Slices of bread – 9 – The missing something

Can you smell bread being baked somewhere? Go find the loaf.

You deserve some sort of medal for sticking with these extracts over the past few weeks.Thank you. Suffering refocuses us (I have argued); ‘belonging’ and ‘making something beautiful’ show where we should refocus. The final part of the book tries to fit these ideas into a wider, and Christian, framework.

Bread

My search for what really matters – 9

The missing something

A lot of us know we are missing something. Are you missing something? Even in all the good things about you that your loved ones will mention at your funeral, are you missing something?

My testimony is that there are loose threads in our lives that if we trace them to their source, lead to God. This is unsurprising to the Christian, since we are inheritors of a shared story that humanity’s biggest problem is a ruptured relationship with our Creator. No wonder, then, there are loose threads; no wonder there are missing somethings.

I have met people who find one end of a thread of transcendence in their lives but haven’t found the other end. They seek it in music or in nature, for example. Some just get misty-eyed and sentimental. The writer Terry Pratchett had a transcendent encounter with an orang utan once[1]—I am not joking, they stood, unblinking looking at each other—and when dying of Alzheimer’s, he went all the way back to East Asia in a doomed attempt to find the orang again. Terry Pratchett is a hero of mine, a writer’s writer. But you can do better than locking eyes with an orang utan across a crowded jungle. I hope he did.

Others tug at loose threads in their lives by seeking harmony, or peace, or mathematical elegance, or love. Science, I have often thought, is driven by a love of beauty as much as by curiosity or by a desire to serve the common good. The Cavendish Laboratory in my hometown of Cambridge, whose toiling inmates have earned thirty Nobel Prizes as of 2019, has a text written on the old front door, put there by James Clerk Maxwell: ‘The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all of them that have pleasure therein.’ Open the doors to the Cavendish, he was saying, and through physics, seek pleasure, and seek God.

In the previous century, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was a famous atheist, even writing a book entitled Why I am not a Christian. But there are other sides to his story. Russell’s daughter, Katherine Tait, said of him: ‘Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it.’ Russell was now haunted by a ‘ghost-like feeling of not belonging in this world.’

Russell himself wrote in a private letter, ‘The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain . . . a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite – the beatific vision, God – I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life . . . it is the actual spring of life within me.’[2] Look again at the main theme of the book, how suffering turns to rubble much of what we thought was good and reveals the main themes of life as networking and vocation, belonging and making. I have come to believe that these can only be fully worked out in relationship with God and his purposes. Their appearance in our lives without God is more like us hearing a melody on the wind, rather than getting the full symphony. They are the smell of baking bread, and they should put us on the hunt for the full loaf.


[1] The orang’s name was Kusasi, and diligent searching on the Internet might reveal more of this story. Pratchett’s Discworld character of the Unseen University’s Librarian is the greatest orang utan in fiction (in my opinion, but it’s a thin field).

[2] Both these Russell quotes were dug out by Prof. Alister McGrath and referenced in his Gresham College lecture Why God Won’t Go Away. Gresham College lectures can be accessed from their website. ‘Three brains’ McGrath has doctorates in biophysics, divinity, and intellectual history.

Slices of bread – 8 – doing something beautiful

Being an extract from my new book

If you’ve been with me over the summer, you’ll have seen that this book is about how adversity and suffering can change your life for the better. Better still, you can change your life for the better without the adversity and suffering (by reading the book). Suffering makes you realistic about you are — strips you down, perhaps. But two things can then build you up. Belonging — the art of belonging — is one (see last week). The second is vocation — doing something beautiful. Which is what this extract is all about.

Bread

My search for what really matters (8)

Don’t die with your music inside you

Vocation is about intentionally not dying with your music still inside you.

I was very ill when I first came across this thought and it was galvanizing. Since ‘galvanizing’ means ‘using electricity to coat something with zinc’, it wasn’t literally galvanizing, but it was a lifeline in the forever-January experience of convalescence. Then, and since, the idea of vocation has lit something in me that helped me fight to be well and stay well.

Don’t die with your music still inside you. Ask yourself. Other things being equal, feet still roughly on the floor, need for realism acknowledged, what would you love to do? I love asking this question of people. What gives you energy? What is fulfilling? What do you love? What would frustrate you if it were never let out? A famous theologian[1] described vocation as the meeting point between ‘your deep gladness’ and ‘the world’s deep need’. Where does that sit for you?

I hesitate to give it an upmarket name like ‘vocation’ because for some people it means cheerfully and faithfully doing ordinary things. For others, though, it might seem a long way from what they are now and you would never guess it. A person with a career in software wants to turn wood. A researcher would like to be a receptionist in a hospice. Others have found a love of counselling. I know a couple of people who find sanity and happiness through making time to paint. I know that in horrible places of infirmity I have been buoyed by the thought of writing something original, creative and quirky. This is vocation knocking: the chance to take something that belongs to you, and to give it out. Breathe deeply of it, and you oxygenate your soul.

Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people. And when we live out our vocation we furnish our lives with satisfaction and happiness. Vocation is bread for the hungry soul, a satisfying meal.

Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people.

I love watching people in their vocation. Someone came to our home to do some carpentry. His first love was restoring antique furniture. His eyes lit on our dining chairs, things that had tumbled to us down through our family as heirlooms. He knew which 19th century decade they were built in and named the style. He told us what he could do to them if he had them in his workshop for few days.

My son and I both have physics degrees. My physics degree helped me to ascend a few small hills and look across at mountain peaks of human thought. My son, though, climbs these peaks for fun. He knows how partial differential equations work, for example. He understands Maxwell’s equations, beautiful things that describe all of classical electromagnetism. I see him in a team experimenting on lone atomic particles that are in near-perfect vacuum and nearly at absolute zero. Even as a child he loved maths problems.

https://www.clothinghandy.store/products/and-god-said-maxwell-equation-t-shirt/?msclkid=02db63ba116a1ed5b8b50373f799087d

You stumble into vocation all the time. You wander into an office and find people who have time for you and all the resources you need. Someone bakes you a wonderful cake. You see a mum organizing her children or a teacher with her class interested and working hard and happy or arguing furiously with each other about finer points of maths.

Fine, you may say, but a vocation is a bit of a luxury if you’re a single parent just holding everything together or someone already buckling under the strain of just earning enough, or you are battling pain and depression, or you are in a toxic workplace, or you are retired. I am not so sure that you are right. For these reasons:

  • Thinking about vocation at least enables you to set a direction for where you’d like to go and what you’d like to be.
  • It probably also points to something you’re quite good at.
  • It points you to a higher ambition for your work than just as a vehicle to being solvent or (worse) rich, respected or lauded. These false gods shrivel your soul. Vocation nourishes it.
  • Even if you don’t change career, thinking about the work you love may change how you spend some of the odd scraps of time you already have. If you can’t be a professional musician or artist or footballer, be an amateur one. It still will feed your soul. Who knows where these small beginnings will lead? Take a step.
  • Change to your current circumstances might not be as impossible as you think. If, God forbid, you got a serious illness, or a divorce, you would change things around fast enough. Emails and schedules that tower above you now wouldn’t look that way then. They don’t matter so much really. The world won’t stop even if you stop. If you died tomorrow, someone would fix all the emails or finish the jobs. But that thing which is you, that thing you can give to the world, no-one else can do that like you do it.
  • Negotiate a compromise between vocation and career. This is why artists become graphic designers or would-be session musicians become tutors, or novelists get paid as journalists. Wiggle a little. 
  • Remember life has seasons. The pages turn. Kids grow up. Debts get paid down. The rush to complete qualifications passes. Workplaces change. If your life is a busy river, abuzz with boats and criss-crossed with bridges, so hooting with shipping that you can’t take it all in, it may not stay that way. This river will probably evolve into something fat and lazy as it nears the sea, weaving slowly through the bulrushes like a jazz solo. Maybe your vocation awaits a new season.  But start it now.

Your vocation is your chance to be big, beautiful you.  Do you really want to miss this?  So take some steps. Do something. Do something. Don’t die without giving us a song.


[1] Frederick Buechner

Slices of bread – 7 Belonging

Being a further exerpt from my forthcoming book ‘Bread’ about how to simplify and refocus our lives.

(Placeholder cover: the real thing is yet to be revealed, even to me.

The story so far. Trauma makes you re-evaluate. When I did this, two things stood out as a uniquely life-giving and worth investment: belonging and creating. This section is about belonging. The hospital stories belong back in 2013, not anything more recent.


Bread

My search for what really matters – belonging

Crowds vs. networks

‘Belonging’ is one way of saying ‘being part of a network’. A network, as I mean it here, is a group of people linked by relationships.

Not all collections of people are networks. Here’s what aren’t networks: queues, crowds, traffic jams, flocks of tourists. Here are some examples of what are, or can become networks: a sports team, a squad of soldiers, an orchestra, a village fete, a live event when performers and crowd are feeding off each other, a classroom, a family.  All these can become sustaining communities that people love and fight for.

What’s the difference between a crowd and a network? Human relationships. Crowds that aren’t networks are life-draining; networks of people, working together, are life-sustaining.  I have been in traffic jams so profound that they turn into networks because drivers leave their vehicles and start talking with each other. A sports team can be transformed once it stops being a crowd of stars—or a crowd of mediocrities—and works as a networked, relational whole.

Networks let us pool and share our talents. They provide resources, guidance and self-worth. They protect us from external foes and, by setting norms, they save us from ourselves. And they satisfy our deep needs to belong and contribute. [1]

Networks and life-support

As well as being our superpower, networks are our source of meaning and life.

I have two scrapbooks in my study from my coma-month in May 2013. One was created by my family, one by the Intensive Care staff. They document what was going on with me in ICU, and in the world outside. My family have stuck in some of the cards and emails they received while I was ill. They also pasted news reports I might have liked. And they added in the letters they wrote to me.  I cannot read these books (or, it turns out, write about them) without the tears flowing.

They are so extraordinarily moving, almost intolerable, these scrapbooks. While I lay on my back plugged into medical machinery, a middle-aged, red-faced white man, the sort that you wouldn’t look twice at, heart disease fodder, my loved ones laboured under a burden of care and fear and fought my death like tigers. They read my books to me, they talked to me, they read Terry Pratchett novels. A doctor saw my mum mopping my brow and asked her why she was doing that. ‘He’s burning up,’ she told him. The doctor turned, walked away, visited the other ICU ward, and came back with an ice-blanket, the only one in the hospital and got me wrapped in it.

Each day, the ICU staff tenderly washed and shaved me.

Normally we moderate our expressions of love. Normally our loving hearts beat for each other under a coating of banter, criticism and everyday chat. Sometimes the coating is so thick we wonder if a heart beats under there at all. Death or near-death or the threat of death strips the coating away and we briefly feel the raging incandescence of human love. I think it is the greatest thing in the world. My coma-books are like me enjoying my own funeral without having to die: everybody’s kind to me and they don’t mention my faults. Their love also repaints my insides with sunshine.

Normally we moderate our expressions of love. Normally our loving hearts beat for each other under a coating of banter, criticism and everyday chat. Sometimes the coating is so thick we wonder if a heart beats under there at all. Death or near-death or the threat of death strips the coating away and we briefly feel the raging incandescence of human love.

A couple of weeks after I left ICU, but before I was finally discharged from hospital, my wife wheeled me round to the unit again. She was hoping to fill in some of the gaps in my memory. I was surprised to find that the nurses seemed to know me; I didn’t know any of them. My wife pointed things out. That was the room where the doctor told her that I wasn’t expected to survive the night. That nurse was the one assigned to me when I was hallucinating that it was our daughter’s wedding day, and I was trying to get out of bed, and almost weeping with frustration that I couldn’t …

I told this nurse from my wheelchair how sorry I was for causing all that bother, and I thought later how she was one of those people in the hospital who transcends treating you as a nurse only and treats you as a fellow human sufferer too. She wasn’t paid to care as much as she actually did care, and what a thing it is to find (as I often did in hospital) medical staff journeying well beyond professional expertise into deep humanity, caring for me.

It is overwhelming how important networks are to us. I don’t know how often you ask questions like, what have I achieved? What was the point? What am I proud of? Or even Why do I bother continuing to live? For me, the answer to all of that is being part of a network of people who apparently love me as much as I love them. Nothing else compares.  I’ve been a writer all my life but in all the millions of words I’ve sprayed about the place, happy though that has been, that career has not offered the quality of meaning or healing or worth that can compare with the simple discovery of being loved by my loved ones. The loving network trumps everything. 


[1] I’m indebted to Nicholas A Christakis and James H Fowler’s Connected (New York: Little, Brown 2009) for their insights. Theirs is the best book on networking that I’ve ever seen.

Slices of bread – 6

Being another extract from my new book

Draft cover. At the time of writing I’m still awaiting the proper one.

This slice of ‘Bread’ sums up what lessons I think adversity or suffering can teach. Smarty-pants readers, like you, will recognize where we have eventually landed after a long journey … the Beatitudes.


Bread

My search for what really matters – slice the 6th

Let’s collect up and summarize the lessons of adversity:

  • We are ordinary.
  • We are poor.
  • We are broken.
  • There will be losses.
  • Time compounds things, so it’s a good idea to live with integrity in both the large and the small. Integrity will still be holding your hand when charisma, success, pride, and boasting, and your good looks, even yours, have fallen away.
  • Approaching problems and joys a day at time, or a moment at a time, means you tackle them a scale you were built for and can manage.
  • Our life in the midst of others—belonging to others, making peace with others, exposing our lusts and terrors, our darknesses, to the kind light of others—is key to walking the long distance of life well. Suffering shared can lead to deep connection which is life.
  • Hoping and resolving to do something right and good, or to live towards the doing of something good, is a mighty weapon in the fight to reclaim your mind from itself.  Even if it’s slow. Even if feels like small steps forward after a catastrophic fall. Why? You find you are working with the grain of the Universe. The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book with the title Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. What a magnificent insight. (Perhaps I should read the book.) There is a course of life for us that is fruitful, being what we are, doing what we do, some good thing. It might be quite ordinary. Progress may be slow. Seasons may change while we await its fulness. But it is the path of life.

Slices of ‘bread’ – 5 – doing small things well

Being a further extract from my new book

This next extract from my forthcoming book is about doing little good things even when big things have collapsed around us.


Bread

My search for what really matters – part 5

All is not lost when all is lost

Here’s another path to tread in your head: do small things well even if big things have collapsed around you. Your great loss may not be as total as it seems; and your small acts of goodness add up.  Roiled around by the mighty tides of time, the little good things can overwhelm the big bad thing.

We can demonstrate this at both smaller and larger scales. Imagine you made a mistake at work. Imagine the mistake was not just human error but due to carelessness, ill-temper or even malice. Then imagine two separate responses:

  • Cover up, minimize, self-justify
  • Apologize, admit your fault, ask forgiveness.

Which is the better ‘strategy’? Much more important, which has integrity? Which behaviour will, in the end, do you the most good? Which path leads to the least complicated life? And which path, over time, will get you the respect you seek, and we all need?

Think of defeat and victory on a larger scale. Think of Nelson Mandela. He was troublesome and didn’t renounce violence. The South African state locked him up for life, with hard labour, a victory for them and a setback for him. He was off the streets and mostly out of the newspapers.

Mandela spent his 50th birthday in jail. Then his 60th.  And then his 70th. But it turns out that maintaining injustice in a society is like trying to hold a beach ball under water. While Mandela passed milestone birthdays, the South African state was exhausting itself. Internally, it was fighting to maintain injustice, against protests of every kind. Externally, it was facing a crisis of belonging: its membership of the club of civilised countries was being stressed by the general issue of national racism and the specific dunked beachball called Mandela. The real, jailed Mandela, working the limestone quarry on Robben Island, took every rare opportunity to study and lobby and organize.

Eventually time’s pressure on the state grew too much and the state folded. In his seventies, Mandela walked out of prison and into the presidency. The little good things he’d spent twenty years doing overwhelmed the big bad thing done to him. As president, he worked to reconcile the nation and he left when his time was up rather than clinging to office. In the contest, Mandela v South Africa, who won and who lost? How did the winner win and how did the loser lose? What part did time play? How did repeated small acts of integrity fare against large doses of injustice?

Slices of bread – 4 – discovering goodness

Being a further extract from my new book

This isn’t the final cover of the book, but it will do until the proper one comes along.

You may know by now that this book is a lockdown project, when I wanted to put down in order some of the things bouncing around my head and around this blog, about how a storm (in my case a medical storm) can usher in a time of healing and restoration and renewed focus. This happens to be my experience, at least from where I sit at the moment.

This extract looks at how adversity or suffering can lead us to a rediscovery of goodness. It’s a fairly long read, but I hope it may fit your weekend somewhere.

Bread

My search for what really matters – fourth slice


Goodness

Suffering can also bring out the goodness in the depths, in the same way that a storm can refresh an ocean.

Goodness is an unusual experience for those of us not used to it, but we can acquire a taste. Suffering offers the moment to step out.

Think of relational goodness. We are wrapped in a web of relationships. Sometimes our relational threads stretch to surprising people. The love embedded here is not always expressed, but adversity brings it to the surface. Their love for you is suddenly exposed in cards, notes, visits, gifts, calls, prayers. And you respond. Adversity gets you and them to say things that you’ve always meant to say. Saying them is a great gift and blessing. Letting love and pride flow back and forth down these threads of love, sprinkling them with tears probably, is not just a help to healing and thriving. It is itself the primary act of healing and thriving. Further repairs to your body or circumstances that may or may not follow are secondary. If you are lucky enough to be surrounded by a web of love, and most of us are, adversity is the time to know this and invest in it.  

Letting love and pride flow …is not just a help to healing and thriving. It is itself the primary act of healing and thriving.

What a treasure this is. In May 2011, in Palo Alto, California, a girl was sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework when there was a knock on the kitchen door. She went to open it and found Bill Gates standing outside. Upstairs the girl’s father, Steve Jobs, was ill with the cancer that would end his life. The girl let Gates in, and Gates and Jobs, the two rival tech titans, engineer and zen-gineer, spent time together. They talked, it is reported, about families and children and marrying well, and about Jobs’ plans for his yacht.[1] Gates’ visit, it seems, was to maintain, perhaps to fix, but in any case to re-emphasize, a relational thread between the founder of Microsoft and the founder of Apple.

A friend of mine who was dying of cancer pointed out that one of the good things about her cancer was that she got time to say goodbye.  Among other things, my friend arranged a party for all the women she trained with decades before. I observed her cancer was not a stressy round of treatments, anger, bitterness and disappointment but a kind of packing and farewelling for the next journey.

I agree that some adversity is better than other sorts for spurring relational goodness. In some adversity (illness, say), people send love and cards and you will feel their support; in other forms (a bad marriage, or bad breath, say), even your closest friends will fear to intrude and the shops tend not to stock cards.

But whether or not your adversity is the sort of adversity for which people send cards (Congratulations on 25 years of Irritable Bowels!), I still think any adversity can be manhandled into making you unearth good in yourself and those around you. So your anxiety or your IBS goes on and on? So does your resolve.

Set things right. Heal the relationships. Fix these things that you can fix and your whole world will be brighter. Setting things right means:

  • Saying the unsaid
  • Mending the broken
  • Straightening the bent
  • Tying up the loose ends

Here are some suggestions for adversity-propelled tentative steps towards goodness – both relational and personal:

  • Say everything good that needs saying to your loved ones. Don’t wait to regret not saying these things when you die.
  • Make peace with your enemies.
  • Get your affairs in order.
  • Work on your eulogy virtues, the things they will say at your funeral, like that you were kind, rather than your resume (CV) virtues such as your salesperson-of-the-year-runner’s-up award.
  • Sort out the God-and-eternity business in your soul.
  • Gratefully relish each ‘bright blessed day’, and ‘dark sacred night’.

More next week….


[1] The meeting is reported in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and it was previewed by Forbes magazine.

Slices of ‘Bread’ – 2

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.

Bread

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.

yellow paintedsmiley face eggs
Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com

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.’[1] 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.

The breaking is the start of the mending

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.

More next week…


[1] Debbie Harry in her memoir Face It.

Slices of bread – 1

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.

Bread

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Belonging is key to long-term thriving.
  3. 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.

More next week, if you can bear the tension.

Rediscovering relevance

Surprisingly, the gospel is about everything.

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.)

Relevance rediscovered

I’m oversimplifying a detailed chapter, but you can imagine two steps:

  1. Fit your chosen story within the Bible’s grand narrative of life, the universe and everything.
  2. 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:

  1. Creation. God made the Universe, for us to thrive in along with him, and even though God says so himself, it’s very good.
  2. Fall. And we rebel, and alienate ourselves from God and each other and generally mess things up.
  3. Israel. God gets to work redeeming the story, at first with broad brushstrokes, like the Law.
  4. Between the Testaments… it isn’t quick. Things have to brew. But finally we get to:
  5. Jesus. God’s translation of himself into human form demonstrates, then inaugurates, then welcomes us to join, a Kingdom where God is ruling.
  6. Church And this message is embodied and carried everywhere
  7. 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
  • Youth justice

Foreign debt

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

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.

The conclusion

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.’

Ordinary is back

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.