Here in Enfield we’re basking in the warm glow that can only be created – especially in the depths of February – by a council approving the first part of a local Mini Holland scheme!
Hurrah! Green Lanes (aka the A105) is approved. Each side of the road will have a two-metre, semi-segregated cycle lane …one that doesn’t peter out at junctions or bus stops or anywhere a little bit tricky … and provide an actually rather quite safe way to cycle all the way from the North Circular to Enfield Town. That’s one part of the scheme approved, and four to go. A cleaner, greener Enfield is in sight.
This post isn’t really about that though.
Over the last few months, as the Mini Holland plot has thickened, I’ve noticed in my diary for the week ahead that Mini Holland meetings often outnumber church meetings. For instance, I’ll be discussing cycle infrastructure plans on Monday evening with the local cycle campaign, then I’ll be at a council meeting on Wednesday evening (missing the church prayer meeting) and it’s not until Thursday evening that I sit down with my discipleship group to study a chapter in Luke’s gospel.
This can cause a twinge of anxiety. Two meetings about Mini Holland in one week is quite a lot, isn’t it? Is this really a worthwhile way to spend my time? Aren’t I getting distracted from eternal, spiritual realities by getting so passionate about, well, cycle lanes? Isn’t it more important to focus my energies on reconciling people to God than to sustainable transport?
At the back of my mind is not so much my own conscience as other people’s opinions. I know a few good evangelicals who consider anything that isn’t church or gospel-centred to be a distraction. They stand in a long tradition of evangelical Christians who hold to the teaching that since this world and all who sail in her is passing away, the only real work to be done is saving souls. “It’s all going to get burnt up anyway,” as one Christian friend explained to me in the middle of a conversation about climate change.
I now understand that this teaching is, at best, incomplete. Which I’ll get on to in a minute. But the fact is that many of the Christian friends I love and respect come from that position, consciously or not, while a number of my new cycle/ environmental campaigner friends who I also love and respect are firm atheists. In fact it was the tension I felt from being around those who love God and seemingly oblivious to his creation, on one hand, and those who love creation and seemingly oblivious to God, on the other, that led me to start writing this blog (so I’ll probably repeat myself, sorry). I sometimes wonder if part of my calling is to make my environmentalist friends uncomfortable about God and my Christian friends uncomfortable about the environment.
So I went along to the latest council meeting, at which they debated and voted on the A105, with that faint sense of unease. But it was a wonderful evening. Some of us cycled the length of the proposed route together, and had our photo taken holding our beautiful We Support Mini Holland banner outside the Enfield Civic Centre before we went in. At the meeting the various arguments for and against were aired, and we only had to sound a bike horn once while the opposition was
spouting nonsense speaking (at which point we were told to stop sounding it, I’m not sure why) and the council cabinet members then voted unanimously in favour of the scheme.
The next day when I was praying I naturally thanked him for the council’s decision. After all, the council has had a real bashing from the opposition. All the Conservative councillors have turned against Mini Holland, despite supporting it originally (though thankfully they are in a minority). The scheme could so easily have crumbled. But Councillor Anderson in particular as cabinet member for the environment has stood up to them and said We Will Do This Because It Is The Right Thing To Do. So I was feeling grateful anyway. But as I was thanking God, a wave of really insane gratitude swept over me – and deeper than that, a sense of absolute conviction that everything I feel so passionate about, he feels more.
…it matters to God when city air is toxic.
It matters to him that people don’t know each other on their own streets or in their own neighbourhoods.
It matters to him that thousands of people die in car accidents every year, or are left with life-changing injuries.
It matters to him that children suffer from asthma and obesity.
It matters to him that children have lost their freedom, and instead get cooped up in buildings or ferried about in cars.
It matters to him that children no longer play freely on the streets.
It matters to him that, to all intents and purposes, our society loves its children less than it loves its cars.
I could go on, and much of it centres on children. But the point is that I realised, tearfully, that I only care about all these things because they already mattered to him so much more in the first place. And that any opportunities I’ve had to blog or write articles or speak on the subject, often in ways I wasn’t expecting, have been set up and motivated by him. While I’m sure he was present at the church prayer meeting I missed to go to the council meeting, I’m now just as sure that he was active and present at the council, and it was right for me to go.
All of this was very refreshing to me as I prayed; it washed away the vague sense of unease that it’s unspiritual to campaign for something that isn’t the gospel. In a way, however, I knew this already. Don’t get me wrong – I love the gospel and the God whose message it is – a God who quietly but passionately pursues us our whole lives long, and who has laid down his life to make relationship with us possible. There isn’t a better message than that, and let’s not be fooled by any dead, graceless imitations of Christianity that suggest otherwise. A life spent on nothing but offering the gospel to others would be a life well spent.
But the teaching about ‘it’s all going to get burnt up’ and ‘hating this world’ is mistaken. It’s partly a misunderstanding of the Greek word kosmos, which the New Testament translates as ‘world’. This word can sometimes be better understood as ‘order’ – the order or arrangement in which the world finds itself. That order is one that denies God’s love and justice, trampling on the poor and the vulnerable, for instance. That order is indeed going to be ‘burnt up’, and we are commanded to hate it and to live differently until God’s right-way-up order is restored. But the New Testament is very clear that the material, physical world will continue – albeit a healthy, restored version – right into eternity. So we’re not here to scoop up souls into a disembodied heaven and leave the charred remains on a smouldering Earth. God promises through Jesus to restore all things. (He said, “I am the resurrection and the life”, and resurrection is a very physical thing indeed.)
I remember hearing about a Christian couple who, in a short space of time, found themselves called and sent out to work with a conservation organisation in Lebanon. Their reaction was surprise that the very thing they loved to do most – looking at birds through binoculars and making notes on clipboards, I suppose – was the very thing God had called and enabled them to do. I know similar stories of people discovering a calling to midwifery, to music and to art (… and for all I know there are chiropodists out there with a divine passion for what they do).
I think we Christians tend to have this feeling of disbelief that God might have given us a love for something that actually is part of our calling, and even more disbelief that he might love that thing even more than we do. It’s a failure to grasp that he’s in the business of restoring all things, and that means a lot of different ways of working alongside him. I also think that we hear from and get motivated by God more than we know, and I don’t only mean believers. I reckon my atheist fellow campaigners are just as compelled as I am by God-given convictions, although I guess they wouldn’t see it that way.
Thank you for sticking with me through a long post. I suppose my conclusion is that I’m insanely grateful to be on the particular journey that I’m on – drawn to a future where children can play freely and travel safely on city streets – because I know that this idea belongs to God’s myriad vision for the renewal of all things, and not just to my own overheated brain. Which means that one day it will succeed. Though I admit I’m baffled not to have found a reference to bicycles in either Old or New Testament. Perhaps I need a better concordance?