Making a beautiful worldI was doing my ‘I’m-busy-haven’t-a-moment-to-spare’ thing, which I lapse into as a minister from time to time. I swept past the table where one of my grandchildren, Seren was lost in painting a large picture on a long piece of wall-lining paper. She was singing away as she painted. I couldn’t stop – I had so much to do! Later when I had returned to earth, Helena told me she had helped Seren paint that afternoon. And she said, ‘All the while she painted she kept singing over and over and over again in total concentration, “I’m painting a beautiful world.”’ The image of Seren singing her painting into being lingered – it wouldn’t go away.

A day later I was reading my history of the world. I had got to that edifying time of the First World War! Up popped a character I hadn’t registered before – the German foreign affairs supremo at the time, Arthur Zimmermann. He had been doing his ‘I’m-important-busy-haven’t-a-moment-to-spare’ thing all his life. He was an energetic bureaucrat who started as a lowly outsider, but steadily rose to be the insider of insiders – to the very centre of power because of his ability to get things done. And the story unfolded of this jovial, good natured, faithful, hard-working guy, who at a crucial stage of the war, plotted to torpedo British and American Atlantic merchant ships. It was to bring Britain to its starved knees as the only way to break the trench stalemate in France. Could he do it quickly enough to achieve this before the USA was drawn out of its isolation into the war by news of its many drowned sailors, one boat after the other? But if they did get drawn in soon, he busily set up two other plans. The first was to get Mexico to invade the Southern states by working on Mexican touchiness since losing Texas to USA following a war of a previous generation. The second was to stir-up the Japanese to harry the Californian sea-board. Then he also got Lenin smuggled back into Russia to make sure they not only had a revolution, but stopped fighting the Germans altogether, releasing the troops back to the Western trenches! We know what Lenin led to. My word, he was a very busy man. And in fact a very destructive man, one who made a devastating impact. Oh what a beautiful world this jovial, good natured, faithful, hard-working guy made – and such a good fellow!

Then a day later, I read an article sent by a friend. World Missionaries made. It was about a piece of recent research into the effect of missionaries in Africa in the era of European colonialism. In recent times we’ve had to face the horrors the British Empire visited on the world. So missionaries haven’t exactly been the flavour of the last half century, let alone the proverbial month! The shock of this research was that current stable governments providing good life-outcomes today in ex-colonial territories seem to be closely related to the presence of effective missionary stations. There Christians, quietly and anonymously, modelled a just order of human respect and shared the good news that human change was possible through Jesus Christ. And where there weren’t such effective stations in strength, dictatorships and ineffective government rule with bad outcomes today. And despite the researcher trying to rigorously test his findings by putting forward alternative explanations, none stacked up. Life-enhancing conditions today went back to those who sang their beautiful worlds into being.

Back to Seren’s crouched concentration over her creation. Her song echoes God’s sixth day ‘very good’ delight in the creation. In fact it gives expression to God’s desire. And prayer is surely precisely but not exhaustively this. It is the appreciation of God’s desire and bringing our spirits into alignment with that same Spirit. Whether to a greater – like Zimmermann – or lesser extent, whether publicly or obscurely – like those missionaries, we all permeate and shape the environments we inhabit. The question is whether we do that creatively bringing beauty and justice, or spread death, discord and destruction, even if it is done by a ‘jovial, good natured, faithful, hard-working guy’. And to do the former, rather than disgorge the latter, requires on-going vigilance of the spirit we are cultivating. It is to this very practical end that Jesus taught us to pray: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.’ Perhaps the problem isn’t down to the number of little jovial Zimmermmann’s striving to become insiders and getting morally turned in the process, or even just plain nasty Zimmermann’s of which there are always a fair number. The main problem in our developing human story, may be the way the many ordinary, good hearted human beings, even good Christian folk, neglect to do this inner-work of singing their song to make a beautiful world. Such neglect means there are few counter examples and communal models to the self-centred and competitive environments we foster in our drive to push up standards, or gain a performance edge on our competitor. ‘Lord help me to not rush past the table day by day where the song is being sung, but stop, listen and add my voice to a growing harmonious chorus making a beautiful world. Amen’