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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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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 the sixth place of decimals

There are surprises in store

Image by (Joenomias) Menno de Jong from Pixabay

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

Albert Michelson, Light Waves and Their Uses (1903), 23-4. 1

It was probably a shame that Michelson, first American winner of the Nobel Prize, came up with this quote, since it was his careful experiments on the way the speed of light never varied that provided the initial information behind Einstein’s 1904 theory of relativity.2.

It was a further shame that he wrote in 1903, just at the edge of quarter -century of discovery and theory that would turn physics upside down – the most exciting twenty-five years physics has ever known. Physicists since (arguably) have just been adding footnotes

What do we learn from this? Arguably, beware certainty in scientists. Think of this. Over here (I won’t draw it but you can imagine it) is the totality of reality. Over here (I won’t draw it either) is Science, a tool for exploring this reality. This is all very fine, except for the problem that since we do not know what the totality of reality is, we have no way of judging how good our tool is. It might be, for example, like a torch that only lights up the shiny things in a vast cave. Or it might be like an optical telescope, blind to X-ray sources that light up the sky. Or it might be like a child’s understanding, or like a fly’s, relying (in the case of the child) in a badly incomplete model or (in the case of a fly) on a deep cognitive lack.

Scientists generally, in my observation, are not good at looking at the acts of faith that underlie their discipline. What part does prejudice play? Or confirmation bias? How limited is our ability to perceive? How observable is the Universe? Science proceeds on assumptions that the Universe is generally observable, that human failings are ironed out by the need to replicate results, and, more broadly that it ‘works’. By which they/we mean: ‘when we shine a light into the cave, we can see shiny things.’

We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know if we can know what we don’t know. And we don’t know, if we can know what we don’t know, how we will know it.

Apart from that, everything is absolutely fine.

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.

Perichoresis for beginners

A lesson on self-isolation from the Cappadocian Fathers

I am reading a book called Trinity by Roger Forster. Forster, bearded, successful early, kinda trendy, around forever, is the evangelical equivalent of Richard Branson. A little bit anyway.

Forster points out so helpfully that the classical Greek view of God–thanks Aristotle–was that because he was perfect, he couldn’t change.1 Being the Uncaused Cause, on that analysis, made you like a classic sculpture: a perfect 10, but made of marble.

Forster–whose learning is impressive even if he veers around a little like a car with a puncture–compares this cold Greek slab with the God of the Cappadocian Fathers. They joined a fourth-century theological ruck alongside Athanasius, pushing back the Arian heresy and making sure a trinitarian God was a mark of orthodox Christianity. Forster writes: ‘The doctrine of the the trinity is truly important because God is personal, He is communal, He is loving, He is altruistic – and He is all of those things forever and ever.’2

It so happens the Cappadocian Fathers were themselves a trinity: Basil of Cesarea; his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa; and their big friend Gregory Nazianzus.

They were an example of inspired and super-smart Christians fighting the mighty Greeks on their home ground–a battle which, a thousand years later, people we now know as scientists had also to do: people like the devout Johannes Kepler, who freed natural science from its Grecian obsession with the perfectly circular.

The Cappadocian Fathers saw the Trinity as a kind of dance: as Forster says, ‘where the partners move around one another, each giving way to the other and then changing the direction, or changing the lead, but each one always in perfect symphony and synchrony.’3. Their word for this was perichoresis, which is a word I look forward to you using when you next see a dance routine.

It is a lovely picture though: God interdependent in his self-sufficiency. No wonder, then, that the creation that sprang out of the divine bosom, if we believe it, was itself a perichoresis of mutual service and supply. We breathe out; plants breathe in. Male and female he created them. We are one body, with many members. Perichoresis is everywhere. Which is why human thriving is not centred on achieving alone but on belonging and contributing.

‘The most glorious measure’

Be it therefore enacted by the King’s most excellent Majesty … that from and after the first day of May One thousand eight hundred and seven, The African Slave Trade, and all manner of dealing and trading in the Purchase, Sale, Barter, or Transfer of Slaves, or of Persons intended to be sold, transferred, used, or dealt with as Slaves, practised or carried on, in, at, to or from any Part of the Coast or Countries of Africa, shall be … utterly abolished, prohibited, and declared to be unlawful.

These words were part of the Royal Assent given to the bill that abolished slavery on March 25, 1807. The then Prime Minister William Grenville described it as ‘the most glorious measure that had ever been adopted by any legislative assembly in the world.

It was the work of many, but perhaps supremely the work of William Wilberforce, who as a back-bench MP, had introduced an anti-slavery bill many times, only to see it defeated. In 1791 Wilberforce had said ‘Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name … [our descendants] will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to our country‘.

Church of England bishops opposed it. It was evangelicals (within and outside the Church of England) and Quakers who led the fight. Public campaigning and mobilizing popular opinion played a part. At one point, a quarter of the country was boycotting West Indian sugar — thanks to women, mostly, who did most of the sugar-handling in the UK, then as probably now.

I was re-reading this story today 1 and two things struck me again: the fact it was the evangelicals who led the fight; and the fact it didn’t matter that it was slow.

Life under lockdown

We are seeing sights we never expected to see. Recently I made a rare foray outside our home to drive to our allotment. (Can’t cycle, might bump into someone, car is isolated.) I passed the fish-and-chip van that arrives every Saturday noon at our estate, with a line of people each 2m apart.

In the village I saw a hand-made A-frame sign: ‘Thank you NHS’ and I was reminded of Nigel Lawson’s saying that the NHS is the nearest thing the English have to a religion.

Outside the local supermarket a small queue was standing patiently, also maintaining their distance. Everything was quiet and orderly. I wondered about this. (We are having everything delivered so I haven’t seen the inside of a shop for some time.) Are only a few people allowed in the shop? Do they feel the same pressure as you feel when you are the only person in the bathroom and someone is standing outside? That would not suit my supermarket shopping where half the point is visiting aisles full of things you don’t need, picking up something that might form the ingredient for a new and interesting meal, carrying it around the shop for a while and then putting it back.

So that’s what’s going on in the world. It will be fascinating to see what changes persist when, as I hope, things get better. More Zooming, I suppose, or the equivalent. We’ve been having family get togethers each weekend for both my and my wife’s side of the family; everyone’s had a crash course. Going out for a meal again will be nice. Seeing grandchildren other than down a phone, extra nice.

Some of the seminars I’ve seen, such as the one just below this paragraph, are fundamentally optimistic about what this reshuffling of things will do for the ministry of the Christian Church:

We’ll see. Meanwhile I have to confess to a happy lockdown. Working from home as usual, bit more time for focussed work, company of my wife, summer flooding the garden early.

Life in the old dog yet

Even though pubs and high streets are still declining.

Image by Carla Burke from Pixabay

My childhood landscape included church buildings being sold and other church buildings displaying painted thermometers outside as they looked for donations for a new roof. Media portrayals of vicars portrayed them as nice but useless. The tone, back in the 1970s, was that churches were like other sunset British industries, poorly managed, needing government aid , ripe for selling off.

I wonder if it will change. Last year legendary researcher Peter Brierley counted 40,100 church buildings in use in the UK — more than than all the pubs. He noted that new builds and old buildings repurposed for new congregations were at least matching sell-offs, at trend that surprised him:

Although some Anglican, Roman Catholic and Methodist church buildings have closed in recent years, this loss has been outweighed by the growth of new Evangelical and Pentecostal church congregations.

Migration to the UK is another factor behind the buoyancy in the number of church congregations. One of the first things that new communities do when arriving in the UK is to set up a place of worship. These new congregations often gather in non-traditional spaces such as converted cinemas, warehouses or shops.

Although much has been written about the decline in church going in recent years, the number of Christian congregations and church buildings in the UK has remained remarkably stable.

Peter Brierley

I wonder if the aftermath of Covid-19 will change things more. Surely things have moved on from the 1970s. In all the long recession, churches have been the backbone of the foodbank provision. Many times they are providers of youth work or family care when councils have cut provision. Some (like our own church) run day care for the elderly. Street pastors help those youngsters experimenting with too much alcohol on Friday nights. Churches and Christians are at the core of the community help in Covid-19 in my very limited observation. Churches have not gone the way of British Leyland, the National Coal Board, or British Steel, or British shipbuilding.

I have the idea that in this country people may stumble across the Christian church like finding an old coin, brushing off the dirt, and realizing it’s still worth something. We’ll see.

Lockdown as waiting

When God presses pause

Lovely, though I use a machine for mine. Image by Devanath from Pixabay

I’ve haven’t blogged about the lockdown because I’m as baffled as the rest of us. Two things coincided in my head today though (May 5th, still locked down at the time of writing). It happens I am having a happy lockdown, working at home as I have done for more than 30 years, but with my wife’s company which is lovely.

The first thing I learnt (courtesy of a newsletter from the mission agency where I used to work, WEC) is that the lockdown is a time of waiting, a kind of winter. That reminds me of what happens to individual souls sometime. One of the things about waiting/winter is the way new connections are being forged underground that will lay foundations for a brilliant spring.

The second thing I read was Nicky Gumbel saying about the multiplied demand for Alpha now that it’s online:

‘every week a new Alpha Course will start in the morning and in the evening. We couldn’t do that when you’re meeting with food and all the rest of it. You can only do three a year. We’re starting two every week.’

A third thing is that this is an unexpected setback to everything; covid-19 is a spanner thrown into the machinery of the world. Perhaps it is a spanner we threw ourselves or (to change the metaphor) perhaps it is a wave sweeping the globe because of a convergence of a series of human failings. No matter: we make bread by kneading together yeast, water and flour.1 Kneading, while presumably not pleasant for the kneaded, gets yeast to places it never got before.

In God’s hands, perhaps, consequences of human missteps can be forward steps for the Kingdom.

Micro-liturgies for fun and profit

Not many people are writing about this

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

So you abbreviate a prayer, and use the acronym as a way of slipping out the prayer without all the normal formalities.

‘OMG’ is the most widely-used micro-liturgy I know, not commonly used in God-worshipping circumstances. But there are others.

KOPO is the acronym of Keep On Pressing On. Best used when breathless, for example walking to the top of a hill. I guess it’s a pep-talk mostly, but it includes an element of prayer since it includes the thought, ‘Oh God help me, I don’t have any breath left.’ Helpful for hikers, the disabled and the fearful.

OLGA (Oh Lord God Almighty!) is another helpful abbreviation if you haven’t time for the full expression. Handy to use repeatedly: ‘OLGA, OLGA, OLGA!’

JRMWYCIYK, pronounced ‘Germ-whichick’ is the shortened version of a last-gasp prayer: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.

OGHMOMAS is a good one: O God Have Mercy On Me A Sinner. Useful in many contexts. Pronounce the OGH like you are clearing your throat or speaking Arabic and put the emphasis on the first syllable: Ogh- momas! It thus can be made to rhyme with ‘Oh mama!‘ or ‘Oh moma!‘ but is a bit more holy.

Ancient usage, or indeed God himself, may have originated the first micro-liturgy. The Name of God as appearing in the Old Testament is often printed in English Bibles in small caps. It was not pronounced apparently. It is nowadays usually rendered ‘Yahweh’ by the kind of people who regard themselves as experts in this stuff and often have beards.

Someone pointed out that it is what we say every time we breathe. The ‘Yah’ is the breathing in; the ‘Weh’ is the breathing out. Two thoughts flow from this:

  • All the animal creation is constantly breathing prayers to God. Every breath is worship.
  • If you are one of those people who worry you may stop breathing sometime, such as if you forget during the night, it may come as a comfort that with every breath you do take, you can think of yourself as reaching out to God.

I am interested if other people use micro-liturgies. Confess all! I doubt it is just me.

Dust

What we leave behind

bible-1679746_1920Here’s the Apostle Paul: brilliant, intense, battered. Gnarly. Well-travelled, and when imprisoned, sending letters instead of sending himself. Eventually executed.

What happened to the letters he left behind? Surely people kept them. And some copied them. Some enterprising people probably wrote to other churches and asked for the copies they’d also collected. Maybe some people took a set with them when they travelled, so they could share it with other churches they met. Slowly, by hand-copying, collections built up. It must have happened by word-of-mouth.  People knew spiritual treasure and kept it and shared it.

FF Bruce writes:

We know, for example, that about the year 95 the cupboard somewhere in Rome which was the Vatican library of that date contained not only Paul’s letter to the Romans (as we should expect in any case) but also copies of his first letter to the Corinthians and (possibly) one or two others. It also contained copies of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which had a close association with Rome, of the First Epistle of Peter, which was written from Rome, and of some Gospel writings, not to mention the Greek version of the Old Testament commonly called the Septuagint. 1

In the analysis by FF Bruce, the same happened with gospels: Mark’s in Rome, Matthew’s in Syria, John’s in Ephesus, Luke’s perhaps already designed for wide circulation. Eventually a four-fold gospel was circulating, as were collections of letters, and Luke-Acts could be split and Acts used to connect the four-fold gospel with the letters of Paul and others.

In this way, the New Testament was formed, a word-of-mouth collection that, sifted by all the Christians who were using both it and other documents, gained traction.

Later developments caused church leaders to codify what was already on the ground. And so the New Testament came into being in a similar way to an Amazon bestseller list. People left writings, the Christian community used them, or didn’t. Then add a dash of politics and you have a New Testament. And Paul’s letters, after his lonely execution, took hold, and now no hour passes in the world without multitudes reading and pondering Paul. By any measures of publishing success, Paul is the greatest and most successful writer ever to scratch ink on papyrus. ‘See what large letters I write with my own hand’.

This is so different from seeking to build a following through advertising, free offers, campaigns, special deals, commendations. Just pour your life out, be faithful to your heavenly vision, and let God and the future generations do the rest.

A theology of slow mission

Not a programme, or a strategy, but a course of life.

Pixabay

We know how this ends.

Everyone dies, the Universe expands and cools, the last lights go out. It isn’t this.

It is — according to Christian theology — this. A resurrected Universe thrives. All things are united together in Christ.

I have written about how you can understand this in terms of the physicist’s idea of entropy. The little localized patches of low entropy that already exist, known to us as ‘life’, are the forerunners or harbingers or early hints of a total low-entropy takeover of time and space.

Another way of saying the same thing is the language of heaven and earth. Heaven is the low-entropy, eternal, invisible dimension or realm where Christ reigns. Perhaps it surrounds in some way our physical Universe. When people turn to Christ and lean into him, heaven enters their souls. They have a presence somehow in these heavens, ‘seated in heavenly places in Christ.’1 They belong to eternity, but they reside on earth. They belong to God’s people, to Jesus, and their future is secure. Yet they live on earth. What is their job? Their lives become about bringing the qualities of heaven into earth. They are routes by which heaven leaks into earth. Which is why prayer is important, as is weakness and perseverance, and the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. Eventually, heaven will burst out and flood over earth and Christ will be ‘all in all’. ‘Death’, as the Apostle Paul put it, ‘is swallowed up by victory’. 2

A lot of the New Testament lights up when we realize this. This is why we pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ 3, why ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness’ 4, why we ‘groan’5, why Paul tells the Colossians to bear fruit ‘in every good work .. [with] great endurance and patience’ 6, why ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ 7.

Here is a theology of slow mission. We pray, and do, and bear, and endure on earth. But we are not building the kingdom of heaven on earth like you build a cathedral. We are engaged in an act of life-giving. It is like when a plant puts all its strength into preparing a seed head.

It is also like the ways mothers live by pouring life into their children. The children live on into a future the mother doesn’t see. The mother doesn’t see the future because death stands between her and it, and that future is far removed from her current experience of protesting, messy babies. But she lives and gives life and her loving work will endure beyond death, bearing fruit in ways she will perhaps never guess. The coming of the Kingdom of God in the end will be a bridal day for a squalling creation.

This is why mission is and should be slow. Because it isn’t a programme; it’s a work of love. It’s why every little corner matters, as well as every grand vision. It’s a pursuit of Christ in the large and the small. We pour in all the knowledge of Christ and all the beauty and justice and patience and faith and love that we can, into this world, tugged along in our course by the Holy Spirit. We live, reluctant coals blown on by Jesus. We also groan: weak, sorrowful, disappointed, set back again and again. What we finish won’t look finished, until it all dies and rises again, and then we will see in Christ that it was.