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.
I read recently about a Japanese way of mending broken pottery. Instead of getting out the invisible glue, dust your epoxy with gold leaf. Then repair the pot and show all the spidery, golden threads of the former break. Like this:
It’s called Kintsugi, apparently.(Apologies to you if you actually know about this stuff.) What does it say? This pot has history. It’s been broken. It’s been mended. A new beautiful thing has come out of the broken old. Beautiful before, it is beautiful again, but now with beautiful scars.
I read there are Buddhist roots to Kintsugi, the impermanence, the suffering. It has echoes for me though of something else: the resurrection of Christ, of people, of the cosmos. There was Jesus: ‘behold my hands and side’. Look at the scars. My new body, a glorious thing, bears the scars of its former suffering.
What will eternity be like? Will we be all sculpted bodies? Or wrinkled, scarred, golden-mended?
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.’
About riding forth for justice on a very small horse. From my forthcoming book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.
Here’s another article that I wrote for the Singaporean magazine Impact, aimed at the many thousands in that island nation–where we used to live–who were joining the churches for the first time. I’ve collected my favourites into a forthcoming book that may well be called ‘The Sandwich‘, because it is for those of us squeezed by the sublime one side and by the whole world on the other.
Ask anyone with a younger brother. Life is not fair.
We know that no two people are born equally favoured. We aren’t given equal chances along the way. Here’s the tip of the iceberg:
Younger brothers don’t get told off; we do.
Some people blab on their phone all the time while driving and are never caught. Someone else uses the phone once, with the car stationary, in a family emergency, and has to pay a fine.
Babies born in Singapore can expect to live 83 years; others choose parents from Sierra Leone and may only average 50 years.
Worse, in a sense: God, we believe, is fair. Nor does he think justice is merely an aspiration, a campaign promise, something to be put in place when he has sorted out a few other things first. God loves justice (as Isaiah 61:1 says). He does justice: ‘the Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed’ (Psalm 103:6). He commands his people to do justice: ‘You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality … Justice, and only justice, you shall follow’ (Dt 16: 19-20).
God is just; life isn’t. Yet God is all-powerful. So why isn’t life fair? Below are a few thoughts.
We inhabit a wrinkle in eternity
We inhabit a wrinkle in eternity. It helps to realize this.
Eternity is forever–and it is filled with God and his kindness and fairness. Evil and suffering are temporary and are perhaps the equivalent of an attack of hiccups in this great grand goodness. In the big picture, all is thriving and bright. So far, so true. But let’s zoom in on the wrinkle.
God is at work in history
God is working in the wrinkle. This is a central Christian teaching, and it is comforting but it doesn’t make our question any easier. A God who set things up and then headed off for the evening, leaving us to it, would at least mean we could understand injustice. But that isn’t an alternative the Bible offers. Instead, the Bible portrays God, like a master chef with hands in the baking bowl, up to his elbows in justice work every day. Here are some things he does:
God brings things to an end in his own time. This current world has mortality built in. People, cultures, empires grow, ripen, rot. Everything passes. This is part of his architecture of history: extremely sad for those we love but rather helpful in the case of evil people and empires. If they lived forever, it would be a nightmare, Genghis Khan or someone would still be in charge. But in an evil world, universal mortality is almost a kind of mercy, certainly a way of capping off evil. ‘In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace’ (Psalm 37: 10-11).
God works on behalf of the needy. I once sat in the recovery area of an eye-surgery ward. People recovering from cataract operations were saying things like ‘I’ll be able to drive again!’ ‘I can read this now! I couldn’t read it before!’
It was just an ordinary day for this ward, but I felt like I’d fallen into a page of the New Testament. The blind see! God works for the needy. Every little thing that is done to relieve human suffering has its first impulse in the heart of God. On average, today, by the measures of extreme poverty, the world is getting better, God’s justice is spreading. Through humans—many of them, his own people—he is putting right what is wrong for the poor.
God works on his own timescale. Here is a very humbling thought. His forbearance is meant to bring us to repentance (Romans 2:4). He is patient with us, not wanting any to perish (2 Peter 3:9) Imagine this! The all-powerful God of love and justice at times lets great suffering happen. He hears the cries of the oppressed and he sits on his hands. Why? Sometimes he judges it good to wait.
I always find it remarkable that the only things that didn’t obey Jesus on earth were humans. At the Master’s command, waves collapsed, demons fled, limbs grew, bread multiplied. But humans? He told them what to do and they did something else. There is something incredible about what God will put up with from humans, what disobedience he will face, what injustice he will sit out, in order to win them finally. God waits, and often gets in hot water for it.
Other times God seems even to let things move too quickly; the person looking for a happy retirement is struck down too soon. We cannot do anything about this beyond seeking God and trusting him. He is good, he loves mercy and hates injustice, but he lingers around or presses forward according to his own internal clock, not ours. There is a saying in the court system: ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ But that is not true in God. He is an eternal being, and so are we. Mortality is delayed in some and hastened in others; it’s not fair; but it will be; and beyond understanding God we are called to walk with him: protesting perhaps, but also surrendering, trusting, praising.
There is a day coming. Years ago I drove past a horse and carriage on our roads, a rare sight. The horse was being whipped to trot faster. Its eyes were wide, it was foaming at the mouth, and it was shiny with sweat. Every time I drive on that road I think of that horse. But that was many years ago, and whatever cruelties it suffered are over now. In the same way, we believe there is a day coming when injustice will end for good. The wrinkle has a limit. Peace and justice will be universal. A day is coming.
God has entered our pain. In Jesus, God moved himself from the realm of mere academic speculation about fairness and made the argument personal. He has tasted injustice from the inside out. He knows what it is to be sentenced to death by a baying mob, abandoned by a cowardly judge. He knows what it is to be flogged like an animal. God in Jesus is many things, Saviour above all of them, but he is also God’s eloquent way of telling us to ‘shut up already about injustice.’
What do we do about this?
So what do we do about this?
A stream flows through the Universe and we glimpse it in the Bible.
One picture of it is ‘the river of the water of life’ flowing from the temple in the closing chapters of the book of Revelation. The same stream appears in the book of Ezekiel, bubbling from the renewed temple, making the salty land sweet. An explanation of it comes from Jesus: ‘Whoever believes in me … “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water”’ (John 7:38) and ‘the water that I will give [you] will become … a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:4).
The stream is God’s mercy. It is intended to flow into us–the Church, the new temple–and then out from us into the world. From us it’s supposed to broaden into a river delta, so that the whole earth is irrigated. I think it is the main part of the answer to the protest, God isn’t fair.
While dry argument has its place, I suspect God isn’t at his happiest debating lesser beings about justice. He’d rather be out there doing it. That has to be our vision too. The words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ are interchangeable in the Greek, I understand, so it’s OK to translate Christ’s sayings in the Beatitudes like this:
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied’ (Matthew 5:6)
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:10).
Is God fair? A stream of mercy pours through the heavens. Those who drench themselves in it themselves become sources of mercy and justice. They set the world back on its feet. The static question has a dynamic answer, one that can catch us up in it and occupy all our creativity and energies. Is God fair? ‘There is a river … come behold the works of the Lord’ (Psalm 46: 4,8).
Here’s what I learnt this week. It came from reading the ‘Lord’s prayer’ in Greek in Luke 11. You can strip it down as follows – the first three requests setting the framework, the next three filling in the human-level detail.
Setting the framework
‘sanctified’ – set apart as holy
be your name
‘let be done’
The human-level detail
‘give us the needful bread’
like we forgive those who owe us
‘lead us not’ into fiery trial; ‘deliver us from evil’
Fatherly company in a rough world
And then later on in the same teaching session, Luke has Jesus talk about asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13).
This all reminds me of ways you can dismantle Genesis 1. That passage on creation starts with the Holy Spirit brooding over primeaval chaos. And then has two lots of three, as follows:
Setting the framework
Light and darkness; day and night
Sky (or heaven) and earth
Land and sea; trees and grass
The human-level detail
Sun and moon as light and calendar markers – measuring our days
Animals and birds everywhere
Men and women as subregents of the animals; ‘cattle’ as a thing; vegetation for food
Genesis 1 is a picture of God ordering the primeval chaos, making it fit for humans, and then settling in to work with them — this settling in is God’s ‘rest’ of day 7.
The prayer that Jesus taught in Luke 11 has resonances with Genesis 1: first, setting a framework of God’s rule; then promoting God’s rule at a human level. Genesis 1 is a hymn of creation; Luke 11 is a prayer of new creation. Both end with God and people either in a harmonious creation or building towards a harmonious new creation. Both are universal and both are personal. This comparison may be rather contrived; but it is fun to see the two passages in dialogue.
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’m intrigued by the question of how or if the things we do each day matter in the lights of the eternity that our Christian faith is embedded in.
As we know, the New Testament teaching is that everything has an end:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.1
Even if you don’t believe in an apocalypse, you still believe it in a modified form: we’re all going to die eventually, as are the institutions we serve, our country, perhaps even our species. One way or another, the lights are going out.
So if the world is going to end, why work to improve it? If everything is going to be destroyed, why do politics? Why breed fruit trees? Why engineer beautiful buildings? Why even redecorate the house?
Here are some reasons:
We have an intuition that we must.
Even if we accept or partly accept an apocalyptic worldview, the best strategy is to build, love, work, beautify until the end. It is the same as for those with a terminal illness: keep living until you die.
A couple of Bible metaphors come to our help. Think ‘seed’ or ‘bride’. Both get prepared over a long season. Both experience some dramatic, even apocalyptic change: the seed gets buried and dies. The bride gets married. Afterwards, it’s a new age. But it is also a continuation of everything that went before: there’s discontinuity and continuity.
Today we paint tiny pictures, miniatures. These little acts are a kind of anticipation or even a statement of faith in a better world. Somehow our work loads eternity up so that after death and resurrection, and in Christ, our horizons will unfurl like a flower in a new age. Nothing of beauty or worth or diligence will be destroyed; all will be caught up again and fulfilled in unguessed ways in eternity.
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.