The secret, sneaky power of kindness

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Consuming two outstanding bits of media got me thinking about kindness. The first was the film Marvellous, a true story about a man with learning difficulties who served as a kit-man for a professional soccer team and was eventually awarded an honorary degree. The other was the first series of the terrifying and brilliant Line of Duty, once on the BBC, then on Netflix, then, suddenly, just on the BBC again. Both lingered in the mind long after we disconnected our video projector. (If we watch TV, we like to take up a whole wall.)

Without giving too many spoilers, Line of Duty, a police procedural, had some scenes where a person with learning difficulties was horribly abused by a drug gang. In the trade this is called ‘cuckooing’, using a vulnerable person’s flat as a drug-distribution centre.

The big difference between the uplifting Marvellous and the horrifying Line of Duty was not the vulnerability of the people with learning difficulties. It was that one encountered kindness, and the other didn’t.

Which did get me thinking.

Kindness is such a potent, invisible power. I find it helpful to think about people whom I disagree with and remember when they were kind. It helps me defuse personal animosity. Kindness, if you’ve ever shown any, is what people will speak about at your funeral. It will moderate you and moderate what people think of you. Kindness is remembered and treasured. Such a small thing–weightless, odourless, like God–but secretly infiltrating our minds, and changing us.

Why having a convoluted ancestry is quite OK

In which we explore myths and endless genealogies, but in a good way.

Even if your mum is a virgin

moviedo at Pixabay

I have been spending more time than is good for me reading atheist websites. They like to throw stones at the Bible. So far it’s been dispiriting stuff, and not because of the quality of the arguments.

I could offer atheists an algorithm before sounding off about ‘Moab being my washpot’, or Cain and Abel, or Noah. Here’s the algorithm:

  1. Consider whether or not people who take the Bible seriously may not also have noticed what you have noticed.
  2. Consider whether they may or may not have explored the problem at a depth you do not seem to have appreciated.
  3. Have you explored the literature?
  4. Do you agree that first figuring out what the authors and compilers were trying to say to their original audiences is fairly important when handling ancient texts? The Bible is not a Penguin Modern Classic, tha’ knows.
  5. Stop sounding like a Flat-Earther or a Biblical Creationist already, plucking random things from flawed popular reading and confecting an argument.

The genealogies in Matthew and Luke are an easy target. Even a rushed reading will conclude:

  1. They contradict each other
  2. They end with Joseph, who wasn’t even Jesus’ biological dad.

While this is an easy Aunt Sally for the atheist projectile, it’s also fruitful to apply our algorithm and think more deeply. Here are two thunks.

  1. The best thing I’ve read on genealogy and ancestry is Adam Rutherford’s book A brief history of everyone who ever lived. (Dr) Adam Rutherford is a smart, fair-minded BBC producer and presenter, whom I have occasionally heard defending his atheism on the radio, though in a kindly, almost Anglican way, not with the stridency or rudeness of some. Dr Rutherford was more concerned with genetics than genealogy in his book but it explained beautifully some of the fun stuff around the topic. Of course we all have grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents in exponentially increasing numbers. But, there were fewer of them back then, not more. Which obviously means that everyone can trace several paths from Ancestor (A) (say, for example Charlemagne or Ghengis Khan) to Descendant (B), yourself. So, interestingly, even if there were nothing else going on in the New Testament genealogies, it would be right if they traced different paths from Abraham to Jesus. And the denizens of the ancient world obviously knew that.
  2. The only two gospels that talk about the Virgin Birth are the same two gospels that give a genealogy of Jesus. Perhaps they are trying to tell us something. An Arab friend of mine who was a convert to Christ from Islam was stopped at the border of her Arab country as she tried to get home. It was a slightly tense moment. The customs person looked at her passport and her name. ‘Very good family’, he said, and welcomed her in. Which perhaps is the point. Of course Joseph was Christ’s stepdad. So, as the genealogies tell us, Christ had been adopted into a very good family. The two gospels that describe Christ’s nature (born of a virgin) also are at pains to point out his nurture (adopted into a regal family). I think.

While we are talking myths and endless genealogies, it might be worth mentioning another book:

I understand this book to be a thought-experiment about how a literal Adam and Eve, born several millienia ago, could have been common ancestors to all living humans. (Adam and Eve would not have been the only humans around at the time, and nor would they have been named ‘Adam’ or ‘Eve’.) This book has been praised by many for its scientific rigour and gentle spirit. It’s a bit of a surprise for those of us who have become comfortable with a non-literal Adam and Eve. I haven’t read this book yet but I have heard a presentation by the author, and it’s a fresh contribution to what arguably is a stale set of arguments.

The back of the tapestry

Devotion weaves it

This isn’t an original thought. Our straggly lives down here are like the back of a tapestry, loose ends and knots and tangles. Our eternal selves–through Christ– are like the front of the tapestry, beautifully woven.

Two recent things made me think of this familiar Christian trope. One is freshly hearing Jesus’ command not to accumulate treasure on earth, but to accumulate it in heaven. The other was a series of articles on the Guardian website about being 47.

I’m not 47, though I used to be, but it is the point (according to surveys in the West) that we are at our least happy. After 47, happiness starts to grow again. The Grauniad asked for some personal experiences and the people who they published were sad: weighed down by kids, work, circumstances, perhaps by a marriage that had lost its fizz. (It was mostly first-world sadness, people worn down managing and coping, rather than enduring more apocalyptic types of loss.)

Hence the tapestry. It’s a lovely picture for the follower of Christ — patiently walking through the frustrations and anxieties of every day. Doing so with a worshipful heart so that actually you are weaving colourful swirls and whorls and whirls (and other words that have a root of ‘rls’ and that I can’t think of at the moment) into some tapestry somewhere; through Christ turning from merely enduring to wonderfully weaving because it’s an act of devotion to an audience of One.

Image by Welcome to all and thank you for your visit ! ツ from Pixabay

Slow meat-eating

The vegans are definitely 1-0 up over the carnivores and it’s well into the second half of the match, so I’m going to have to quote the Guardian at them.

Veganism is rightly touted as a response to industrial farming and butchery. It produces less CO2 as well, at least on its way into the stomach. (I’ve not seen research on what happens within the vegan stomach and beyond but prejudice suggests plenty of CO2 and CH4 emerges from human digesters.)

I did see, however, a contrary article that at least constitutes a brief rude noise in the sonorous vegan sermon. To quote:

Rather than being seduced by exhortations to eat more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing. We should, at the very least, question the ethics of driving up demand for crops that require high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, while demonising sustainable forms of livestock farming that can restore soils and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.

This is appealingly slow. The writer, who re-wilded her traditional dairy and arable farm, adds:

So there’s a huge responsibility here: unless you’re sourcing your vegan products specifically from organic, “no-dig” systems, you are actively participating in the destruction of soil biota, promoting a system that deprives other species, including small mammals, birds and reptiles, of the conditions for life, and significantly contributing to climate change.

Our ecology evolved with large herbivores – with free-roaming herds of aurochs (the ancestral cow), tarpan (the original horse), elk, bear, bison, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and millions of beavers. They are species whose interactions with the environment sustain and promote life. Using herbivores as part of the farming cycle can go a long way towards making agriculture sustainable.

There’s no question we should all be eating far less meat, and calls for an end to high-carbon, polluting, unethical, intensive forms of grain-fed meat production are commendable. But if your concerns as a vegan are the environment, animal welfare and your own health, then it’s no longer possible to pretend that these are all met simply by giving up meat and dairy. Counterintuitive as it may seem, adding the occasional organic, pasture-fed steak to your diet could be the right way to square the circle.

Isabella Tree. (Yes, she really is called that.) Here’s her book, which I have not read.

How to do controversy

Remember not to shout

Am enjoying Roy Jenkins’ biography of William Gladstone, which is a happy distraction from reading the current news. Jenkins was hampered by his lack of sympathy for Gladstone’s faith, but it’s a good read. I was struck by a speech Gladstone made at Glasgow University. Four guides to follow in controversy:

  • Truth
  • Charity
  • Diligence
  • Reverence

We could do worse.

How careers change after mid-life

Your runny self becomes hard-boiled. But don’t worry.

Just read a fascinating article about how we all peak earlier than we think…

In a really helpful piece in the Atlantic, Arthur C Brooks talked about the difference between fluid and crystalized intelligence. The fluid sort is flexible and creative, problem-solving and innovative. The crystalized sort is more likely to draw on wisdom and experience from the past – runny versus solid intelligence, if you like.

The runny sort is what many of us use as we progress in our career, trying new approaches, showing flexibility, making creative leaps and discoveries. But our runniness starts to decline as early as our 30s and 40s.

The solid sort builds through life and you don’t lose it until until the very end.

This is why scientists (often post-docs) are young; Supreme Court justices are old.

The significance of significance

Brooks’ deeper point is that if you get your significance from your achievements when your intelligence was running all over the place, you may struggle when you no longer can make the same leaps.

He gives the example of Charles Darwin, who was famous early but rather lost steam in his 50s and didn’t end particularly well. Start-up founders, creatives of all kinds, mathematicians and scientists, lawyers, business people — anyone who’s done well with learning, changing, driving change, beware. You’re seizing up faster than you think.

The remedy to this career disillusion, Brooks claims, is to shift gears and try to exploit all those stores of solid, crystallized intelligence you’ve built up while running around changing the world. Try mentoring or teaching in some sense, resourcing others. Try wisdom rather than innovation. It may mean stepping back from the frontlines of fame and significance but that can only be good.

(The alternative to this, which he doesn’t suggest, is to attend meetings and be the person who says ‘we tried that years ago and it never worked.’)

This is fascinating in several different ways.

  1. We have seasons in our lives; resisting this truth is not a recipe for happiness. We have to shift gears. If our significance comes from our fresh ideas, our flexibility, our creative leaps, watch out.
  2. This is something we instinctively know. Of course old men have a different perspective from young guys. It was always so: the young men of the village play cricket, the old guys nurse their pints of beer and watch. The mistake of us baby boomers is that in our 50s and 60s we think we can still do it on the dancefloor. Perhaps we are fooled by how good health care is now, or perhaps we don’t labour in the body-crushing occupations of our ancestors. Or perhaps no previous generation has been this pampered and this stupid.
  3. For me personally, my fiction-writing self has often felt fear that I won’t be able to be make the creative leaps of the past. That’s actually frightening. On the other hand, to write further books about the same people and in worlds already dreamed up is an enticing prospect, and I observe that many of my favourite writers did exactly that: they were like musicians on tour again, playing the old hits. Meanwhile my non-fiction writing self feels differently. After decades of reading and thinking, I’m getting to lay out the stuff that’s been crystallizing in my heart.
  4. And for all of us, the gear change may involve putting more weight on relationships than our glittering career, stepping back, pushing others forward, finding significance outside a string of achievements: choosing slow.

A field guide to faith in modern literature

I’ve just finished Richard Harries’ enjoyable book Haunted by Christin which the author explores twenty novelists and poets and how they responded to Christ (or to his absence).

I enjoyed the Good Lord (he is Lord Harries of Pentregarth these days) leading me over this varied landscape and helping me eavesdrop. I found some of the connections a little forced, and suspected that Richard Harries had just really enjoyed the author and wanted them in his book, but nevertheless it was eye-opening and horizon-broadening to glimpse how the light of Christ has spread across literary landscapes, even ones with lots of forest cover or dark caves.

So, a welcome, insightful,  if idiosyncratic introduction to twenty modern-ish authors. It’s so rich in quotes it’s practically an anthology. Lovely to find a book that, in his love for the subject, the author has been writing all his life. 

‘Arm them against the gray impersonal powers’

The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown was helped out of his alcohol-soaked obscurity by the other famous twentieth-century Orkney poet Edwin Muir.

George Mackay Brown attended Newbattle Abbey College, south of Edinburgh, a college for mature students, while Muir was warden. Muir’s recognition and encouragement changed Brown’s life. After Muir’s death, Brown wrote a play about him and puts these words, concerning the students, in Muir’s mouth:

Never be hard on them. Never let them feel they’re wasting their time. My time as well. The whole treasury of literature is there for them to ransack. Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty. Arm them against the gray impersonal powers. They press in on every side. More and more.

George Mackay Brown in Richard Harries Haunted by Christ, SPCK 2019

‘Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty’ … an astonishingly uncommon sentiment today.

Mission as being where Jesus is

This (from Rowan Williams, Being Disciples) is one of the most attractive reasons for the mission enterprise that I have read.

Being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks and keeps. Jesus chooses the company of the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased; so that is where you are going to find yourself …

That is why so many disciples of Jesus across the history of the Christian Church –and indeed now — find themselves in the company of people they would never have imagined being with, had they not been seeking to be where Jesus is: those who have gone to the ends of the earth for the sake of the gospel; those who have found themsevles in the midst of strangers wondering, ‘How did I get here?’ People like Thomas French, a great missionary figure of the nineteenth century who spent much of his [p12] ministry as bishop in the Persian Gulf at a time when the number of Christians in the area was in single figures, and who died alone of fever on a beach in Muscat. What took him there? What else except the desire to be where Jesus was, the sense of Jesus waiting to come to birth, to come to visibility, in those souls whose lives he touched — even though, in the long years he worked in the Middle East he seems to have made no converts. He wasn’t there first to make converts, he was there first because he wanted to be in the company of Jesus Christ — Jesus reaching out to, seeking to be born in, those he worked with and loved so intensely. It’s the apparent failure, and that drama of that failure, so like the ‘failure’ of Jesus abandoned on the cross, that draws me to his story, because it demonstrates what a discipleship looks like that is concerned with being where Jesus is, regardless of the consequences.

Rowan Williams Being Disciples (pp 11-12)

Prayer as birdwatching

Sometimes it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening.

Am still enjoying Rowan Williams on discipleship. In fact I’ve not got much further than the first chapter. Which is all about discipleship as just hanging around in God’s presence, much like students in the past, or indeed disciples, used to share not just lectures but their whole lives with their teachers.


‘I’ve always loved that image of prayer as birdwatching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view, and sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening. I suspect that, for most of us, a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that. But the odd occasions when you do see (p5) what T. S. Eliot (in section IV of “Burnt Norton”) called “the kingfisher’s wing” flashing “light to light” make it all worthwhile … this sort of expectancy … is basic to discipleship.’

Rowan Williams Being Disciples, pp 4-5