Slices of bread – 8 – doing something beautiful

Being an extract from my new book

If you’ve been with me over the summer, you’ll have seen that this book is about how adversity and suffering can change your life for the better. Better still, you can change your life for the better without the adversity and suffering (by reading the book). Suffering makes you realistic about you are — strips you down, perhaps. But two things can then build you up. Belonging — the art of belonging — is one (see last week). The second is vocation — doing something beautiful. Which is what this extract is all about.

Bread

My search for what really matters (8)

Don’t die with your music inside you

Vocation is about intentionally not dying with your music still inside you.

I was very ill when I first came across this thought and it was galvanizing. Since ‘galvanizing’ means ‘using electricity to coat something with zinc’, it wasn’t literally galvanizing, but it was a lifeline in the forever-January experience of convalescence. Then, and since, the idea of vocation has lit something in me that helped me fight to be well and stay well.

Don’t die with your music still inside you. Ask yourself. Other things being equal, feet still roughly on the floor, need for realism acknowledged, what would you love to do? I love asking this question of people. What gives you energy? What is fulfilling? What do you love? What would frustrate you if it were never let out? A famous theologian[1] described vocation as the meeting point between ‘your deep gladness’ and ‘the world’s deep need’. Where does that sit for you?

I hesitate to give it an upmarket name like ‘vocation’ because for some people it means cheerfully and faithfully doing ordinary things. For others, though, it might seem a long way from what they are now and you would never guess it. A person with a career in software wants to turn wood. A researcher would like to be a receptionist in a hospice. Others have found a love of counselling. I know a couple of people who find sanity and happiness through making time to paint. I know that in horrible places of infirmity I have been buoyed by the thought of writing something original, creative and quirky. This is vocation knocking: the chance to take something that belongs to you, and to give it out. Breathe deeply of it, and you oxygenate your soul.

Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people. And when we live out our vocation we furnish our lives with satisfaction and happiness. Vocation is bread for the hungry soul, a satisfying meal.

Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people.

I love watching people in their vocation. Someone came to our home to do some carpentry. His first love was restoring antique furniture. His eyes lit on our dining chairs, things that had tumbled to us down through our family as heirlooms. He knew which 19th century decade they were built in and named the style. He told us what he could do to them if he had them in his workshop for few days.

My son and I both have physics degrees. My physics degree helped me to ascend a few small hills and look across at mountain peaks of human thought. My son, though, climbs these peaks for fun. He knows how partial differential equations work, for example. He understands Maxwell’s equations, beautiful things that describe all of classical electromagnetism. I see him in a team experimenting on lone atomic particles that are in near-perfect vacuum and nearly at absolute zero. Even as a child he loved maths problems.

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You stumble into vocation all the time. You wander into an office and find people who have time for you and all the resources you need. Someone bakes you a wonderful cake. You see a mum organizing her children or a teacher with her class interested and working hard and happy or arguing furiously with each other about finer points of maths.

Fine, you may say, but a vocation is a bit of a luxury if you’re a single parent just holding everything together or someone already buckling under the strain of just earning enough, or you are battling pain and depression, or you are in a toxic workplace, or you are retired. I am not so sure that you are right. For these reasons:

  • Thinking about vocation at least enables you to set a direction for where you’d like to go and what you’d like to be.
  • It probably also points to something you’re quite good at.
  • It points you to a higher ambition for your work than just as a vehicle to being solvent or (worse) rich, respected or lauded. These false gods shrivel your soul. Vocation nourishes it.
  • Even if you don’t change career, thinking about the work you love may change how you spend some of the odd scraps of time you already have. If you can’t be a professional musician or artist or footballer, be an amateur one. It still will feed your soul. Who knows where these small beginnings will lead? Take a step.
  • Change to your current circumstances might not be as impossible as you think. If, God forbid, you got a serious illness, or a divorce, you would change things around fast enough. Emails and schedules that tower above you now wouldn’t look that way then. They don’t matter so much really. The world won’t stop even if you stop. If you died tomorrow, someone would fix all the emails or finish the jobs. But that thing which is you, that thing you can give to the world, no-one else can do that like you do it.
  • Negotiate a compromise between vocation and career. This is why artists become graphic designers or would-be session musicians become tutors, or novelists get paid as journalists. Wiggle a little. 
  • Remember life has seasons. The pages turn. Kids grow up. Debts get paid down. The rush to complete qualifications passes. Workplaces change. If your life is a busy river, abuzz with boats and criss-crossed with bridges, so hooting with shipping that you can’t take it all in, it may not stay that way. This river will probably evolve into something fat and lazy as it nears the sea, weaving slowly through the bulrushes like a jazz solo. Maybe your vocation awaits a new season.  But start it now.

Your vocation is your chance to be big, beautiful you.  Do you really want to miss this?  So take some steps. Do something. Do something. Don’t die without giving us a song.


[1] Frederick Buechner

Future shaping

It’s not necessarily bad

They can’t cancel the spring. Photo by Jill Wellington from Pexels

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

or

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.

A slow manifesto

Take up your pack for another year’s walk

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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.

The white nights

Elusive and evocative

I am writing this around the time of the longest day, the time they call in St Petersburg, which is even further north than I am, the ‘White Nights.’

It’s my favourite time of year, light and pollen everywhere, and often in the evening I will stand outside and try to sniff the air and store the moment. It’s the sort of moment you need to store given there is also, every year, the phenomenon known as January, when it’s dark, or cold, or bleak, or grey, or all four.

But really it’s a hopeless exercise. There is something about the White Nights that can’t be stored or even experienced for a moment; the joy of the stilled creation, the still-warm stones, the crashing of birds and squirrels in trees overstuffed with leaves.

C S Lewis wrote a lot about desiring this elusive joy, and discovered a German word, sehnsucht,to describe it. Desiring elusive joy is a familiar experience. What does it mean? Is it just a product of a deficient mental model of reality? We anticipate a meaning, even a joy, in creation but we can never find it because it is an artifact of our pattern-hungry brains, not a real thing in the Universe?

There’s another explanation which I much prefer. There is such a being as God, such a thing as the Kingdom of God, and these hints of joys are like straws blown over to us from that field — so they are not soap bubbles that look good but are empty and must pop, but signs that out there, over there, somewhere, to be hunted down, now hinted at, is a realm of joy that we yearn for and have not yet fully entered. We are hungry for a reason; we yearn for joy for a reason.

Slow and stop

Nothing is quite something

Image by ptra from Pixabay

Stop is the father of Slow. And Stop has exotic parents: it is the lovechild of hubris and reality. You are driving your car, radio on, happy, hubristic, and in a few panicked moments there is a bang and things happening quickly and then the crumpled metal and the stop.

Or there is the phone call that stops your world or the judgement or the letter or the diagnosis or the moment. That which was your careful construct of a life is a house of cards. You know this now because it has fallen down. You have been blessed with a dead stop. As you rebuild you will embrace Slow.

This all has Christian resonance because in that framework of thought the death of Christ is the only stationary point in an oscillating, surging, blushing, trilling Universe. The cross is the origin, coordinate (0,0), the place you have to go to orient yourself and find your way. It is the full stop. We enter into it, finding the death of hubris and the death of self in the death of Christ; finding a new pattern of life in the resurrection, fuelled by the Spirit of God. As the joke goes, Death is God’s way of getting us to slow down. .

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.

Justin Welby’s ‘Reimagining Britain’

The Brexit referendum was the moment the ceiling fell in; but the dripping had been a problem for some time. Justin Welby’s book ‘Reimagining Britain’ is what happens when an Archbishop joins a crowd of workers leaning on shovels, looking at our nation, sucking their teeth and saying that this is going to take some fixing.

I like our Archbishops a lot. Archbishop Sentamu actually does stuff, like fasting, actually going hungry, which is a step up from most members of the order Primate, who usually only do stuff metaphorically (like ‘wrestling’ with a Bible text).

In Justin Welby, meanwhile, it is so refreshing to have an archbishop who doesn’t look like he’s just stumbled out of a library and can’t find his way back.

My liking for the Archbishops may make me too kindly disposed to this book; but even if it has flaws, it’s a really enlightening read.

Archbishop Welby is striving to ‘reimagine Britain’ after the loss of a Christian backdrop, the rise of pluralism, and above all, after the divisions brought to light by the Brexit referendum.

It’s a good fight and it needs someone, just as the nation needed an Archbishop Temple when Britain was being previously reimagined at the end of WWII. Welby believes Christians can lead this reimagining; in fact they must.  

Government-issue British values

The government’s response to the retreat of Christendom seems to have been to ask some poor civil service intern to write up a set of  ‘British Values’ on half a sheet of A4.1 This is to replace what grew through the toils of scholars, monarchs and martyrs in the last millennium and a half. They are:

  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • individual liberty
  • mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

Welby rightly rejects these as too flimsy and attempts to replace them.

‘When faith is increasingly privatized, it leaves a vaccuum which relativism in belief or a great plurality of incommensurable beliefs is unable to fill … There is a need for a generous and hospitable metanarrative within which competing truths can be held.’

He goes on  ‘It will be a suggestion of this book that Christian faith, centred on love-in-action, trusting in the sovereignty of God rather than political power, provides the potential for such hospitable and generous holding.’ (p 17)

 

So he first suggests a set of values, then attempts to reimagine aspects of British life with reference to them. 

Justin’s values

The Archbishop’s suggested values for reimagining Britain are ‘community’, ‘courage,’ and ‘stability’. If those sound too wishy-washy, suspend disbelief for a moment.

Community is about the way we all belong to each other, a note distinctly lacking in political discourse at the moment. After the referendum, the leavers didn’t say ‘let’s be magnanimous, let’s move forward together’. Instead we had, ‘You lost, get over it.’

Courage means giving room for animal spirits of competition, innovation and creativity.

Stability is basically a commitment to compromise, combined with a caution that gives room for bad stuff to happen without causing everything to collapse. Compromise! Forethought! Caution! Imagine!

So it’s good stuff. These are good directions to urge our society to head.

The best bit

The best part of the book for me was the reminder that Christians can rest on two truths: God is good, and God is King. In depressing days like these, I like the freedom to hope.  

Six uses of suffering

If you’ve got it, use it.

Lonely walk at night

When it comes your way, and if you can’t avoid it, you may as well use it. I did a recent talk and found one strategy for suffering and six uses.

Strategy

The strategy is simple, even cliched: use your suffering to get face to face with God. ‘In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God will guard your hearts.’1

Uses

As you keep doing that — same field, same labour — fruit follows:

  1. Joy and peace. Inexplicable, but a fruit of coming to God with thankfulness. Not that you are thankful for the suffering; you are thankful for the goodness of God in the midst of it.
  2. Character. So: suffering + taking it God =  peace. Repeat this many times and individual experiences of grace and peace accumulate into lines and traits in our soul. Character is shaped. Suffering doesn’t rock you like it did. Think seasoned timber — many storms and seasons have gone into it.
  3. A clean out. Urgency to deal with the pain can cause us to act. How much of this pain is my fault? What parts can I put right?  ‘Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?’2
  4. Know that your comforts will comfort others. As Paul wrote: ‘[God] comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in trouble.’ 3 People who’ve been through stuff can speak the same language as those who are going through stuff; no-one else can speak that language natively.
  5. Discover the secret of power in Christian service: weakness. Paul again: ‘I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight … in hardships … for when I am weak, then I am strong.’ 4 Popeye opens a can of spinach; we lay our pain before God with thanksgiving to him for his goodness. Same effect. 
  6. Exercise your hope muscles. There is honestly nothing like despair, nothing like the deepest night, for making you remember that day will come. ‘Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning … I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”‘5

On not taking risks

Horse Ploughing show.My friend Miriam Cowpland shared this gem from her own reading of  the devotional writer A W Tozer

In Tozer’s book ‘Paths to Power’ there is a chapter entitled ‘Miracles follow the Plough’. He contrasts two types of ground: fallow ground (fallow meaning ground which has been left for a period of time without being sown), and ground which has been broken up by the plough. The fallow field has chosen safety, security and contentment. But, says Tozer, at a terrible price. ‘Never does it see the miracle of growth; never does it feel the motions of mounting life nor see the wonders of bursting seed nor the beauty of ripening grain.’

In contrast the cultivated field has yielded itself to the ‘adventure of living’. ‘Peace has been shattered by the shouting farmer and the rattle of machinery: it has been upset, turned over, bruised and broken, but the rewards come hard upon its labours.’

I’m sure you can see the parallels which Tozer then goes on to draw with our lives: the fallow life that doesn’t want to be disturbed, that has stopped taking risks for the sake of fruitfulness, contrasted with the life that is marked by discontent (at fruitlessness), yearning for the work of God, willing to be bruised and broken so that seed can be planted.

Which kind of field am I? What kind of field are you?

Breaking up the fallow ground begins with seeking God. Prayer, deep longing crying out to the Lord for Him to work in us, in our teams, in our places of ministry – this is where it begins. Are we doing that?

Counting things to get to sleep

Just don’t do the sheep thing

Entre para por sobre con contra de desdeCounting sheep to get to sleep is one of those memes that should have been deleted from our collective consciousness years ago – along with other mother’s-knee nonsense like ‘a watched kettle never boils.’ (Have mothers’ knees not heard of the laws of thermodynamics?)

For those of us who spend many hours in bed but not asleep, there are many better things to do.

First, recognize insomnia is a gift, a free pass to get some extra mental stuff done while the rest of the world snores and snuffles to the grave. It is perhaps an unwanted gift, like singleness, but it is nevertheless a gift.

Insomnia is a gift, a free pass to get some extra mental stuff done while the rest of the world snores and snuffles to the grave.

Two, try to connect to God. I have found this such a help. It doesn’t matter if it’s a spotty connection, or if your mind wanders, or if you fall asleep in the attempt. God has seen us at our worst and it’s still OK.

I heard once of a very old lady who climbed into bed each night and started bringing up memories of all the people she’d loved or former friends who had already died. She remembered them with thanks to God, dozens or perhaps hundreds of them. Instead of feeling lonely I imagine she felt herself surrounded by a cloud of supporters who had loved her and gone ahead to eternity.

Or you can pray through the alphabet. Pray for something beginning with A. It doesn’t matter what – something. There’s only you and God there: you have fun together.  Pray for artichoke farmers. Or Australians. Or people who remind you of apes. Then move onto B. Or for an extra challenge, start with Z and work backwards. 

Insomnia’s a gift. Just don’t do the sheep thing.