and your fridge/freezer, therefore, thermodynamically speaking, are brother and sister.
Hence Pinker’s statement that the purpose of existence is to keep entropy locally as low as possible. So we feed babies, we heal sicknesses, we clean up mess, we order information pleasingly. Our whole life is about borrowing energy from elsewhere to keep our low-entropy show, otherwise known as human life and culture, on the road.
Because the Second Law always wins, this is a battle we must eventually lose — as individuals, as a species, as a planet, as a galaxy and maybe as a whole Universe.
Rereading the Kingdom of God in entropy terms, possibly.
Now we depart from Pinker. Its interesting–at least to me– to re-read the Kingdom of God in terms of entropy.
When Jesus walked on earth, he clearly went round reducing entropy wherever he went: healing the blind, curing lepers, stilling storms (does that reduce entropy? I hope so), raising the dead and so on.
There are several interesting thoughts that arise from this, none of which I am qualified to follow up.
It is a mystery of physics why the Universe started in a low-entropy state. It is much more overwhelmingly likely (you would think not knowing any better) to start in a high entropy disordered state, if only because there are just so hugely many more disordered states out there than ordered ones. (Just like Tolstoy said: unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way; so many options.) Of course we don’t really know if some as-yet-unguessed physics made a low entropy beginning inevitable, but at the moment, it isn’t obvious. A low entropy beginning to the Universe is easy to explain theologically (though not cosmologically): God likes to start a new story on a fresh sheet of paper.
Jesus evidently didn’t borrow energy from elsewhere when he went about decreasing entropy. At least we don’t read of it. He stills the storm in Galilee, but it didn’t get colder in Samaria. He feeds 5000, but not by sucking energy from elsewhere in the Universe, which is the kind of thing farmers do when they feed 5000 people – they take energy from the sun and grow crops. Jesus lowered entropy without borrowing energy from elsewhere
That leads us to a thermodynamic definition of a miracle: ‘an inexplicable local lowering of entropy’. This kind of thing is impossible for us creatures, but is easy if you are God, who, it is claimed, created the whole show and holds it all up with the word of his power.
Hence, the ability to decrease entropy without borrowing from elsewhere is a good thermodynamic definition of divinity.
The new heavens and the new earth also seem not to be bound by the Second Law. Paul talks of a day when ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:21).
So the final state of the Universe is a lower entropy state than now, not, as we would expect from the Second Law, a higher one. It is brought into order in Christ, not decaying into heat death. Paul talks in Ephesians 1 about ‘ … when the times reach their fulfillment—[God brings] unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.’ (Ephesians 1:9-10)
The Bible describes a universe starting in a low-entropy state and finishing in a low-entropy state, with all the business of the Second Law being merely a wrinkle in eternity due somehow to the rebellion of humans.
This (maybe) helps us put miracles onto a more coherent footing. They are not merely impulsive acts by a God whom (I like to think) occasionally lets his heart rule his head. They are the outliers of a low-entropy eternity breaking into our increasing-entropy, jumbled universe, the first rolling pebbles of the avalanche.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears,a] we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. John 3:1-2 NIV.