Another pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book
One of my lockdown projects was to compile a book about how difficulty and trauma can cause us to rethink our lives and, if we are fortunate, how we can then go on to live simpler, better and more meaningful days. Without having anything particularly to boast about, and also because of lots of other things have gone in the right direction for me, this is where I find seem to find myself (at the moment). So I wrote about this, and called the book ‘Bread‘. I’m serializing it here on my blog and here’s the 3rd slice.
The story so far: adversity can cause a rethink of our priorities. Now read on…
My search for what really matters
So: adversity or loss or infirmity or disappointment or something has brought us to crunching halt. We are looking out at a landscape with a sobriety and clarity that is aided by our low mood. We are beginning to realize that there is quite a lot that is more important behind the glitzy and temporary frontage to a life of success, wealth or popularity. These are helpful thoughts, sobering. What do we do now? What parts of our mental landscape do we stop visiting? What new paths do we tread down?
The place not to visit
I want to suggest that the main place not to visit is the broken dream. I’m not saying you should never go there. But you should go there to clear up, say your goodbyes, tie everything off. You have lost and it is good to mourn. So visit the broken dream if you must, but visit it less and less, let it go back to nature. It’s always going to be part of you, but it is a better part of you when it shapes a new future, rather than when it is a decaying present you are trying to primp, or when you are using it to define who you are today. You need to define yourself by something other than your loss, your sorrow, your ill-health, your former hopes, or your former state.
Instead of mooching around your broken dream, enjoying the gothic scene of heartbreak, your loosened hair romantically draped over the headstone of your loss, you might want to ask a few questions now that the urgency of your loss has passed. Don’t feel the need to answer these hurriedly. Mull them over. Work them into your life.
What have I not lost?
What do I love?
Whom do I love?
What do I value?
Point your feet where these answers direct you. Keep asking the questions, and keep walking in the answers. You won’t fix everything in an afternoon, or a year, or in the rest of your life, but you will be walking the right road and you will at times find yourself in the green pastures and quiet waters that you have always wanted.
Being the second extract from my book on how to simplify your life
A second pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book , ‘Bread’.
This passage is about how unexpected troubles can set us on the path to rethinking our lives.
My search for what really matters (second slice)
In any crisis your body gives you an emergency shot of the panic juices. A course of fight-or-flight hormones may take you through a crash, or a hospital treatment, or a birth, or a breakup, or the funeral arrangements or whatever other intense time you must rise to.
Two things will then happen. You will have a bit of a tumble emotionally as the hormones leak away and normal tiredness takes over. And, second, because the intensity of the storm has passed, you can inspect your new world.
This season can be a blessing because it can give you a clear sight of what to do. It’s like clearing up after a party. The mess! The stains in the carpet! What are you going to do? Time for the cleaning gloves
So. The house is quiet again, and there’s a new post-trauma world to explore. What to do? Some thoughts:
You were broken already. You might feel that now you are wounded and before you were whole. I’m sorry to report that this picture is wrong. You might feel like a broken egg now, but you were never the whole egg. You were already cracked, back in the shop. All that’s happened is that you’ve revised your mental model of yourself. You always were needy, but you used to cover it well.
Decide it’s work time. You’ve already vaguely suspected there are things to sort out in your life, but the calamity brings them into the open. The singer Debbie Harry explained her drug-taking: ‘Drugs aren’t always about feeling good … Many times they are about feeling less.’ True, but avoiding the pain with pharmaceutical assistance keeps forever dropping you back at the start, each time with a little more clearing up to do. You are made of better stuff.
Take time. You’ve done rushing for a bit. You can take some breaths, re-evaluate, start small.
Feel the fire. This is the best bit. There’s a fire burning inside you. Still. This is so cliched a thought that it may call song lyrics to your mind. I will survive! There’s something inside so strong! It’s probably best for everyone if you don’t actually sing—you are not a rock star for a reason—but on the bright side you have discovered something about yourself. You will go on. You will push on. We humans didn’t take over the world because we’re a species of wimpy losers. So the party’s over and your home is wrecked? On we go. On we go. The cracks let the light in. The breaking is the start of the mending.
Where are we heading here?
Where are we heading? Towards a rethink. Convalescence after hospital nightmares gave me the moment, and the need, to shut down some old mental pathways and open some new ones. I sadly cannot declare final victory in this fight, but I do think that much of the time I have persuaded my brain to walk down a more promising road.
Suffering is our friend here. How do you see the new mental pathway that needs to be cut? That’s the clarity of low mood. What powers the cutting of the path? The fire inside you and your determination to see a better day, or at least another day. How does the path become well-trodden and familiar? By you taking it, day after day after day. Facing adversity well, every day, sometimes every hour, builds a resilient brain. In the end you’ll have carved a fresh path with many delights where you love to walk.
Read an article recently about the life of the carer. Of course there are millions in our country, paid or unpaid. Perhaps you are one yourself. In any case a person going somewhere with his or her carer is a commonplace on every bus, town centre, or tourist spot.
The lessons carers learn:
enjoy the moment;
look at the heart, not the surface;
treasure every human;
understand that loving commitment enables you to travel miles together;
don’t mind walking pace;
don’t worry about tomorrow.
These are kingdom-of-God lessons. One almost wonders how you can have a kingdom of God without the need to care; like the Kingdom was made to flourish among imperfection, limitation, and brokenness. How can it flourish without it? This is akin to the question, if everything were perfect, where would be the place of love? Too difficult.
What is the point of anything, is a good question.
A good answer for Christians is that what we do is a foretaste, a foreword, a good go, an early attempt, a sign, instrument, and portent of the world to come. It will all be thrown away as juvinilia (the early output of the creatives). But like juvinilia it is connected, even contiguous, with all that is to come. Here are some metaphors:
We are seeds, due to perish, but also a kind of Noah’s ark bearing extracts from the old world into the new. Into the marigold seeds that I save for next year are poured a whole marigold’s summer of life. When we go to our grave, we take our marigold summer with us, into the next life. When the cosmos dies, somehow, the same happens. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)
2. Treasure and fine linen and the best of culture. The best of our earthly service is somehow returned to us, or to the cosmos, when the New Creation comes:
..Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:20-21)
For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) (Revelation 19:7-9)
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Revelation 21: 1o, 25)
This gives us a reason for every temporary act. We live in a world of death, and ends, and shadows, and half-built things, and things that fall down. But we build anyway, love anyway, serve anyway, invent anyway, create anyway, work anyway, because the best of it, whatever it is, we will see again and know it as our own, all spruced up and transformed through Christ.
The quick fix is what I usually want with a health problem. I have a problem, the doctor fixes it, we all walk away happy, like taking the car to the garage. We can approach healing prayer the same way: I have this pain or limitation or sickness, please make it go away so that I can go back to normal life.
Doctors live with this stuff all the time and I am told that they also are aware of the psycho-social aspect to almost any healing: ‘who and what are you?’ is important alongside ‘what seems to be the problem?’ Doctors possibly get fed up of people who present with COPD or obesity, for example, and want a pill or a procedure rather than to make changes in their thinking, their lifestyle or their relationships.
Proper biblical Christian healing is about the whole person, their relationships, and eternity. It is also about the real problem, not just the symptoms. The New Testament (in the book of James) locates the proper place for healing as alongside pastoral care: is any of you sick? – Call the church leaders.
It means that seeking healing through prayer should really be about seeking God. We should expect such prayer to ‘work’, but on God’s terms rather than ours.
Not long ago I was rootling through some computer files and I noticed a list I’d made of prayer requests. There were about seven items in the list, and I think five had already been answered. Looking again, two years further down, and with this list long forgotten, I realized the two remaining items could also be checked off.
This is so fascinating. Where will we all be in five years’ time? What will the world be like? The year 2020 has been a tremor in the normal heartbeat of life. Who would have thought about crashing economies, two million deaths, face-masks everywhere, people afraid to go on the train or to shake hands?
How will history record the past year?
After 2020, the great rises in living standards and shared wealth that had marked that previous quarter century resumed their astonishing and compounding progress
2020 marked the start of serious upheavals that continued for the rest of that dreadful century — called by some the world’s first true Dark Age.
I’ve sometimes wondered what it must have been to be born in my grandad’s generation (born 1899) and facing, but not yet knowing about, half a century of war, death, recession and a long tail of mourning and deprivation.
Or which year in our current century is most like 1913, that summer of the British at their mustachioed, imperialistic peak, a moment that looked like a new high plateau rather than (as it proved) a moment of teetering and fleeting poise, the sunlit dewy morning prior to the slaughter.
My rootling in my computer reminded me that whatever else the next five years will hold or the next 50, for that matter, they will be years of answered prayer. They will be years when our longings have been taken to God and years in which God, mysteriously, but from our perspective, and in response to our cries, spun a golden thread of kept promises and tender goodness into whatever wild tapestry is elsewhere being woven.
Toxic populism has muscled in on the news since 2016, filling our headlines in the way that radical Islam did for a few years before it. The roll-call of men (mostly men) who feel the need to take control, maintain order, and get on with repressing, is familiar across too many countries– just read the news.
It’s a (by now) familiar playbook
Give out jobs on loyalty, not merit
Erode all the things that stand in the way of an almighty state: laws, judges, newspapers, NGOs,anywhere where independent thought and criticism can thrive.
It isn’t, as we are seeing by now, a recipe for success. Cronies aren’t as good at running things as people who get jobs via merit and they pilfer the national good rather than fostering it. Some things, think Covid-19, can’t be insulted away or imprisoned. The flawed mental model of the autocrat cannot bear much reality, nor, for that matter, much wit.
How do you make societies resilient against this kind of thing? I struggle so much with this but I love the 37th Psalm, an extended meditation on the slow, resilient way:
Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; 2 for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
3 Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. 4 Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
7 Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. 11 But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.
35 I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a luxuriant native tree, 36 but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found.
37 Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace.[d]
Interesting to see how Covid is scratching the surface off us and revealing the rawness underneath. I read a lovely article in the Grauniad which I wanted to share in case you hadn’t seen it.
Rachel Clarke (journalist turned physician, apparently, and drafted into intensive care) wrote eloquently and superbly about the stress, the exhaustion, the despair, the abuse on Twitter and elsewhere. She incidentally writes about how ‘Sometimes, in the darkness, a patient pleads to die. They cannot take the claustrophobic roar of their CPAP mask any longer.’ (I recognize that emotion, though I didn’t want to die, just not fight any more, when I was attached to a CPAP in 2013.)
But then this:
All across the hospital, you see it. In the tiny crocheted crimson hearts, made by locals for patients and delivered in their scores so that no one feels alone. In the piles of donated pizzas, devoured at night by ravenous staff. In the homemade scrubs, whipped up by an unstoppable army of self-isolating grandmothers whose choice in fabrics is fearlessly floral. In the nurses and carers and porters and cleaners who keep on, despite everything, smiling. I may be tired and angry and sometimes mad with grief, but every single day at work, I see more kindness, more sweetness, more compassion, more courage, more resilience, more steel, more diamond-plated love than you could ever, ever imagine. And this means more and lasts more than anything else, and it cannot be stolen by Covid.
Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Dr Rachel Clarke is published by Little, Brown
This appears as the introduction to my blog and is about fruitfulness: personal, social, in every season, and tracing a pattern established before we were born and which will still apply after we are dust.
‘Slow mission’ is about huge ambition–all things united under Christ–and tiny steps.
I contrast it with much talk and planning about ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ which happens in the parts of church I inhabit, and which have an appearance of spirituality, but make me sometimes feel like I am in the Christian meat-processing industry.
Here’s a summary of slow mission values, as currently figured out by me:
Devoted. Centred on Christ as Saviour and Lord. Do we say to Christ, ‘Everything I do, I do it for you.’ Do we hear Christ saying the same thing back to us?
Belonging. We sign up, take part, dive in, identify, work with others, live with the compromises. Not for us a proud independence.
Respecting vocation. Where do ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger’ meet?1. Vocation is where God’s strokes of genius happen. That’s where we should focus our energies.
To do with goodness. Goodness in the world is like a tolling bell that can’t be silenced and that itself silences all arguments.
Observing seasons. ‘There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’2.The world will be OK even if we check out for a while. (Note: our families, however, won’t be.)
Into everything. We are multi-ethnic and interdependent. We like the handcrafted. We are interested in all humanity and in all that humanity is interested in. Wherever there’s truth, beauty, creativity, compassion, integrity, service, we want to be there too, investing and inventing. We don’t take to being shut out. Faith and everything mix.
Quite keen on common sense. We like to follow the evidence and stick to the facts. We like to critique opinions and prejudices. We don’t, however, argue with maths. Against our human nature, we try to listen to those we disagree with us. We’re not afraid of truth regardless of who brings it. We want to be learners rather than debaters.
Happy to write an unfinished symphony. Nothing gets completed this side of death and eternity. What we do gets undone. That’s OK. Completeness is coming in God’s sweet time. ‘Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.’3.
Comfortable with the broken and the provisional. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for right, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the laughed-at. This also implies a discomfort with the pat, the glib, the primped, the simplistic, the triumphalistic and the schlocky.
Refusing to be miserable. The Universe continues because of God’s zest for life, despite everything, and his insouciance that it will all probably work out somehow. In sorrows, wounds and in the inexplicable, we join God in his childlike faith.
About riding forth for justice on a very small horse. From my forthcoming book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.
Here’s another article that I wrote for the Singaporean magazine Impact, aimed at the many thousands in that island nation–where we used to live–who were joining the churches for the first time. I’ve collected my favourites into a forthcoming book that may well be called ‘The Sandwich‘, because it is for those of us squeezed by the sublime one side and by the whole world on the other.
Ask anyone with a younger brother. Life is not fair.
We know that no two people are born equally favoured. We aren’t given equal chances along the way. Here’s the tip of the iceberg:
Younger brothers don’t get told off; we do.
Some people blab on their phone all the time while driving and are never caught. Someone else uses the phone once, with the car stationary, in a family emergency, and has to pay a fine.
Babies born in Singapore can expect to live 83 years; others choose parents from Sierra Leone and may only average 50 years.
Worse, in a sense: God, we believe, is fair. Nor does he think justice is merely an aspiration, a campaign promise, something to be put in place when he has sorted out a few other things first. God loves justice (as Isaiah 61:1 says). He does justice: ‘the Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed’ (Psalm 103:6). He commands his people to do justice: ‘You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality … Justice, and only justice, you shall follow’ (Dt 16: 19-20).
God is just; life isn’t. Yet God is all-powerful. So why isn’t life fair? Below are a few thoughts.
We inhabit a wrinkle in eternity
We inhabit a wrinkle in eternity. It helps to realize this.
Eternity is forever–and it is filled with God and his kindness and fairness. Evil and suffering are temporary and are perhaps the equivalent of an attack of hiccups in this great grand goodness. In the big picture, all is thriving and bright. So far, so true. But let’s zoom in on the wrinkle.
God is at work in history
God is working in the wrinkle. This is a central Christian teaching, and it is comforting but it doesn’t make our question any easier. A God who set things up and then headed off for the evening, leaving us to it, would at least mean we could understand injustice. But that isn’t an alternative the Bible offers. Instead, the Bible portrays God, like a master chef with hands in the baking bowl, up to his elbows in justice work every day. Here are some things he does:
God brings things to an end in his own time. This current world has mortality built in. People, cultures, empires grow, ripen, rot. Everything passes. This is part of his architecture of history: extremely sad for those we love but rather helpful in the case of evil people and empires. If they lived forever, it would be a nightmare, Genghis Khan or someone would still be in charge. But in an evil world, universal mortality is almost a kind of mercy, certainly a way of capping off evil. ‘In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace’ (Psalm 37: 10-11).
God works on behalf of the needy. I once sat in the recovery area of an eye-surgery ward. People recovering from cataract operations were saying things like ‘I’ll be able to drive again!’ ‘I can read this now! I couldn’t read it before!’
It was just an ordinary day for this ward, but I felt like I’d fallen into a page of the New Testament. The blind see! God works for the needy. Every little thing that is done to relieve human suffering has its first impulse in the heart of God. On average, today, by the measures of extreme poverty, the world is getting better, God’s justice is spreading. Through humans—many of them, his own people—he is putting right what is wrong for the poor.
God works on his own timescale. Here is a very humbling thought. His forbearance is meant to bring us to repentance (Romans 2:4). He is patient with us, not wanting any to perish (2 Peter 3:9) Imagine this! The all-powerful God of love and justice at times lets great suffering happen. He hears the cries of the oppressed and he sits on his hands. Why? Sometimes he judges it good to wait.
I always find it remarkable that the only things that didn’t obey Jesus on earth were humans. At the Master’s command, waves collapsed, demons fled, limbs grew, bread multiplied. But humans? He told them what to do and they did something else. There is something incredible about what God will put up with from humans, what disobedience he will face, what injustice he will sit out, in order to win them finally. God waits, and often gets in hot water for it.
Other times God seems even to let things move too quickly; the person looking for a happy retirement is struck down too soon. We cannot do anything about this beyond seeking God and trusting him. He is good, he loves mercy and hates injustice, but he lingers around or presses forward according to his own internal clock, not ours. There is a saying in the court system: ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ But that is not true in God. He is an eternal being, and so are we. Mortality is delayed in some and hastened in others; it’s not fair; but it will be; and beyond understanding God we are called to walk with him: protesting perhaps, but also surrendering, trusting, praising.
There is a day coming. Years ago I drove past a horse and carriage on our roads, a rare sight. The horse was being whipped to trot faster. Its eyes were wide, it was foaming at the mouth, and it was shiny with sweat. Every time I drive on that road I think of that horse. But that was many years ago, and whatever cruelties it suffered are over now. In the same way, we believe there is a day coming when injustice will end for good. The wrinkle has a limit. Peace and justice will be universal. A day is coming.
God has entered our pain. In Jesus, God moved himself from the realm of mere academic speculation about fairness and made the argument personal. He has tasted injustice from the inside out. He knows what it is to be sentenced to death by a baying mob, abandoned by a cowardly judge. He knows what it is to be flogged like an animal. God in Jesus is many things, Saviour above all of them, but he is also God’s eloquent way of telling us to ‘shut up already about injustice.’
What do we do about this?
So what do we do about this?
A stream flows through the Universe and we glimpse it in the Bible.
One picture of it is ‘the river of the water of life’ flowing from the temple in the closing chapters of the book of Revelation. The same stream appears in the book of Ezekiel, bubbling from the renewed temple, making the salty land sweet. An explanation of it comes from Jesus: ‘Whoever believes in me … “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water”’ (John 7:38) and ‘the water that I will give [you] will become … a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:4).
The stream is God’s mercy. It is intended to flow into us–the Church, the new temple–and then out from us into the world. From us it’s supposed to broaden into a river delta, so that the whole earth is irrigated. I think it is the main part of the answer to the protest, God isn’t fair.
While dry argument has its place, I suspect God isn’t at his happiest debating lesser beings about justice. He’d rather be out there doing it. That has to be our vision too. The words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ are interchangeable in the Greek, I understand, so it’s OK to translate Christ’s sayings in the Beatitudes like this:
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied’ (Matthew 5:6)
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:10).
Is God fair? A stream of mercy pours through the heavens. Those who drench themselves in it themselves become sources of mercy and justice. They set the world back on its feet. The static question has a dynamic answer, one that can catch us up in it and occupy all our creativity and energies. Is God fair? ‘There is a river … come behold the works of the Lord’ (Psalm 46: 4,8).