Perhaps my time in the Land of the Free made things a little clearer. Maybe it was just diffusion; an inevitable ideological trickle that made me re-examine how I perceived the issue of God and free will, that subject of many a late-night discussion at university over cups of tea and loaves of buttered toast. As a friend of mine recently posted, “if you don’t believe in predestination, don’t worry about it. You’re either right, or you might have been pre-destined not to believe in it.”
My current flurry of thinking came not from an intellectual exercise (this time), but from a snap realisation about the character of God.
God really, really values freedom. There aren’t many things he prizes more highly than human freedom.
Back to the start.
Rabbis in Jesus’ day were, I am led to believe, rather fond of rules. Matthew 22:35-40 recounts a question set as a trap to Jesus: what is your pick of all the commandments of the law – which is the most important? Of course, Jesus responds without missing a beat: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbour as yourself. St Augustine of Hippo is reputed to have said “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” But of course, we know that it is possible to be convinced of one’s love for God and still be a graceless bigot, so 1 John follows Matthew in clarifying, “whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.”
So of all the rules that Jesus might have laid out, instead he lays out love, and then goes and demonstrates it:
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…” (John 15:9-15a).
What Jesus is saying here is oddly circular. The Father has loved the Son, and so the Son keeps his Father’s commandments precisely by loving the Father and by sharing the Father’s love with those around him. In the same way, he says, I have loved you, so the dual command – remain in my love and share my love with others – is precisely the same “rule of life” that the Son has been living by.
All those other commandments, the ones we squirm at (not being angry with our brother or sister) the ones we like (such as healing the sick and raising the dead), the ones we feel slightly guilty about (preaching the gospel to all nations) are all fruit of obeying this one double-decker command, as Jesus goes on to remind them: “I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” And so loving one another is the means and the end. This is the command of Christ; nothing less and nothing more.
There are no half-measures to this command. It is the non-negotiable one, the one command that nobody gets out of. But once that is set, suddenly a whole vista of liberty opens up, which I’ll be thinking about in the next few posts.
Images can make or break a war. I was reflecting on the power of emotive images over public opinion at the beginning of the week, when those images from Syria seared our screens, a repeating history at its cruelest and most grotesque. Battered with such visual atrocity, it seemed obvious to us that something, anything, must be done to protect those people. It is our duty as an ever more interconnected international community.
Except the vote in a recalled Parliament on Thursday and its fallout demonstrated that emotive images do not necessarily by themselves guarantee a response that is either ethical or efficacious. If direct military action is the most effective – or even the only – possible way of dealing with these atrocities, then it should be a no-brainer regardless of any other political considerations, but there still seem to be other avenues of action. And I think that David Cameron was aware of that, which is perhaps behind the urgency of his recall of Parliament and desire to go to war with the full backing of the British democratic process, rather than trying to be the singular hero of the hour. Comparisons, flattering and otherwise, are inevitably drawn with Tony Blair’s decision to send troops into Iraq, put to Parliament only when the forces had to all intents and purposes been deployed, as Matthew Parris commented in today’s Times Opinion column. He champions Cameron for his willingness to adhere to the democratic process. Others condemn the government for failing to address a moral obscenity. The British Aren’t Coming! The British Aren’t Coming!” one US headline cries in mock horror.
Like many people, my first reaction to the vote was to avoid any articles dealing with the issue. For some reason, I suspect not unrelated to those dreadful pictures – I felt helpless, as if I could vicariously claim that I cared because my government was meeting moral atrocity with military force. Yet now that military intervention is ruled out, at least from a UK standpoint, we have an even greater responsibility to lead the world in non-military solutions to ending the use of chemical civil warfare. It’s easy to talk about the invasion of Iraq under the Blair government being a mistake, even unethical – but “what-ifs” are a very lazy way to think about international intervention. “What-nows” are far more challenging, require more boldness of spirit and careful but speedy negotiation. We have a glaring, devastating “what-now” before us, and Cameron’s government must now respond with cutting-edge strategy and great wisdom to ensure first protection for those at risk, help for those already afflicted, and justice to bring those responsible to account, and that should be our focus and our way of continuing to engage with the brutalities of the world, regardless of the US’s will they/won’t they of military intervention and the obscurities of Russia’s alternative agendas.
Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman
For those who enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, this statistically more heavyweight but equally as engaging Thinking, Fast and Slow addresses the subject of intuitive vs. rational thought more thoroughly, based on many years of research conducted by Kahneman and his colleagues.
The foundational premise of the book is that our minds are programmed with two “systems” – which he designates System 1 and System 2. Whilst maintaining that this differentiation is a model of how the brain works, rather than literal physical structures in the brain, Kahneman is able to very sharply contrast them: System 1 is automatic, intuitive, effortless, while System 2 is slower, rational, effortful. He also claims that System 2 is often very lazy, taking System 1’s conclusions for granted and not questioning the initial, irrational conclusions drawn by System 1. The implications of this are wide-ranging: from the optical illusion that we cannot help but be fooled by, even if we know that it is an illusion; heuristics, whereby we sidestep a complex question by substituting and answering a simpler one, without realising that a substitution has taken place (such as judging someone’s leadership ability by their physical impressiveness) and logical fallacies.
Worryingly, he also brings System 2 to trial for leaving complex moral decisions and self-control to System 1; his decades of research suggest that, since System 2 is effortful, “depletion,” effort, hunger or tiredness can affect judgements, demonstrated by a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that suggested that the likelihood of a judge granting parole was in part influenced by whether or not that judge had eaten lunch (a whole new take on the expression “food for thought,” I suppose).
Although this book lacks the slight smugness that can characterise Gladwell’s writing, there is a certain amount of finger-pointing at the reader “if you agree this is true, then it is also true of you,” which both makes it an uncomfortable read in places, and also makes it difficult to disagree with. While protesting that System 1 usually serves us well, Kahneman spends very little time on its merits, highlighting only the significant and often worrying implications of our reliance on System 1… and as Kahneman himself point out, “WYSIATI” (What You See Is All There Is), casting intuitive processing in a very bad light.
Nevertheless, this book is a relentless source of extremely interesting observations with practical implications for everyday life. From becoming aware of the biases of information – that we can only make judgements based upon the information we have, not the information that we do not have – to the counter-intuitive concept of regression to the mean, to the strange idea that while taking one high-risk, high-yield decision may likely leave us worse off, taking many such decisions will be statistically advantageous. Since I read this book partly on the train to job interviews in London, I found myself critically appraising the interview process based on its reasoning: the difference between candidates is probably less great than it first appears, based on regression to the mean; the statistical likelihood of the candidate having a bad day; the heuristic of judging performance at interview as a substitute for likely performance on the job. In frustration, I declared to my family that employers might as well just take resumés and references and make equally as valid hiring decisions, without dragging me up to London. But then, I want a job, and my System 2 advises me to make the most of the process and use the 45-minute commute to interviews to read more books like this one.
It has been the quickest February I can remember, and also one of the balmiest. Of course, we’re in California, but here in Shasta County February can be a month of chilly drizzle. This time two years ago, we were mired in almost two months of relentless rain. But the skies have been gloriously blue, in spite of a bit of a sharp breeze at times, and the weeks are accelerating as we approach our Italy mission trip.
We lost three people from the team when we had to book the tickets. I was deeply disappointed about that, and really don’t want to lose anyone else. I’m confident in my team, that they’ll make it. Most of them have enrolled for my Italian classes, which are as pioneer as the trip itself. But I feel safe with them, as a leader. They’re a powerful bunch and we don’t have to be a replacement parents – we’re facilitators, making sure their impressive gifts and faith and love get focussed in the right direction while we’re there. (Check out our mission blog – missionitalia.wordpress.com)
I’m grateful, as well, that we have a month between returning to Redding from Italy, and when we finally step on the plane to London Heathrow and end our three years here. Perhaps that’s why we’ve both been feeling slightly melancholic; the combination of focussed organizing of the mission and the looming Big Transition is doing funny things to our brains. We’re both revisiting questions of what a life well lived in the real world looks like; the value and challenges of being a working couple, and the ever-present but rarely-spoken issue of when (and where) we start our family. We are trusting God within the paradigm of knowing that most of these decision are a real choice; no longer simply sitting and waiting for things to happen to us, pressing forward and taking opportunities in front of us, while being aware of “toxic opportunity,” or being pressured into doing something that doesn’t reflect who we are and doesn’t provide for our practical needs as a family.
I enjoy this combination of big-picture, paradigm-challenging thinking, and the nitty-gritty of organizing a pioneer mission trip. And of course in the mix goes our care and concern for Italy, waiting anxiously to see how the elections turn out, and praying for the state and for the Church as they transition into new leadership. Never has international politics been so directly relevant to my life, and I love it.
Taking down this year’s smattering of Christmas cards, I was reflecting on yet another cultural difference I’ve discovered since leaving the Estuary climes of south-east England.
When I was growing up, Christmas cards were something you bought in bulk from Marks and Spencer (if you were classy) or Tesco (if you weren’t), given some sort of generic message implying that you knew the recipient, and posted off the day after the Royal Mail’s Last Posting Date Before Christmas. With a cheerful festive postage stamp. Cards would trickle in a few days before until a few days after Christmas, with the exception of the one that came in mid-January.
Recurrent themes: snow, robins, Father Christmas, reindeer, snowmen, and the occasional appearance of the Reason for the Season, usually surrounded by snow. Sometimes they were glittery, and the glitter fell out of the envelope onto the carpet. Just occasionally they were tasteful and attractive, but those were the exception and usually depicted poinsettia.
So it’s only recently that a new breed of Christmas card has been multiplying among my increasingly large pool of married-friends-with-kids – the Family Photo Christmas Card.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. Some of them are tastefully shot and put together; less is more, entertaining poses, etc. Some of them are even ironic. But then some do start to look like commercial flyers for a feature film Christmas With The…. [insert name here]. Perhaps some people have so many friends that they don’t want to burden someone with the bother of wondering, “… the Smiths, the Smiths… do I know any Smiths….?” when they open a traditionally gaudy but generic card.
Perhaps these are simply a more effective way of displaying how popular you are to any stray guests. In the past, we only had a person’s word for it that their proud collection of Christmas cards were indeed all from different people, and from the same year. Here, however, is indisputable evidence, not only that you have friends, but that they are all recognizably contemporary.
Marco, it must be said, loves this phenomenon, so in Christmases to come, you’ll undoubtedly be sticking large pictures of our faces on your mantel or refrigerator or wherever you proudly display your social life in the festive season.
As of Friday, I am officially allowed to be in a Christmas mood. Except… I’ve been scouring the sites that ship in British food and assorted Christmassy items, and I find myself curiously indifferent. I looked first at the Mince Pies – really, overpriced. I can probably find some mincemeat somewhere around here and make my own (although that was a disaster last year. I still don’t get on with all-purpose flour). Then I looked at Christmas crackers. Again, rather overpriced, and for… what? For a paper hat and a corny little joke and a plastic screwdriver? One website helpfully listed all the “prizes,” and thoroughly put me off. They seem so fun, when everybody has them. Even the paper hats.
And then, of course, the Christmas cake. I need to spend some Christmas time with some fellow Brits. Nobody outside of the UK seems to like Christmas cake. Are we so very peculiar in our tastes? I had a beautiful, three-tiered wedding cake with a floral arrangement between each tier, for our English reception, and only discovered two weeks before our wedding (at my sister’s wedding, another story) that Marco, in common with his compatriots, really doesn’t like rich fruit cake. (Incidentally, the top tier of my wedding cake went on to be reincarnated as my family’s Christmas cake a year later. I got the last hurrah of cake the following February, by which time the cake had eighteen months’ vintage and was starting to get a little dry.)
But Christmas cake, eaten alone, is really just a slab of dried fruit and alcohol with no raisin d’etre (sic).
Even Cadbury’s 2012 advent calendar looks… hammy.
Christmas cynicism brings out the worst puns.
So maybe that’s it. It makes sense in the bright and garish lights of Regent Street, one-too-many mince pies and a re-run of the Vicar of Dibley or a dubiously scripted Doctor Who Christmas Special. When it’s Christmas with my family I can make believe, for a day or so, that I’m a kid again, that grownup taste has taken a well-deserved break and Charades is the most interesting way to pass a holiday afternoon.
Like a house of Christmas cards, without that all-important family context it doesn’t really make much sense.
So maybe I won’t try and replicate a British Christmas here. I’ll just enjoy what we’ve got here, I’ll buy a Christmas tree and decorate it with tinsel and baubles from Walmart and I’ll try and persuade people to go carol singing with me. And maybe work on my mince pies. Father Christmas will be glad of a mince pie, he’ll have travelled halfway around the world since he last had one.
A very vulnerable post, and one to honor the amazing people in my life.
Thinking about where to live for the rest of this academic year, I’ve been inspired to lay out my heart-desires for the rest of this year.
1) I have an amazing family of interns with Anne Kalvestrand, and would love the opportunity to just hang out together outside of our Friday meetings. I would include Nathan and Annika, Barbara and Greg in that. I feel a sense of community with them which makes my heart sing.
2) I would like the opportunity to take part in 1st and 2nd year International Transformation tracks, to hear the wisdom of heaven coming out of the students, and have them fuel my dreams with prophecy and love.
3) I would like to spend more time with couples that we should be doing life with, but for transport problems – Jesse and Shelly, Matt and Thai, David and Shanna, Francesco and Susanna, Jared and Erin, Nancy and Phil, Martin and Mollie, Bob and Jeanne, Linda and Tony … and others. And single people who we do family with – Zack, Jason, Eric, Agnese, Ronda… something happens to my heart when I spend time doing family. I could stay with them all day, or all night, and I feel not just loved, but part of something wider than myself.
I felt this a lot at university, with Becky, Olly, Paul, Abi, Tris, Tim, Al, and others. And in London, with Steph and Jo and Luke and Wendy and Paul and Phil and many others. Bristol, with Kim and Mat and Matt and Vicky. And with Helen, and Richard, who in different ways have pretty much always been in my life. Sometimes I travelled hours just to be with these people. And of course the times of great friendship with my family – both sides. There have been moments of great joy and companionship. On a wider scale it’s something I longed for but haven’t yet quite connected to in Italy. And transport problems have prevented that free flow of being part of a beautiful group of likeminded people here, and the frustrating thing is that I know it exists here, because I’ve tasted it. God, I want that again. I want to weep when I have to leave to go back to Europe.
So that’s the longing I have for myself, and for Marco this year, because it can make this year the best year of my life – another best year of my life.
Other invaluable people to honour… Silvia – Massi – my Mum and Dad – Sarah – Jake – my brother – Mark G – Kirkwood & Donna – Pam – Alessandro – Charlie – Richard – Kayt – Jasmine – Allegra – David & Annelise – Molly – Anne… this is starting to feel like an Oscar speech. I’ll stop here! And if I haven’t mentioned you, understand that I have far too many valuable people in my life to note in one blog post, late at night. I love you.