The God in the Machine: The Matrix and a Sci-Fi Jesus

Morpheus: “You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life…that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

Neo: “The Matrix”

Just as Morpheus somehow describes everything Neo has wondered up to this point, the Wachowski brothers’ first instalment of the Matrix trilogy offered a somewhat uncanny allegory for the Christian experience. My own initial reaction was that it was just remarkably well extrapolated, but others have been more overt in their analyses, and the Wachowski brothers themselves – when not being coy about its various religious and philosophical ideas – have responded that “all of it” and “most of it was intentional”. Whatever the case, many parallels in the film can be disturbing and surprisingly personal. The most blatant and widely recognised link is of course Neo, whose name means “New” and is an anagram of his title as the “One”; a messianic figure prophesied by the Oracle to come and save mankind. His dull day-job name “Mr Anderson” means “Son of Man”. And with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, he is told in his first scene by user Choi; “Hallelujah. You’re my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ”.

But the more personal aspects shown in the film begin with the splinter in the mind, the inexplicable suspicion, as Morpheus describes, that something is wrong with the world.

At first Neo almost bails on what Trinity calls “the question that drives us”. He gets in the car, but when it gets a bit weird to have a bugged bellybutton, he wants out. I remember faltering for a moment too – the concept of God seemed a bit too foreign, too strange and these people were being all weird and spiritual. I was curious – but also apprehensive of what would happen if I found out. Then Trinity stops him as he opens the door and stares out in the rain (Sydneysiders: this scene was filmed on the corner of Campbell and Elizabeth Street, under the Adam Street bridge);

Trinity: “…you have been down there Neo, you know that road, you know exactly where it ends. And I know that’s not where you want to be.”

Maybe I wasn’t sure where this new road led, but I did know the road I had been on was a dead end. And like Neo I stayed in the car.

Morpheus: “Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”

Unplugging from an amniotic pod is a very sci-fi rebirth, and as Morpheus says, until it is experienced firsthand it is unimaginable; “Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.””(John3:3 ESV). When plugged in, it was the only life ever known; “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit”(2 Corinthians 2:14 NIV). But the day of the red pill, everything changed. I remember thinking to myself that I couldn’t believe that I could have reached adulthood – even grown up in church – and still discover another level that felt like real living. If this was living, if I suddenly felt alive, what had I been doing all those years before? I’d felt like something was a bit odd about the world but I could never have imagined an entire other level; “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10 NIV). The colours and even people, looked different, and I felt so free, so new, joyful beyond explanation.

Morpheus shows Neo the meaning of the human pods by holding up a Duracell battery, a battery for machines; “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8 NIV). It is an image so understandably horrible and confronting that he throws up and passes out.

Morpheus: “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

Neo: “What truth?”

Morpheus: “That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.”

In a 1995 interview Steve Jobs explains: “When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life”. The media will tell you how you’re supposed to be, the catalogues will tell you what you’re supposed to own, corporate culture will tell you how you’re supposed to work, Tumblr will give you philosophy, Instagram will show you how pretty a brunch should look, Pinterest will show and quote human ideals, Facebook will document what happiness looks like, fashion will tell you what men and women wear. Just go with it, dress like it, talk like it, work like it, eat like it, live like it, for the rest of your life. I wondered if this was it – surely there was more. There has to be.

Morpheus: “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes”.

But the red pill means giving up everything, making a choice; “Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62 ESV). You have to decide which world you’ll live in.

Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? [Takes a bite of steak] Ignorance is bliss.

We could slam Cypher for betraying Morpheus, Neo and his crew and asking to be plugged back into the Matrix. Ultimately the nondescript coding name “Cypher” reveals the minimal impact he makes by seeking to return to the cookie-cutter life. But his case for blissful ignorance is also understandable, because unplugging is a difficult life involving a war instead of steak. And Cypher must choose between the Matrix and Zion; “Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4b ESV).

Morpheus: “That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

And as Morpheus explains, the enemy in the training program is not actually the woman in the red dress or the homeless man, but Agent Smith (holding a gun in Sydney’s Martin Place and Pitt Street); “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world” (Ephesians 6:12a NIV). Like protective sentinels and agents, the religious Pharisees hated Jesus for what he taught and wanted this sacrilege to be quashed. Offended by the Sabbath-breaking healing, the “blasphemously” good news, the love and care for “sinners”, they fought to protect their neat moral bubble, and eventually in hatred, crucified Him; “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds” (Colossians 1:21a). Morpheus teaches Neo that once you unplug, the Matrix is no longer a friend or a home; “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19 NIV). In the world, but not of it.

Morpheus: “Welcome to the real world”

Essentially Neo receives the revelation that the real world and real life is bigger than what’s programmed in the Matrix. Instead Morpheus and his crew are heading for Zion, the last human city, which is truly worthy of aspiration, unlike the manufactured ladder within the Matrix; “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion” (Psalm 84:5 ESV). “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18 NIV).

Neo: “I used to eat there. Really good noodles. I have these memories from my life. None of them happened. What does that mean?”

Trinity: “That the Matrix cannot tell you who you are.”

The Matrix has a way of programming identities – manufactured possessions, job titles, status, stations – but they are not who someone really is. And when our hero finally declares; “My name is Neo”, he rejects his Anderson identity, the neat little life as “a program writer for a respectable software company”, with a social security number and a land lady, and becomes his true self; “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3-4 ESV). “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1 NIV). Instead of plugging back in, Neo takes the path of freedom.

Neo: “I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.”

And true to his word, it was Christ who taught me; “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26 NIV) and that “All things are possible for one who believes.” (Mark 9:23b ESV). He takes a while to come to terms with being the One (“If you are the Son of God…” – Matthew 4), and his divinity (“You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind.”). But eventually even bullet-dodging, even water-walking, even flying from a phone on the corner of Hunter and Pitt Street in Sydney, is possible. Jesus embodied the breaking of rules and controls, borders and boundaries. In a Matrix full of status he humbled himself to wash people’s feet. In a Matrix full of social rules he dared to speak to people of lower class, the outcast and despised. In a Matrix full of material security he had nowhere to lay his head. In a Matrix full of sickness and death he dared to heal people. In a Matrix full of religious rules he stood up and courageously opposed the hypocrisy of the religious.

Trinity: “The answer is out there, Neo. It’s looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to”.

He didn’t barge into my life; “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelation 3:20). I didn’t accidentally get unplugged. I wondered, and I decided to take the red pill. And maybe life is harder on a ship, fighting a war, being misunderstood all the time. But it’s also an amazing life beyond imagination. It’s free. And it’s real. It’s almost too cheap to say the red pill changed my life. Really, it was far more than that.

 

What I love most about training

I could probably say I always kind of disliked the concept of gyms, mostly because it seemed liked some sort of immensely sad commentary on modern society – that our lives had become so sedentary that we were paying to make artificial movements in rows upon rows of machines. I’m still not a huge fan of the fluorescent sweatbox, which is one reason I’ve embraced doing my workouts outdoors, but I get to train far more frequently than I ever imagined I would - and I do honestly love it. It’s also taught me a lot of valuable things, including some parallels with developing spiritual strength, “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way” (1 Timothy 4:8a ESV).

Doing it with people

When I was in research, which can be quite sedentary work, my research supervisor mentioned that she had started with a personal trainer because the exercise would otherwise just never get done. At first it sounded either extreme or luxurious to have one, but since starting with mine I can’t deny how beneficial it has been for me. In any aspect of life,

to have a real-life example in a person, and being with other people who value fitness, who will teach and literally do it alongside you, is very powerful.

The moments I have most valued with my trainer have been things like getting down on a mat and doing exercises right alongside me, showing me how he would do them. Other times it is the meaningful encouragement based on his own experience of how far along I am and even just the fact that this particular move really is supposed to hurt everything! Likewise having authentic people in Christ who are a little further along, showing you the way, sharing their experience and encouraging you based on the truth, is a great gift and one of the beautiful things about the family of God. And you can share anything you learn with others as well, helping “both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16 NIV).

Moving outdoors

I found the artificiality of the gym especially stark because I spent my childhood on the beach, climbing, kayaking and bush walking. It was practically a revelation to be able to break free from that paradigm and train outdoors where I feel most comfortable and happy. I found it was the same when I first started spending time with God in prayer – I somehow always ended up outside, pacing in the moonlight, under sunsets, through the trees. It may be widely accepted to think of prayer as hands together or bowed bodies in a religious building, just like I kind of naturally thought of workouts as flogging equipment in a gym. But loving the fresh air and using key pieces of equipment in the natural environment is one of the reasons I really enjoy my training and get it done consistently.

What you do can be unconventional and amazing.

It is Christ in you that is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27b NIV). You, the way you are and the way you have been prepared, even the bits that seem like they don’t fit. I know I’m always going to be an outdoorsy kind of girl and not an iron-benching man – and I love that, and God does too. More broadly speaking, your journey and purpose may look different to what society asks – but you’ll get that glory happening just the same, just as you authentically are.

Balancing and recovering

One of the unexpected things my trainer prioritised was the importance of recovery – going for a recovery run following high-intensity work, giving time for muscles to rest and recover between sets, being careful to avoid injury or over training. Our world, particularly professional corporate culture, drives hard and 24/7, even more so with technology, where time with family, people and even sleep is no longer set apart. It glorifies busy and produces burnt out individuals. What training has taught me is a lot about being comprehensive in the workout, doing both strength and cardio, working in frontal, sagittal and transverse planes, working different muscle groups, “so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4 NIV).

It’s not just about someone yelling at you to do push ups till you drop, but also thinking holistically and long-term, alternating and resting, stretching things out and sleeping well to let your body repair and build muscle.

I love that God modelled by example and put the idea of a “Sabbath” right up there in His top ten for a good life. I’ve learned to really value sleep, stretching, recovery and completeness, and my picture of fitness is pleasantly different to the idea of being singularly flogged on equipment.

Making it a way of life

I heard it once put well that it’s valuable to

think of fitness as “training” instead of “a workout”.

Long-term consistency is really important and you want to make it a sustainable lifestyle. My training is incorporated into my weekly routine in a non-negotiable a way, and there is no battle to come and do it, I’m excited and I just do it (like Nike!). Beyond these set times, I look for other ways to make sure fitness is a way of life, building in incidental exercise like always taking the stairs instead of the lift or always being ready to walk anywhere. I once laughed at a friend who told me she did lunges down her office corridor when no one was around, but sometimes it is like that – you can sneak in step-ups on any platform, do some hip flexor stretches and correct your posture at your desk, get up and go for a walk, making the most of every opportunity to help your body. Basically, to apply in practice what we learn. Fitness is a not a one-off workout but a way of life. James (1:22-25 NIV) puts it pretty well: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do”.

Pushing through the burn

There is always a point in a workout where you need to push through, when you could stop doing reps and just leave it as your limit.

But when you’re really starting to feel the burn is when you’re beginning the reps that will really build you.

The Message translation of James phrases it well; “So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way”(James 1:4 MSG). The pain of training is arguably one of the most accessible illustrations of what James talks about when he says; “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2-3 NIV), for “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17 NIV). “But we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (Romans 5:3 NIV). It’s always exciting to know you are getting more and more capable, whether in body or spirit.

Choosing the right fuel for your body

Intentionality really helps with properly fuelling and recovering your body, because there is always an endless bevy of cake and cookies available in the office. I’ve found it helps to ensure access to healthy food by deciding and preparing in advance.

When you are used to a healthy diet, you tend to lose interest in junk.

In the same way, I ensure I have access to a portable slim-line Bible, for “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63b ESV) and “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4b ESV). I think carefully about the diet of public and social media I consume, and not bothering with junk. Eventually you’ll always choose the berries over the cake.

Loving it!

I’m not sure if this one’s just a girl thing, but loving my workout gear and running shoes, doing a pretty running braid, having a big drink bottle I like and a shower gel that I love the smell of just makes working out one of those things that make me smile. Making room in life for spiritual nourishment and just loving it is also the same. Love is ultimately at the centre of it – all others hang from these (Matthew 22:36-40). Most times I feel like the luckiest girl alive.

There’s no reason not to have fun and love it with a ridiculous smile.

Even during sit-ups!

Fault Lines

I once attempted sketching Seal’s face because I was fascinated by his scars. I slowed down to render them, to mark every pore and fold in his smile lines.

When trying to sketch something and to capture what it is like, I realised what I am actually seeking out is all the little shadows that fall and shading them in, finding every edge that defines the boundaries, and tracing them out. It is marking down these lines and shadows that show the nature and character of a thing. I need to identify the boundaries in order to identify the shape, and the shadows in order to show the textures.

We all have areas of shadow in our lives where it’s a little bit darker, boundaries where our limitations lie. Maybe each one could be thought of as black marks, terrible flaws and negative impressions. But perhaps they are actually the essential markings that will compose a picture of beauty.

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” – 2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)

It is the rugged fault lines of the earth that give us the beauty of the mountains. The lowness of the valley where the life-giving rivers run. The falling of the rain that sustains the lives of creatures everywhere.

Whenever and wherever you are weak, He is strong for you; “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NIV). Even when we are faithless, He remains faithful, “for He cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13 NIV). There will be times when we will be weak – but in it we chart His strength. There are times when we may be faithless to Him – but in that His faithfulness to us is greater. Times of great struggle – when we will experience great mercy. We don’t have to lift up our own strengths or cover our own struggles – in them we will experience Him. In the humiliating death of one man was the saving of the world. In the betrayal of brothers was the saving of a nation in famine. In the mouth of an imperfect speaker was the liberation of an entire people. In the sling of a last-picked boy was the military victory of God’s army. All these wrinkles, scars, shadows and limits, showing where the beauty lies.

Surrounded

upIf you look up, the Lord bends down to listen (Psalm 116:2 NLT). He stoops down to make you great (Psalm 18:35b NIV). He is the lifter of your head (Psalm 3:3b NIV) and He lays his hand upon you (Psalm 139:5 NIV). He hides you in the shadow of His wings (Psalm 17:8b NIV). He reaches down from on high and takes hold of you; He draws you out of deep waters (Psalm 18:16 NIV). He pulls you out of the pit of destruction (Psalm 40:2a NIV). 

downIf you look down, He sets your feet on a rock, and gives you a firm place to stand (Psalm 40:2b NIV), He provides a broad path for your feet (Psalm 18:36 NIV) and He establishes all your steps (Psalm 37:23). He upholds you with His righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10b NIV).

behindIf you look back, the God of Israel is your rear guard (Isaiah 52:12b NIV). His goodness and mercy is surely following you all the days of your life (Psalm 23:6 NIV). He hems you in from behind (Psalm 139:5a NIV) and His glory guards your rear (Isaiah 58:8b NIV).

aheadIf you look ahead, the Lord Himself crosses over ahead of you (Deuteronomy 31:1b NIV). The Lord Himself goes before you (Deuteronomy 31:8a NIV). He is a sun and a shield (Psalm 84:11a NIV). He hems you in before you (Psalm 139:5 NIV) and His word is a lamp to your feet and a light on your path (Psalm 119:105 NIV).

circleIf you look around, the Lord your God is with you wherever you go (Joshua 1:9b NIV), and there is nowhere you can flee from His presence (Psalm 13:7-12 NIV). He is a shield around you (Psalm 3:3a NIV), He protects all your bones (Psalm 34:20 NIV), He encircles you, cares for you, and He keeps you as the apple of his eye (Deuteronomy 32:10 ESV).

circleIf you look within, your life is hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3 NIV). It is no longer you who lives, but Christ who lives in you (Galatians 2:20 NIV). Christ in you is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27 NIV) and the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world (1 John 4:4b NIV).

rewindIf you look to your past, to your origins and beginnings, He is the rock from which you were cut, and the quarry from which you were hewn (Isaiah 51:1b NIV). He created you in His image (Genesis 1:27 NIV). He redeemed you, called you by name and declared “You are mine” (Isaiah 43:1 NIV). Before He formed in you in the womb, He knew and set you apart (Jeremiah 1:5a NIV). He is the author of your faith (Hebrews 12:2a NIV) and He began a good work in you (Philippians 1:6 NIV). He wrote all the days ordained for you before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:16a NIV).

Ifplay you look in your present, He is your refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1 ESV), He is with you in the waters, through the rivers, through the fire (Isaiah 43:2 NIV). He is close when you are brokenhearted and crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18 NIV) and He is with you even in the darkest valley (Psalm 23:4 NIV). He has granted to you all you need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3 NIV), and in His presence is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11 ESV).

fastforwardIf you look to your future, He will never leave you nor forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:8 NIV). He is with you always, even till the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20 NIV). He is the perfecter of your faith (Hebrews 12:2a NIV), and will bring to completion His good work in you (Philippians 1:6 NIV). The Lord will fulfill His purpose for you (Psalm 138:8 ESV). Even to your old age and grey hairs it is He who sustains you, and He will carry you and rescue you (Isaiah 46:4 NIV). He will guide you in His counsel, and afterward He will take you into glory (Psalm 73:24 NIV) where He has prepared a place for you (John 14:3 NIV), and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6 NIV).

The Lord who made the universe – who made YOU – is your promise keeper.

The world may encourage you: “You’ve got this”.

But the truth is:

He’s got you.

How to advocate more effectively for disadvantaged groups

By definition, the needs and disadvantages of a marginalised group will usually be unfamiliar to the wider majority. Those who best understand their cause are often those in closest proximity, including frontline professionals, carers, or members themselves. But being so immersed can bring its own challenges – it can become difficult to speak in a way that can be accessible and understood by the distant bureaucrat or the unfamiliar public. Yet being able to bridge this gap is arguably at the core of being able to be an effective advocate.

If done well, effective advocacy can achieve an enormous response. Many of us will at least remember the otherwise ill-fated “Make Kony famous” campaign, which became the fastest growing viral video of all time and was so successfully disseminated because it had all the right components (and one of the top reasons people will share something on social media is to support a cause). The campaign did exactly what it claimed to do by nailing three brilliant aspects – it provided enough information to stir up a public sense of injustice, provided actionable steps, and empathised deeply with a public who want to help good causes, but are often unsure of how to really make a difference.

There are willing listeners and willing tellers, but the disconnect is often in the story – yet it is one of the most important ones we can tell. As much as good advocacy shines when done well, it can break your heart when it’s not effective, because the people who miss out are not you and I, but the people we speak for, the people who don’t have a voice. In the hope that it will help us succeed on their behalf, here are a few aspects of advocacy which have helped me speak up more effectively:

1) Use a credible and familiar point of reference

Firstly, people are likely to know nothing about this marginalised group, or their initial understanding may be a simplistic one such as pity, if not indifference. The gap cannot be met by providing information alone – good advocacy will also compellingly establish an actionable sense of social injustice. To do this, the disadvantage should not be described in isolation, but in relation to something familiar. There are a couple of ways to achieve this. You can describe the disadvantage:

i) In relation to a known standard or ideal: You can go straight out and nail the issue with reference to a credible and well known authority, like the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, the national peak body for that cause, or even the law. These bodies will describe a standard, whether it is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Classification of Functioning and Disability (which also has a version for Youth and Children if you are advocating for children), a national or international guideline, policy or a code of ethics. Using these can help you credibly describe what we would all sense is right, fair and just and to clearly describe how the unknown disadvantage is apparent next to this known standard.

ii) By comparing it to the next most similar group: If not, or in addition to this standard, an injustice also becomes clear when there is a clear comparison with the next closest group. For example, the disadvantages of children with disabilities can be spoken for in relation to children the same age, or a gap in research can be identified by demonstrating how other comparable areas have been investigated, but this area has been neglected. This can apply no matter what field you’re in. When advocating for the legal rights of child models (including an education, breaks, and freedom from sexual harassment), Coco Rocha identified that the next closest group – child actors and performers – were protected as such by the law, but that minors in the fashion industry were left alone with photographers without any similar regulations. With one group so clearly ignored and never spoken for before, it just seems like a no-brainer that the same rights should apply for this group.

iii) In view of our common humanity: Depending on the formality of the appeal you need to make, you might also help people understand by drawing comparisons to the most accessible and familiar referent of all – themselves. This gives audiences an opportunity to empathise – to imagine “if you had the same hopes and dreams, with these disadvantages”. It can often help us realise how much of what we take for granted was not earned or chosen, just like injustices are not chosen by those who suffer them.

2) Strengthen all your claims with evidence
While a case study can be an emotionally accessible or memorable draw, as a matter of integrity the documented gaps should be based on the best level of evidence possible. If applicable – and especially in a formal context – it is valuable to directly reference research, ensuring the highest quality, relevant and recent and is represented and prioritised. Go for the highest level of evidence possible, and go meta when you can (meta-analyses and systematic reviews), and make sure you put the most important stuff first.

3) Empower listeners with a clear, supported solution

Providing clear steps on how to help, and why this solution works, is really the point of identifying the problem at all. If you are proposing a solution, explain it well, substantiate it with evidence as above, and if necessary, demonstrate how things will stay accountable, the track record of the people who will carry it through, and what part the audience plays in making that happen. It must be clear and compelling.

4) Don’t be afraid to show how much you care

Let your passion guide your language. Break the rules and forget about being tidy and mild in grant applications or campaigns. Again, put the most compelling stuff first and don’t be afraid to say it like you mean it.

Argue as well as you can, because it is not for you, it is for them, and if they will literally never be able to speak for themselves, if they will never be heard in the hallowed halls of bureaucracy and no one else can do it for them, but you can, then do your best for them, and don’t give up, because they need you to, and so do we.

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” – Proverbs 31:8 (NIV)

Good luck! Xx

The Secret Kingdom

Every year thousands of wildflowers bloom and die on a mountainside unseen by human eyes. Countless galaxies swirl millions of light years away without a telescope to see them. Yet the sunrise continues to give itself every morning, the supernovae continue to explode and die with all their being, and in this way “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1b). Every bud persistently blossoms and glorifies its maker, and He dresses them more beautifully than Solomon in all his splendour (Matthew 6:29). Even in the absence of validation, they do not cease to glorify God in truth. They do not need to say that they are true – they simply are. Even if nobody knows.

Sometimes we will do something for someone that can never be thanked. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t count. In fact, it may count more than anything, for “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:40 NIV).

Sometimes – and probably most of the time – we will do work that will not be seen or acknowledged. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to do. In fact we are told, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23). Sometimes there is a good deed that no one will know about. But in His kingdom the Lord explicitly instructs to give in secret (Matthew 6:2-4), fast in secret (Matt 6:16-18), pray in secret (Matthew 6:5-6), and even warns; “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

Sometimes the person who impresses the world’s standards is not the person God prefers and esteems; “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Sometimes a person’s beauty is not externally visible. But again in the secret kingdom of unseen, eternal things, it is even directly instructed, “Do not let your adorning be external [...] but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4 ESV).

Sometimes courage is choosing what is right even if it is not popular, celebrated, noticed. Even if it is misunderstood or attracts criticism, opposition or judgment, there is a conviction and integrity worth keeping for His name’s sake. We must live “not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:6 ESV).

There is a kingdom of stage and spectacle, fame and pedestals, glory, prestige and gloss. Deeds are applauded. Excellence is awarded. Visibility is fought for and cheered. Names become labels, engravings on plaques, self-profiled online and revered. But there is another place where things are unseen – less but somehow more. And as false varnish fades into something long gone, it rises as something eternal.

“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” – Galatians 1:10

So can we be in the way we live. Perhaps no one sees. But God sees you. Perhaps it means nothing to the world. But in God’s sight it is very precious. And if He saw you when no one else could, and if He valued you before anyone else did, maybe you’re the wildflower that should dare to bloom, maybe you’re the star that should dare to burst, maybe the fall should be taken, the cost should be paid, the kindness extended, even if the recipient never knows or the crowd never sees. And perhaps if the only people to see the finest hour are you and God Almighty – well, perhaps that’s not such a bad audience.

The Good News after the Bad News

“…he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” – Genesis 3:15b (NIV)

This somewhat violent statement is an epic plot spoiler of the very best kind. It is an astonishing declaration of hope made even more so by its timing. As soon as Adam tells God they have eaten the forbidden fruit, God’s first response it is not to yell at Adam, or to smite them both, or to complain about their rebellion – even though any of these could be expected. His first response is not even directed to Adam or Eve. Instead He turns straight to the serpent, and He declares that the battle will be on between the serpent and the woman’s offspring, but that God would ultimately cause them to triumph.

How amazingly swift and complete is His mercy – that God declared the solution for the problem as soon as it was created. That God brings the hope of good news  immediately after Adam speaks the bad news. And not only does He not give up on Adam or his lineage, but He even promises that it will be from their own offspring that He will bring a champion, a saviour, the light for a world that had is being made dark. As soon as His beloved friends fall, He catches them in His victory. It is the very first telling of the gospel – and by God Himself.

This is how merciful He is with every mistake in our lives. There is nothing we could ever have done that is beyond His ability or desire to redeem and restore through Christ. There is no one more merciful to whom we could give our needs, and no one who could give us a more sure hope. His first response is not to yell, smite, complain or give up on us (though He really could). It is His good news in exchange for all of the bad news. His best in exchange for our worst. For “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5a). How amazing that mercy is.

So; “let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). For as Spurgeon said so well;

“I have a great need for Christ:

I have a great Christ for my need”

The Daily Swap

On days when sicknesses pick a fight with the immune system, or batteries run low, or people are mean, it is natural to want to wallow in it – just a little. But when any of these might like to rent some head space or a mention, what would happen if we simply…traded them in? To swap tiredness for joy at the day’s opportunities. To swap a whiny status update for an expression of thanks. To trade the grumpiness of illness for the renewed awareness of caring people and a fighting immune system. Or some of the pain of grief for a more urgent sense of love for the people still in our lives. Even on days of mistreatment, we can treasure a clear conscience, new wisdom, supportive people – and an enormous, loving God who never leaves. Although it’s possible to complain, when I look harder it seems I actually have it almost unfairly good.

“Talking about our problems is our greatest addiction. Break the habit. Talk about your joys” – Rita Schiano

It’s easy to forget that whenever there is an opportunity to do something wrong, there is always an opportunity to do something right (1 Corinthians 10:13). And that whatever harm anyone may do, God is able to turn it into something beneficial (Genesis 50:20). That anything that seems like a set back or mistake can be worked together for good (Romans 8:28). That though we may physically grow weary, we’re inwardly renewed every day (2 Corinthians 4:16). That for every bit of suffering or hardship, there is always a joy to transcend it (2 Corinthians 4:17). And even when everything and everyone is lost, ultimately “it is well with my soul”.

“Praise the Lord, my soul,  and forget not all his benefits” – Psalm 103:2 (NIV)

We’re instructed to rejoice in the Lord always, and then again, to rejoice – everybody one more time now (Philippians 4:4)! That’s a 24/7 gig, and although rainbows and fuzzy ducklings aren’t present round the clock, God always is. My favourite thing is that a search for things and people to celebrate and praise never returns void, whether the treasure is big or small. There are countless gifts and supports in so many areas of life that are so easily overlooked.

“… memory may be very strong concerning self-interest, grievances, and trials, and yet towards God’s mercies it may be very weak” – Charles Spurgeon

One way I’ve tried overcoming this senility is using a small portable notebook to record everything I’m grateful for. I add to it whenever something comes to mind, or force myself to add to it whenever my attitude needs recalibrating. I’ve found having small space to be thankful and joyful is not only a delight and encouragement, but a very powerful life tool. While shopping or to-do lists are a common form of reminder for life’s activities, there is perhaps something – or someone – we are more prone to forget than milk or emails. And when all we can think about is unpleasant points to whine about while joy sits available half-price, He’s probably more than worth the swap!

No Credentials but Himself

What does a truly great man look like? Joseph Conrad’s canonical novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ includes a memorable scene in which the protagonist, Marlow, encounters such a man – and he is puzzled by what he finds. His description of the highly-ranked manager of Central Station is thought-provoking:

“He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold. . . . Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy—a smile—not a smile—I remember it, but I can’t explain. . . . He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts—nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a . . . a . . . faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. . . . He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? . . . He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause.”

Conrad shows us a man who has climbed the ladder, who ticks all the boxes of bureaucracy, maintains it like clockwork, and ultimately remains nameless, perhaps because we’ve all seen him countless times before; “commonplace, middle size, ordinary, usual”. He is “great” by societal standards, having achieved an enviable position with ease and comfort, and yet he is somehow lacking.

What happens when you reach the top of a ladder and don’t like what  or who  you find? Why did I climb this ladder at all? Who put this ladder here anyway? In a 2010 interview with ‘Sport and Style’ magazine, Olympic gold medallist Leisel Jones made a similar reflection at the pinnacle of success: Winning was just…relief. It wasn’t even happiness…I don’t like the word ‘depression’; it’s too loosely bandied around. But I felt horrible. You feel like your self-worth is in a gold medal”. Or, as Canon J. John puts it; “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat”.

There are competitions to be won, points to be scored, coffees to be Instagrammed, people to be pleased! There are forms to submit, criteria to meet, must-see movies and must-have buys. By default, corporate culture will show us how to work, how to climb, how to succeed and achieve. By default, we will be shown how to spend, what to wear, what to read, how to build homes of white picket glory. The carousel will keep spinning, till the end of time, till the end of our lives. Steve Jobs noted in a 1995 interview; When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life”. Conrad considered the epitome of “commonplace, middle-size, ordinary, usual” success: a man produced by the mindless fulfilment of whatever prestige, office and convention was put before him. Highly decorated, yet hollow, like a husk whose centre was harvested long ago.

In ‘The Drum Major Instinct’ (1968), echoing the poem ‘One Solitary Life’, Martin Luther King Jr. noted;

“I know a man — and I just want to talk about him a minute, and maybe you will discover who I’m talking about as I go down the way because he was a great one. And he just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was thirty years old. Then for three years, he just got on his feet, and he was an itinerant preacher. And he went about doing some things. He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness. He had no credentials but himself”.

Although he became one of, if not the most influential person in history, this man never walked or griped for any of the conventional avenues to power:

“Jesus never became a party leader; he was no place-hunter or demagogue […] And such a generous spirit, so noble, and so free-hearted, it was little marvel that the people would have made him a king; but he tore himself away: they sought him and found him not. He came to endure, not to enjoy; to be despised, and not to be crowned. How often did he escape the congratulating crowds! […] His design was not to be the idol of the populace, but to break their idols and lead back their hearts to God. Hence he did not strive nor cry, nor run in the world’s race, nor battle in her wars.” – Charles Haddon Spurgeon (“The Gentleness Of Jesus”, delivered December 14, 1873)

An uncommon, unusual, extraordinary man who gave up his title, his comfort, his rights and the shirt on his back, for “the Son of Man has no place to rest his head” (Matthew 8:20b). And ultimately, He gave his life. All to achieve something greater, something different, something true.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”- Romans 12:2 (NIV)

To test and approve. To think and consider. Despite his high office, it was the suspicion that the general manager had “nothing within him” that made Marlow pause. A thoughtful pause so quickly forfeited in our hoop-jumping maintenance of routines and conventions and minutiae. Yet perhaps there is something precious worth recovering through the much-neglected question;

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” - Jesus (Mark 8:36)

Dressed for the Occasion

We all (hopefully!) get dressed at some point each day. We might check the weather, turn to the glossies for inspiration, think about style and trends. Even so, it’s possible to have the worst day in even the best of outfits. And while we might devote much time, income and thought to what is hung on the body,  it is rare to prepare as much the person within. And yet it is a person’s spirit that can be crushed by a discouraging word, overwhelmed by the day’s challenges, receive unexpectedly sad news – all while the body stands still on the train. Yet the body is the one we slave to dress.

“If we spent half the time we take getting physically dressed getting spiritually dressed instead, we’d be much better off” – Joyce Meyer

The truth is no one can really predict what will happen today. But in many ways we run out into this unknown wilderness on a daily basis completely naked and lacking the required safety gear (and when poorly calibrated within, I can get in trouble with people, with inanimate objects, with the bus pole for SMACKING INTO ME – the nerve of it!).

But God dresses us in “strength and dignity” (Proverbs 31:25), “power from on high”  (Luke 24:49) and “humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5). We are encouraged; “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12) and “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:14-15). We havefaith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thessalonians 5:8). None of these items cost a thing, they never go out of style, and they look fantastic, darling, on everyone. Why leave them on the rack?

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.“- 1 Peter 3:3-4 (NIV)

We might love our shoes and spend hard-earned dollars on trends, but in truth, it’s quite an unrequited love that doesn’t do much beyond a short-lived pick-me-up. It might merit a cheap wolf-whistle or a compliment, but it doesn’t provide true purpose in a day, energy to face difficult tasks, or deep peace in the heart. And perhaps these are the things we need the most.

“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen colour and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met” - Matthew 6:27-33 (The Message)

What an amazing dress code.