Category: crisis

On interesting times

By , 16 January 2009 9:10 pm

When I was a youngster I always wanted to live at a time of crisis. I suspect it was largely because I felt that it would mean that school was closed for ever. I also had the naive belief that having adventures would be fun. The reality is, of course, that what we call an adventure is actually an extremely unpleasant experience that is rebadged retrospectively by the survivors. My recollection is that most of these disasters, whether they were alien attacks, month-long snowfalls or Russian invasions, all started in a rather obvious and dramatic fashion. I was really rather envious of those people who on 3rd September, 1939 had heard that famous radio broadcast by Neville Chamberlain with its spine-chilling announcement ‘that consequently this country is at war with Germany’. In short, I wanted to live in interesting times.

I am now beginning to wonder if gently, rather than dramatically, we have entered ‘interesting times’. Our own government seem to be running around like crazy, companies that were once the very epitome of stability and value (Wedgwood and Woolworths for two) are now closing or worthless, interest rates (in Britain at least) are now lower than they have been for 300 years and unemployment is racing upwards at several thousand a day. There has been no sudden fanfare, no radio broadcast á la Chamberlain, no angry crowds in the streets and no distant rumble of the guns, yet suddenly we are in the midst of the unthinkable. Four months ago people were apologetically daring to suggest the possibility of ‘recession’, now the word ‘depression’ is in circulation.

Let me – very cautiously – suggest two questionable responses to this. The first is I think to seek an eschatological get-out. You know the sort of thing: ‘these are the End Times, brother’, ’the Antichrist will be here any day, mark my words’, or, ‘we see Scripture’s prophecies clearly fulfilled’. Now actually, those who utter such statements may, for all I know, be right. But when I look at fulfilled prophecy in the Old and New Testaments, it only seems to have been understood as prophetic fulfilment well after the events had occurred. And, in my experience, an emphasis on interpreting signs often comes at the expense of the more fundamental Christian duties of showing love and bearing witness.

The second questionable response is to gleefully rejoice that God is judging a wicked and sinful world. There is a lot I can say here. Of course, I am in favour of God’s judgement and I have no real problem in praying ‘thy Kingdom come’. The trouble is that in this world God’s judgement seems to be a blunt instrument. We see that those who are the worst offenders sometimes seem to walk free. So, in the present economic crisis, many of the entrepreneurs at the heart of this sorry mess sold up six months ago and put their wealth in gold. Others have secure, government-backed, inflation-linked pensions. Indeed, it sometimes appears that those who are suffering seem to be, if not the innocent, at least the relatively guiltless. The problems at the moment seem to be descending on some whose only sin was a naïveté that allowed them to be persuaded by men and women who knew better, to take to out mortgages that they could not afford. In fact, the current crisis seems to be punishing many who held onto the traditional Protestant virtue of thrift and actually saved money on the assumption that the interest would cover their retirement costs. Of course, in eternity, I have no doubt that perfect justice will be done. It’s just that at the moment it’s all a bit rough-edged.

So what is the right response? Let me suggest that at the core is the simple prayer that God will have mercy on us and on our neighbours, that he would spare the weak, that he would bring out of the present economic mess some good and that his kingdom come.

I’m sorry if this sounds a little bit lacking in the clarity and insight that you might like. It seems to me though perhaps the most useful thing to do at the moment is raise the issues and let us try to work them through. I’m not sure that the glib soundbite is helpful; we seem to have had too many of those. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

Incidentally it is also incumbent upon us to pray for the man who will shortly be the new president of the United States. It has rather naughtily crossed my mind that the Barak Obama will go onto the platform on Inauguration Day and say that having looked at all the facts he’s decided that he doesn’t want the job. Quite simply, a third dubious response – and I hear a lot of it – is to look to him to sort out the mess. And that, friends, is not simply a questionable response, it is a bad one. For him and for us.

Blessings upon you all.

A family crisis

By , 6 September 2008 9:40 am

I suppose it takes me around ten steps to get from our bed to the phone in the hall. So when, around three o’clock on Thursday morning it rang, I was already partly awake and prepared for something unpleasant by the time I picked it up. No one except Swansea drunks getting a wrong number calls at that hour unless it’s an emergency. And emergency it was: our grandson Simeon, 15 days old, was in intensive care, anaesthetised and ventilated, with something unknown, but serious, wrong with him. Three hours drive away, all we could do was pray and lie awake hoping that there would not be a second phone call.

Thursday was the first proper day of teaching for me and I can assure you it was not a good one. However I do have to say my colleagues were universally superb in their sympathy and support. Bit by bit during the day the details came out and a tentative diagnosis (still not fully confirmed at the moment) made of what is called CAH or Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia: courtesy of the web you can read all about it. But over the last couple of days Simeon has gradually recovered, being shifted first to high dependency and then to a normal ward while he recovers some weight and, I presume, more tests are done. If it is CAH the prognosis is reasonably good although with current technology he will have a lifetime of being dependent on replacement steroids. Which, as someone said, means that he will probably be ruled out from ever competing in the Olympics.

Let me make three cautious observations. The first is that we have come to take for granted the wonder of childbirth and healthy children. When you think about it, it’s a pretty amazing for a baby to shift from being effectively a parasitic creature taking food and oxygen from the mother to being a (more or less) self-sustaining and self-regulating organism. Somehow we have come to consider it to be a right that this proceeds automatically and without trouble. We shouldn’t do so. Two of my colleagues have had neo-natal fatalities recently.

The second observation was that things like this make you realise the true importance of family, friends and the faith. As I lay in bed my thoughts turned to last week’s blog on the iPhone and the whole topic seemed pathetically insignificant. Perhaps being reminded of one’s true priorities is no bad thing.

The third observation is that contrary to what you might expect I don’t think I ever once rounded on God and angrily demanded ‘Why Simeon?’. I suppose if things had turned out worse (and of course he is not out of the woods yet) I might have done so. I think – intellectually at least – I have come round to the view that being a child of God does not exempt you from suffering. I think I would almost be embarrassed to be in a situation in which I was granted immunity from the world’s woes. No one respects those who dodge military service or jury duty through family influence. In a world full of wounded people perhaps we need to have scars.

Anyway I will keep you in touch. Have a good week.

A subtle peril of fiction

By , 14 September 2007 7:21 pm

I was at a church elders meeting last night, when I was struck by a totally irrelevant thought: how rarely fiction represents committee meetings. The chief reason of course is not hard to find: they are really pretty boring. (Another reason, incidentally, is that meetings where more than three people are present are very hard to portray; you end up saying, X said this, Y said that, Z commented, and so on.) Fiction, especially the sort that I write, and I suspect most of my readers read, is about action and events. If committee meetings do occur in such works, then we are generally taken straight to some climactic moment of decision: all else is dispatched in a few sentences.

Now thinking about this further, I think this is very misleading in an artistic sense. You see it is in such quiet committee meetings where great decisions are made. The fate of individuals, organisations, and even nations, is decided in slow rounds of often undramatic argument and discussion. It is in these rather low-key exchanges of views that destinies are forged for good or ill. Fiction, because it tends to concentrate on dramatic, emotionally charged events or confrontations, misleads us. The apparently still waters of a big river in fact move far faster than the turbulent bubbling of an alpine stream. In the same way momentous events often happen quietly.

From the Christian point of view there is something very significant here. We prepare ourselves to do the right thing at a great moment of crisis. Here, we say to ourselves, we will not fail! Yet actually what happens is that the pivotal battle is conducted somewhere else, often in a far less dramatic matter. And here, unexpectant and ill-prepared, we fail. We need to be prepared for moments of crisis in life, but we also need to beware of being ambushed by some subtle danger on what we expect to be a quiet stretch. I suspect many souls have been damned in those quiet committee meetings when the chairman has said, with no great fanfare, ‘So then. I take it we are all agreed?’ And unable to resist, a man or woman agrees to something terribly wrong.

Having just written this I have remembered what C. S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape say: “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Exactly so.

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