The team that I am part of reads hundreds of magazines each year and we file references and notes about them to use in the new version of the best-selling prayer handbook ‘Operation World’, eighth edition due out sometime.
Sometimes we share articles around. Here’s one from the person who monitors Russian and Ukranian magazines. I’m sorry it’s not in the cheerier terms in which I usually try to write.
Last week Ukrainian troops liberated the entire territory of the Kyiv region. What they discovered in the cities of Irpin, Gostomel, Bucha, and dozens of surrounding villages, words cannot convey. As I write these lines, my hands begin to tremble, and my eyes fill with tears.
Hundreds and hundreds of unarmed civilians were shot dead with their hands tied. Burned bodies of raped women. Dead bodies cover the streets of cities, fill basements, and decompose in looted apartments. Entire towns and villages destroyed to the ground. Russian military vehicles are full of stolen goods (household appliances, jewellery, underwear, perfumes, plumbing fixtures, etc.). The Russian soldiers in the border regions’ post offices send everything they looted to their families back in Russia.
I don’t know how to live with it. We have liberated only a tiny part of our country from the invaders. However, we can already say that in Ukraine, Russian troops have repeated the crimes of Srebrenica and Rwanda.
A month and a half ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today, I can only cry. I used to be tormented by the question of why so many Holocaust survivors later committed suicide. It is worth mentioning the poet Paul Celan, the philosopher Jean Amery, a great witness to the horrors of Auschwitz (in which my own grandmother also died), and Primo Levy.
A month ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today…
Today, I understand that the violence and evil they experienced deprived them of ways to return to everyday life, normal relationships, and trust in other people. They, like Eli Wiesel, have been in such an abyss of evil that it is almost impossible to look away from it.
Who knows how to pray with a woman raped for a week by a Russian soldier, who then shot dead her sick mother when the woman refused to go with him to Russia? How should I pray for a six-year-old boy who turned grey because the Russian military raped his mother day after day in front of him?
What words can be said to the elderly residents of a care home that ruthlessly reduced to rubble by a Russian tank? What can be said to the people who survived hell on earth, which was arranged for them by the Russian military? How can we bring comfort a wife whose husband ran out to seek help because she had given birth but was killed near the house? How do we mourn civilians who have been tortured so much that they cannot be identified?
Apparently, my readers find it hard to believe all this. A few weeks ago, I would not have believed that this is possible. But this is Ukraine, and this is the 21st century. And I think with even greater horror, what else will we learn when we liberate the rest of our territories?
I am not ready to talk more about this today, but I know that a new theology has emerged in Ukraine these days: Theology after Bucha.
What do you when when you were the young whippersnapper but are being replaced by still younger whippersnappers? I found this brilliant piece from Wired magazine by Megan O’Gyblin (March 2021) in my notebook. It made me want to read a lot more of her stuff. She was answering the question from a 30-year-old that began, ‘I’m only 30 but already I feel myself disengaging from youth trends.’ (This is an excerpt.)
‘The sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die.’ I have barely dipped my toes in this, even after the all decades my heart has been beating.
I don’t mean to depress you, only to slightly reframe the question. If perpetual relevance is a chimeric virtue, as futile as the quest for eternal life, the question then becomes: What will make your life more enriching and meaningful? On one hand, it might seem that acquiring more knowledge—staying up to date on music, slang, whatever—will lead to more meaning, at least in its most literal sense. To grow old, after all, is to watch the world become ever more crowded with empty signifiers. It is to become like one of those natural language processing models that understands syntax but not semantics, that can use words convincingly in a sentence while remaining ignorant of the real-world concepts they represent. It feels, in other words, as though you’re becoming less human.
But knowledge is not the only source of meaning. In fact, at a moment when information is ubiquitous, cheap, and appended with expiration dates, what most of us long for, whether we realize it or not, is continuity—the sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die. For centuries, the fear of growing old was assuaged by the knowledge that the wisdom, skills, and experience one acquired would be passed down, a phenomenon the historian Christopher Lasch called “a vicarious immortality in posterity.” When major technological innovations arrived every few hundred years rather than every decade it was reasonable to assume your children and grandchildren would live a life much like your own. This sense of permanence made it possible to construct medieval cathedrals over the course of several centuries, with artisanal techniques bequeathed like family heirlooms.
This relationship to the future has become all but impossible in our accelerated digital age. What of our lives today will remain in 10 years, or 20, or into the next century? When the only guarantee is that the future will be radically unlike the past, it’s difficult to believe that the generations have anything to offer one another. How do you prepare someone for a future whose only certainty is that it will be unprecedented? What can you hope to learn from someone whose experience is already obsolete? To grow old in the 21st century is to become superfluous, which might explain why the notion of aging gracefully has become an alien concept. (As one Gen Z-er complained of millennials in Vice: “It all feels like they’re trying to prolong their youth.”) Meanwhile, the young become, for the old, not beneficiaries of wisdom and knowledge but aides in navigating the bewildering world of perpetual disruption—in other words, tech support.
Someone of your age, of course, has a foot in both worlds: still young enough to count yourself as part of the rising culture, yet mature enough to perceive that you are not exempt from the pull of gradual irrelevance. One difficulty of this phase of life is feeling like you don’t have a clear role; another is the constant anxiety over when you will finally tip into fustiness yourself. But to take a brighter outlook, you also inhabit a unique vantage with a clear-eyed view of both the past and the future, and if there’s one thing we could all benefit from right now, it’s a sense of perspective. Rather than merely serving as IT for your older friends and relatives, you might ask them about their lives, if only to remind them—and yourself—that there remain aspects of human nature that are not subject to the tireless engine of planned obsolescence.
As for those younger than you, I suspect your life would seem more meaningful if you focused less on keeping up with transient fads and considered instead whether you have acquired any lasting knowledge that might be useful to the next generation
I enjoyed this fascinating article that is doing the rounds where I work, and thought it was worth sharing. It’s a criticism of Russian Orthodoxy’s support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, signed by representatives of other Orthodox groups.
It’s also a critique of Christian religious nationalism in general. Worth brewing a coffee and reading.
If nothing else, after you’ve read it, you might have a new phrase to accuse people of, ‘ethno-phyletism’. It might also send you scurrying, as it did me, to look up the Epistle to Diognetus.
Look at this from Private Eye‘s wonderful ‘MD’ (aka Dr Phil Hammond) (15-28 October 2021 p 8)
The model of general practice – trying to manage multiple complex risks and needs in very brief encounters – has long been unsafe and unsustainable. You have 10 minutes to help an 80-year-old woman who is arthritic, breathless, recently bereaved and on 12 tablets. It takes three of those minutes to walk her from waiting room to consulting room.She wants to talk about her late husband; you want to ensure her breathlessness was not a red flag for a life-threatening condition or a side effect of the pills you have prescribed.
It takes another three minutes to undress her and get her up on the couch to be examined. And yet her main reason for coming was loneliness.
A study of Norwegian health records, published in the British Journal of General Practice, found that — compared with a one-year patient-GP relationship — those who had had the same doctor for between two and three years were about 13 percent less likely to need out-of-hours care, 12 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital, and 8 percent less likely to die that year. After 15 years, the figures were 30 percent, 28 percent and 25 percent.
Healthcare depends crucially on relationships, and staff knowing and understanding you.
Imagine a GP being resourced enough to combine a vocation as a doctor with the time and stability to develop relationships with patients. Vocation and relationships … just like in a book I recently wrote, which I may have occasionally mentioned in this blog. And which is still ‘forthcoming’…
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.
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.
I worked, as you may know by now, for a Singaporean magazine in the early 1990s. Its target market was the Christian community and as the only inter-denominational show in town, so far as magazines were concerned, that meant we were the target market for lots of press releases. All the quotes in the article, which I’ve anonymized to save blushes, were real. And dispiriting. This article will be a chapter in my forthcoming book The Sandwich about living sandwiched in the interstices between God’s promises and the mysterious life of our home planet.
Sometimes you wonder.
We get lots of mail in the Impact office. Some of it is promotional. Here are some quotes from material lying around the office:
Pastor X is one of the strongest church leaders in the world today.
A man with a strong apostolic and prophetic mantle, Pastor Y is impacting the world.
Dr Z is one of the most anointed Bible teachers in the world.
Here’s a longer one describing someone’s ministry in Japan and inviting funds for the school that trained him:
At first they came by the dozens.
Then, they came by the hundreds
And finally, they came by the thousands.
And they stream across the playing field of a 60,000 seat baseball stadium to commit their lives to Jesus Christ.
It gets better:
This is happening in the inscrutable orient — in Japan, the country some have called the ‘missionary graveyard’.
The report goes on:
Closed. Until now. What has changed?
Who is God using to lead thousands of Japanese to publicly turn their faces to the cross — and their backs on centuries of religious tradition?
Aw, you guessed. A Japanese evangelist trained by the school.
The report fails to mention that responses like that were the normal pattern in Japan after World War II, and they were mostly for cultural reasons rather than spiritual ones. Japan’s churches have remained small, less than 1% of the population, despite hundreds of thousands of responses in large evangelistic meetings. It is astonishing that the school didn’t train its evangelists to understand this, and even more astonishing that they should be boasting about their ignorance of both history and culture.
Hype. A late-twentieth century disease, entirely absent from the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. (Can you imagine it? ‘Let’s put our hands together and welcome Paul, acclaimed author of Romans, one today’s most anointed missionaries…’) Chillingly present among the rag-tag-and-bobtail heretics who so damaged the Early Church.
Hype. There must be better ways for honest leaders with genuine ministries to promote what they’re doing. Let us pray:
‘From good people, doing good things, badly, Good Lord, deliver us.’
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: