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Slow mission

A blog of patient revolution

plumsSlow food is about seasonal ingredients, patiently nurtured, carefully prepared, lovingly cooked.

The ingredients of ‘slow mission’ are people and the Christian gospel; and also, seasons, brokenness, diversity, giftedness and time — things we need to keep reminding ourselves of.

Slow mission is about trying to make the world better by applying the whole gospel of Christ to the whole of life. It’s about using what gifts we have for the common good. It moves at the pace of nature. It respects seasons. It is happy with small steps but has a grand vision. It knows of only one Lord and one Church. Making disciples of ourselves is as important as making disciples of others. Diversity is embraced. Playfulness is recommended.

A fresh entry comes out about once a week. The idea is to learn together and encourage each other. Comments and guest blogs are welcome. Each entry is bite-sized, 500 words or less. Please do subscribe, join in, enjoy.

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Featured

Slow mission values

Marwa_Morgan-It's_still_early_for_the_moon_to_rise
Marwa Morgan ‘It’s still early for the moon to rise’ @Flickr

‘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.

Unveiling the Patient Revolution: 25 Years of Global Transformation

Photo by Duane Mendes on Unsplash

Looking at the news, you have to close your eyes and ears a bit at the moment. But there’s a longer view. As I write it is almost a quarter of a century since 1990. Here’s some of what I came across this week. In that quarter-century:

  • Measured poverty in the two largest countries in the world has declined from 60% of the population in India and 50% of the population in China to 2% in India and O.something % in China 1
  • Solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy have (from almost nothing) joined with hydro (which is much older) to make a third of the world’s electricity generation and a seventh of the world’s total energy use. 2
  • The UK economy has grown by 80% and its carbon dioxide output has halved.3
  • This year (2024) of elections has seen setbacks for those with autocratic instincts in India and Poland, for example, and the ANC in South Africa has been given a good shake and told to swap its self-enrichment and go back to the national enrichment project in the days of Mandela — democracy working.
  • A local charity, the Romsey Mill here in Cambridge, has altered the lives of single mums, autistic teenagers, pre-schoolers, and teens, giving them self-confidence and better life choices and incidentally saving the government a fortune.

It isn’t hard to imagine in the next 25 years, in the UK for example, the mixture of rooftop solar, batteries and electric cars spreading through the nation like double glazing did in the last generation. And just as our forebears build reservoirs in the 1930s that still supply our water today, so we’ll have energy and transport powered by the sun that generations ahead of us, as far down the future as we can see, will no longer have to worry about.

These streams of patient revolution are streams in an ocean full of all kinds of currents. But imagine a Romsey Mill in every town! Imagine the Mill as just one of a swarm, or a hive, of Christian-inspired social transformation initiatives, buzzing through the whole country! Imagine having to go to nowhere and to no-one for the energy to power our lives! Imagine poverty driven back in every place! Imagine reversing the growth of CO2! Patient revolution!

The mistaken things we are taught

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

This is a post is about ‘Christian problems’ so it may not be relevant to you, but it is relevant to the theme of ‘slow mission’ or ‘patient revolution’, because the Christian faith is the very essence of a slow-burning, profound revolution in thought and life. (Even allowing for Christianity’s zany twists and turns throught its long history.)

I can’t count how many times I have been encouraged from talks in churches to do the following:

  1. Pray more
  2. Read my Bible more
  3. Introduce others to Jesus and church.

Occasionally there’s a radical addition like

4. Volunteer for things in church

While this is at one level right, at another level it is completely wrong. The really big deal about the Christian faith is the transformed relationships. That is what the letters in the New Testament are mostly concerned with. That’s what the Beatitudes are about, and when Jesus is asked to summarize the law and the prophets, he comes up with love the Lord your God with everything you have and love your neighbour with the same vehemence that you defend, justify and serve yourself.

In other words, if you had a highlights reel of the New Testament, it’s about transforming our relationships.

  • Marriage ceases to be a power struggle (well, ideally) and become, s a place where each partner denies their natural power-seeking instincts in order to lovingly to make the other partner thrive.
  • Child rearing becomes a matter of unconditional love rather than performance-related benefits
  • Employees’ work becomes devotion to Jesus.
  • Employers have to recognize we’re all the same before God and treat their employees as fellow humans rather than machinery.
  • This sense of love and equality then spreads out to the poor and sick

In the story of how the Church has got on with this task over the 50 generations since the apostles, you have to edit out quite a lot of stuff, but (I argue) you are still left with a basic framework which is that this happened. The parts of the world tainted by the Christian faith are seriously different from the (diminishing) parts that aren’t. Even a nation like India (less than 5% Christian officially) has been seriously changed by an encounter with Christian thinking. Despite thousands of years of history and an evanescence of philosophical systems, it was only after a brush with Christianity that Dalits were treated as human beings rather than animals, I believe, for example.

And we wouldn’t have modern-sounding and secular-sounding things like human rights without the virus of Christianity having becoming endemic among us. (That is still why some nations see ‘human rights’ as just another way the West is trying to get one over them; they recognize how alien it is.)

(In this understanding, I like many others, have been influenced by historian Tom Holland’s book Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind)

So all the more impoverishing, if that’s a word, when Christian devotion is reduced to a few performance-management variables like how much Bible you read each day. I suppose it’s true that Bible reading gets you exposed to the important stuff, but we mustn’t miss the inportant stuff itself. In a world of spin and hype, and a coming world perhaps of AI-fakery, transformed relationships sound through the Universe like a great bell.

Humph.

The silence where God is

Photo by Christopher Sardegna on Unsplash

The team I am part of took time out this week to talk about rest, stopping, putting work aside–and silence.

One of the things to come out of this for me was that there is a silence where God isn’t–like you are battering on the door but as (C S Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed) all you hear is the further sound of doors beyond being shut and locked. (If you even hear that.)

But there’s also a silence where God is. You might be wanting him to speak. You may have lots of questions. And there’s silence. But it’s a silence where God is, just is, just is here with you. Here with you.

You can jump off from this into further thoughts, all helpful for the patient revolutionary. Perhaps the main one is this: the world doesn’t stop when I stop. Even, my world doesn’t stop when I stop. I can go do something else, or I can do nothing, or whatever I want. I can take delight in things. I can spend time in companiable silence.

For those of us with a Christian bent, this is an expression of faith. The voices that call us to activity, to taking responsibility, are so strident. It’s a statement of faith to say to them, bad luck, I’m not responsible for the Universe, it’s in good hands. I’m checking out, I’m delighting in what I already have. And if just now that’s companiable silence, good.

We were guided in our thinking by the helpful book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero.

The fear of ideas and the playful creativity of curiosity

I saw this article in the current Economist, and I liked it so much that I wanted to share part of it. It was written by an African author called Chigozie Obioma.

I BECAME CURIOUS at a young age, radically so as I grew older. In keeping with Albert Einstein’s dictum that “the important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing,” I exposed myself to every possible idea.

I have studied religious texts from the Bible to the Koran to the Book of Mormon to the tenets of Odinani, the pantheistic religion of Nigeria’s Igbo people. I have read political philosophies from Winston Churchill’s “The River War” to Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto”. I have read books considered to be standard-bearers of leftist thinking and those seen as right-wing intellectual staples.

Sometimes I find myself holding several conflicting, incommensurable beliefs, but most often I arrive at a centre—a rich ground that enables me to fully appreciate the complexity of the human condition, to understand the substance of different ideas and why others might hold them. I am forever open to the possibility of changing my mind.

That is why I got such a shock in my first few weeks in America. At an event at the University of Michigan an African-American speaker was hectored and shouted down by a mob. I could not understand; why wouldn’t the audience hear him out? The response I received—that the speaker’s view was “problematic”—would reverberate through the next few months and years. Speakers across various platforms in America were drowned out, attacked and silenced

These conflicting actions and reactions, I think, are a result of a societal malaise that has been developing in the past decade or so: radical incuriosity. It is, in essence, the fear of ideas.

Obioma then goes on to describe the importance of what he calls ‘provisional thinking’: a capacious open-mindedness, encompassing both the moral and the political, in which one’s assumptions can constantly shift, unattached to ideology or dogma. And arrives at a natural resting place for him, namely agnosticism.

This is logical and I warmed so much to what he wrote. But I wonder if agnocisim itself is also a little flimsy as a resting-place for your soul. I may be wrong. But if you are open to everything, on what do you base any judgements you make? What values can you hold that are not themselves potentially valueless? I struggle to understand how being agnostic about everything (if that is what is being argued) can enable you to form judgements about anything? Presumably, better minds than mine, not hard to find, have views on this.

But that is why I like the position of Christ as truth, as he claimed to be. Perhaps with him (and what he said) as the foundation, we are able better to judge the value and utility of multiple different political and moral viewpoints? At least we have somewhere to start.

And that starting point, Christ himself, was and is iconoclastic, turning some truths upside down, reshaping others, fulfilling others, just like Truth would if ever, like some icebreaker, it started ploughing through the frigid accumulation of our reasonings. Hmmm..

Created by Dall-E-3

Dopamine – our dangerous friend

Just read a fascinating book called ‘Dopamine Nation’ by Dr Anna Lembke: ‘Why our addiction to pleasure is causing us pain’. It’s not clear what faith Dr Lembke has, if any, but I was struck by how Christiany, how committed to patient revolution, were some of her remedies. (Some other reviewers really hate the book for this.)

First, the problem. Dopamine, a happy hormone, is what we give ourselves when we reward ourselves, and evolved to keep us doing good things that make us healthy.

The problem is that our society is awash with unhealthy ways of giving ourselves a squirt of dopamine– rewarding us for unhealthy behaviours. So, for example, sugary and fat-laden foods; swiping on your phone; recreational drugs; shopping; opening a bottle; a long list of things we compulsively do but which aren’t that good for us.

Worse, our body adjusts to its squirts of dopamine. We come to need more reward to get the same feeling. We feel scratchy and irritated if we’re not doing whatever gives us our dopamine rush, and so we go back to it to get some more. So we spiral into addiction. Among the most compelling parts of the book are stories of her own addiction (she mentions an obsession with vampire romances) that are sobering because they show any of us can go there — if not with vampire romances, with something else.

The people who make it to Dr Lembke’s office are seriously addicted to lots of things. But her solutions are fascinating. They include:

  1. Making it difficult to do the thing you’ve been doing. She got rid of her Kindle, by which she’d been loading up on free books with no-one watching. A person troubled with sex-addiction had to root out all the triggers from his life, some of which were not triggers for other people. This is strikingly like the Bible’s command to ‘flee’ sexual immorality; get out of there.
  2. Quit, and endure the deep unpleasantness that comes from quitting. It will pass.
  3. Develop a habit of radical honesty. Again, this echoes scripture, ‘confess your sins to one another’.

What do you get back out of this? A happy life, untroubled by shame or secrets, not plagued with anxiety, back among the humans.

Plenty of people have issues with this book, but as someone starting from no-where, I enjoyed it.

Simple

Am in the midst of a book that my son bought me, lamenting ultra-processed food (UPF). Not news for many, I suppose, but an intriguing read for me. UPF is food that contains ingredients that you wouldn’t find in an ordinary kitchen. It’s put in to make products cheaper, longer lasting, easier; food designed for the poor.

I’m not sure I quite buy the idea that Big Food is evil like Big Tobacco (but I might be wrong). While Big Food makes a profit for shareholders, a lot of the shareholders who are thus enriched are poor people with pension funds, not the uber wealthy. And I think the scientists behind UPF were doing their best to make interesting and enjoyable food available to the masses. I’m sure I could, given a few changes of path, have become a food technologist myself with altruistic aims, spending my life on a good thing, not needing to channel my inner Cruella d’Eville.

But there are problems. Because UPF isn’t food, though it may have been once, it isn’t (so the argument goes) suited for human consumption. Obesity and many diseases follow in its train, and it targets the poor and nestles among those who struggle to make ends meet. (Or as Terry Pratchett described a maker of dodgy sausages, struggling ‘to make ends meat’.)

There are problems with this kind of book. How many books have been published over the years promising to be the definitive answer to the problems of good diet? Many. How many were backed by research? Many. How many have fallen out fashion? All of them. What will people think of this theory in 10 or 20 years? We shall see.

And yet the book’s appeal to make and cook food out of simple ingredients that belong in a kitchen, rather than engineered substances that are developed in a factory or delivered by a tanker, is appealing. Today I made a tomato soup for my grandchildren from just four ingredients (tinned tomatoes, an onion, chicken stock, and a wedge of butter. I deployed a slow cooker and a blender.) I make my own granola from honey, a neutral oil like sunflower oil, and oats, adding nuts, seeds and dried fruit and no funny stuff. I make my own bread on the same principles.

Better and deeper: I want to be simple before God. I love the description of bread back in the Old Testament, the bread for offerings: finest flour and the oil of squeezed olives: simple, simple. Pure, actually, because simple. That’s how I want to be before God, finest flour and oil mixed into a cake, not a packaged, complex, looks-good-but-isn’t convenience food.

Mental health and slow healing

Am enjoying a book called Dopamine Nation by Dr Anna Lembke. I also happened to come across a newspaper piece by author Rose Cartwright about mental health having predominantly environmental, rather than chemical causes. It’s fascinating. Since I suffer incurably from the journalists’ affliction of blogging about anything I’ve just discovered, without passing through the efforts required for actual expertise, here are a few things I’m learning:

  1. You can get excused from quite a lot of things these days by saying ‘it’s not good for my mental health’ (this is my wife’s insight). This is an upgrade on the excuse of Bartleby the scrivener, invented by Herman Melville, who avoided unpleasant tasks at work simply by saying ‘I’d rather not’. (I use Bartleby’s excuse a lot at church.)
  2. Sadly, perhaps the best way to raise the alarm about your difficulties in life is to use the language of mental health. If you do, at least someone will eventually come along to help.
  3. Mental ill-health itself, like white light passed through a prism, has a colourful spectrum of differing causes and cures. We need to think prismatically (as Rose Cartwright points out) rather than simplistically.
  4. The common practice of ascribing mental ill-health to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and then prescribing a drug to fix it, is rather less-well attested in the scientific literature (I think) whereas other causes, like poverty, trauma and deprivation have a rather stronger correlation. Rose Cartwright again: Evidence that exposure to environmental stress is the leading determinant of common mental health problems like anxiety, depression and OCD, seemed to be overwhelming, whereas evidence that organic brain dysfunction or genetics are the leading causes of such conditions seemed to be comparatively scant.
  5. Addressing one colour in the spectrum (the drug route) is arguably not going to entirely fix things in most cases.
  6. Academics generally know this. But academics don’t have ten-minute appointments with patients for which they are equipped only with a desperately scant toolbox.
  7. So doctors are left managing the problem and the result is a feedback loop involving doctors, drug companies, and mildly-sedated patients, few of whom are going anywhere except round and round again.
  8. I am reminded of a blog I wrote about the magazine Private Eye’s tame(ish) medic, Dr Phil Hammond. He wrote: Friendship and a feeling of belonging; an ability and curiosity to learn and adapt; purposeful physical and mental activity; observation and appreciation of the environment; compassion for others; food that is both delicious and nutritious; an ability to switch off and relax and regular, restorative sleep— collectively these daily joys of health are more powerful than any drug.
  9. Here’s a dream. Imagine a government that set up a proper study about the causes and cures of mental illness. Imagine it learnt that the issues to tackle are poverty, inequality, childhood trauma, struggling parents, discrimination, bad living conditions, food that isn’t food, the closing of recreational spaces and youth clubs, and (perhaps) the unlicencedness of smartphones, which (perhaps perhaps) are as dangerous and unregulated as cars in the 1920s. Imagine this enlightened government realized that investment and attention in those areas would reverse the tidal rise of ‘mental health problems’.
  10. Then imagine if they didn’t. Then further imagine what we non-career-politicians could do instead to make our corner of the world more congenial to the wellbeing of many: slow mission; patient revolution. No need to wait for politicians or blame them. Imagine.

Freedom’s laughter

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

Just went to a fascinating seminar with my wife on ‘teacher retention and recruitment’, part of this year’s Cambridge Festival.

No, fascinating it really was. There were perhaps a number of messages but one struck home. Those with long memories have seen every trend in education come, go, and come again.

We are apparently–hopefully– at ‘peak prescription’. That is, teachers are being told (prescribed) how to teach. Teachers who mentor early career teachers are (it is feared) being told how to mentor them, the right framework, the right steps.

Never mind that children are complex, teachers are complex, solutions are complex and based on a teacher’s own style and personality. The teaching force is being trained like an army, and delivering a lesson is taught like cleaning and assembling a rifle, this way, or the wrong way.

The panel of speakers were lamenting that joy and laughter was disappearing – the joy and laughter that had kept some of them in the classroom for 30 years. It’s a bad sign when the laughter dies away.

Next to me, I could sense my normally-calm wife stirring in agreement. (As P G Wodehouse might have said of Jeeves, the eyebrow was raised a full quarter-inch).

There were other complaints. Pay has diverged from graduate equivalents in the past handful of years – – ten years ago, that wasn’t a problem. Workload has eased but still teachers aren’t given the opportunity to learn, grow, take on board the current research, deepen their practice. Management needs improvement. An HR department might help.

But how many times do we have to go round this? Central control looks like a short-cut to widespread efficiency, but it stifles the creativity that makes teachers excel. Education is not the same as training. The very thing you want to unleash (flourishing in staff and students) is flattened and numbed by standardization and mechanization. The shortcut, the quick way, runs into the sand.

Then look at other pieces of our austerity-savaged public services. Junior doctors? Defence lawyers? Pay, conditions, space, respect. Saving money has cost us so much.

person wearing blue and black blazer holding bag
Photo by Godisable Jacob on Pexels.com

The slow-step of freedom

If you like to control things, you do not do well with freedom. You don’t have to look far to see this. You may see it in your workplace or even your home. We certainly see it in nations.

In some countries (Egypt, Pakistan, Eritrea, North Korea for example but even in these days, the New York City subway apparently), people call in the army to do non-military stuff. The army is efficient, or cheap, or a machine capable of being ordered around, people believe. And they like it for that reason.

In Egypt and Pakistan, generals, proper generals who have been exposed to army for a lifetime, and should know better, believe the army is efficient, so they give it jobs like building airports or retailing soap-powder. It is perhaps no surprise that these same generals also have the IMF Bailout Department on speed-dial.

I am a fan of freedom, but I am also my culture’s child. I like living in a country where you can say most things without a van turning up at your doorstep filled with people who mean you harm. I like the way people can start businesses without having to look over their shoulders in case the state (or the Party) seeks control or the army has already cornered that part of the market.

But is there an argument for freedom as a good thing in itself, a way to make a society prosper, despite freedom’s raucous and rowdy ways, so disturbing to the serenity of the autocrat’s pillow?

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), whom I heard about because of Lesslie Newbigin, was a Hungarian polymath. After earning cojones as a scientist (two of his students and one of his sons won Nobel Prizes), he changed roles at the University of Manchester from Professor of Physical Chemistry to Professor of Social Studies. He was a Catholic Christian. And he started writing about freedom and knowledge.

One of the ways to get wonderful things to emerge, he wrote, though I paraphrase, is to:

  1. set some boundary conditions
  2. let free agents do their stuff, freely, within the boundaries set.

It is (I think) classic liberal economics. It is also (as Polanyi taught), the driver of great science:

S]cientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment, are in fact co-operating as members of a closely knit organization.

Such self-co-ordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about.

Any attempt to organize the group … under a single authority would eliminate their independent initiatives, and thus reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the centre. It would, in effect, paralyse their co-operation

Michael Polanyi quoted, yes, in Wikipedia, which sort of proves the point.

I like this, a lot, because it is a rationale for freedom, not just in economics or science, and a rationale that goes beyond the idea that freedom is generally a nice thing to have. It is, given good guardrails, the way to get human societies to thrive and flourish further and wider than any single individual is capable of imagining or delivering. Being a herd, rather than being led by a demogogue, is our superpower.

Freedom looks inefficient, and slow, and awkward, and a roundabout way of getting things done– particularly if you like the idea of being in control. But it is not nearly so inefficient as the army.

Craftsmanship

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Those of us who read the Bible in a year are probably deep into the Pentateuch by now, or just emerging from it. I’m not currently on a Bible-in-a-year scheme but I do now and again listen to our the audio one-year Bible that we downloaded from Audible, one of the better bargains on the site.

The passage I listened to recently was about the Israelites constructing the tabernacle in the desert. What struck me was the project scope and the ambition:

  1. The cost, all that gold, acacia wood and other precious metals and materials.
  2. The artistry, those carved cherubim above the Ark
  3. The craftsmanship: tongs, shovels, forks, basins, altars, tent-poles, curtains.

It was a national investment, costly in materials and time, built beautiful, and built to last. And it was the best they were capable of.

Every profession and trade that I can think of can be subject to loving, careful craftsmanship. Every profession and trade contains people whom other people in the same trade respect as excellent at their job.

This excellence is an option for all of us, I think. Even constrained by budgets and deadlines we can lavish craftsmanship into whatever it is we do. Even the traditional cry of newspaper journalism– I don’t want it good, I want it by 4:30— didn’t prevent journos from journalistic excellence.

Some things do get in the way of craftsmanship: bad management, for instance; repeated changes in project scope; a certain disrespect for the final customer; perhaps relentless cost-cutting; perhaps the sheer impossibility of doing a job to be proud of within the time and costs available; perhaps the pointlessness of the thing attempted. All of these things make for a mush of shoddy, of half-baked, of poorly constructed and badly finished products that we find ourselves swimming through every day.

Then we come across things that sit comfortably in the hand, that do their job perfectly, that take our breath away with their elegance, things done with great skill, and we think… beautiful.

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 … The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it (Revelation 21:10, 26 NIVUK).