A friend of mine for more than 25 years has just died. He was a soldier, then a taxi driver, then in his final couple of years he worked at our local hospital, helping clear the rubbish from the wards and driving a vehicle than carried all this waste, snaking through the underground corridors. He struggled with health conditions all his life, a chest that wouldn’t sweep out infections, and he had been given just a few years to live when a teenager. He swallowed antibiotics every day. He sometimes swelled with arthritis until a new medication was found, and for many years plugged himself into a C-PAP machine, like a vacuum cleaner, every night.
He stayed a soldier in civilian life, gleaming shoes, immaculate taxi, always on time. For several decades he had contracts to shuttle materials between Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge and the nearby Papworth Hospital, the pioneering transplant centre. The contract only ended when Papworth become the Royal Papworth and moved onto the Addenbrooke’s site. Carrying radioactive materials for transplant purposes, he never let the patients down, and took on extra work, like taking mail between departments that otherwise might miss the collections. He told me once of a girl he’d taken home from the city centre, almost too drunk to give her address, certainly too drunk and incapable to pay her fare. He took this vulnerable girl home, knocked on her door, handed her over to her father, made sure she was safe, like she was his own daughter, and went on his way.
He was the beating heart of our men’s breakfast group, instigator of our weekends away in the Lake District, organizing them himself for many years, army style, with rations allocated and he would have had us travelling in convoy if we’d let him. He sought old army friends out and welcomed them in. He loved a curry. He loved his family and quietly fought his infirmities, every day, to keep going for them. His self-medication took him hours in a morning, and yet he was early to work every day. He had an encounter with Christ almost the first time he walked into our church (his daughter was at Sunday School) and followed him faithfully ever afterwards. I love his example of an ordinary life, each ordinary day, like his shoes, burnished, gleaming with grace.
We were talking with a couple recently who were part of a church that had turned itself inside out. They had sold their (Baptist) church building, and moved into a community centre that was owned by a mental health charity. The charity, a non-religious outfit, had been set up to provide community-based care but were short of volunteers. The church had volunteers but no building. Bringing the two together brought two half-formed visions together. Fascinating (even if I’ve somewhat garbled the story).
Much more could be done. I have sometimes wondered if a church, instead of employing a family worker or a youth worker, could employ a professional mental health nurse. She or he could supervise lay work in the community and provide professional backing. Many community mental health needs can be met by lay people. They are often at the level of dropping in on someone for a cup of coffee, or phoning them to make sure they’ve taken their meds, or helping with cooking, shopping or budgeting. Such community concern (also known as ‘friendship’) can be transforming in the life of someone struggling alone with mental health issues.
Similarly, I am very impressed by the work of legal aid charities, who provide free legal services. Some of this work doesn’t need trained lawyers – for example helping people get justice via disability or Special Educational Needs tribunals. It just needs suitably skilled and trained volunteers. A church could easily pay a legal professional to manage a community law centre who could in turn lead a team of enthusiastic (though trained) amateurs and perhaps the odd intern.
Imagine a community legal centre or mental health centre that became a worshipping community on Sundays and the evenings!
These are all examples of churches turning themselves inside out, or perhaps more strictly, dissolving their outer structures and seeking fluidly to fit themselves to pre-existing vulnerabilities in the community. Solid at the core, fuzzy or fluid at the edges. Becoming less like bacteria and more like viruses perhaps. The churches get to do all the good they want to, the community gets served. Better, surely, than worshippers in a building, and needy people in their homes, each alone in their own way.
What does a revolution look like? Most of them involve armed thugs, which is hardly a good start.
That kind of revolution –which is most so-called revolutions — is only a revolution in the sense once defined by Terry Prachett: they call them revolutions because everything goes round and round.
What does a real revolution look like, one that actually changes things? The Kingdom of God, heralded and inaugurated in the New Testament, is supposed to be such a thing. What would it look like?
A culture where leaders are accountable, to law, to being sacked by the people they rule.
A culture grown kinder so that people are more patient, more honest, more generous, more likely to share your load.
A culture where personal integrity is valued. Personal integrity forms, drip by drip, over a lifetime, like a stalagmite. Once formed, and if genuine, it reaches deep and extends far into the networks of people around us. When it connects with the integrity of others it provides a scaffold upon which decent human cultures can grow and thrive.
A healing culture. That would be nice: people restored to joy and usefulness as part of a community, love flowing, even as lives bloom and decay.
A worshippingculture. Perhaps all cultures are worshipping cultures; but this would be worshipping the maker rather than the made.
A culture committed to living at peace: in harmony with creation; with forgiveness and forbearance to others at its heart; aiming to restore the broken.
A learning culture, so that we are curious about the world around us; able to experiment; able to fail; willing to change.
A culture committed to changing. I think much of what is loosely called ‘progress’ fits here. We can learn stuff and discover how to do things better. I personally prefer, for example, hi-tech, unnatural births over having all these dead babies or mothers taking up needless space in graveyards. Free markets distribute the good things of the earth around with great efficiency. Property rights and the rule of law ensure that the whole of society rises together, like boats on a rising tide. Unjust leaders get moved on. The Old Testament appears to regulate rather than abhor all these things.
A remembering culture that knows other generations walked this way too and knew and did stuff and are owed respect at times.
A respectful culture, sensing the preciousness and autonomy of every human, and letting that inform our corporate life.
A creative culture, valuing playfulness, and invention, and engineering, and hypothesising, and art, and music, and literature.
An ambitious culture, ambitious for human thriving, dreaming of still more goodness piled on the goodness of earlier years, like bank upon bank of clouds in the sky, all reflecting the sun from different angles.
A culture committed to the long term. I’ve walked round a reservoir in the Peak District that was built in the 1930s, built to solve permanently the need of nearby cities for water. Ninety years on, our generation and culture doesn’t have to worry so much. Then in the 1940s Clement Attlee, that modest man ‘with much to be modest about’ in Churchill’s phrase, implemented across the nation the ideal of free healthcare for everyone. Eighty years on, for all the problems, we still stand in the good of that. What will we add? Imagine, for example, if we solved the problem of generating electricity sustainably; imagine if future generations hardly had to worry about flicking a power switch. Imagine if we found better ways of keeping warm, or feeding ourselves, or doing construction, or living alongside a thriving Earth. What gifts all that would be to generation after generation, to the grandchildren of our grandchildren, leaving them free to work on other stuff.
A hopeful culture – when all the above is ripped apart, or becomes a monstrous idol of its own self, when everything is back to square 1 or square minus 10: still straining for ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’ (as George Herbert wrote) that make us stand and go again.
Again I’m writing about healing, partly because I’m living it, partly because what I picked up from many years as a Christian now seems so wrong and there is so much rethinking to do.
I’m still rethinking, and I’m still breathing, both of which I feel are important.
The last few weeks: we bought a disabled buggy, a wonderful little thing, and took it on holiday. (It folds into the car.) We were with our daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren and there was much walking on the prom and the cliff-tops, all of it now painless and easy. Nor was anyone needed to push me around in a wheelchair. And I could give the kids rides. So now in God’s riches I have an electric bike for longer journeys around Cambridge and an electric buggy for when I am with others.
Then yesterday I took the train down to my specialist heart centre in London where they retuned the pacemaker in my chest. A week or so before that, after phone calls from me, I had downloaded the pacemaker data and sent it to the hospital via a piece of kit that lives under our bed. The hospital looked at it and called me in and did the necessary reprogramming. Amazing. It is early days for this treatment but I feel less breathless and my wife tells me I am no longer blue to look at. Those guys at the hospital (both female guys as it happened) don’t just measure your ECG; they modify it and tweak it. They don’t take an ECG lying down. They press buttons and see what happens. Such fun!
This techno-assistance, though, seems a far cry from the New Testament where the Lord Jesus or the apostles did their stuff and immediate physical transformation appears to have happened. My electric buggy and the retuning of the extraordinary electronics that supply my heartbeat seem a different order of a thing to that. Why can’t (as Naaman asked) a prophet just wave his hands over me and make me well? Does this techno-medical intervention really count as ‘healing’ at all? Or is it a second-best solution for those whose lives are so cold and lacking in faith and zeal that the real healing stuff never happens to them? What is healing after all?
The New Testament contains hints that what I have heard doctors call the ‘psycho-social’ parts of healing are important, just as are the physical deliverance parts. Ten lepers were cleansed: only one came back to say thank you. Was there a lingering psycho-social unhealing among the healed lepers? Body fine, head in wrong place. Demons are driven out of the Gaderene demoniac. He is seen sitting clothed and in his right mind. But Jesus tells him to go home to his family, rather than joining the band of disciples. Is that to complete his healing? To address the pyscho-social roots of what got him in such a state in the first place? As it is, Mark records that the former demoniac takes up a speaking ministry in the Ten Towns, and Mark is silent over whether or not that was what Jesus really intended for the man. Interesting.
Then I watch friends, with a cancer diagnosis say, put their lives on hold until the treatment is completed. I observe, I think, I might be wrong (I hope I am), that they are putting all their eggs in the physical healing basket. Zap the cancer, go back to the life we had before. Nothing else matters.
I am so not so sure that this is right. (Of course I have to allow for the fact that I am sitting in my garden, at my ease, contented, writing this, not suffering some medical emergency or hospitalization which would indeed require a lot of effort and focus.)
But still. I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that. All good gifts come down from the Father of lights who does not change as the shifting shadows: buggies, pacemakers, holidays, instant miraculous physical transformations, play, vocation, nice food, people you love and good relationships with God and others.
I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that.
Of course, you have to qualify that idea. There are seasons of emergency actions, long wintry paths of mourning, times of brute endurance of the deeply unpleasant. It’s hard to speak of ‘thriving today’ in the face of those. But still. Healing is thriving. Healing is enjoying our lives, nourished by God’s daily bread, despite everything, in these ramshackle tents of ours, before they are replaced for good with the eternal mansions of glory.
We recently watched the documentary on BBC iPlayer about Alexi Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. So moving and astonishing. At the same time I am listening to an audio book called Putin’s People by Catherine Belton, a book I bought because it was a way of supporting a journalist who was being dragged through the courts by the oligarcocracy. She and Harper Collins fought them off I believe.
So I am on an intensive Putin course at the moment. And Alex Navalny and his wife Yulia and their children are such a breath of fresh air in all the thuggishness. Brave, of course, but witty too and perhaps there is no better way to profoundly disturb an autocrat than to joke about him. The documentary showed how the sinister and powerful FSB, successors to the KGB, tried and failed to poison Navalny’s underpants. Such grim incompentence is a joy to behold. Then, thanks to OSINT (open source intelligence) characters like the people at Bellingcat, he and they were able to find the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the death squad. And ring them up.
In some of the most compelling TV I have watched this year, Alex Navalny then pretended to be a senior FSB type asking for a report from the poisoner. And he got it, to the astonishment of those listening. Possibly that would mar the promotion prospects of the poor FSB man who was tricked. All this stuff was broadcast around the world, to the extreme discomforture of the people in charge in Russia.
And then Navalny went back. To immediate arrest and jail in some bleak corner of Siberia. What courage. What sacrifice. What cost. What a relief that there are still such people in this world, this world of thugs and autocrats. And now, without wishing to be unduly political, Russia has the wrong person in jail and the wrong person in charge.
What will happen next? What will happen next is that someone has taken the slow, brave path, a cheerful smile against the murderers and thieves. Surely it will resonate.
A lot of people can see the bits of the future, and quite a lot of us have the extra talent of somehow taking hold of a bit of the future and wrestling it down into the present.
‘I can imagine a day when cars are electric,’ someone might say. Or maybe an executive in a car company might say, ‘I predict one day there’ll be a lot of electric cars on the road.’ Both are seeing the future but not necessarily doing anything about it.
Someone else might say, ‘I’m going to build and mass-produce electic cars.’ Such people don’t just see the future. They drag it into the present.
Lovers, farmers, teachers and entrepreneurs do this all the time. Perhaps nearly all of us do it sometime, when we look at some future target or goal and move from ‘that would be nice’ to ‘I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.’
The world of the prophet
True in everyday life, this is also true in Christian discipleship. The Christian faith adds quite a bit to our innate human ability to drag the future the into present. We add God and prayer to the equation, and also the theological sense that there is a good future held in God’s hands. It can be sampled, if not fully fulfilled, in our ordinary lives here. Even more controversially, perhaps, God can promise us things.
This leads us to the world of the prophet, or intercessor, that lonely place where someone has taken hold of God, or God has taken hold of someone, who will pray and work and agitate and cry and pray again until the future is born on earth, because God has led them into that lonely place. They feel he has promised them something and they have altered their life around that promise.
This is a subtle and difficult place. Because we can be completely wrong. Think of the pastor counselling a series of young men in a church, all of whom think God has promised them the same girl will be his wife. We can also be incompletely wrong, in that God has genuinely promised something, but we have embellished it over the months, and our embellishments don’t happen, even if the promise does. Or we can be wrong in that God was promising and we were wearing tin ears, so the fulfilment of the promise comes as a total surprise (think of the disciples’ response to the resurrection).
But for all the misuse, there is good use. Think of the two characters, Simeon and Anna, around Jesus’ first presentation at the temple. They had waited decades, into great old age, and possibly the temple authorities thought they were a bit mad, but Simeon was finally able to say, ‘you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen…’ 1. Note that in Simeon’s and Anna’s cases, the temple authorities’ robust common sense may not have been a good guide. This unlikely pair each saw something and held onto it, improbable as it was.
That quiet, burdened person in your church may be bearing the future in a womb of lonely prayer somewhere. Or it may be a false pregnancy. Or even (to mangle the metaphor) a bit of both. Be kind to them.
Wherever you ripe fields behold, Waving to God their sheaves of gold, Be sure some com of wheat has died, Some saintly soul been crucified; Someone has suffered, wept and prayed, And fought hell’s legions undismayed.
Arthur S Booth-Clibborn, ‘There is no gain but by a loss’.
This is at the heart of slow. I have been in a conference this week where one of the speakers reminded us about God answering prayers ‘immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine’1.
There’s a scale here and an extent that stretches out beyond the limits of our imagination and does so because of the compounding effects of time.
It is impossible that the Apostle Paul, writing those words to a group of Turkish and Greek churches in the first century could believe what was going to happen. Twenty centuries later, the world is more complex than Paul could have guessed, but as earth turns, the sun never lights up a moment there when thousands, probably millions, are not reading Paul.
Would John Milton know that five centuries after his passing, someone, me, would be listening to Paradise Lost on a thing called a phone via a thing called a podcast while travelling at speed in a car?
What will Time and God do with the little things we offer him?
Just a single statistic caught my interest recently. In the early 1970s, traded goods were about 30% of world output. So, two-thirds of goods were made and used locally. In the early 2010s, that traded-goods figure had risen to 60%, meaning two thirds of goods were made elsewhere and shipped to where they were needed.1 Locked away in that little statistic, maybe, is loss and sorrow and Brexit and Trump and populism and nationalism.
When I was growing up in 1970s England, to see ‘MADE IN ENGLAND’ stamped on a thing was a thing. And it was everywhere. Slowly that ended. Now, the handtools and toys we buy are mostly made in China. This expansion of trade has brought prosperity to much of the world and cheap prices and more and better stuff.
But in the (thankfully) now past agonies over Brexit in our country, I observed nostalgia and loss over the way we don’t make our own stuff any more. It may be that that sense of loss has driven populist or nationalist politics all over the former stuff-making regions of the earth. In it is a hint of gaining the whole world (the free trade economists were right) but losing our soul.
Then I look at things editors pick as good news stories. Building windfarms the size of Yorkshire in the North Sea, for example. People who build and repair windfarms spend weeks on ships, climb creaking columns in gales, replace sprockets, rehang blades, loosen corroded big-end bearings — I don’t know what they do — but it is hard physical work to be proud of. Or someone else, further down the coast, is growing herbs in a vertical farm.
These are good news stories because they are about people saving the earth, but they are also hands-on, tiring, providing for your local community, reducing our dependence on others and fostering independence and self-sufficiency and they feel good.
Kind of like finding your soul again. Interesting.
This slice of ‘Bread’ sums up what lessons I think adversity or suffering can teach. Smarty-pants readers, like you, will recognize where we have eventually landed after a long journey … the Beatitudes.
My search for what really matters – slice the 6th
Let’s collect up and summarize the lessons of adversity:
We are ordinary.
We are poor.
We are broken.
There will be losses.
Time compounds things, so it’s a good idea to live with integrity in both the large and the small. Integrity will still be holding your hand when charisma, success, pride, and boasting, and your good looks, even yours, have fallen away.
Approaching problems and joys a day at time, or a moment at a time, means you tackle them a scale you were built for and can manage.
Our life in the midst of others—belonging to others, making peace with others, exposing our lusts and terrors, our darknesses, to the kind light of others—is key to walking the long distance of life well. Suffering shared can lead to deep connection which is life.
Hoping and resolving to do something right and good, or to live towards the doing of something good, is a mighty weapon in the fight to reclaim your mind from itself. Even if it’s slow. Even if feels like small steps forward after a catastrophic fall. Why? You find you are working with the grain of the Universe. The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book with the title Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. What a magnificent insight. (Perhaps I should read the book.) There is a course of life for us that is fruitful, being what we are, doing what we do, some good thing. It might be quite ordinary. Progress may be slow. Seasons may change while we await its fulness. But it is the path of life.
This next extract from my forthcoming book is about doing little good things even when big things have collapsed around us.
My search for what really matters – part 5
All is not lost when all is lost
Here’s another path to tread in your head: do small things well even if big things have collapsed around you. Your great loss may not be as total as it seems; and your small acts of goodness add up. Roiled around by the mighty tides of time, the little good things can overwhelm the big bad thing.
We can demonstrate this at both smaller and larger scales. Imagine you made a mistake at work. Imagine the mistake was not just human error but due to carelessness, ill-temper or even malice. Then imagine two separate responses:
Cover up, minimize, self-justify
Apologize, admit your fault, ask forgiveness.
Which is the better ‘strategy’? Much more important, which has integrity? Which behaviour will, in the end, do you the most good? Which path leads to the least complicated life? And which path, over time, will get you the respect you seek, and we all need?
Think of defeat and victory on a larger scale. Think of Nelson Mandela. He was troublesome and didn’t renounce violence. The South African state locked him up for life, with hard labour, a victory for them and a setback for him. He was off the streets and mostly out of the newspapers.
Mandela spent his 50th birthday in jail. Then his 60th. And then his 70th. But it turns out that maintaining injustice in a society is like trying to hold a beach ball under water. While Mandela passed milestone birthdays, the South African state was exhausting itself. Internally, it was fighting to maintain injustice, against protests of every kind. Externally, it was facing a crisis of belonging: its membership of the club of civilised countries was being stressed by the general issue of national racism and the specific dunked beachball called Mandela. The real, jailed Mandela, working the limestone quarry on Robben Island, took every rare opportunity to study and lobby and organize.
Eventually time’s pressure on the state grew too much and the state folded. In his seventies, Mandela walked out of prison and into the presidency. The little good things he’d spent twenty years doing overwhelmed the big bad thing done to him. As president, he worked to reconcile the nation and he left when his time was up rather than clinging to office. In the contest, Mandela v South Africa, who won and who lost? How did the winner win and how did the loser lose? What part did time play? How did repeated small acts of integrity fare against large doses of injustice?