Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Small things bright and beautiful


God does not despise "the day of small things"

Small things in nature make a big difference; so too do small
things in human society
In 2018 the i newspaper ran a Christmas charity appeal for the Muscular Sclerosis Society. It raised £67,000, a small sum compared with efforts like Comic relief, Children in Need, and Sport Relief. Yet the money made a huge difference to 72 people who benefited from such things as mobility scooters, home adaptations, wheelchairs, special chairs and beds, respite breaks, furnishings & appliances, driving lessons, essential home repairs, exercise kit, and laptops.
One of the smallest grants was to young carer for skating lessons and to another for a school trip. Those small sums bought two young people in challenging circumstances the opportunity to enjoy being teenagers with unforgettable experiences.
Small things can make a big difference. “No-one is too small to make a difference”, 16 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg told the COP24 conference in early 2019; the claim has become her mantra since and is the title of her book of speeches. As a result of her one-girl school strike in Sweden for climate change, a new wave of concern has swept across the world. Greta is autistic, for which she has been lampooned on social media. But autistic people are not handicapped or insignificant. They’re often highly gifted and focussed. They, like anyone else, can make a difference.
We know this in theory, and occasionally we experience the little things – the smile, the gift, the encouragement – that make our day. But confronted by an impersonal world in which everything seems to be organised on a mega scale that ignores individual needs, it is still hard to believe that the little we can do in any area of life can have any effect whatever. So in a period of momentous upheaval and change technologically, politically, socially, environmentally and even spiritually, the biblical message – and challenge – that God puts a high value on small things is worth hearing again.
When the Jews returned from exile in Babylon to their ruined city of Jerusalem some 500 years before Christ, they started to rebuild the Temple. It was hard going; the workers were few, the resources scarce. Slowly the work petered out. Corporate depression set in. Then the Old Testament prophet Zechariah challenged them in God’s name: “Who dares despise the day of small things?” Who dares say that their small effort is worth nothing to God nor can accomplish anything in the great scheme of things? He reminded them that anything that is accomplished for God is “not by [human] might nor power, but by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6,10). God is not limited by our human weakness. The work got done.

"No-one is too small to make a difference"
Small beginnings, unlikely people
Most big outcomes have small beginnings. Multinational corporations begin as local small-scale initiatives. Throughout the Bible God always starts small, and often with the most unlikely people. One elderly, childless, semi-nomadic couple – Abraham and Sarah – were told they would be the founders of a numerous nation (Genesis 15:5,6). They believed the promise, and were.
When those descendants were reduced to hopeless slavery God took an aging murderer on the run, Moses, to rescue them. He was a stuttering man who couldn’t face public speaking. Yet God used him to liberate the Israelites from Egypt and organise the rabble into a nation. When that nation bemoaned its own smallness and weakness, he stated the Gospel principle: “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous [or talented] than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you that he brought you out and redeemed you” (Deuteronomy 7:7f). The theme is reiterated in the New Testament: “By grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). We are small, unlikely and undeserving – yet loved, and called to serve.
There’s more. The spirited teenager, David, killed the lumbering Philistine giant who was terrorising the Israelite nation and so delivered them from oppression, doing with a catapult and a stone what armoured soldiers with swords and spears had failed to do (1 Samuel 17). Jeremiah was young, inexperienced, prone to depression, yet called to be a prophet and speak truth to power. He never lost his sense of weakness and inferiority, yet persevered in a thankless but necessary ministry (Jeremiah 1:4-10; 20:7-18).
Jesus was a Jew from an insignificant part of an occupied territory who began his work of transforming people and society with 12 followers whose loyalty, understanding and ability were imperfect. After his unjust crucifixion about 120 of his followers gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Inspired by the Holy Spirit their numbers had swollen to over 3,000 within 24 hours and the Christian church now numbers about two billion.
“God chose the weak (or small) things of the world to shame the strong,” Paul told the largely lower middle class congregation of Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:26-29), “so that no-one may boast before him”. Strip away the pretence of human pride and status, and the message applies to all, whatever our circumstances. “All have sinned; all are freely justified” Paul says elsewhere (Romans 3:22-28), adding that human equality before God rules out any form of boasting. Small things, small beginnings, small and allegedly insignificant people, are beautiful for God.

Small actions
In one of his most famous – and counter-cultural – statements, Jesus commended an impoverished widow who dropped two pennies into the collection plate. He said she had given more than the richer donors who were merely donating their spare change, because she had given all she had (Mark 12:41-44). He valued motives more than dutiful gestures. What we have is irrelevant to God: what counts is how we regard it, and then what we do with it.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg's
 book of speeches
            Jesus illustrated that principle powerfully when he took a boy’s packed lunch, fed a crowd with it, and then had the problem of disposing of a mountain of food-waste (Mark 6:35-44). A small offering of service placed into the hand of Jesus can have great consequences, whether we are aware of them or not.
So, Jesus said, “you are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). Salt is spread thinly if it is to have a good effect. So too is yeast in a batch of bread dough (Matthew 13:33). Small numbers within a congregation do not necessarily indicate failure but neither should they be a reason for entrenchment. Jesus told us to pray for more people to spread his word and vision (Matthew 9:35-38) and commanded his minority movement to boldly make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). Small need not be ineffective; big (as in some mega churches) does not of itself define “success” or “blessing”. Large churches have to downsize into smaller groups if they are to be pastorally and evangelistically effective.
Being small should not be a reason for inverted pride, though. Some sects and separatist churches consider themselves the minority custodians of a particular emphasis or doctrine, and thus spiritually superior. The Kingdom of God grows best when small groups work together on the agreed broad principles of the Christian Gospel even if their individual emphases and forms of organisation are different.
While Moses was receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai he faced a subtle temptation to go it alone. He was informed that the Israelites had given him up for dead and created an idol to worship. God suggested he destroy them and “then I will make you into a great nation”. In other words, to start small again, with Moses as a single faithful leader. Moses refused the offer and said that, in effect, such a move would do God’s reputation as the saviour of the people irreparable harm (Exodus 32:7-14). God relented, and Moses was left to continue his leadership of a mixed bunch of stroppy human beings. He had done the right thing.
Later the prophet Elijah was blind to the remnant of faithful people around him in an otherwise corrupt society. He bleated that he alone was left as a servant of God and that it was time to give up. But he was told that there were 7,000 other believers who he could have supported, or been supported by, and that there were three remaining things that only he could do (1 Kings 19:10-18).
That is the point of Jesus’ parable of the “talents” (Matthew 25:14-30). The man who was given just one bag of gold (as the NIV interprets it) “was afraid” and hid it away, earning the donor’s displeasure. “There’s nothing I can do” is a lie for anyone who belongs to God’s Kingdom, whether uttered by an eight year old or an eighty year old. No-one is too small to make a difference.
Nor is anyone’s faith too small. Jesus taught that faith needed to be no larger than a tiny mustard seed to move mountains: “nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). Our personal assessment of the size of our faith is irrelevant because God is always bigger than what we think. God does not despise our day of small things; neither should we.
In his latest book, Pete Grieg, founder of the 24/7 prayer movement, writes “when you pray about the small things in life, you get to live with greater gratitude.… When you learn to pray about trivia … you start to notice how many minor miracles are scattered abroad in the course of an average day” – even, he suggests, when we truly pray “give us this day our daily bread” “in a land that’s full of the stuff”.1
The Tesco strap line is right: “Every little helps”. It applies in every area of life, not just in the part we label “religious”. The small difference we make – whether reducing our use of plastic, feeding the birds in a garden, making the tea at church, inviting someone to an Alpha course – whatever, adds to the small difference someone else makes. In an election our single “insignificant” vote adds to the total of support or dissent. Who dares despise the day of small things?
God loves small things, and ordinary people, because through them he can demonstrate his power without it being confused with human virtue or talent. “When I am weak then I am strong, because God says, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
So give him what you have. Those two small coins. A picnic. A sling and some stones. A single bag of gold. Send a card. Give a hug. Listen to someone. Spend less, share more, slow down. Set an example that others can follow. Pray. Just live for Jesus where you are. The Holy Spirit, the energiser, the gift-giver takes our small things, small beginnings, and multiplies, magnifies them. That old saying about the straw that breaks the camel’s back reminds us that small things add up. God never loses count of them; “Your labour in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Ever.

Think and talk
1. Why do we so easily despise the day of small things?
2. “Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful. To go for gigantism is to go for self-destruction” (E.F. Schumacher, Small is beautiful, Vintage Books 2011, p. 131). In what ways has “gigantism” proved detrimental to people, churches, nations and the planet?
3. Elisha’s servant was terrified by the sight of a marauding army descending on his home, until his eyes were opened to see the angelic host and learn that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). How might stories like this and assurances such as those in Romans 8:31 and 1 John 4:4 encourage and strengthen our weak faith in the face of great challenges?
4, There is a temptation faced by many (especially leaders in church, commerce and state) to talk things up, to make situations or achievements seem greater, more effective, more significant, than they really are. How might we learn to celebrate and value the less than perfect reality, and what good might come from being more honest and realistic?

Reference
1.  Pete Grieg, How to Pray, Hodder & Stoughton 2019, p.71

© Derek Williams 2019


Friday, 24 May 2019

How to pray "Thy Kingdom Come"


“Thy Kingdom Come”, an annual international prayer wave between Ascension and Pentecost, promoted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope, is a time to pray especially for friends, family, colleagues and the wider community, that people may encounter Jesus Christ for themselves. But it raises an interesting question: what do we really mean when we pray “Thy kingdom come” each week in the Lord’s Prayer? I searched my bookshelves and found some challenging answers.


The official Thy Kingdom Come logo 2019
Commentators agree that when Jesus talked about “the Kingdom of God” he didn’t mean a nation-state, church or even heaven. It is rather “the rule of God” which exists wherever and whenever Jesus is honoured and followed, “on earth as it is in heaven”. This Kingdom is ruled by love and powered by truth, expressed by service and characterised by humility. By all accounts, we need to be careful what we pray for when we reel off the familiar words!

When Jesus in Mark 1:15 tells us that “the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” he meant more than that he was beginning an evangelistic tour. Theologian Alan Richardson explains: “In general terms this means that Jesus proclaimed as good news the fact that God was setting about the task of putting straight the evil plight into which the world had fallen, or that he was beginning to bring to its fulfilment his original intention in the Creation”.1


Jesus’ followers belong to this kingdom by virtue of both their commitment to him as saviour and to their conscious and deliberate reflection of his Lordship in the world. We help to build the kingdom now by bringing Jesus’ standards and purposes to bear on every detail of our lives. But there can be no new “Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land” (or anywhere else) until Jesus returns and fully institutes his kingly rule in a new creation that is beyond our imagining. The New Testament is clear that the whole realm of nature and human endeavour will be caught up in the new creation (see Romans 8:19-21; Colossians 1:19-20; Revelation 21:1-6). The kingdom is both “now” and “not yet”.
“Thy Kingdom come” then is primarily a prayer for God’s Kingship over ourselves. Says commentator William Barclay, “The Kingdom is the most personal thing in the world. It demands the submission of my will, my heart, my life. It is only when each one of us makes the personal decision and submission that the Kingdom comes.”2 More recently, American Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller wrote, “It is asking God to extend his royal power over every part of our lives – emotions, desires, thoughts and commitments. … We are asking God to so fully rule us that we want to obey him with all our hearts and with joy.”3

A prayer with world wide scope

On that basis, “Thy Kingdom Come” then becomes a mission prayer, as we gladly long for Jesus’ Kingship to be extended to all around us. According to John Pritchard “It’s not a phrase to trot out in church on Sunday without at least a crash helmet and a first-aid kit. This is serious praying for God’s massive attack on all that frustrates his good and loving purposes.”4

And it extends to the whole world of human affairs. Says the founder of the 24/7 Prayer movement, Pete Grieg, in his forthright style, “It’s tragic that the most revolutionary cry in world history, ‘Let your kingdom come’, is so often reduced to a religious catchphrase, mere shorthand for a few less people leaving our churches and a few more homeless people receiving a tuna sandwich on Friday  nights. By contrast early 20th-century Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper … wrote ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!’”5
God's Kingdom is far removed from concepts of earthly power
but it envisages a new world order ruled by God's love
and purposes.
It certainly means praying for new disciples, but it also “means seeing the world … with the love of the creator for his spectacularly beautiful creation; and to see it with the deep grief of the creator for the battered and battle-scarred state in which the world now finds itself,” writes theologian Tom Wright. “We are praying for the redemption of the world; for the radical defeat and uprooting of evil; and for heaven and earth to be married at last, for God to be all in all.”6

Pete Grieg in his latest book draws attention to the promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” He picks up on the last phrase: the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the land are entirely contingent on the intercession of God’s people. What task could possibly be more important, more urgent for our world today?”7

But prayer alone, important as it is (and for some people, especially those largely housebound, the greatest thing they can do) is not for many of us enough. Praying “thy kingdom come” also means committing ourselves to the kinds of Kingdom-building actions that demonstrate our membership of it.

Swiss professor of systematic theology Jan Milič Lochman, recognises the depressing state of the “dark horizons” of the modern world and suggests that “thy kingdom come” sets them in a fresh context and thereby “relativizes them, robbing them of their final validity. Kyrios Christos [Lord Christ]: The Risen Lord is the Lord of the principalities and powers. This liberates us. We are no longer the prisoners of omnipotent fate. … Our world must not remain as it is. Resistance is possible; our hearts and circumstances can change.”

 He asserts that, “It makes a decisive difference to culture and society if there are groups within them that amid the oppressions of time keep their eyes open to the kingdom of God, praying for it and following it in the direction that Christ’s promises indicate, that is, by taking up the cause of the poor, acting on behalf of prisoners and the handicapped, freeing the oppressed, and especially proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord, the liberating future of God. The state of the world will be renewed.”8

We help to build the Kingdom by living as liberated members of it, and by praying for people to come to know Jesus Christ personally. Then they in turn, through their renewed and changed lives and witness, bring God’s rule to bear on their corner of the world. So the shorthand “thy Kingdom come” becomes: “Allow me to be an agent of your kingdom by bringing peace to the anxious, grace to the needy and your love to all whom I touch. May people believe in your reign of goodness because of how I live and speak today.”9

Think and talk

Just consider the different ways in which you can make the prayer, “thy kingdom come” become more specific in fact, broader in scope, and deeper in meaning, for you and your friends. And remember that, each time you join in the Lord’s Prayer.

References

1.  Alan Richardson, “Kingdom of God”, A theological word book of the Bible, SCM Press 1962, p.119
2.  William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew volume 1, St Andrew Press 1956, p.212
3.  Timothy Keller, Prayer, Hodder and Stoughton 2016, p.111-112
4.  John Pritchard, How to pray, SPCK 2004, p.17
5.  Pete Grieg, Red moon rising, David C Cook, 2015, p. 36
6.  Tom Wright, The Lord and his Prayer, SPCK 1996, p.31
7.  Pete Grieg, How to pray, Hodder and Stoughton 2019, p.88
8.  Jan Milič Lochman, The Lord’s Prayer, William B Eerdmans, 1990, pp 62-63
9.  Philip Yancey, Prayer, Hodder and Stoughton 2006, p.164, slightly altered

© Derek Williams 2019

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Don't be like a Narcissus!


In admiring spring’s hosts of golden daffodils we easily forget the significance of the sad tale of the mythological figure after whom they take their generic name. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pond, and spent his life, in Stephen Fry’s words, “with eyes only for himself, and consideration for no one and nothing but himself”.1 The gods eventually turned him into a daffodil with its head looking down.

Narcissism – or “individualism”, to give it the more common title – focusses on oneself and one’s interests, appearance, advancement and status, often to the exclusion of all others. It has almost become the purpose of life for many people in western society. It’s not just selfies and fast fashion for Instagram and Facebook. It’s also the me-first race for the lights or the checkout, and the bullying, ridiculing, trashing and trolling of people who think, look or live differently to ourselves.

It vaunts itself as the ultimate arbiter of taste and truth. It asserts its desires often disguised as “rights”. It ignores the wider context of the common good, hamstrings church life, hinders our relationship with God and hampers our prayers. It fosters the cynicism and factions that the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking at the February 2019 General Synod, urged the Church of England to give up. Above all, it reverses the thrust of the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane: it insists on “My will, not yours, be done.”

Contrast that with the love St Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13 which doesn’t boast or envy, isn’t proud or self-seeking, and never dishonours others. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” he writes in Philippians 2:3-4. “Rather in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”

Contemporary narcissism is often subtle, however, and it is important not to make sweeping judgements of others. Being judgemental can be an expression of narcissism because it asserts our own assumed superiority. The disastrous British Army recruitment drive in 2018 wrongly assumed a generational trait of “Me me me Millennials”. It failed to impress many of its target audience because, glued to screens as that generation might be, it is also highly critical of the “me me me” attitude of older generations, remote government and uncaring, profit-obsessed commerce that has led to environmental breakdown and growing poverty.

Freedom and responsibility

While Christians are freed from the many constraints of legalism, no-one is free to do as they please. Paul stressed this to the Roman church where, it seems, some were so rejoicing in their new-found freedom in Christ that they were indulging every personal desire (Romans 6:1-18). There are boundaries for conduct (both in the Ten Commandments and the teaching of the Apostles) that are intended to limit human excess and preserve corporate relationships.

To accept personal responsibility and restrain ones conduct is to make a positive commitment to community. (This is why Paul, who had long forsaken Jewish food restrictions, submitted to them for the sake of people whose consciences were more sensitive, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, 10:23-33.) Individualism can adversely affect a wide pool of people. In Joshua 7 national defeat results from the wrong action of one person. To us, that may seem unfair; to ancient Israelites it was the natural outworking of what scholars call “corporate solidarity”. In biology, one deadly spore can infect a large group or area; in society, the effects of one person’s sins spread to others. (Which is what lies behind Paul’s teaching about “original sin” in Romans 5:12-19.)

The Bible outlaws the self-justifying blame culture, too. “The one who sins is the one who will die” was Ezekiel’s response to an ancient Israelite complaint that the current generation was paying for the errors of its forefathers. He had an equally curt message to the clergy and leaders of his day (called watchmen); if they failed to warn people of danger arising from their risky behaviour, the watchmen themselves would be held to account (Ezekiel 18:4; 33:6). Biblically, the common good takes precedence over personal preference or power and party prestige or policy.

It even suggests that corporate solidarity involves the innocent in the sins of the guilty. In Ezra 9 the eponymous teacher publicly confessed “we have sinned” when only 112 people out of several thousand had broken one of the laws of Moses – and Ezra was not one of them.

Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection.
Individualism is a barrier to community.
Community commitment

Both Old and New Testaments assume a personal commitment to one another in community. Jesus spoke of “the Kingdom of God”, which exists wherever the rule of God is applied in human relationships and activity. “It was the final expression of the distinctive Hebrew tenet that God is the proper head of human society,” according to one theologian.2 Christians belong to it by virtue of their commitment to King Jesus.

Paul described “the body of Christ”, the church, as such an integrated whole that when “one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Believers are not semi-detached, even if we behave as if we are. That makes the Christian song so poignant and necessary: “Bind us together, Lord, bind us together, with cords that cannot be broken.”

The New Testament occasionally describes the church as a family or even a nation (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:9-10). In such groupings, disagreements are inevitable. So Paul pleaded with the early church to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), echoing one of Jesus’ two unanswered prayers, that “they may be one as we [the Trinity] are one” (John 17:11). How can it be otherwise, if “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)?

But it is otherwise, sadly. One of the natural outcomes of narcissism is fragmentation of communities and churches into cliques, and splinter or single-issue groups. According to one count, there are 38,000 Christian denominations in the world today. Splits can sometimes divide individual congregations as one sub-group prefers their way to that of others.

Indeed, our sense of belonging is often focussed on a specific sub-group rather than the whole of which the group is a part. Within towns churches usually work independently (and often competitively), and only occasionally pool resources to make a missional impact on the wider community before retreating back into their own comfort zones.

Narcissism can also diminish our prayers. “Prayer is the mirror image of individualism, even though it may appear to be a highly individual activity,” wrote theologian James Houston. “A relationship with God that does not relate to other people is unreal. … We pray to a God who loves the world, and so our prayers will be false if we do not respond by loving other people as well as loving God.”3

It was not for nothing that Jesus taught his disciples to pray Our Father – not my Father. The whole of the Lord’s prayer is couched in communal terms: Give us our daily bread. Forgive us our sins. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil. And it’s chief missional petition – your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth – is really a prayer for the restoration of love, care, peace and mutual support in the diversity of the world and church.

Faith can become privatised instead of leading us into a model community reflecting the unity of the Trinity in a disordered and fragmented world. Here’s some practical steps to help us rebuild true community within church fellowships:

·         Teach yourself to think we, us rather than me or them when considering any aspect of church life.
·         Pray for all the sub-groups and activities in your church, not just those you are a part of.
·         Before developing “your” group, ask how it can better dovetail into the wider church and what effects your development might have upon, and contribute to, the whole.
·         Before undertaking a new initiative, ask what similar work is already being done that you could join with and further assist without taking over or competing for scarce financial and human resources.
·         Consult widely and ask what the Holy Spirit might be leading us to do (or not do; good ideas sometimes arise from individuals’ agendas or experiences and are not always applicable everywhere).
·         Find ways of ensuring that all the sub-groups can meet each other regularly and exchange news.

All it takes is some mutual trust and respect, with a sprinkling of patience and humility. Use the spring daffs as a reminder of the dangers of narcissism, and see the beauty of a clump of them as a reminder of the benefit of community over individualism.

Think and talk

1. Paul immersed himself in local cultures and so identified himself with others that he made himself “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). What principle might this suggest for mutual fellowship and mission?
2.  Jesus said “a house divided against itself will fall” (Luke 11:17). While the context was not about the church, the principle applies. What steps can you take to strengthen the bonds in your church so that you may grow together?
3.  Jesus also described the Kingdom of God in terms of equal treatment of unequal people (Matthew 20:1-16). How might this principle affect the way you welcome and integrate people into church life and activities?
4.  Why do we find it so hard to think “we” rather than “me”? What can you do to change this mindset in yourself?

References

1.  Stephen Fry, Mythos, Penguin Books 2018, p. 341-2.
2.  Charles Ryder Smith, The Bible doctrine of society, T & T Clark, 1920, p.255-6
3.  James Houston, The transforming friendship, Lion Publishing 1991, p.54

© Derek Williams 2019
This material may be reproduced for local church use with full acknowledgement of its source. 

Friday, 25 January 2019

God does know what we mean


Prayer is not meant to be said parrot-fashion according to
the Pope - and Jesus. But God understands our halting words
“I know what you mean”: it’s a phrase that we trot out whenever anyone is having difficulty explaining or describing something. Sometimes it’s true; their stumbling words are enough to convey their true meaning. At other times, it’s an empty platitude, meant to encourage but possibly insulting. It’s not worth saying; we can’t enter into someone’s mind, feelings or experience.

It’s a relief, therefore, to discover that God really does know what we mean when we attempt to address him in prayer. Paul wrote to the Roman church, “We do not know what to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:26,27).

In other words, the Holy Spirit interprets what we’re trying to say and incorporates it into the language of heaven. He knows what we mean. This removes from us the pressure to choose the “right” words or formulae that we think God needs in order even to hear us, let alone answer us. God doesn’t need words at all, in fact, just the trusting, believing, earnest desire to see his will being done in the situations that concern us.

Interpretation in the realm of human language is an art, not merely a science. It’s not just a matter of finding equivalent words in the second language which match those of the first. The interpreter not only needs to have a strong understanding of the subject matter being spoken about, but also  of the speaker’s intention and underlying meaning. S/he needs to “know what you mean”, not least because the idioms of one language do not always transfer easily into another. One of the fundamental principles of Bible translation is to search for “dynamic equivalents” in the culture of the intended readers; there’s not a lot of point in referring to sheep in an island culture entirely focused on fishing.

One extreme example of how God translates prayer is the bizarre Old Testament story of Balaam. He was a seer or perhaps witchdoctor from the region of modern Iran. He was hired by Balak, the king of Moab, who was a near neighbour of Israel which he feared would over-run his country. Balak asked Balaam to curse Israel for a fat fee, which the “prophet” gladly accepted.

But two things happened. First, he nearly didn’t get to Israel at all. His stubborn donkey refused several times to carry him further. Then, the narrative says, “the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth” and it complained at his rough treatment trying to force it on. In other words, Balaam realised that it wasn’t the donkey’s fault; that God was using the donkey’s behaviour to get through to the even more stubborn prophet and warn him off his plans.

Then, when God failed to deter him and he eventually arrived in Moab, Balaam tried to curse but all that came out was a blessing on the Israelites across the border. Three times. After that he went home without his fee. (See Numbers 22-24.) God had told him how to pray and turned the potential curse into an actual blessing. The divine interpreter knew better than the prophet how to express the will and purposes of God.

This hides an important truth. Our prayers usually stem from what we can see, what we feel. They are genuine expressions of need or desire. But they don’t always correlate with God’s wider purposes, which we cannot usually see. The bigger picture is hidden from our view. That doesn’t invalidate our prayer. Each is incorporated into “Thy will be done” even if what we think should be done is not exactly what God proposes. Each prayer is translated into something effective by the Divine Interpreter.

Align with the Spirit

Several times in the New Testament we are urged to avail ourselves of the help of the Holy Spirit as we pray, so that our prayer is better aligned to God’s wider purposes. “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people (Ephesians 6:18). “But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude vv. 20-21).
Keeping in step (with the Spirit) requires
discipline and practice
In practice, this means “keeping in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25), listening to God to prompt us with his concerns and submitting ours to his. It means learning to see “reality from God’s point of view”.1 James Houston explains, “Through the leading of the Spirit in prayer our intercession becomes one with the intercession of Christ, our minds become attuned to his, and his concerns become ours.”2

Or, as the earlier theologian C.H. Dodd put it, “true prayer is the divine in us appealing to the divine above us”.3

For some Christians, including the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, praying “in the Spirit” may include “praying in tongues”, a spiritual language given by God which the speaker does not understand.4 Many can testify that this usually gentle gift mostly exercised in private aids them in worship and to bring before God the needs of themselves, their church and their world. The Spirit interprets their desire and concern by using his own language.

Helpful as tongues is, it is not portrayed as a necessity in Scripture. To use the words of the poet William Cowper in a slightly different context, “God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.”5 God knows what we mean, whatever words and language we use.

This also means that no prayer is wasted; it might be a bit off-message as far as God’s purposes are concerned, but if it’s a genuine expression of our concern at the time of uttering it, then it can be interpreted and caught up into the great stream of prayer that flows around the throne of God. He knows what we mean, and he’s not going to waste our breath.

In his story of the 24/7 prayer movement, Pete Grieg reproduces an email he sent after taking part in a meeting of young people in Spain nine years after he had begun to pray for a Spanish “army” of intercessors. At that moment, he realised that God never forgets “a single prayer that his children utter, even if they do.

“The very idea that the living Lord might diligently have treasured up every little prayer I had ever prayed, even all the ones I had forgotten, and that he might still be weaving their fulfilments, was almost too much to take in. It means that there must be answered prayers most days that I never even recognise as such, and casual requests I have uttered that continue to marshal the very hosts of heaven.”6

There is, of course, an inevitable caveat.

Silence the parrot

“When you pray,” said Jesus, “do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7,8). Such divine knowledge doesn’t remove the need to pray – it’s one of the laws of the spiritual universe that if we don’t ask, we don’t often get; our prayer is an expression of a two-way relationship.

(The paradox that God knows what we want before we ask is dealt with beautifully in the novel The Shack, and the film based on it. It pictures its main character, Mack, in conversation about his family with the three persons of the Trinity. “You already know everything I’m telling you, don’t you? You’re acting like it’s the first time you heard it,” he says. And Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) responds, “As we are listening to you, it is as if this is the first time we have known about them, and we take great delight in seeing them through your eyes.”7)

Pope Francis suggested early in 2019 that many Christians “speak to God as if they were a parrot”, reciting words such as the Lord’s Prayer that they mistakenly believe have some inherent power to endear God to them.8 Readers of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale may recall the shop with prayer machines. “There are five different prayers: for health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin. You pick the one you want, punch in the number, then punch in your own number so your account will be debited, and punch in the number of times you want the prayer repeated.”9 If only it was that simple!

“No, praying is done from the heart, from within,” the Pope added. Harry Emerson Fosdick, an American Baptist minister in the first half of the 20th century, wrote “Our prayers are often unreal because they do not represent what in our inward hearts we sincerely crave.”10 Note that word crave. Cravings aren’t expressed in nice polite words. They don’t even need words. But they do represent what we most want.

So we find the Psalmist craving God: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. Where can I go and meet with God?” And this craving isn’t articulated in clear words but in deep, emotional cries: “My tears have been my food day and night … I pour out my soul” (Psalm 42:1-4).

We find Jacob clinging with all his strength to God despite his physical pain and injury and refusing to let go, craving God’s blessing (Genesis 32:22-32). And in a rare example of silent prayer in the Bible (it was treated with suspicion in the ancient world) we find the childless Hannah pouring out her heart in tears to God, craving the child without which she was regarded by her neighbours as cursed (1 Samuel 1).

Fosdick takes this thought further, which helps, perhaps, to illuminate further the story of Balaam and Balak. “We are hunger points in the universe; the elemental fact in every human life is desire. To the man who disclaims any act of prayer we may retort, ‘Your life is an organized prayer. Your body craves food, your mind craves knowledge, your affection craves friendship, your spirit craves peace and hope.’” So here, perhaps, is a reason why fasting is sometimes advocated as an adjunct to prayer; it elevates the craving for God above the craving for food or anything else.

However, Fosdick goes on to suggest that “prayer may be either heavenly or devilish”. Balak’s was devilish; Balaam’s was translated into something heavenly. He highlight’s Gehazi’s craving for money (2 Kings 5), David’s lust for Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), and the prodigal son’s hunger for wealth and the freedom it could bring (Luke 15) as examples of craving that are really self-centred prayers.11 Jesus’ condemned Pharisees who craved the attention of others by practising their piety ostentatiously in public: “They have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5). That is, their desire to be seen by people was granted; but their prayers weren’t heard by God.

Parrot owners know that to silence a chattering bird they must cover the cage with a dark cloth. Perhaps some of our prayers need to be silenced, while we align ourselves afresh with God, and refrain from bursting into his presence with a list of demands. Instead, like the four apparently wordless friends who lowered a paralysed man to the feet of Jesus and left him there (Mark 2:1-12), it might be better to lay the real desires of our hearts before God and let him work out what needs to be done.

Don’t worry about the words; God knows what we mean. But if we don’t mean it, there’s not much point saying it. Unless we’re parrots.

Think and talk

1.  Look up the Bible references quoted in the text and consider what you can learn from them.
2.  Think about what people (including yourself) really crave. Why do we let such cravings control us?
3.  Put in your own words what “keeping in step with the Spirit” might mean, and how this might be practised.
4.  Many people find written prayers helpful. Discuss how you can make such prayers, with their often well-chosen words, your own so that you are not merely reading or hearing them, but actually praying them.
5.  What do you think about when reciting the Lord’s Prayer?

References
1.  Philip Yancey, Prayer, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008, p.21
2.  James Houston, The transforming friendship, Lion Publishing 1991, p.157
3.  C.H. Dodd, no source referenced, quoted by Houston, op. cit. p.127
4.  Justin Welby has stated this on more than one occasion, including in a media interview in January 2019.
5.  These are the final words of the hymn which begins “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform”.
6.  Pete Grieg, Dave Roberts, Red moon rising, David C Cook, Third edition 2015, p. 151
7.  William Paul Young, The Shack, Hodder 2007, p.106
8.  Reported in The Times, 5 January 2019
9.  Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Vintage 2016, p.257. In the same story, the Bible is kept locked up so that the girls cannot read it for themselves.
10.  Harry Emerson Fosdick, The meaning of prayer, Association Press 1917, p.133
11.  Op. cit., p.143

© Derek Williams 2019

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Prayer lets the Spirit flow


The Prefects' Fountain in the Harry Potter films,
on display at Warner Brothers Studios, Watford.
Each tap releases a stream of coloured water. 
Not long before you began reading this, you turned on a tap. Water flowed from it. It quenched your thirst or cleansed your hands. Now scale up that image. Think of a dam or a weir. It has a sluice gate, like a tap. Open the sluice, and water flows out to irrigate the land, drive a turbine, or serve our homes. Close the sluice, and the crops wither, the lights fail, and we die of thirst.

Jesus likened the Holy Spirit to flowing water (John 7:38-39). A number of Christian writers picture prayer as a means of opening a channel, tap, sluice, or door, through which God can work in our world. “Prayer lets God loose,” says Philip Yancey1. Adds Robert Llewelyn, “Prayer may open a channel through which it becomes morally possible for God to work … not changing God’s purpose but releasing it.”2

This is potentially life-changing, even world-changing. Bishop Stephen Cottrell claims that “We are not puppets being controlled or manipulated by God. We can influence events. Intercession is not a technique for changing God’s mind, but it is a releasing of power as we place ourselves in a relationship of co-operation with God. When we pray we are in communion with God, we seek his will and the channels of communication are open.”3

There is a profound reason for this. God has taken voluntary limitation. He did it in Jesus, accepting all the acute limitations of human life and relinquishing, temporarily, the awesome limitless realms of eternity (Philippians 2:6-8), celebrated in the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth. God again limited his influence on earth when he commissioned his followers to be the builders and messengers of his kingdom (eg Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 10:3-11; Acts 1:8). He does not shout at the world through a heavenly megaphone. He does not bombard individuals with spiritual spam messages. He does not wave a Harry-Potter style magic wand to banish the evil and lay out the good. Instead, God waits for his people to speak and act on his behalf; we are his hands, his mouthpiece.

Prayer before action

Above all, God has voluntarily limited himself to working through prayer. Norwegian pastor Ole Hallesby wrote, “God has voluntarily made himself dependent upon our prayer.”4 Prayer is the chief means by which God’s presence and power connects with this world. This is, in the 21st century, totally counter-intuitive. Prayer seems passive, even passing the buck, an excuse not to get stuck in to the messy chaos of human affairs, a way of distancing ourselves from getting too uncomfortably involved. Yet in God’s economy, prayer is the priority.

Pointing our that the monastic movement and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount set themselves against the common attitudes and desires of society, theologian James Houston asserts that “Prayer belongs to this counter-culture and our prayers are frustrated whenever we compromise between our praying and living. Prayer should determine the spirit in which we live our lives. Too often we turn this upside down, turning the agenda of our everyday needs into shopping lists for prayer.”5

Anglican minister Magdalen Smith suggests that the common inversion of priorities, putting needs before prayer, is symptomatic of a lack of faith. “In our secular society action can be an easier option than dreaming or praying because we simply do not believe that God is able to act in the world. We cannot cope with the intangibility of either dream or prayer. But action is no substitute, for without the dream and the sustaining power or prayer, our actions quickly feel empty.”6

Prayer can change the world

There is a profound mystery and a massive challenge here. Historian Richard Lovelace suggests that if church members “were to intercede daily simply for the most obvious spiritual concerns visible in their homes, their workplaces, their local churches and denominations, their nations, and the world and the total mission of the body of Christ within it, the transformation which would result would be incalculable. Not only would God certainly change those situations in response to prayer – we have Christ’s word that if we ask in his name he will do more than we ask or think – but the church’s comprehension of its task would attain an unprecedented sharpness of focus.”7

Hallesby agreed. “The church is always the little flock. But if it would unite on its knees, it would dominate world politics – from the prayer room. And the result would be one of two things, either a world-wide revival or the appearance of the Antichrist.”8

So the disciples failed in their mission when they tried to do God’s difficult work without soaking it in prayer (Mark 9:28-29). “Pray continually,” charged Paul, who knew a lot about fruitful mission and faithful discipleship (1 Thessalonians 5:17). “Without me, you can do nothing,” Jesus warned (John 15:5). Prayer keeps us sensitive to God’s subtle nudges, and to his even more subtle responses to our praying, which may be different to our stated concerns.

“Unanswered prayer” is another topic, but Pete Grieg, the accidental founder of the 24/7 Prayer movement, was once staggered by a revelation from God that “‘I never forget a single prayer my children ever utter, even if they do.’ The very idea that the living Lord might diligently have treasured up every little prayer I had ever prayed, even the ones I had forgotten, and that he might still be weaving their fulfilments, was almost too much to take in. It means that there must be answered prayers most days that I never even recognise as such, and casual requests I have uttered that continue to marshal the very hosts of heaven.”9

And that, perhaps, is one reason why Jesus told his disciples to be persistent in prayer (Luke 18:1-8). It shows that we really mean what we’re asking, that we’re not being casual about prayer and saying in effect, “it would be nice if you do this Lord, but if not, well, I guess it doesn’t matter.” Persistent prayer refuses to take no for an answer but looks for any sign of God’s activity even if it isn’t presenting us with the exact gift we had on our wish list. And persistence also recognises that God never forces his will on others, and that it takes time for attitudes and circumstances to change or be changed.

So if we want to see change in our world, our churches, in people around us and ourselves, perhaps our prayer now should be for God to pour out a spirit of prayer and supplication into our hearts. Every period of renewal and revival in history has been preceded by people crying to God for him to visit them and their world. “Units of prayer combined, like drops of water, makes an ocean which defies resistance.”10 Remember that, the next time you turn on a tap.

All heaven waits with bated breath,
For saints on earth to pray;
Majestic angels ready stand
With swords of fiery blade.
Astounding power awaits a word
From God’s resplendent throne;
But God awaits our prayer of faith
That cries, ‘Your will be done’.11

Think and talk

1. Look up the Bible references quoted above. Spend time thinking (and discussing) their meaning and implications for daily life.
2. When you pray about big issues in the world, to what extent do you distance yourself from them (praying for “them”) and to what extent do you identify with the problems and needs (praying for “us”)? See Ezra’s example in Ezra 9:1 – 10:16. What might you learn from this?
3.  What might you be able to do locally to encourage people to pray together for each other and for the church, community and wider world?

References

1.  Philip Yancey, Prayer, Hodder 2008, p.140
2.  Robert Llewelyn, Prayer and contemplation, Oxford: SLG Press, 1985, p.6
3.  Stephen Cottrell, Praying through life, Church House Publishing 2003, p.28
4.  O. Hallesby, Prayer, Inter Varsity Fellowship 1963, p.127
5.  James Houston, The transforming friendship, Lion Publishing 1991, p.64
6.  Magdalen Smith, Fragile mystics, SPCK 2015, p.145
7.  Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of spiritual life, Paternoster Press 1979, p.160
8.  O. Hallesby, op.cit., p.128
9.  Pete Grieg, Red moon rising, David C Cook 2015, p. 151
10. E.M. Bounds, Power through prayer, Moody Press n.d., p.83, quoted by Richard Foster, Celebration of discipline, Hodder & Stoughton 1980, p.39
11. The first verse of the hymn “All heaven waits” by Graham Kendrick and Chris Rolinson, © 1986 Thankyou Music.

© Derek Williams 2018

 

 

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Exercise your brain and improve your life!


 
Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”1


Reading was one of the most common leisure pursuits of the twentieth century. Now increasingly it is being replaced by time spent on social media, TV and video games. Research from Sheffield Hallam University discovered that in 2017 British consumers spent £7.2 billion on music, video and computer games, compared with £7.1 billion on the printed word (books, newspapers and magazines). It is the first time print has been overtaken by other media.2 Yet reading has benefits and advantages over (or in addition to) other media, not least health benefits.

Aiding mental health

In November 2018 UK Health Minister Matt Hancock suggested that GPs sometimes should consider prescribing visits to the library and other cultural activities instead of pills. “It’s scientifically proven,” he said. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health. It makes us happier and healthier.”3

Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health found that people who read books regularly had a 20% lower risk of dying in the next 12 years compared with non-readers.4 Psychologists at Toronto University found that habitual readers had an increased sensitivity to other people.5 Others suggest that reading can slow brain degeneration by improving the connections between brain cells.

In a Radio 4 Front Row programme on reading and mental health, presenter Stig Abell said “I discovered that the best way of getting control of my mind was entrusting it to the mind of another” in novels from Jane Austen to PG Wodehouse. Commenting on the latter, he said “In his Arcadian visions, nothing is serious, everything is ordered. … His stories treat trivial problems as if they are serious, and so help to make serious problems seem trivial. I still turn to him, every day, to help keep my mind balanced.”6

Laura Freeman wrote The reading cure to describe how books helped her – slowly – emerge from serious anorexia. “Emptiness today and emptiness tomorrow. The only way to bear it was to measure the day in books.” A reviewer adds that “Books began to help her to think differently about food. The dairy scenes in Tess of the d’Urbervilles enabled her to drink proper milk again, Siegfried Sassoon encouraged her to have tea and boiled eggs, and she ate a mince pie in the company of Robert Graves. Mrs Cratchit held her hand through a morsel of Christmas pudding and, after reading A month in the Country, she tried a Yorkshire pudding and found it delicious.”7

Broadening the mind, prompting the spirit

However, reading “isn’t a hiding place. It’s a finding place” according to novelist Jeanette Winterson,8 who as a teenager had to watch her abusive mother burn her books. (The experience made her determined to write her own books.) For her, reading opened up new worlds and ideas that her restricted upbringing had shut out. “Every book was a message in a bottle,” she reflects. “The wider we read the freer we become”, and “the more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies.”9

The same was true for prolific Christian author and journalist Philip Yancey. He grew up in a church that “taught blatant racism, apocalyptic fear of communism, and ‘America first’ patriotism. Christian doctrine was dished out in a ‘believe and don’t ask questions’ style, laced with fervid emotionalism. For me, reading opened a chink of light that became a window to another world.” He found some books shattered his blinkered world view, and the “calmer voices” of Christian authors such as GK Chesterton and CS Lewis convinced him “that somewhere Christians lived who knew grace as well as law, love as well as judgment.”10

Reading fiction, non-fiction and poetry can broaden our mind, introduce fresh ideas, enlarge our views, increase our vocabulary, stimulate our imagination and sharpen our perspectives. Michael Heppell’s interviews with high achievers in his book The Edge found that almost all had large libraries, were reading at least two books at any one time, and subscribed to and read industry-specific publications.11 Reading is a win-win.

For author and Times columnist Caitlin Moran, “To read is to be in a constant act of creation”, far more so than passively absorbing a film in which the visualising has been done for us by the director. With a book, you join the action, create the setting and dialogue with the author. She is worth quoting in full:

“That old lady on the bus with her Orwell; the businessman on the Tube with Patricia Cornwell; the teenager roaring through Capote – they are not engaged in idle pleasure. Their heads are on fire. Their hearts are flooding. With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss – you are the mathematical calculations that plot the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin. You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head. These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone. And when your guts fail and your bones break, Narnia or Jamaica Inn or Gormenghast will still be there: as pin-sharp and bright as the day you first imagined them.”12

Narrative can capture mood and feeling, ambience and ethos, in a way that is often difficult for film directors. That is why dramatisations of books often focus on action and argument and miss out the original author’s nuances and observations. My all-time favourite piece of descriptive writing comes from Laurie Lee’s classic Cider with Rosie. Sample it; enjoy it; imagine it:

“Mother always ate standing up, tearing crusts off the loaf with her fingers, a hand-to-mouth feeding that expressed her vigilance, like that of a wireless-operator at sea. For most of Mother’s attention was fixed on the grate, whose fire must never go out. When it threatened to do so she became seized with hysteria, wailing and wringing her hands, pouring on oil and chopping up chairs in a frenzy to keep it alive. In fact it seldom went out completely, though it was very often ill. But Mother nursed it with skill, banking it up every night and blowing hard on the bars every morning. The state of our fire became as important to us as it must have been to a primitive tribe. When it sulked and sank we were filled with dismay; when it blazed all was well with the world; but if – God save us – it went out altogether, then we were clutched by primeval chills. Then it seemed that the very sun had died, the winter had come for ever, that the wolves of the wilderness were gathering near, and that there was no more hope to look for. . . .

            But tonight the firelight snapped and crackled, and Mother was in full control.”13

This is so much more than a stark report. It is so much more than a photograph in words that could translate as easily to a screen as to a page. Instead, it forces you to savour the imagery, the allusions as well as the raw facts. Like an exquisite meal or fine wine it is something to linger over, and absorb its nuances slowly, thoughtfully; to recall, or feel, that raw emotion of “being clutched by primeval chills”, of the sun dying and hope disappearing. It can make you feel thankful that it isn’t true for you at present and to spare a sympathetic thought for people for whom it is still true. And you may even feel the relief almost physically when told, “But tonight the firelight snapped and crackled” and the story – the action – continues.

Although Cider with Rosie reads like a novel, it is in fact biographical, written by a poet with the gift of reflecting deeply on the everyday incidents he experienced as a child in a Cotswold village in the early twentieth century. Reading can help us not just to glean ideas or facts, but reflect on them and their implications. In so doing, we begin to reflect on our own life and the world around us.

Provoking reflection

Good Christian writing can also provoke reflection rather than merely describe plain theology. Sample this deeply reflective passage from Lewis Smede’s Love within limits:

Love is a power that moves us to be kind. What are we to understand by kindness? Kindness is the will to save; it is God’s awesome power channelled into gentle healing. Kindness is love acting on persons. Such kindness may be soft; it is not weak; tender but not feeble; sensitive, but not fragile.”14

If you heard that in a sermon, you would latch on to maybe one phrase, and as your mind hovered over it you would miss the rest. But read it in a book and you can pause on each phrase, stay with it for as long as you like, let it roll around your mind, inform your attitudes and, perish the thought, challenge your actions.

Former US megachurch pastor John Mark Comer (who resigned from his multi-congregation church with a leadership team of 93 in order to lead a single church) is critical of the superficial understanding and debating that often takes place over big theological and moral issues in churches. “When people stop reading seriously and thinking carefully, it’s a breeding ground for bad theology,” he told an interviewer.

“Millennials are still reading a lot online, but there are some things you just can’t do in a 1,000-word blog post,” he claimed. On controversial issues, when people are asked how they reached their conclusions, “they rarely say, ‘I’ve read these ten books and this is my take on this Greek word, and I’ve exegeted this [Bible] passage…’ They’ve rarely thought it through that much.”15

In other words, many of us are relying on second-hand beliefs, and spiritual fast-food prepared for us by people whose presuppositions are much the same as ours. Reading, in short, is, or can be and perhaps should be, a form of meditation. And that requires time, patience, and probably less reliance on technology.

Finding time, adjusting priorities

The commonest excuse for not reading is lack of time. But consider how much time it is estimated the average person in the UK spends on electronic media: 121 hours per month. That includes social media, instant messaging, emailing, texting, phoning and similar activities. In addition we spend on average 22 hours a week watching TV. By making even a small adjustment to our lifestyle we could read several books and reap rich rewards. For example, Margaret Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale, 4:24 hours (quicker and fuller and more thought-provoking than the TV series), JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (12:4 hours, longer but much richer in imagery and ideas than the film).16

Yet across the country libraries are closing due to government cuts, and independent bookshops are closing due to high rents and declining sales. Specialist Christian bookshops struggle to exist and most rely on volunteers to stay open. If we don’t use them, we’ll lose them and future generations will be denied access to rich sources of learning and mental and spiritual nourishment.

The situation is not helped by the curriculum often imposed on schools that forces them to focus on fact-based, target chasing, subjects, while broader and less academic subjects (or even academic subjects such as music which attract only a minority of students) are reduced or not offered. We risk creating a generation of narrow-minded human beings with stunted imaginations for whom books are merely an ancient source of facts that now can be better accessed on the internet.

This is illustrated powerfully in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (4:30 hours reading time). It opens with Thomas Gradgrind’s mantra that “Facts alone are wanted in life”. Much later the well-meaning educator and factory owner is chastened by the discovery that his beloved daughter Louisa has suffered greatly because her mechanical and mathematical education failed to feed her soul, nourish her heart and imagination, or help her become a rounded human being.

We’re there in the room as she confronts him. We slump to the floor with Louisa in her distress and confusion. We wring our hands with Gradgrind and stay awake with him all night, filled with remorse and guilt and helplessness. We’re pierced by his agonising contrition as he concludes “that I cannot but mistrust myself”. The cold fact baldly stated that a broad education is more beneficial than a narrow one can be argued over. But when we see and feel the consequences of Gradgrind’s philosophy working out in the life of his fictitious yet believably real daughter, the message is unmistakeable and we cannot but consider it true.17

Of course, facts are important, and of more value than instant opinions. There is a deeply prophetic warning in Malcolm Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (3:31 hours reading time). Written in 1954, it depicts (as does George Orwell’s 1984) homes where large wall-mounted flat-screen TVs (not invented at the time of writing) beam personalised soap-style inter-active entertainment into every home. Everything is reduced to sound-bites and digests, headlines and quick-flicks, stuffing people with facts and views that require no reflection: “a centrifuge [that] flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!” And books are banned.

The main character, Montag, is a fireman. Everywhere is fire-proofed, so there are no fires for the service to put out. Instead, they are employed to start them – wherever they find books. But Montag is curious. He starts stealing books and reading them secretly. He meets rebels who have begun to memorise books in the hope that one day they might be published again. And he finds a Bible. The book ends as he walks back to a war-destroyed city reciting Revelation 22:2 (“And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”).18

And there lies a challenge to any reader (or even non-reader). Back in the 1930s TS Eliot remonstrated with his generation, “Much is your reading, but not the Word of god.”19 If we want to explore the big questions of life, discover God and his purposes for us and for the world, and grow in faith and Christian understanding, then the Bible has to be the book we love best and consult most. It is the oldest book we have, always in print in many (but not yet all) the thousands of languages in the world. Investing in a modern translation or paraphrase will blow your mind, feed your soul, and deepen your personal relationship with God. Schemes for systematic Bible reading and modestly-priced notes to help readers get into and understand the text are easily available. All kinds of books will serve us well, but the Bible will serve us best.

“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that, through patience and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” 20

Think and talk

1.  What book(s) have you read recently which have made you think? Reflect on what they have taught you or what they have illustrated that is worth remembering and learning from.

2.  “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). This is not an excuse for not reading! But in its context it is a reminder of what is most important in human life. What do you think that might be, and how might reading actually help you to appreciate it more?

3.  Jesus was well-read in the Scriptures of his day and quoted them frequently. So too was Paul, who was also familiar with secular literature (see Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12). How might reading both Scripture and more widely enhance our Christian service and discipleship?

4.  What might you be able to do locally to help preserve libraries and bookshops, and introduce children especially to the value of reading?

References

1.  Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729), The Tatler  no.147.
2.  Report by Mark Bridge in The Times 3 March 2018
3.  Reported in i  6 November 2018.
4.  Reported in The Times Weekend, 6 October 2018
5.  According to Krish Kandiah, Christianity January 2017
6.  Stig Abell, “Novels can offer great comfort to a troubled mind”, The Times 9 October 2018.
7.  As reported in a review by Cathy Rentzenbrink of Laura Freeman, The reading cure (Weidenfeld & Nicholson), The Times Saturday Review, 17 February 2018.
8.  Jeanette Winterson, Why be happy when you could be normal? (Jonathan Cape, 2011), p.40.
9.  Ibid., pp 116f, 144.
10. Philip Yancey, “The Power of Writing”, Christianity Today October 1994
11. Michael Heppell, The Edge, Hodder & Stoughton 2013, p.147.
12. Caitlin Moran, The Times Magazine, 14 June 2014.
13. Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie, Penguin Books 1962, p.72.
14. Lewis Smedes, Love within Limits, Lion Publishing 1979, p.19.
15. Profile of John Mark Comer in Premier Christianity, December 2017
16. The figures and comparisons are from i, 3 August 2017, based on an analysis of Ofcom data by MusicMagpie.
17.  Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Vintage Classics 2012; the quotes are from pp 5 and 207.
18. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, Harper Voyager 2008. The quote is from page 73.
19. TS Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”, The complete poems and plays of TS Eliot, Faber and Faber 1969, p.154.
20. The collect for the last Sunday after Trinity, Common Worship, Church House Publishing, copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000.

© Derek Williams 2018