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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.

Not quite so good for the autocrats

In the latest annual report from the charity Human Rights Watch, director Kenneth Roth, in his usual thoughtful mood, sounds a nuanced note of hope for the world:

The conventional wisdom these days is that autocracy is ascendent, democracy on the decline. That view gains currency from the intensifying crackdown on opposition voices in China, Russia, Belarus, Myanmar, Turkey, Thailand, Egypt, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. It finds support in military takeovers in Myanmar, Sudan, Mali, and Guinea, and undemocratic transfers of power in Tunisia and Chad. And it gains sustenance from the emergence of leaders with autocratic tendencies in once- or still-established democracies such as Hungary, Poland, Brazil, El Salvador, India, the Philippines, and, until a year ago, the United States.

But the superficial appeal of the rise-of-autocracy thesis belies a more complex reality—and a bleaker future for autocrats. As people see that unaccountable rulers inevitably prioritize their own interests over the public’s, the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy often remains strong. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot.

So, many an autocracy may be more fragile than it appears. And autocrats, he implies, have a shrinking menu of options to choose from in the face of public discontent. You can shut down media sites, jail opposition leaders, neuter the courts but if that fails, you have to start shooting people. Or run away.

What can democracies learn from this? Do better, says Roth. Thought-provoking stuff, and well worth reading the whole thing.

The joys of decline

Not something many people like to talk about

I have supplied copies of the pre-publication edition of my book Bread to about 40 people by now, and some have come back with comments. At one point my book talks about ‘doing small things well’ even if ‘big things have collapsed all around you’ (p 39 of the draft).

Both my suppliers-of-comments applied that idea helpfully to aging and decline. I hadn’t thought of that. In my book I’d applied it to failure and shattered hopes. Perhaps I should start thinking about decline: certainly I notice that on walks that I have taken for thirty years, formerly with our dog, and now alone, lots of extra hills and slopes have apparently been fitted. I couldn’t probably manage a dog now though that is strictly speaking a health issue rather than age in my case.

The fun part about decline, my correspondents tell me, lies precisely in doing small things well even when big things have slipped out of one’s grasp. How wonderful, when declining, to aim to be the sort of person who lifts the spirits of everyone who they meet. How wonderful to be joyful, kind, giving, happy, even as the body seizes up.

And you meet people like that. For them the downward slope to physical dissolution is rather overtaken by the upward slope towards the glory of God.

A fine thing to aspire to, as the night falls.

You can still download a free pre-publication copy of Bread just here:

And a reminder: I do welcome comments, via the comment section here, and I especially welcome honest reviews. To do those, go to your favourite review site (Amazon, for example) and just share a few honeyed words about what you think. Readers are smart: be honest about the deficiencies; it won’t necessarily stop them buying the book. I think you may have to wait till after publication day on Feb 19 2022 to paste in your honeyed words.

How lawyers make the world a better place

No, really

grey and brown snake opening mouth
Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

Yes, it’s true. Despite all the jokes.

(Here’s one: Question: a snake and a lawyer fall from a 12-storey building. The snake is slightly smoother and more slippery than the lawyer. Who hits the ground first? Answer: Who cares?) And it’s true despite the wanton gluttony of commercial law: I heard, second hand, that £100m of the £700m or so spent rebuilding Wembley Stadium a few years ago was lawyers’ fees. No earth was moved but some chargeable hours were sure clocked up.

But it’s true. I’ve been thinking a lot about autocracy, as you do, how someone takes over the country and tries to dismantle whatever structures would preserve democratic legitimacy.

Such niggling strictures so get in the way of the aspiring autocrat. So who is first in your sights? The journalists and the lawyers and the lawyers who have become judges. What you need to do, aspiring autocrat, is dump the independent and principled and clever poeple, and replace them with compliant people. Ideally, the compliant ones will be so dim that they think they have their new jobs on merit.

This battle is being played out all over the world, and it’s a conflict of the slow (the lawyers and journalists) against the rash, impatient autocrat. Judges in Malawi threw out a crooked election. The EU is arguing with the Polish government about its policy of sacking independent judges. Judges in the US threw out nearly 50 claims of a crooked election.

Then, helping the helpless. I’ve watched defence lawyers, unthanked individuals, defend abjectly needy people in court with careful preparation and beautiful logic. (I am passing over the cynicism here that also dogs much of legal practice.) At their best, I think lawyers are about the rule of law, all of us equal under the law, rather than the rule of low cunning, or the rule of One.

Stunning. Slow. Surprising. Lawyers. Who’d’ve thought?

A quantum physicist does arithmetic

This is why they shouldn’t.

duckling on black soil during daytime
Now look what you’ve gone and done. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So, one plus one equals two.

Let’s count ducklings. You have one duckling over here, and another duckling over there and so there are two ducklings in a subregion of total time and space that includes both the ducklings and you, the observer.

But there are serious problems with this.

  1. How do you know the two ducklings are separate entities? One apparent duckling could be simply a reflection of a real duckling. Given the link between ducklings and ponds, this is not unlikely.
  2. Or of course perhaps only one duckling exists in the whole universe, and all the the other ducklings are themselves resonances or echoes of this Single Universal Duckling.
  3. Such a posited Single Universal Duckling would have to encompass all the possible ages of ducklings as observed throughout the Universe in order to match observation. This would be an extraordinary entity: smeared across time but confined in space, an Eternal Single Universal Duckling or ESUD. Hatching from an egg would also be difficult: the ESUD would have to be hatched, hatching and not hatched all at once, all in some realm of reality that is simultanously beyond human grasp but not beyond a duck’s rear end. This is possible but perhaps unlikely.
  4. So to reiterate, for 1 +1 to equal 2, you not only have to actually have two entities, but there has to exist the means to confirm that the two entities are indeed two entities and not reflections or projections of a single entity and you, and the ducklings, have to be in on the secret.

The conclusion? (This, by the way, is the conclusion of all scientific papers everywhere and at all times) More research is needed.

A Christmas present for you. Well, sort of.

I finally got my book Bread up on the main internet bookshops for pre-order, before its publication on February 19 2022. That’s so I can c0llect orders and reviews.

I can also offer both of you faithful and patient blog readers a free copy. Let me say that again in upper case with two exclamation marks:

A FREE COPY!!

Publishers call these things ARCs or Advanced Review Copies. I’d love you to have one and then if at all possible leave an honest review somewhere (like on the sites where it is offered for pre-publication). Reviews, as you know, are a currency of the Internet.

Even if you don’t feel up to reviewing it, please help yourself anyway. I’m very fond of this book and would love you to see more than the brief extracts I’ve already shared.

I will also very much welcome any comments and criticisms you may have. My wife was the first reader of the ARC and has already pointed out one or two risqué jokes that I will take out of the edition that finally appears on Feb 19, as well as other mistakes and inappropriateness. So if you want the version with risqué jokes and inappropriateness included, now’s your only chance.

Do share this with anyone you think would like it. I’ve set a download limit of 500 on the number of ARCs that can be issued and the offer all ends on Feb 18.

In praise of the fairy story

It might come and bite you

It isn’t hard to find stuff to read or watch that rates the Bible as a fairy story, and assumes this is a bad thing.

We need atheist critics so much. They are a blessing to us Christians, hunting down our sneaky thoughts, loose morals and slippery work. But with a grateful nod to atheist critics, let’s move on. Fairy stories. Proper fairy stories. What do they tell us?

We have to define our terms a bit. Which fairy stories are being referred to here? The Three Little Pigs with its instructions on building with proper materials? The Elves and the Shoemaker, about globalized workforces and profit-led debt-free exponential growth? Cinderella, with its important lessons on the right shoes?

And then what do we mean by the Bible? The Bible is a book-room, not a book, and treating the Bronze Age literature section as if it was the sharpest modern non-fiction, or indeed something with the conventions of the fairy story, is sloppy thinking. There’s a world of assumptions and background we need before we get on board with say, Noah. But even if we knew what a fairy story was, and even if the Bible was one, it’s not so bad:

Proper fairy stories are an antidote to the atheist delusion of a clean-shaven, 1950s, rational Universe.

  1. The world isn’t a buttoned down, uptight, Star Trekky, hygienic, modernist paradise. Given the story of science so far, how can we not think that out there are paradoxes, non-intuitive answers, total surprises, and perspectives that most of today’s scientists will never accept. Einstein disliked quantum mechanics. Florence Nightingale was a germ theory sceptic. At times, science has had to progress a funeral at a time. Only when you bury a senior and respected professor, only when you let the young ones have the tenure, do scientific paradigms really shift. Sadly. Proper fairy stories are an antidote to the atheist delusion of a clean-shaven, 1950s, rational Universe. A story about a goose laying golden eggs properly prepares the youthful mind for a world where the Fed creates billions of dollars out of thin air or quantum physicists add infinity here and there to ‘re-normalize’ their theories. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it. Fairy stories darken and ruffle the placid lake of the textbook. Good.
  2. Fairy stories inspire intellectual humility. Which is surely a never a bad thing.
  3. Fairy stories convey truth. Beware of the wolf, for example. Don’t look a gift-granny in the mouth. Gingerbread houses are a gateway to abuse.
  4. Fairy stories remind us there is such a thing as evil.
  5. Fairy stories leave room for wonder. Wonder is not the start of teflon slide towards gullability. It is the right human response to the astonishing. And it is as appropriate to someone looking at the Hubble deep-field view of the most distant galaxies as it is to someone reflecting on the resurrection of Christ. Wonder is what happens when you accidentally peek round a door and catch God at work. A capacity for wonder is useful bit of human kit to carry around with us. Fairy stories help.
Any excuse to show the Hubble Deep Field, in its day (1995) the most expensive and the most astonishing photograph ever taken. Point the most capable telescope at an empty patch of sky in the Big Dipper, come back after Christmas, and see the results – galaxy upon galaxy, maybe three thousand in this one shot, layered back to the beginning of time. (ESA/Hubble creative commons)

But I still resent it, a bit, when the Bible is accused of being a fairy story – a vaguely moral Eurocentric fable with fantastic elements. Here’s what ‘fairy stories’ don’t do:

  1. Inspire architecture, art and jurisprudence down through the centuries
  2. Grip people so much that, defending them they will be burnt alive, crucified upside down or sawn in two (though obviously not all at once).
  3. Cause millions of people around the world to rise early to read and then resolve to be decent, kind, to do justice, to bring peace, to serve others, and to make the world beautiful and whole.
  4. Help you die
  5. Comfort the lonely, bring peace to the old, raise tears, dry tears, get people to forgive the unforgiveable, or (in the case of Martin Luther for example) enable them to overthrow a continent-wide instance of religious totalitarianism.

Just saying.

Advent and waiting

Why so long?

Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas) is a time of waiting.

I don’t know if you’ve ever wondered, why did God take so long? God made promises to Abraham but then Jewish history meandered for 2000 years until Jesus came.

One thought is that through that long wait everything had been tried –slavery, empire, exile; theology, literature, philosophy– but nothing had been found to satisfy the human soul or give coherence to the human story. History’s crayon, like a brass-rubbing, only revealed the outlines of a missing King.

God made us wait. Perhaps that should still be an intentional component of our lives. Surely we can be too hasty, casual, or on autopilot in our approach to God.  Perhaps next time we are stuck in a long night of insomnia, or even waiting for a bus, we can re-use the time and redirect our thoughts to seek to know him better, to love him, to meet him.

I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.’ (Lamentations 3:24, in the Old Testament)

The healing in your head

It’s here that it matters

Sorry to be writing about healing again. But I keep learning new things. For the longest time I had two ideas about healing, which were complementary if incomplete:

  1. See a doctor, and the result will be somewhere on the spectrum between no cure at all and a complete cure. Quite a lot of conditions can be eased, slowed, ameliarated, sometimes with pills, sometimes with pills and side effects and it’s great. Or at least it’s better than the alternative and it’s pretty good.
  2. Visit the New Testament where there is a quite a lot of instanteous healing, and some instances of progressive healing. This observation influences a lot of Christian practice, both in high-octane mass healing meetings and also sometimes when people are prayed for ad hoc by their Christian peers.

I generally have come to prefer the medical route to (this particular) Christian-inspired paradigm. Each route, doctors or hoped-for miracles, leads to highs and some lows; the Christian route, as described, in my experience, tends to result in more lows than highs. One big reason for this is that doctors are better at managing expectations and describing likely outcomes than Christian pray-ers are. Plus, doctors are less likely to blame people for their sickness (even when they deserve it). Christians in my experience don’t usually blame the patient overtly but do say things like ‘God we don’t understand why you haven’t healed this person,’ while fixing a troubled eye on you. Doctors are professional and Christians are amateur and it rather shows.

Doctors are better at managing expectations and describing likely outcomes than Christian pray-ers are.

I think God is active in both realms. In the week I write this, the much anticipated £1bn Astra-Zeneca headquarters has just opened, a short bus-ride from my home, further cementing Cambridge’s position as a biomedical centre, employing thousands of people, some of whom are friends of mine, busy researching and pioneering further medical cures.

Because of their work, all over the world, mothers will not be parted early from their children, granddads will get to play with their grandchildren, life will be extended and tragedy deferred or defused. God cannot not be in this great project for the common good.

What’s going on inside the head

I feel both these routes towards wellness are incomplete as they stand. And I know that doctors know this too and also talk about the ‘pyscho-social’ aspects of wellness. What is this? Two people can have identical MRI scans, say of their spines. One will say, ‘it’s terrible, my spine is crumbling’ and their disability, and bitterness, will cast a long shadow into their family. They will be a pain as much as their spine is. The other will say, ‘basically I’m fine’ and carry on much as before. Same crumbly spine: different head and heart.

A few weeks ago we visited a National Trust property with my family. I get breathless very easily. For the first time ever (I think) I borrowed one of their electric buggies. This all-terrain craft let me join everyone as we rambled round the gardens. It was wonderful: no pain, no breathlessness, no pretending to be interested in a leaf while my breathing caught up, no struggling to talk, no watching everyone get cold as they kindly adjusted to my slower-than-toddler pace. It felt like healing. It was healing. Of course, physically I was just as before; but in my head, where I live, I was thriving. Healing is thriving, being at peace, content, happy. It happens through Christ. My National Trust buggy was a healing. Really. Miss that and you miss quite a lot.

Time, our missed perspective

This is at the heart of slow. I have been in a conference this week where one of the speakers reminded us about God answering prayers ‘immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine’1.

There’s a scale here and an extent that stretches out beyond the limits of our imagination and does so because of the compounding effects of time.

It is impossible that the Apostle Paul, writing those words to a group of Turkish and Greek churches in the first century could believe what was going to happen. Twenty centuries later, the world is more complex than Paul could have guessed, but as earth turns, the sun never lights up a moment there when thousands, probably millions, are not reading Paul.

Would John Milton know that five centuries after his passing, someone, me, would be listening to Paradise Lost on a thing called a phone via a thing called a podcast while travelling at speed in a car?

What will Time and God do with the little things we offer him?

Knowing your doctor well keeps you well as well

Look at this from Private Eye‘s wonderful ‘MD’ (aka Dr Phil Hammond) (15-28 October 2021 p 8)

The model of general practice – trying to manage multiple complex risks and needs in very brief encounters – has long been unsafe and unsustainable. You have 10 minutes to help an 80-year-old woman who is arthritic, breathless, recently bereaved and on 12 tablets. It takes three of those minutes to walk her from waiting room to consulting room.She wants to talk about her late husband; you want to ensure her breathlessness was not a red flag for a life-threatening condition or a side effect of the pills you have prescribed.

It takes another three minutes to undress her and get her up on the couch to be examined. And yet her main reason for coming was loneliness.

….

A study of Norwegian health records, published in the British Journal of General Practice, found that — compared with a one-year patient-GP relationship — those who had had the same doctor for between two and three years were about 13 percent less likely to need out-of-hours care, 12 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital, and 8 percent less likely to die that year. After 15 years, the figures were 30 percent, 28 percent and 25 percent.

Healthcare depends crucially on relationships, and staff knowing and understanding you.

Imagine a GP being resourced enough to combine a vocation as a doctor with the time and stability to develop relationships with patients. Vocation and relationships … just like in a book I recently wrote, which I may have occasionally mentioned in this blog. And which is still ‘forthcoming’…