Being the second extract from my book on how to simplify your life
A second pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book , ‘Bread’.
This passage is about how unexpected troubles can set us on the path to rethinking our lives.
My search for what really matters (second slice)
In any crisis your body gives you an emergency shot of the panic juices. A course of fight-or-flight hormones may take you through a crash, or a hospital treatment, or a birth, or a breakup, or the funeral arrangements or whatever other intense time you must rise to.
Two things will then happen. You will have a bit of a tumble emotionally as the hormones leak away and normal tiredness takes over. And, second, because the intensity of the storm has passed, you can inspect your new world.
This season can be a blessing because it can give you a clear sight of what to do. It’s like clearing up after a party. The mess! The stains in the carpet! What are you going to do? Time for the cleaning gloves
So. The house is quiet again, and there’s a new post-trauma world to explore. What to do? Some thoughts:
You were broken already. You might feel that now you are wounded and before you were whole. I’m sorry to report that this picture is wrong. You might feel like a broken egg now, but you were never the whole egg. You were already cracked, back in the shop. All that’s happened is that you’ve revised your mental model of yourself. You always were needy, but you used to cover it well.
Decide it’s work time. You’ve already vaguely suspected there are things to sort out in your life, but the calamity brings them into the open. The singer Debbie Harry explained her drug-taking: ‘Drugs aren’t always about feeling good … Many times they are about feeling less.’ True, but avoiding the pain with pharmaceutical assistance keeps forever dropping you back at the start, each time with a little more clearing up to do. You are made of better stuff.
Take time. You’ve done rushing for a bit. You can take some breaths, re-evaluate, start small.
Feel the fire. This is the best bit. There’s a fire burning inside you. Still. This is so cliched a thought that it may call song lyrics to your mind. I will survive! There’s something inside so strong! It’s probably best for everyone if you don’t actually sing—you are not a rock star for a reason—but on the bright side you have discovered something about yourself. You will go on. You will push on. We humans didn’t take over the world because we’re a species of wimpy losers. So the party’s over and your home is wrecked? On we go. On we go. The cracks let the light in. The breaking is the start of the mending.
Where are we heading here?
Where are we heading? Towards a rethink. Convalescence after hospital nightmares gave me the moment, and the need, to shut down some old mental pathways and open some new ones. I sadly cannot declare final victory in this fight, but I do think that much of the time I have persuaded my brain to walk down a more promising road.
Suffering is our friend here. How do you see the new mental pathway that needs to be cut? That’s the clarity of low mood. What powers the cutting of the path? The fire inside you and your determination to see a better day, or at least another day. How does the path become well-trodden and familiar? By you taking it, day after day after day. Facing adversity well, every day, sometimes every hour, builds a resilient brain. In the end you’ll have carved a fresh path with many delights where you love to walk.
Being an excerpt from my new book about how to simplify your life and find what really matters.
So my second lockdown project was to spawn a new book about how serious illness led me to slim down and perk up my life. Here’s my preliminary cover, while my graphic designer friend is beavering away on a proper one.
On the grounds that everyone is entitled to my opinion, I’m planning to serve up a few extracts over the summer weeks. Here’s the opening salvo.
My search for what really matters (part 1)
We should reckon on 30,000 days in our lifetimes – 82 years. After that (if even we get that far) we will find ourselves mostly filling our days fending off the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics roughly means everything breaks, nothing lasts, order breaks down, we’re all going to die. Nothing in the Universe pushes back for long against the Second Law.
Thirty thousand days puts a cap on how many of anything we will do: how many books or boxsets we can enjoy, or create, how many cities we can live in, how many hot dinners we’ll have. We’ve got one ration of weddings, birthdays, weekends away, meals out, drinks with friends, quiet nights in, or moments to tell someone we love them. We’ve got a few decades to serve in a career or two, and perhaps raise some children. It might feel it will go on forever. It won’t, and in a hundred years we will all be dust and so will those we love.
If you feel any of these:
Life is passing me by
I’m not doing what I want to do
I’m not happy
I’m wasting my days
This book is for you. I’ve kept it short, because, hey.
It’s a personal story of discovery. My background is some years of life-and-death medical adventures, including my death in 2011 (reversed by electric shocks to the heart) and a four-week coma in 2013. People who spend a long time in Intensive Care end up paralyzed, so during the year and a half after 2013 I had to learn again how to eat, swallow, walk and go to the toilet. Eventually I put the wheelchair in the garage and resumed a life that feels, at the time of writing, restful, purposeful and happy. I still may have thousands of days unused if I’m, as my dad says, ‘spared.’
Life is the opposite of the countryside in that you see the widest views at the lowest points. I think most people learn things about themselves during adversity. I had time to ask questions like ‘What am I for?’ and ‘What am I hoping for?’ and ‘What I am spending my time on?’
I found answers that are good enough for me. I think they are the lessons everyone learns, but those of us who have been force fed these things through medical events, perhaps, are forced to face them quicker. I found them simple enough and roughly these:
Suffering helps us focus on what really matters and can stop us heading down dead-end paths in the quest for fame, success or respect.
Belonging is key to long-term thriving.
So is purpose.
This book, them, is about how to simplify your life, and how to make you less restless, more content and more productive. I hope it helps. None of it is complicated. Some of it will happen to you anyway. Maybe this book will help you recognize and cooperate with the ripening and mellowing that is already underway in your life.
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’m writing this in the second week in March, just after the schools in the UK have returned. And so my wife has returned to school, for the first time this term, so a 6:15 wakeup, an early start on the newly rebuilt A14, a covid test, then an actual lesson with actual children. Ordinary is back.
The book ‘Bread’ that I am working on talks about the rediscovery of ordinary as a great gift. It is in the context of losing it through illness and then regaining it. But as our lockdown rachets down, we hope, everyone I speak to is looking forward to the return of the ordinary. Here’s a passage from Bread that might even make it into the final version:
When I was a student, my friends and I pushed against the ordinariness from which we had come. We wanted to make a splash. We wanted to live radical lives and change the world. ‘We want to run a totally open home’ one said, everyone welcome, everyone fed, anyone can stay the night. I remember one of my friends saying she didn’t want ever to have a mortgage. She wanted to rent all her life so that she was flexible and free, not tied down and conventional.
My friends are living striking and distinctive lives, but I have observed that they, like me, also came to embrace the ordinary. When it is focused on spending time with people you love, work you love, locations you love, day after day, ordinary life can be very good. It is wealth. It is treasure. When you are denied it, you learn the deep loss from not having it. Both the working for and the attaining of the ordinary brings meaning and contentment into our lives.
Wealth and success can rob you of ordinariness, which is quite a surprise, since wealth and success are supposed to bring happiness. But just as there are burglars who are greatly relieved to be caught, so there are successful people who are greatly relieved to pass out of the limelight. In both cases, a weight is lifted.
Those who lose the ordinary see its value and the wise ones among them devote themselves to making ordinary life again. Those of us who have attained or discovered ordinary life can treasure it, by savouring it for the gift and blessing it is.
The regular readers of this blog, both of you, will know I’ve been exerpting chapters from my new book over the past weeks. Well, it’s finally finished and I’m really pleased with it. Here is the cover art:
It is, I hope, a fun refresher on some of the big themes of discipleship. A refreshing refresher, perhaps. If you click on this link here you can help yourself to a free copy that you can read on your phone, laptop, tablet, or Kindle.
(This is what publishers call an Advance Review Copy and it’s intended to generate reviews and whatnot, which are very welcome, but mostly it’s nice to have something to give away after what has been a stressful 12 months for many of us.)
It will be available for sale in all formats after publication day on Feb 19th 2021. Do share this free link in the meantime with anyone if you think they’d like it; it stops working on publication day. After that the title will be available in its various formats at Amazon, Eden and the like and orderable from any other bookshop worthy of the name.
In which we explore myths and endless genealogies, but in a good way.
Even if your mum is a virgin
I have been spending more time than is good for me reading atheist websites. They like to throw stones at the Bible. So far it’s been dispiriting stuff, and not because of the quality of the arguments.
I could offer atheists an algorithm before sounding off about ‘Moab being my washpot’, or Cain and Abel, or Noah. Here’s the algorithm:
Consider whether or not people who take the Bible seriously may not also have noticed what you have noticed.
Consider whether they may or may not have explored the problem at a depth you do not seem to have appreciated.
Have you explored the literature?
Do you agree that first figuring out what the authors and compilers were trying to say to their original audiences is fairly important when handling ancient texts? The Bible is not a Penguin Modern Classic, tha’ knows.
Stop sounding like a Flat-Earther or a Biblical Creationist already, plucking random things from flawed popular reading and confecting an argument.
The genealogies in Matthew and Luke are an easy target. Even a rushed reading will conclude:
They contradict each other
They end with Joseph, who wasn’t even Jesus’ biological dad.
While this is an easy Aunt Sally for the atheist projectile, it’s also fruitful to apply our algorithm and think more deeply. Here are two thunks.
The best thing I’ve read on genealogy and ancestry is Adam Rutherford’s book A brief history of everyone who ever lived. (Dr) Adam Rutherford is a smart, fair-minded BBC producer and presenter, whom I have occasionally heard defending his atheism on the radio, though in a kindly, almost Anglican way, not with the stridency or rudeness of some. Dr Rutherford was more concerned with genetics than genealogy in his book but it explained beautifully some of the fun stuff around the topic. Of course we all have grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents in exponentially increasing numbers. But, there were fewer of them back then, not more. Which obviously means that everyone can trace several paths from Ancestor (A) (say, for example Charlemagne or Ghengis Khan) to Descendant (B), yourself. So, interestingly, even if there were nothing else going on in the New Testament genealogies, it would be right if they traced different paths from Abraham to Jesus. And the denizens of the ancient world obviously knew that.
The only two gospels that talk about the Virgin Birth are the same two gospels that give a genealogy of Jesus. Perhaps they are trying to tell us something. An Arab friend of mine who was a convert to Christ from Islam was stopped at the border of her Arab country as she tried to get home. It was a slightly tense moment. The customs person looked at her passport and her name. ‘Very good family’, he said, and welcomed her in. Which perhaps is the point. Of course Joseph was Christ’s stepdad. So, as the genealogies tell us, Christ had been adopted into a very good family. The two gospels that describe Christ’s nature (born of a virgin) also are at pains to point out his nurture (adopted into a regal family). I think.
While we are talking myths and endless genealogies, it might be worth mentioning another book:
I understand this book to be a thought-experiment about how a literal Adam and Eve, born several millienia ago, could have been common ancestors to all living humans. (Adam and Eve would not have been the only humans around at the time, and nor would they have been named ‘Adam’ or ‘Eve’.) This book has been praised by many for its scientific rigour and gentle spirit. It’s a bit of a surprise for those of us who have become comfortable with a non-literal Adam and Eve. I haven’t read this book yet but I have heard a presentation by the author, and it’s a fresh contribution to what arguably is a stale set of arguments.
I really enjoyed writing this article on commission from the Singaporean Christian magazine where I used to work. I had learnt a little about the Singaporean Chinese background to Fate when somone told me what the non-Christian former generations would say about a person who was diagnosed with cancer, had a miraculous remission through Christian prayer, and then died: ‘your temple might provide temporary healing, but it was their fate to die.’ This article has been extruded from my archives, dusted off, tweaked a little, and will be a chapter in in my forthcoming book, ‘The Sandwich.‘ If you’ve been paying attention to previous blogs, you will know ‘The Sandwich‘ is about living life sandwiched between the promises of God and, well, everything else.
You can think of them as people. Luck is female: tall, pale, beautiful, elusive. When you don’t expect it, she flashes you a warm smile. But try to get friendly, and she’s gone. One moment you’re dancing with her; the next, you’re dancing alone.
Fate is male, thuggish and not very subtle. You see him shoving through the crowds. He takes you by the collar. ‘Don’t do that.’ He growls. ‘Do this.’
Does faith make you lucky?
But surely our faith will charm and tame Luck and Fate?
We read in our Bibles that ‘goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life’ (Psalm 23:6).
And common sense makes us think, too, that on the whole, Christians will probably endure less than the average serving of ‘bad luck’. For example, just as I was writing this article, I (luckily) found that two Christian newspapers in the UK had recently been writing about luck. They had commissioned a survey of attitudes and given the results to a psychologist who specialised in understanding psychological factors in creating luck. He found that, compared with the average person, committed Christians will be luckier, because Christians tend to:
Chat to strangers (so they will have more happy coincidences with meeting people)
Expect other people to be helpful and friendly (which is often self-fulfilling)
Expect bad situations to produce good in the end (which has the effect of helping you reap the best from any given situation.)
Then, it seems to me that Christians are less likely to be involved in some risky or unwise behaviour, which also affects your ‘luck’. Here in the UK, many traffic accidents, diseases, and crimes arise out of alcohol abuse, clubbing, smoking, drugs and gambling. It is rotten luck to be hit by a drunken driver. But this rotten luck is more likely to happen at times in the night when the Christians are already self-righteously tucked up in bed with some hot cocoa and the latest copy of the Church Times, safely protected from sinners.
True, you may spill your cocoa and be badly burnt, or you may be angry at some Church Times article and suffer a stroke and die. There is, indeed, a finite probability that you will first burn yourself with cocoa and then suffer a stroke and die because of the Church Times. But still, rest assured, snug in bed, you are safer and luckier than the average.
Oh no, it doesn’t
So – to repeat the question — does the Christian faith charm and tame Luck and Fate?
Not so fast. Christianity has side-effects that might look ‘lucky’. But waving prayers and Bible promises at those evil characters Fate and Luck is about as much use as waving a child’s plastic sword or cardboard shield at Death itself.
Let’s not be shallow. Look around in your church. You will see people suffering from the most outrageous, improbable acts of bad luck or malicious fate. If you personally have escaped so far, stick around. Never think, just because your life is going well, that the Christian faith has finally persuaded Luck to fall in love with you or Fate to tone down the bad stuff. Remember the same book of Psalms that contains the promise
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life (Psalm 23:6)
also contains Psalm 13, which is rarely quoted on Christian-themed cards:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me?How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? (vv1-2)
Quit the game
I’m not sure that Christianity is really much use for manipulating Luck or Fate. Why? Because that’s not what the Christian faith is for.
Take the apostle Paul. Before his conversion to Christ, he was a clever, well-educated, hard-working, zealous, and highly respectable young man, from a good family, the sort every Jewish mother might want for her daughter.
Conversion ruined this promising, respectable life. Paul abandoned a good career as a Pharisee and rising politician and instead travelled the world preaching the gospel. From then on, his was almost a cursed life. Wherever he went, trouble followed. He kept being flogged. Mobs attacked him. City authorities despaired of him. He was in and out of jail. At times, people prophesied that he was fated for trouble if he visited Jerusalem. He went anyway. Sometimes, riots happened despite his best efforts, just through ‘bad luck’. He was kept in jail in Caesarea for two years as an innocent man on the careless whim of a corrupt governor: what a rotten stroke of luck. He didn’t care.
He had turned to Christ. Life then seemed to turn on him. And yet he never turned back. Why? Because when he turned to Christ, Paul had found Life Himself. He found the Priceless Pearl, and he gave up everything else to get it.
Before his conversion, Paul’s religion could have been described as ‘principles for a successful life.’ But they didn’t work for him: they were fine principles, but there was no power. After he met Christ, life became about being joined to The Life, loving Him, serving Him, bearing His fruit. He gave up, in a sense, on wisdom for living and preferred to die every day.
And Fate and Luck no longer had any power over him. Bring ’em on. Let them do their worst: they only became something like allies in his pursuit of God.
In one of the most famous chapters of his most famous book, Paul wrote,
… we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but wealso rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5, 3-4).
It’s as if he said, ‘Good luck? Well, if heaven drops a date, I’ll open my mouth. Bad luck? That will just drive me deeper into the resources of Jesus.‘
Paul’s co-authors on the Christian textbook agree. Here’s James: Trials? The testing of my faith develops perseverance. Peter: Trials? They just prove my faith genuine, like a storm proves the seaworthiness of great ship. Even the writer of Psalm 13, I found, eventually takes his eye off himself and his rotten luck and focuses on the eternal. Never mind all this, he says to God. ‘I trust in your unfailing love.’ In my trials, he says, I find all this goodness and love, eternally strong and sure.
So the next time Luck surprises you with bad news or Fate overwhelms you with it, fear not. Your universe may be collapsing but the universe is only temporary. Fate and Luck belong to this provisional universe, and they will pass. Christ’s salvation is primarily designed for universes and worlds that will never wear out. We will still be feasting there when those doomed wretches Luck and Fate are distant memories from another age.
It’s a competitive field, but in the end I picked King Saul as the biggest failure in the Bible. This is my final extract from my forthcoming book ‘The Sandwich‘, about living sandwiched between God’s promises and the ambiguities, conflicts and disappointments of Planet Earth. Like the other chapters, as you may know by now, it started life as an article for a Singaporean magazine, and was written for the many new Christians in that growing Christian community.
To be the biggest failure in the Bible you have to have a shot at being one of its greatest successes. This rules out a lot of people, such as Trophimus the Ephesian. In just three verses, this unheralded character manages to (a) be the reason for the major riot in Jerusalem that put the apostle Paul in prison and (b) to fall sick in Miletus and not to be healed by that same great Apostle.
Trophimus, in other words, is forever getting in the way. But despite his high failure coefﬁcient he is only a minor player in the grand story of redemption, so we strike him off our list. We might rule out Judas Iscariot for similar reasons. No-one in the whole Bible got it more wrong. The frightful verdict on his life, courtesy of Jesus himself, is ‘it would be better for him if he had not been born’ (Mark 14:21). That’s certainly failure enough. May it never be said of us.
But Judas was only one of twelve apostles, and he was quickly replaced. The story went on without him. Let’s also give the Old Testament ﬁgure Samson the push. Samson was the prototype charismatic-leader-trafﬁc-accident-waiting-to-happen, impressive gifts, unimpressive integrity. His life came literally crashing down but, still, Samson was a single judge, one of many in Israel, in a time when many were mucking things up. A sad example of a malfunctioning leader, yet not the Bible’s greatest failure.
Instead let’s try someone who could have been one of the leading ﬁgures in the whole history of redemption, a major player, who yet fell almost as far as it is possible to go. Our vote goes to Saul, ﬁrst king of Israel.
The word ‘hapless’ could have been invented for Saul. The Oxford English Dictionary deﬁnes Hapless thus: ‘destitute of or lacking good fortune; unfortunate, unlucky. Hence also in later use: incompetent, clumsy.’ There is just something doomed about Saul. It’s made all the worse by his undoubted courage, good looks, and earnest efforts. Saul was a trier and had enough talent and potential to crash and burn while others had barely enough qualities to get off the runway.
Part of his haplessness was his capacity for public relations disasters. Saul strides onto the pages of the Bible not like David, ﬁghting Goliath, nor like the Apostle Paul, helping kill the ﬁrst Christian martyr (which at least demonstrated potential and commitment, albeit needing a little re-direction). No, Saul makes his entrance searching for donkeys, at which it is hard to look good. People who are looking for things are very irritating to people who are not looking for things, especially perhaps when those things are really big and furry and obviously not there.
Does Saul then redeem himself by demonstrating astonishing skills in tracking? He does not. Instead, it’s recorded that his dad started to worry about him, which since Saul was a tall and scary grown man, and only perhaps 20 miles from home, is again not a massive vote of conﬁdence.
It’s left to Saul’s servant to suggest they visit the prophet Samuel whose prophetic gifts may stretch to donkey-location services. Saul agrees, but, predictably, doesn’t have any money. Perhaps he left his credit cards at home, another winning trait in a would-be leader of men. The servant stumps up the cash, and, so far, looks a far better man for a crisis than Saul himself.
Saul the hero
Yet despite the inauspicious start, Saul becomes king and does well for a time, against very difﬁcult odds. Israel was overrun with the Philistines, who had a properly organized standing army, unlike Israel. The Philistines had the technological mastery, controlling all the iron manufacture. Coming from the smallest tribe, Saul lacked a power base. Worse, he also had to combat the prophet Samuel who was grumpy about the whole idea of Israel having a king. They had not had one before. Samuel, it seemed, was only allowing it because God had told him to, not because he personally thought it was a good idea.
You didn’t mess with Samuel, he could summon earthquakes with prayer, but like many leaders he had a bit of a blind spot when it came to his own family. At the time of Saul’s election, Samuel’s sons were running the country — badly. So there was a ticklish issue for a new king’s in-tray. The old leader’s sons aren’t up to the job, political reform is needed, but the decrepit old boy in charge can’t face the facts.
Yet Saul made a good ﬁst of being king. He rescued the threatened city of Jabesh Gilead by personally calling and leading an army. Aided by his son Jonathan, he inﬂicted spectacular damage on the Philistines against ﬁerce odds. He fought off other raiders, surrounded himself with good people, declined to be vindictive against his political enemies, and was personally modest in his kingly lifestyle.
Samuel went into retirement and no more was heard of his sons. Saul knew, if he obeyed God, his kingdom could last forever. We have to believe that it was at least conceivable that Saul could have been what David later became– the ﬁrst king in a glorious, eternal line.
Yet it all fell apart. The honest, modest king morphed into a depressed, paranoid monster. He resorted to using a medium — I think the only godly leader in the whole Bible who has sunk to consulting the spirits of the dead. And then he, his sons and his armourbearer all died in a decisive battle against the resurgent Philistines that set Israel’s cause back for a long time.
Saul got little credit for the good stuff but instead faced the full wrath of Samuel when he made two judgement calls in extremely pressed circumstances. It is, perhaps, another sign of the hapless: you get your appraisal done when you are having an extremely bad day. First, Samuel had told Saul to go to a mustering ground called Gilgal before a battle with the Philistines and wait seven days until Samuel arrived. Saul had done as asked, watching while the Philistine forces multiplied around them. Saul’s own army, just six hundred strong, was starting to desert. The seven days passed. The forthcoming battle looked terrible. Rather than wait any longer for Samuel, Saul himself made sacriﬁces to God — and then Samuel turned up and condemned him. Samuel didn’t apologize. Paraphrasing Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey, Samuel might have said, ‘Late? A prophet is never late!’
The second time, Samuel ordered Saul to kill and destroy every living thing among the Amalekites, men, women, children, cattle — a brutal, rare and difﬁcult ask for the king. Saul’s army did not seem overly troubled by hacking the heads off babies or slicing open pregnant women (this was a ruthless era, rather like our own), but they did object to seeing all that juicy beef going up in smoke uneaten. Steak won out over submission, and Saul didn’t stop his army’s ox-roast, and Samuel condemned him again, and removed his blessing.
You can say this is all a bit unfair. Saul was attempting to show leadership in terrible times. Things were going wrong all around him. Bloodshed was not far off. Who, in a war, gets all the decisions right? Desperate days require brave decisions. What would you do if your army was falling apart while you waited for a prophet to show up? How well would you fare when your hungry men wanted a well-earned barbecue and you were the only one blocking the way?
Anyway, didn’t other leaders in the Bible commit worse sins than Saul and not get deblessed, as Saul was? Abraham took things into his own hands when he fathered Ishmael rather than wait for Isaac. King David committed both murder and adultery. When in danger of their lives, the apostle Peter denied Jesus three times. Other apostles found they had urgent appointments elsewhere. Saul, by way of refreshing change, hardly ducked a ﬁght in his life.
So how did he end up as the Bible’s biggest failure? First we note that it’s in the times of deepest stress that we reveal who we really are. It honestly isn’t all that hard to seem to be living a godly life when the seas are calm and the skies are blue. Only stress shows our true colours. So we shouldn’t be surprised that it took difﬁcult days to expose Saul’s heart.
Second, God is God and he has the right to deal with disobedience in his servants differently. Abraham took matters into his own hands. So did Saul. Different circumstances and capacities were on show, but it was the same sin at its root. So perhaps in a sense the Bible is harsh on Saul, or at least gentle on Abraham. May God be gentle on us too!
Yet, third, Saul’s fatal error really was a fatal error, and it set him apart in my view from Abraham and David and the apostles. Running through his life was a tendency, which wasn’t a technical mishap, or a minor misjudgement; it was, ﬁnally, a misunderstanding of everything important about how God and people relate. Saul’s regular mistake was to think God wants us to sort things out for ourselves, cope as best we can. Saul was talented enough to make this work for a time. But that isn’t what God wants. God wants us to trust him with our lives.
At Gilgal, the sacriﬁces honestly didn’t matter; trusting God did. So your army’s deserting while Samuel shows every sign of being caught in the trafﬁc around Jericho? Trust God anyway. So your hungry army is mutinously eyeing up some fatted calves? Stand in their way. Trust and obey God. See if they’ll really kill a king, or, muttering darkly, obey God after all.
Flawed like Saul
Haplessness haunted Saul. Worse, he then let jealousy gnaw at him unchecked and as an older man became paranoid and vindictive. But the truth is we are all like that. That isn’t Saul’s unique problem. We are all ﬂawed like Saul, fatally ﬂawed, each in our own way. Saul’s real problem was not that he was fatally ﬂawed, but that he didn’t throw his fatally ﬂawed self on the mercies and adequacies of God.
His real failure was a failure simply to trust and obey: ‘Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.”‘ (1 Sam 13:13) and ‘Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not enquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.’ (1 Chron 10:13-14)
I feel for Saul. I think he was a put in a job too difﬁcult for him, and certainly at ﬁrst he tried his very best to make it work, earnest, brave, modest, sincere. The problem was, that isn’t how it works between people and God. We are all in roles too difﬁcult for us. We all have impossible jobs. ‘Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did’ says the ﬁrst letter of John (1 John 2:6) How possible is that? It isn’t.
The people who please God fall into the arms of the One who justiﬁes the ungodly and the hapless and the useless. Through faith people conquer kingdoms. Through faith they live and die bravely. Through nakedly trusting God they take on armies. Through simple, trusting obedience they cheerfully face down the impossible. Better to die trusting God, they argue, rightly, than live relying on ourselves.
What can we learn from the Bible’s biggest failure? Don’t have fatal character weaknesses? No–we all do. Trust God with all your heart. Follow his commands rather than your own wisdom. Trust him unto death. Quite a lesson.
This blog started life as a magazine article when I was on the staff of a Singaporean magazine intended for the Christian community. Like my other blogs over the past few weeks, I’ve included it in my forthcoming book, ‘The Sandwich.’ One of the joys of working for interdenominational organizations is the exposure to the many different silos within which Christian tribes shelter, each of us believing we’re uniquely blessed and special.
What we need is a new denomination.
I visited a Brethren church the other day, for the first time for about fifteen years. Things hadn’t changed much.
The church building still displayed the minimum possible aesthetic sense, designed (it wasn’t hard to guess) by deacons, all male. They hadn’t quite suppressed every splash of colour — it’s hard to completely stamp out human, and especially feminine, creativity — but they were certainly subsisting on the bare minimum. The hall was 1930s hospital style: dull dark wood and magnolia. The most recent addition was a 1970s chipboard hymnbook cabinet with a balsa wood veneer (artificial). Brethren don’t waste resources on Art.
We sang hymns, though, great eighteenth-century affairs loaded with fine doctrine like plum puddings. The singing was concerted, massive, and rousing — marred only by a few sopranos warbling out of control, like opera divas tumbling into the orchestra pit or stuka bombers that can’t pull out of a fatal dive.
When the people on the platform addressed the Almighty, you rather got the impression of the serf, cap in hand, going to the landowner. These were Brethren. A people who know their place in the scheme of things.
I felt at home at once. Here were my roots. Plain but godly. 1930s decor and 1790s doggerel, sin and magnolia. Nothing changes here. Hardly anything, indeed, had changed, since I’d left these pastures for charismatic ones a decade and a half ago.
Singing solid hymns that fed the brain and spirit was a nice change from my current church, where — as a contrast — spiritual ecstasy is expected fifteen minutes into each service, whether or not you feel like it first thing in the morning and whether or not you’ve got a headache.
In our church, we do not all sing together. We play tag with the worship leader. You know the game. You’re all ready for the second verse but he’s jumped back to the middle of the chorus. Just when you think you’re catching him again, he’s onto a second lap with the first verse. The musicians and the ‘waa waa’ girls are not far behind, but he dodges them astutely when they start getting near. Finally he helps us by repeating the line ‘He is worthy’ seven straight times, until less charitable members of congregation want to knock him on the head to get the music into a different groove. We hit the seventh ‘He is worthy’ with a great bashing of drums, like a Taoist funeral, and then blast off into singing in tongues or a ‘clap offering.’
In my church, we are not so much serfs addressing the Lord of the Manor as people frantically cranking a Van de Graaf generator, hoping the sparks will crackle. I sometimes look round at the upturned faces and hands and wonder, am I the only person in the church not enjoying this? Is anybody else — like me — faking it?
Hmm. And yet the charismatics and Pentecostals are the most successful missionary movement in history: from a standing start in 1900 to 400 million plus today. God’s at work among us. Sometimes — despite everything — the sparks do crackle.
Perhaps no denomination has it all. But I have the perfect way forward for the future: The Singapore Post-Denominational Church. We’ll pick-and-mix from what the current denominations offer to produce an unforgettable ecclesiastical experience.
Here’s my suggestions: We’ll look to the Brethren for the art and aesthetics. Flexibility and ecumenism? Call in the Bible-Presbyterians. Theological rigour? Charismatic choruses are just the job. A due sense of tradition and history? The new independent churches will supply all we need.
I’ll be the pastor, of course, and will lovingly fix my salary at an average of the top four pastoral renumerations in Singapore. Tithes will be high, but at least you’ll know I’m safe from being headhunted and will be able to devote myself wholeheartedly to the Post-Denominational cause.
Singapore Post-Denominational Church. Come along next Sunday. I guarantee, after the experience, you’ll love your own worship tradition all the more.
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.’