Slices of bread – 1

Being an excerpt from my new book about how to simplify your life and find what really matters.

So my second lockdown project was to spawn a new book about how serious illness led me to slim down and perk up my life. Here’s the cover.

On the grounds that everyone is entitled to my opinion, I’m planning to serve up a few extracts over the summer weeks. Here’s the opening salvo.

Bread

My search for what really matters (part 1)

We should reckon on 30,000 days in our lifetimes – 82 years. After that (if even we get that far) we will find ourselves mostly filling our days fending off the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics roughly means everything breaks, nothing lasts, order breaks down, we’re all going to die. Nothing in the Universe pushes back for long against the Second Law.

Thirty thousand days puts a cap on how many of anything we will do: how many books or boxsets we can enjoy, or create, how many cities we can live in, how many hot dinners we’ll have. We’ve got one ration of weddings, birthdays, weekends away, meals out, drinks with friends, quiet nights in, or moments to tell someone we love them. We’ve got a few decades to serve in a career or two, and perhaps raise some children. It might feel it will go on forever. It won’t, and in a hundred years we will all be dust and so will those we love.

If you feel any of these:

  • Life is passing me by
  • I’m not doing what I want to do
  • I’m not happy
  • I’m wasting my days

This book is for you. I’ve kept it short, because, hey.

It’s a personal story of discovery. My background is some years of life-and-death medical adventures, including my death in 2011 (reversed by electric shocks to the heart) and a four-week coma in 2013. People who spend a long time in Intensive Care end up paralyzed, so during the year and a half after 2013 I had to learn again how to eat, swallow, walk and go to the toilet.  Eventually I put the wheelchair in the garage and resumed a life that feels, at the time of writing, restful, purposeful and happy. I still may have thousands of days unused if I’m, as my dad says, ‘spared.’

Life is the opposite of the countryside in that you see the widest views at the lowest points. I think most people learn things about themselves during adversity. I had time to ask questions like ‘What am I for?’ and ‘What am I hoping for?’ and ‘What I am spending my time on?’

I found answers that are good enough for me. I think they are the lessons everyone learns, but those of us who have been force fed these things through medical events, perhaps, are forced to face them quicker. I found them simple enough and roughly these:

  1. Suffering helps us focus on what really matters and can stop us heading down dead-end paths in the quest for fame, success or respect.
  2. Belonging is key to long-term thriving.
  3. So is purpose.

This book, them, is about how to simplify your life, and how to make you less restless, more content and more productive. I hope it helps. None of it is complicated. Some of it will happen to you anyway. Maybe this book will help you recognize and cooperate with the ripening and mellowing that is already underway in your life.

More next week, if you can bear the tension.

Why good people do bad things sometimes

We’re sneaky, clever, and at war with ourselves

I recently finished my friend Andrew Chamberlain’s novel Urban Angel, which is a gritty story of people trying to do good things despite themselves, despite their circumstances, and despite supernatural interference.

The part of the book that really got me thinking and that I really enjoyed was his unvarnished exploration of how and why people who are signed up to serve God do bad things. His fictional treatment was I think better than most non-fictional treatises (such as this post, for example), and an intriguing, rare, read.

What it isn’t, I have come to think, is simple ‘hypocrisy’, as in, knowing the right thing to do and deliberately doing another thing and hiding it. I think it’s a lot more subtle. We Christians are more like the British Labour Party, creaking under the strain of internal warfare as different parts of us seek to take over the whole. Here are some of the participants in the war:

  1. An honest desire to serve the God who has loved us and given himself for us.
  2. A sudden, unexpected, animal attraction.
  3. An indulging of said animal attraction, at least so far as letting it make its case to the rest of our human person. Maybe more than once, and with variations.
  4. A blanking out from the mind of the inevitable consequences.
  5. An exercise of crazed theological reasoning to give ourselves a free pass toward indulging said attraction.

After that, anything can happen. Throw in, as Andy Chamberlain doesn’t, but as much recent actual history does, a power imbalance, say between a powerful man and a rather vulnerable victim, add some privacy, and boom, chaos, hurt and destruction.

Scary. Scarier than the demons who also make their way into Andy’s book, but are conveniently dispatched. Andy’s to be congratulated for laying it out so bare.

The big silence, or the long eternity

Each has its appeal

Am still enjoying astrophysicist Katie Mack’s book ‘The end of everything.’ She’s a funny and smart guide through the physics of either end of the Universe. Having sketched out various ways of everything ending, her epilogue makes some space for thinking about what it all means. Some of this is delicious to think about.

Whatever legacy-based rationalization we use to make peace with our own personal deaths (perhaps we leave behind children, or great works, or somehow make the world a better place), none of that can survive the ultimate destruction of all things. At some point, in a cosmic sense, it will not have mattered that we ever lived. The universe will … fade into a cold, dark, empty cosmos, and all we’ve done will be utterly forgotten.

Katie Mack, The End of Everything p 206.

She asks fellow astrophysicists what they think about this. ‘Sad’ says UCL cosmologist Hiranay Peiris. ‘I suppose it makes me start thinking about the problems we face as a civilization on a much shorter timescales. If I’m going to worry about anything, it’s gonna be those, not the Heat Death [of the universe]’ says another cosmologist, and former comic, Andrew Pontzen.

Others warm to the idea. ‘I just like the serenity of it’ says Pedro Ferreira. ‘So simple and clean.’ Renēe Hloẑek calls it ‘cold and beautiful’ the way the ‘universe just sorts itself out.’

I found myself sneakily liking these thoughts, despite spending a lot of time being a Christian and believing in eternity. In a universe that just shuts down and switches off, some thorny problems go down with it, not least eternal suffering, which might cheer up Fydor Dostoyevsky or James Joyce a bit. (Or my querulous demon Stub in my Jamie’s Myth trilogy.)

On the other hand, Katie Mack also quotes Iranian-born physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed: ‘I don’t know how [to find a purpose to life] that doesn’t transcend our little mortality … I think a lot of people at some level …. will do science or art or something because of the sense that you do get to transcend something. You touch something eternal. That word, eternal: very important. It’s very, very, very important.

We only know of one place in the universe where parts of the universe worry about this stuff at all: us, and here. And among us, among the many reachings-out to eternity that happen, we also have the story or rogue data point of the resurrection of Christ. Which could be a breaking in of the eternity that Nima Arkani-Hamed says is so important, and could be something whose consequences overtake cosmology itself. Interesting.

My review of Exiles on Mission

You may like to see my review of Exiles on Mission which I posted on Amazon and Goodreads. True, it’s also printed in the column opposite for a while, but I am so enthusiastic about this book that I wanted to plug it a little more.

This book is the distillation of years of thoughtful teaching (at Regent College in Vancouver) and it shows. Whereas many books of Christian teaching are worked-up sermons, this feels more like a boiled-down course and would be enormous fun to work through in a group setting over a term or so. The diagnosis (my analogy, not his) is that the Church is like a cruise liner with the tide having gone out. Crew and passengers are busy trying to keep everything going. But really, rather than hoping for the tide to come back in, we need to engage with the new reality.

I am reluctant to summarize a b0ok that is so measured and thoughful, but it seems that the beaching of the Church is mostly an opportunity and call to re-think our view of the world, realize that Christians are already distributed widely through it, and for us all to learn how to follow Christ in whatever places we’ve landed. We should be ambassadors, he argues, and not the sort of ambassadors who are just dishing out a few passports; the kind who are engaging with the culture’s stories and helping compose new ones. The apostle Paul talked about the church as ‘pillar and foundation’ of the truth, and so it became in the Roman Empire, supplanting the previous cultural settlement.

In terms of a book trying to engage seriously with the teaching of the Bible and contemporary church and its mission, rich with further avenues to explore, this is about the best thing I have read in years.

Rediscovering relevance

Surprisingly, the gospel is about everything.

Am so enjoying Paul Williams’ Exiles on Mission, as I may have mentioned before on this blog. I try to set aside some time each day to read a chapter. This is good practice, except that I’m reading it in our conservatory and the April sun is high and I keep get the overwhelming urge to lean back, close my eyes, and think about what he’s just written.

But I have been snapping out of myself. The chapter I read today was all about translating the gospel into our post-Christian culture. Another way of saying this is rediscovering the relevance of the gospel in this time and in this place.

This is so important because the Good News can seem irrelevant– not only to people who don’t know what it is, but also, perhaps, we Christians secretly admit, to ourselves. How can this message of grace be of interest to decent people with prosperous lives and a decided disinterest in suddenly taking up church attendance? Why would they want to do that?

Of course seasons come around for us all when the bottom falls out of our world and we perhaps realize that we’ve needed a rock to lean on for a long time. And with anyone, anywhere, who knows what God can set off in someone’s head and heart, a hunger that only Christ can answer. (That’s part of my own story of coming to faith incidentally.)

But with all that, still, the gospel can feel like a thing for the rougher edges or special seasons of the average life, not the whole. And for the private lives of individuals, rather than the whole world. And so many metaphors of salvation that are reissued forth from your standard church don’t reliably work in the outside world. (‘Don’t you feel you’re in a courtroom, and you’ve done loads wrong? Well, suddenly the judge’s son steps up and says, “I’ll pay your fine and”… sounds familiar, huh? Oh, you seem to have gone.)

Relevance rediscovered

I’m oversimplifying a detailed chapter, but you can imagine two steps:

  1. Fit your chosen story within the Bible’s grand narrative of life, the universe and everything.
  2. Carefully figure out some action resulting from this new perspective — do something.

What is the Bible’s ‘grand narrative’? As has been observed, it can be seen as a drama in several acts:

  1. Creation. God made the Universe, for us to thrive in along with him, and even though God says so himself, it’s very good.
  2. Fall. And we rebel, and alienate ourselves from God and each other and generally mess things up.
  3. Israel. God gets to work redeeming the story, at first with broad brushstrokes, like the Law.
  4. Between the Testaments… it isn’t quick. Things have to brew. But finally we get to:
  5. Jesus. God’s translation of himself into human form demonstrates, then inaugurates, then welcomes us to join, a Kingdom where God is ruling.
  6. Church And this message is embodied and carried everywhere
  7. New Creation. Until God calls time and establishes a new creation, filled with the scarred and remade people out of all humanity, stocked with all the good and beautiful from the old, and they live with him in this new day, thriving together, forever.

So: rethink your chosen story in this light, then act on what you’ve discovered. This was an exercise that Paul Williams got his students to do, but here are a couple of examples that I made up. (When I was sitting in the sunshine in the conservatory with my eyes closed, you might have thought I was asleep, but I was thinking.)

  • Foreign debt
  • Youth justice

Foreign debt

Foreign debt. Remember the years up to the millennium when many poorer nations had borrowed money, then spent it or seized it, and were now spending more on interest payments than they were on things like education? What’s the unredeemed story here? How about: These people entered into loans quite transparently. If they spent it on yachts rather than clinics, that’s their problem. Why punish the taxpayers of donor nations for the corruption of recipients?

What would it look like if you infected this unredeemed story with God’s story? Christ is lord of all and intends people to thrive. There is greed and sin and people stealing the money rather than spending it on the poor. There is also, under God, redemption and a further chance to thrive. And Christ is Lord of all. And it isn’t all that expensive for donor nations who anyway could have been more careful the first time round. That can then lead to action: why not drop the debt, on condition that the interest payments saved are spent on the poor, on things like health and education? A campaign around the millennium started with this kind of thinking (in, I think, Tear Fund). It led to a clear call to action, that was taken up enthusiastically by trades unions, campaigners of various kinds, and eventually governments. Debts were indeed forgiven and thousands of children got an education who otherwise wouldn’t. This was, among many other things, the gospel, properly thought-through and applied to our culture, causing a wildfire.

Youth justice

Youth justice. Here’s the unredeemed story. Frequent or serious offenders cause massive amounts of misery and should be locked up.

Now let’s infect it with the God story: What damaged these children? What damage have they done? What evil has been done to them and what evil have they done? All can be put right under a God who made them in his own image, made them for better than this, who provides forgiveness and the power of a new start through Christ, and who intends them to thrive and do well in a beautiful creation. A huge change has happened in youth justice in recent years in cases where young people are found dealing drugs far from where they usually live. After suitable enquiries, it’s quite normal now to treat these children not as young criminals but as vulnerable kids who’ve been groomed by drug gangs and are being exploited. Today they are treated under modern slavery law, as victims, rather than drug law, as dealers. Law enforcement goes for the gangs instead. I have no idea if Christian reflection was behind this change. But it was reflection in a Christian direction. And it has been deployed across every youth court in the nation.

The conclusion

Suddenly, everything we touch and everything we do becomes relevant, even urgent. We can ask of it, ‘How can express the Kingdom of God through this?’ Or we could pray, as someone taught: ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven.’

Me and Katie Mack and the end of everything

With a side order of the meaning of existence

Am very much enjoying ‘The End of Everything’ by astrophysicist Katie Mack, which is, so far, a really fun and informed romp through apocalypsical possibilities. Well done to my enlightened kids for buying me this for my birthday (by strange coincidence, it also was on my Amazon wishlist).

I’m writing this in hospital (in March 2021) having just had one of my six-monthly assessments for the heart transplant list, and I took Katie Mack to cheer me up, and she has. (I passed the assessment, officially sick enough to need a transplant and well enough to tolerate one.)

I wasn’t entirely convinced, however, if I may say so, by what seemed to me a wobbly attempt to put a foot in two boats that seem to be far apart and drifting further.

Acknowledging an ultimate end gives us context, meaning, even hope, and allows us, paradoxically, to step back from our petty day to day concerns and simultaneously live more fully in the moment. Maybe this can be the meaning we seek.

Katie Mack, The End of Everything 2020, p 7.

The two boats are meaning and science. She’s already dismissed finding meaning outside of science:

  1. She’s read widely but no-one agrees with each other so there is no human consensus of opinion.
  2. She’s not sure she would believe anything anyway about the meaning of life if it was ‘written down for me once and for all in a book’ (p4) and couldn’t be derived mathematically or worked out through scientific scrutiny. Obviously, that statement doesn’t include stuff she herself writes, like that statement, even though that statement can’t be derived mathematically or worked out through scientific scrutiny.
  3. Nor does that statement allow any possibly of the transcendent. Er … if you only allow yourself to look at the material world, you’ll only ever see the material world. Odd to pre-filter reality like that.
  4. Plus, if you have to reach for cliches like ‘petty day to day concerns’ and ‘living more fully in the moment’, I am on the verge of concluding that you haven’t found meaning at all but are cramming the hole with words that are commonly available and quite funky but sadly a bit empty.

Here’s the thing. We get meaning from love. And actually, if you wanted consensus about that, ask anybody. Meaning and love are the two foci of the ellipse within which we live our lives. Science can describe, beautifully, the journey I am about to go on if I am ever let out of this hospital – first to my parents, 2 hours and 11 minutes from here, and then to my wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, wierdly, 2 hours and 11 minutes from my parents’ home. Science can describe everything about the journey except what it means to me and perhaps to them. Love says what it means. And in one sense, love says everything.

Stuck in the middle with you

Let’s not say what’s on the left of me and the right of me

I am really enjoying one of my birthday presents, which was this book:

I’ve read the prologue and the first chapter several times, still trying to digest it. Here the author, Paul Williams, is in diagnosis mode. He notes that the modern world — ‘Characterized by confidence in reason, science, and technological progress to usher in ever-increasing wealth and happiness’–and the last vestiges of the mediaeval Christian settlement are being rejected together and being replaced by ‘nonreligion, amorphous spirituality, moral relativity and authoritian secularism’1

So leading popular atheists and the Archbishop of Canterbury share the same leaky ship and the waves that are pounding them are questioning, for example, the universality of their assumptions, or whether ‘expertise’ is basically about a power-grab rather than a careful exercise of finding truth. ‘We’ve had enough of experts’ is the unsettling cry not just of Brexiteers but of anti-vaxxers, campaigners against mobile phones and people who believe newspapers are about power rather than truth.

Williams then points out that the climate the church faces is internally contradictory but unitedly hostile– Christians are blamed by environmentalsts for the industrialized, science-allied exploitation of the planet and simultaneously blamed by atheists for being anti-science and anti-reason. ‘Western culture is fragmenting into incoherent and incommensurable discourses, but each fragment has a different grudge against the church’ (p xv). This is fine stuff, even if it is at a certain level special pleading. (Lots of groups, perhaps, think that everyone is against them; and it actually isn’t true for the Church: there is more to society and to human individuals than broad intellectual currents. Many people are still finding life within Christian walls, just like bees find nectar even in weedy railway sidings.)

Looking forward to the rest, though it’s going to be slow work if the rest of the book has as much good stuff to digest.

Covid and the rawness of life

The skin gets scraped off

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

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.

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