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.’
Here’s another commissioned piece written for newish Christians in a Singapore-based magazine, an which is now a chapter in my new collection ‘The Sandwich‘ (yet to be published).
Hearing wrongly from God is easy and you hardly need any advice on it at all. Never mind that he is the Almighty and you are a half-pint. Never mind that he is bright-eyed with revelation, holding together the universe with his understanding, eager to breathe gentle words into your heart. You can hide from him, really you can.
Most people can be up and running, misunderstanding God consistently, in a matter of a few minutes. It’s harder for children, of course. But anyone from teenage years upwards can master one of the few simple techniques that I’m going to tell you about. With regular practice, these become as easy as breathing. Don’t believe the sceptics: you — yes, you — can insulate yourself totally against the Burning One, freeing yourself to worship what you truly love: your Blessed Self.
Here’s how you do it.
1 Never surrender
This is the key to the whole thing. Remember Churchill’s advice to the boys of his old school during the Second World War: ‘Gentlemen! Never give up! Never give up! Never, never, never give up!’ Don’t yield an inch. Resist God and he will, eventually, shuffle off and go bothering someone else. He won’t strive with you for ever. There is an end to it.
Of course, God is quite a subtle foe in these matters. He will try to sneak in. We live with yearnings and aches: to love; to share our lives with others; to know the mysterious Essence beyond ourselves. A sunset, a face, a smile, they can seem like windows to heaven. They are not. Get a grip. Don’t yearn. Don’t be thankful. Don’t seek God (have some sense!). Don’t think. Take yourself in hand. Fulfil some pressing bodily need, put the TV on, gorge on some chocolate, go shopping, do something earthly to shake off these heavenly yearnings. You’ll soon be fine again.
Or sometimes God tries to speak when you’re going through a hard time. Really, he has no scruples. In tough times — he knows and you know — that you are inclined to panic. Grown men have been known to pray in toilets. Our advice remains the same. Remember Churchill, and never give up. In times of trouble say to yourself, ‘at least I’m not tempted to try religion! I’m not a weakling! I can handle this!’ You can fend God off pretty well with this sort of routine.
It is a basic rule: those who humble themselves, who strip themselves of vain arguments, who wait in silence for him, who surrender themselves absolutely and finally to his will: it’s those he goes for. The rest of us are pretty safe. Keep fighting and there’s always hope for you.
2 Be holistic
Of course, even if he can’t get at your heart right away, God will still try to influence you. He does it by subverting your ideas of goodness. But don’t worry, it’s easily prevented.
You want to be a good person, of course. God wants you to be a good person too — there’s the danger.
The way to avoid any possible trap here is to maintain a steady focus. You don’t want to be just any sort of good person. You want to be a good person on your own terms. You want to mix and match God’s ideas about goodness with your own. Ours is a consumer society and so this a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
For example, keep an eye on trends. You want to be good, but not poor, austere, sacrificial, wholehearted. You want to be holistically good: admired by all, certainly, breaking hearts with the sheer wonderfulness of your nature, having girls sighing in their rooms at the thought of your intrinsic nobility, but you also want to be sexy, stylish, funny, rich and fulfilled. James Bond good. A rough diamond. Hot, not cold. Buttoned down, not buttoned-up. So mix up all your desires indiscriminately with whatever you fancy you may be hearing from God and you’ll be just fine. He won’t get a word in at all.
3 Accept no feedback
A patient, humble, teachable spirit is a dangerous thing.
Our minds are neural networks. They get things right only after much feedback and reinforcement: that’s as true for hearing from God as it is in learning how to write your name neatly. You try, you show it to an adult, they praise you and correct you gently, and finally, after hundreds of iterations, you get it right.
So it is with Hearing From God. People who hear consistently from God mull things over. Impressions waft into their minds, they pray over them, compare them with scripture, think them through, ask trusted advisers, wait on God for more revelation. They keep bringing a thing to God until it somehow holds together, the neural network is programmed with the right pattern, and a quiet peace settles on their hearts.
Knowing this, you can quickly see how you can mishear God almost 100% of the time. Be impulsive. Follow your gut. Then, be stubborn. Snatch at things. Cultivate prejudices. Don’t ask advice. Only allow your Bible study to reinforce what you already know. Think the same way you always have. Follow your tribe. Be unteachable: after all, you already know all you need to know. Don’t give houseroom to uncertainty, perplexity, ambiguity, hesitancy, diffidence. Tell yourself, ‘tentative’ or ‘provisional’ or ‘subject to revision’ is just another way of saying ‘weak’.
I hope that’s all clear. To sum up: if you want to keep your life clear of God’s kindly revelation:
Having unexpectedly emerged alive from a four-week-long coma–in 2013–and with our church having held a 36-hour prayer vigil for us at the most critical point, and having had some kind of disability all my life, I’ve thought at lot about healing. This is another piece from my forthcoming book called (maybe) ‘The Sandwich.’ Like the others in the collection, it was commissioned by a Singaporean magazine and intended for newcomiers to the Christian faith.
How do we know when to stop asking and simply accept? What’s the difference between surrender and giving up hope?‘
We are treading on a tender spot here. Because we all know people who have been struck down inside a good healthy life. Some dreadful disease snaffles them and everything inside of us cries out, ‘No! This is wrong.’ So we pray for healing.
Worse (in a sense), we know that God is a healing God. In the person of Christ he walked on the earth and did not view suffering with a Roman stoicism or a Jewish shrug. He wept over it, climbed into the problems, and healed. The lame walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised are signs of his Kingdom. These are the gifts he scatters as he walks among us. Jesus our King is full of compassion, fully engaged, and mighty to heal and save. Sin, evil, suffering, demons, death: he detests them all and went to the cross to purge all of them out of his lovely Universe.
We all know what is coming next: yet so many are not healed. I would be very surprised if in the circle of people you know and care about, there are not some for whom you are praying but who are not getting better. Others stay sick and in pain for a long time. What do we do? How do we pray?
I joined a community choir recently. I am a musical illiterate, but I am learning that some songs include a key-change. You are singing along happily enough, you think you’re getting the hang of this, but then the composer introduces a key-change and often it takes the song to a whole new level. For example, the South African National Anthem includes five languages and a key change, because Nelson Mandela wanted to incorporate both the African National Congress anthem and the old white South Africa anthem, and five of South Africa’s eleven languages, into one song. It makes the total experience a powerful statement of unity in a divided land. Without the key-change, it only would be half a song.
As we pray on for the unhealed, we must listen for God’s key-change. Most of us who fall sick only want one thing: to get back to how we were. But with very many sicknesses and afflictions there is no going back. There is only going forward. Hence the need for the key-change. We just want to go home, but God is changing the landscape around us. In his terrible love, God is taking the evil and forging something good in us. This is why I suggest we let God lift our juvenile, confused, panicking prayers to another level. Of course it is not our prayers he is taking to another level: it is we ourselves. Then the song will be complete in us.
Here are some of the elements, so it seems to me, of God’s key-change.
Mystery. In the gospels Jesus walked through a large collection of sick people at the pool of Bethesda and healed just one person (John 5:2-9). He stood in a cemetery full of dead people and called just Lazarus back to life (John 11:38-44). He must have seen a number of funeral processions but he interrupted only one, that of the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-15). Why should some be singled out for instant healing and others not? It does not seem fair, nor can we explain why. It is a mystery. Mystery is like a cloud passing between us and the certainty of the living, loving Christ. We know the Lord is still there, but for the moment all we can see is the cloud.
Eternity. I guarantee you have nothing wrong with you that the resurrection will not put right. When a person passes from this land of the dying to the land of the living with peace on their face, bags packed, ready for eternity, surely that’s a healing, that’s the great healing, even if for us who are left it is a separation and loss. And even if the timing feels all wrong. So real, full healing is guaranteed for all who come to Christ, in eternity.
The present moment. Sometimes in our panic and fear we forget the importance of the present moment. Yes, let us ask God that a person’s dreadful illness is totally healed. But let us not forget the now. ‘God’, we can pray, ‘turn their anxiety into peace today. Make their soul happy today. Set a table for them in the midst of their enemies today.’ In my limited experience of these things, a visit, a word, something, can make your heart almost burst with joy, even if you are lying paralysed in bed and connected up to quite a lot of tubes. People might argue that that’s not the same as a proper healing. I am not so sure. It certainly feels pretty good at the time.
Seeing what the Father is doing. Someone once told me, prayer is not forcing God’s arm; it is taking what is offered in his hand. Somehow we need to walk with the Holy Spirit through the winding paths of prayer and let him guide our prayers so that as we pray, we feel full of peace and confidence. If we feel led to pray for a glorious sunset to a good life, so be it. If it means praying the person with ulcers will feel secure in God so that he doesn’t have to be a workaholic, that’s fine too. I’m not a fan at all of sharing these insights with the patient; they have enough to cope with. I would suggest asking for God’s leading, but then keeping the leading for your own domestic use.
A meeting. Some scriptures teach that everyone who came to Christ for healing was healed. See Mark 6:36, for example: ‘wherever he went – into villages, towns or countryside – they placed those who were ill in the market-places. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.’ I believe these scriptures. Yet many today do not experience instant physical healing. How do we square this circle? Here’s how it works for me. I believe that everyone I might pray for can and should meet God. When the person meets God, in a sense, I can leave the two of them to it. The healing has begun. What goes on between them—instant healing; a long process of healing; abundant life amid continuing physical infirmity; healing fulfilled in eternity; or anything else—is between that person and God. Meeting God is the first and main thing. The core of healing is not getting physically better for a season until something else strikes us down. It’s meeting Jesus. I think I can pray for any sick person that they will meet Christ, they will touch the edge of his robe, and the healing will begin. I use that prayer a lot and I really like it.
The glory. Hospitals, and let us be honest, sometimes a group of pray-ers, can make the patient feel like little more than a useless lump of meat. The sick person themself can start to believe that. But a sick person is not someone who has been suddenly shunted from a fruitful life to a non-fruitful one. He or she is not out of work, certainly not out of God’s work. They may not be on the path they would choose, but they are still on a path. They can glorify God. In the Old Testament Joseph named one of his children ‘Ephraim’ which apparently sounds like the Hebrew for ‘twice fruitful’ and he explained why. It was because ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering’ (Genesis 41:52). That’s a mighty prayer to pray for a sick person. ‘God make her fruitful in the land of her suffering.’ This is not a get-out if physical healing doesn’t happen. It is about people meeting God–Almighty God, that one, the Almighty one–and not emerging unshaken.
Back to the question we were set: How do we know when to stop asking and simply accept? What’s the difference between surrender and giving up hope?
I think I’m arguing that there’s a third option between simply praying for physical healing and simply surrendering the person to God. I’ve called it God’s key-change, and it’s praying that respects mystery and eternity, treasures the present moment, tries to listen to God, believes that healing starts when people meet Christ, and asks for fruitfulness even in their place of suffering.
One of the nice things about writing to commission is that you have try to think about things that you don’t know much about. Below is another article I wrote for the Singaporean Christian magazine Impact, which probably demonstrates clearly why I don’t get paid as a philosopher. It’s extracted from my forthcoming book The Sandwich.
Many of the world’s problems are blamed on God giving us ‘free will’. I’m not sure that God would be as heartless as that.
Does God force us to do things? If so, does he bypass us, or squash us to get his way? Does that show a lack of respect? Does it contravene ‘free will’?
Before we go any further, let’s not talk any more about ‘free will’, as if we were all independent actors with plenty of access to information, not influenced by our peers, able to make good choices on our own with our own resources.
I don’t believe it. I’ve yet to meet anyone like that. We peer at life through a soup of prejudice that distorts what we see. We are influenced by the networks of people around us, the tribes we belong to. Once we’ve made up our minds on something, we tend to defend our turf, accepting facts that bolster our view and rejecting the facts that don’t. Arguably our tendency to rebel against the light of God and choose our own dark corner makes us still more half-witted. We humans are dim. We don’t get it. Free choice would be spoilt on us.
All sorts of things can make us a bit less slow of mind and thick of head. We could listen to others; admit we might be mistaken; test our ideas against evidence or logic. Perhaps when we are younger, and know less, and the world is open to us, our brains are more plastic and we are more open to learning. But still.
Then imagine you are God. OK, it’s probably unimaginable but imagine yourself with perfect knowledge, in perfect light, looking down on these bumbling toilers on earth, blundering, grumbling, bumping into one another. Their bodies are extensively wired to feel pain and you watch their neural systems light up as they injure themselves and each other, and then go back and do it again. To God, it seems, we look ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’, and he has compassion on us (see Matthew 9:36).
I don’t think God’s biggest problem looking down on this scene, if we can so speak, is a lofty analysis of freedom of choice or free will or the rights of humans. It is about how to get stuff done, among these creatures whom you cannot not love and whom you want the best for.
So for example if God arranges for you to meet that girl at that event at that time and she gives you that shy smile and he knows you are that sort of person and she is that sort of person and you then fall in love and create a happy life together, did he force you? Or was he just smart and kind?
Or if he quickens your torpid soul with life, unblocks your ears, restores your spiritual sight, and you see Jesus for the first time not as some historical artefact but as the Living One and a friend and redeemer; if God unwraps your graveclothes and you stand before him blinking in the sunlight, where in all that was your freedom and choice? Something greater than freedom and choice was here.
I was in a coma for a month once and it took my family and the doctors two weeks to wake me up – two weeks of my family talking to me, reading my books to me, of doctors changing the meds. I had no choice in the matter: I was hallucinating about a three-country trip to Africa (which honestly still lingers in the memory though it never happened). In a sense, the love and care of those around me superseded any issues of freedom of choice. They knew I wanted to live again and love again and they fought for me when I couldn’t fight for myself. I wonder if that principle ever crosses God’s mind and ever governs his behaviour?
The Biblical data is fascinating. Jesus, God’s selfie on earth, showed respect and restraint to those around him, often at cost to himself. He wasn’t coercive or controlling. He gave instructions that were disobeyed but he didn’t sulk. ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone,’ he said to the healed leper, ‘but go, show yourself to the priests…’ Get the medical and judicial proof that you are not infectious so you can rejoin your community. ‘Instead [the man] went about freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places’ (Mark 1:45-46). The ex-patient’s folly caused Jesus problems, which Jesus had to manage. At no point did he fell the man with a fiery dart. (‘I told you – go see the priest! Bam!’) Fevers, illnesses, demons, wind and waves all obeyed Christ’s words but people didn’t — and at a certain level the Lord seemed OK with that.
Yet at other times, God appears rather more forceful. Jonah is ordered to Nineveh to preach repentance. Nineveh was Israel’s enemy and God wanted to bring them light. Jonah buys a ticket for the opposite direction. God interrupts the journey with a storm. Jonah is then conveyed by various transport modes back to the shores around Nineveh: first, a short flight (he is thrown into the sea), then a longer trip by sea-creature (carried in the hold). He does not like this, but he does repent. When he finally walks into Nineveh, the repentant preacher preaches repentance and to his great disgust his preaching stops Nineveh being destroyed by God’s wrath. God gets his way. Nineveh turns to the light. But even then (according to the Book of Jonah at least) God is still concerned with Jonah and his continuing grumbles.
God was also quite forceful when he manoeuvred things so that the gospel burst from its Jewish flowerhead and seeded around the world. The book of Acts, chapter 10, tells how the apostle Peter fell into a trance, lost an argument with God, had a timely meeting, made a journey to some pre-prepared Gentiles, preached a short and perhaps tactless sermon, but it was enough for the Gentiles to have their own Pentecost at Cornelius’ place. Along with plenty of other actions God made the light go global – which was a win. Along the way, Peter and others changed their minds about whether non-Jews should get grace: another win. Letting Peter argue had helped.
Consider these various examples. They share a common thread. God appears to have largely got his way. But there is a weakness in God’s strength. Or to put it another way, God’s strength is made perfect through God’s ‘weakness’. What did the storm achieve in Jonah? Repentance. What did the trance and the events at Cornelius’ house achieve in Peter? Repentance, a fresh turning to God and a willingness to believe God for new and greater things. What did Jesus seek from giving people on earth a liberty to obey him or not – a liberty he didn’t give demons, fevers or storms? He provided space for repentance and often people took the offer up.
From our limited perspective, then, it seems that many of God’s actions, and many of what seem like his lack of actions, focus on winning the person as well as winning the day, rather than either philosophical high-mindedness or the need to control. We aren’t told what happened to the healed leper. We don’t know if sometime afterward, perhaps years later, he reflected on Jesus’ treatment of him, the power and the meekness, and turned to the Risen Christ in love and wonder. Perhaps he did; perhaps he didn’t; but he wasn’t short of data, or insight, or opportunity.
What shall we say then? God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom and his weakness is stronger than our strength. His patient tread is faster than our hurry. One day, says Ephesians, everything will be brought to complete unity in Christ: the whole created order will be renewed, humanity along with it. When we read that along with the rest of the Bible we are brought to conclude that many, many individual humans will repent and unite their ways with God’s ways, become fully human and (as other passages teach) others will not repent and will finally lose all their footholds in life and love. Meanwhile we are in the hands of One whose patience achieves more than human impatience; whose grace promotes deeper obedience than human laws. God is not like the government, passing laws and issuing fines. His kindness unclenches our fists and is an ointment to our sore eyes. God’s action among us is still a mystery. But the glimpses tell us he is extraordinary in his character and that shows in the way he uses his power.