God and the dishwasher

After years of miserably washing the dishes by hand like seventeenth century peasants, we’re now fortunate enough to have a dishwasher.

This chamber of magic water has significantly curtailed our kitchen arguments, or at least it did – until, unexpectedly, it went on strike and would only make edgy whirring noises.

Household Appliances in modern kitchen
You can tell it’s a stock photo because it’s so clean. No real kitchen is ever this clean. If you find yourself in a kitchen this clean, it’s probably an alien spaceship made to look like a kitchen in order to lure you in. You should probably leave.

‘It’s probably the filter, it needs unblocking,’ said Wifey, reclining on her chaise-longue while being fed grapes and fanned with palm leaves.

I rolled up my sleeves and went fishing around in the murky water like Crocodile Dundee. Alas, despite disassembling anything that seemed to come off (which was quite a lot, actually – including a number of things that initially didn’t want to come off and probably shouldn’t have), I could do nothing to encourage the water to leave.

So, we called up the lettings agency and, promptly, an engineer arrived six weeks later and unblocked the filter.

“Aw, look,” he said with the ubiquitous Australian verbal shrug. “You’ve gotta rinse the plates before putting them in, right?”

This was unhelpful for several reasons. Not least that it justified Wifey’s ongoing view that plates should be rinsed before they go in the dishwasher, but worse, that it justifies her father’s fixation with the same. This bothers me. If you have to wash the plate before it goes in the dishwasher, then what on earth is the point of the dishwasher? It’s like getting an Uber and the driver suggesting that he sits on your lap while you work the pedals.

Not that I am in the habit of comparing kitchen appliances to the Bible, but something else that seems to work just fine most of the time is Jeremiah 29:11:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. [NRSV]

It’s a beautiful verse, filled with optimism and gushing with peace and security. Until, of course, the chaotic events of a cold world batter the sense that God has a plan out of us. Then it stops working.

Christians (especially evangelicals) are forever banging on about God’s plan. It’s the stock response to pretty much anything that happens; the place we go for hope, comfort, or (worse) to give others hope and comfort. There are few things less comforting than, in the midst of sorrow or grief, being told that it’s all ‘part of God’s plan’.

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Plans are a very human thing. How should we think about God’s?

Don’t worry – I’m not going to delve into exegesis or start talking about what this verse means in its original context. Nor am I going to embark on a miserable philosophical discussion about predestination that makes you wish I was still writing about dishwashers. What is important though is to think about what we mean by the phrase ‘God’s plan’. A plan is a very human thing. It is a schedule of activity designed to make something happen within the constraints of time, resources and creativity.

But here’s the point: God operates under none of those constraints.

So how useful is the phrase ‘God’s plan’?

That concept might actually be quite limiting; another example of our tendency to put our unimaginably vast and powerful God in a box.

A better idea might be to reflect on what these verses tell us about God – no matter what happens around us.

For example, some of the things they might tell us are that we can trust Him, that there is good reason to hope, that even though we don’t understand everything – He loves us, is with us, and our story does have a happy ending.

After all, who are we really being invited to trust – God, or a ‘plan’?

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Christians are having a giant argument. Here’s some ground rules

trumpI’ve been pretty shocked to see that so many Christians voted for Trump, that Christian leaders have endorsed or failed to challenge him, and that many Christians appear to be deploying a ‘coping mechanism’ by hoping that he is, indeed, ‘God’s’ candidate. Equally, I am sure that there are plenty of evangelical Christians who might be surprised at my Christian stance on matters like marriage equality and abortion.

We live in a world where Martin Luther King can suggest that Jesus was a socialist (though I think it might be fairer to suggest that socialism is quite Jesusist), and Bill Johnson can argue that socialism is the antithesis of Christianity. How can this be? How can people read the same Bible, profess the same faith, and have such radically different perspectives on such critical issues?

colored-pencils-179167_1920The answer is, quite easily. Humans are not necessarily rational or linear decision-makers. How we define, prioritise and live out the values we draw from the Bible are influenced by our personalities (check out frameworks like Myers-Briggs), experiences, cognitive biases, errors and heuristics, and even economic, social and cultural backgrounds. Underpin that with differences in our critical reasoning skills and education, and you’ve got more diversity of viewpoints than Hillsong has podcasts.

‘The Bible, though!’ I hear you shriek. ‘The Bible is clear!’

Well – is it? The Bible presents a huge weight of material. People from every opposing opinion in history have found stuff in it to support them, from the most loving of humanitarians to the cruellest of oppressors. The truth is that every time we read something in it, we are looking at it from a different time, language, culture and country – we are immediately interpreting it just by relating it to our own context and making decisions about what it means and how to respond.

So, with a global church at odds with itself, what do we do now? Here’s some ideas.

Be wary of calling people ‘false prophets’.

hands-people-woman-meetingThe Christian faith has a small set of core beliefs, and many secondary beliefs. To be a Christian, you need to adhere to those core beliefs (e.g. check out the Nicene Creed), but how we work those out can lead to differences in secondary beliefs. Calling each other ‘false prophets’ is often an unhelpful slur unless the individual is directly challenging those core beliefs, and elevating secondary beliefs to the importance of core ones is very dangerous.

Understand your cognitive biases, errors and heuristics.

boy-666803_1920Sorry reader, neither you nor the people you disagree with are truly rational. Read up on how your decisions are impacted by hidden factors, with authors like David Mcraney, Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahneman and Steve Peters. Once you understand how your critical reasoning might be affected, you can allow for those effects.

Furthermore, one of the reasons that the pollsters got Brexit and Trump wrong may be that some people were ashamed of their voting intentions. In fact, what we say, what we think we think, and what we really think, can be very different things (and we may not even be aware of the third). Try to identify what factors motivate the way you engage with the Bible, and as you meditate on it consider whether they are helpful or unhelpful. Be honest – what is really at the heart of why you think the way you do?

Get contextual with your Bible.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany Christians really need to spend some time learning. Our faith is 2,000 years old, and what we think the New Testament (and indeed, Old Testament) means should be informed by years of academic disciplines like palaeography, textual criticism, archaeology and historical criticism. How the Bible came to be, how it gets to us, and how to relate to its constituent parts is key to building your understanding of it. Consider:

  • Reading books and listening to podcasts that open up the disciplines of theology to you. Consider getting access to resources like the brilliant series of Bible background dictionaries from IVP, the NT Pod, Godpod, and Tom Wright. Look into possible study with providers like Westminster Theological Centre;
  • Reading the book, not the passage. Zoom out. What are the overarching themes of a Gospel, a letter, or the New Testament itself? How should this inform your politics, ethics and views? How should it inform how we engage with the minutiae in the Bible?
  • That we’re in discipleship, not dictatorship. Engage with teaching, don’t swallow it whole without consideration. Just as we test prophetic words, use the Sunday morning sermon as a jumping-off point. Take those passages and your pastor’s viewpoint, and spend the rest of the week building up your knowledge of the passage’s context. Come to your own prayful conclusions, and share them.

Focus on the person, not their position.

sad-copyDon’t enter debates – online or in person – just to win. How many Facebook posts read ‘oh yeah, yeah you are right, I’ll shush now. Thanks for correcting me, Yoda’? I can’t think of many times that a Christian has been argued into believing in one thing or another.

Enter discussion, in part, to understand the person with whom you debate. This is not the same as seeking to understand their position, which may be abhorrent.

The sense of ‘other’ and ‘difference’ is dangerous to us as humans. Instead, recognise that we are all products of our experiences and try to understand what experiences have shaped the way the other side is engaging. Once you understand that, you can start to share your perspective in a way with which the other side might more readily connect. Consider taking the matter offline, if it is safe to do so.

Disagreement is not the same thing as division.

puzzle-535508_1920The church needs to be comfortable, now, with people disagreeing. Pleas for unity when a candidate with an oppressive election platform has won are pleas for obedience. Some of us will fight Trump’s policies, Brexit, the political and cultural shifts arguably behind both, and other things because we find it hard to reconcile these things with our faith. Other Christians do not agree with some of the ‘traditional’ views on social issues, and they’re not going away. If churches wants unity, then they need to maintain a framework in which we can remain in communion together (which is, of course, entirely possible) and role-model the values of our faith, while disagreeing about secondary beliefs and how our faith is worked out in the public space.

Be kind.

gambia-239849_1920Especially online, where inhibition is reduced. Drop the catty asides, LOLs, teary-laughing emojis, the need to have the last word, the debate tactics (straw-man and ad hominem in particular), the labelling, and the questioning of each other’s Christianity. Only one judge gets to decide whether we knew Him or not, and He doesn’t need your help.

There’s another, gentler way to phrase any point – the satisfaction we feel as we hit ‘send’ should not be because we’ve smashed our opponent with a zinger, but because we’ve found a kind way to query their point and suggest an alternative view.

This is not to say don’t challenge – now, more than ever, we need to be challenging things we think are wrong – but that how we do it matters too.

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Siri thinks he’s clever.

There are two great, opposed forces in the world. The first is my phone’s predictive text, which is like having a three year old second-guessing every word you speak and unilaterally changing the ones it doesn’t like to things that don’t make sense. The other is Google’s ‘don’t you mean…?’ function, the most passive-aggressive spellcheck of all time. Like an electronic Yin and Yang, one attempts to scramble all my communications while the other attempts to unravel them. Never mind Neo taking three movies to defeat the Matrix, all he needed to do was plug these two into each other and the Matrix would have blown itself up.

Followers of this blog will be familiar with my long-running  bafflement with modern technology. Last year, we acquired a coffee machine and, having successfully used it without setting fire to anything or losing a hand, this gave me unmerited confidence to get one of those Bose wi-fi stereo thingies for Christmas. We have friends who have them, you see, and make it all seem so effortless. You know the sort  – nice people, trendy people, who aren’t still using the same trousers they bought in 2006, know what the stuff  in the window of the enchanted forest that is Currys does, and probably don’t get into arguments with each other about whether the tea towel can also be used to wipe the floor (it can’t, apparently).

‘Effortless’ was not my experience. Trying to get the infernal thing and my phone to connect with each other was like trying to facilitate a 19th-century aristocratic arranged marriage. The moment you think you’ve got one participant into setup mode and ready to go, you find the other has got cold feet and is trying to hook up with the toaster or something.

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Literally no idea what any of this is. If you told me this was an aerial photo of a city in southern Russia I’d believe you.

Wifey – she of the uni-purpose tea towels – is at one with the pixies that live inside these devices. She had the Bose and phone thing figured from the start, and her gentle whisper in either’s ear was all that was needed to send them off on their musical honeymoon (for me, though, my iPhone might as well be a slice of magic cut from the rump of a goblin, for all I understand what goes on inside it). Wifey will really come into her own after the robot uprising, when she can intercede on our behalf.

Fortunately, not everybody is as technologically illiterate as me, but almost nobody reading this will have sufficient knowledge to actually build an iPhone or understand how it makes the funny videos of cats happen. And this is fine. We don’t need to understand how it all works in order to get into arguments with strangers or watch videos of people falling over. So, here’s my question – if we are comfortable with using technology without fully understanding how it works, why is it that we don’t do the same with God?

We left the UK for sunnier climes this year, so while back in Winterfell we had a great church, we’re looking for one here. We visited one this week, and the preacher was talking about the book of Romans, which prompted me to have a proper look at it. I was interested to find this:

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”

Romans 9:19-20 (NIV)

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Watching it back, it’s somehow not as funny as you remember, right?

This book is written by Paul, who’s a reliable guy. He had met people who were friends with Jesus, and his writing is the earliest Christian material we have after the events of Jesus’ life. In time terms, the distance between the events before and after Jesus’ death, and the earliest written work of Paul, is about the same as the time between now and when series 5 of Friends came out (you know, the one where Monica and Chandler are trying to keep their relationship a secret, and all that irritating Ross and Emily stuff happened). Romans is his enormous essay explaining why Jesus died, what it means, how it fits into history and what we need to do about it. There are a lot of answers.

But even here, Paul recognises that there are going to be ‘but why?’ questions. Why did Jesus need to die? Why couldn’t God have created a world where it wasn’t necessary? Why, why, why?

Paul’s answer contains a wisdom that we’re not good at grasping these days. There are limitations to our knowledge and intellect. God, by definition, sees more and understands more than us. It’s odd to imagine that, in order to believe in Him, we must understand His entire plan – and bizarre to imagine that we could. This is often mistaken for a matter of faith, but it isn’t, it’s trust. Faith is deciding to believe that Jesus is the answer for your life. Trust is believing that Jesus knows all the other answers.

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Eventually, when he’s asked ‘why’ enough times, the answers will exceed his understanding. But does he need them, to trust and accept?

The thing is, if we get too hung up on philosophical questions, we miss what’s on offer in Christianity. Romans sets out an amazing vision, one that was astounding back then but, with our modern over-familiarity, has jaded a little. Do yourself a favour and look into it. It doesn’t mean what you might think it means. It’s more amazing than that. In a world full of hate and anger and injustice, Jesus offers a most astonishing, almost-too-good-to-be-true hope for the future.

My faith is based not on philosophy, but on the experience of God in my life. (As it happens, I find the historical evidence for the events of the Gospels quite compelling, but nobody’s ever been argued into believing in God and neither have I.) I find the story of my life easier to understand with God as the main character.

I recognise the limitations of my human understanding – but I understand enough to believe, and to live. That, and being able to work my iPhone, is good enough for me.

Feministry: Jesus and Gender Equality

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This isn’t me, by the way.

I’m a weird sleeper.

I can sleep anywhere and in almost any position (a great superpower for aeroplanes, car journeys and on at least one occasion, a doctor’s surgery), but when I’m at home in bed I have the odd habit of suddenly waking up in the middle of the night in confusion.

Bizarre noctural adventures that my wife has had to tolerate included me leaping out of bed and searching the ceiling for ‘the sunroof, because I have to get out,’ scraping at the walls ‘because of the tiny things, there’s tiny things!” and believing in my half-awake haze that having slept on my arm, I’d permanently lost the use of it. ‘My arm! I can’t move my arm! Oh, oh no, I… oh no wait, it’s fine.’

2014-09-21 12.43.19None of these rude awakenings, however, have been as much of a jolt as discovering just how far we still have to go on gender equality. I am of course acutely aware of the global gender crisis, but closer to home I’d been shielded by my tightly-curated social media, in which progressive Christians like Rachel Held Evans and John Pavlovitz, and broader-based writers like Caitlin Moran, get the first and last words.

But last few weeks have seen the astonishing misogyny of a Daily Telegraph article using the phrase ‘feminist zealots and ideaologues’, a zombie-like reawakening of nineteenth century attitudes in a letter to the Times by a respected academic, and of course the UK government’s institutionally sexist new junior doctors contract. In 2016. In 2016.

International Women’s Day this year, by the way, saw Sarah Vine at the Daily (F)ail celebrating it by undermining other women (go figure), astounding remarks by an Irish broadcaster about Maria Sharapova and, of course,  Vladimir Putin exhibiting the traditional patriarchal confusion between the ‘encouraging’ and ‘patronising’ setting on his mouthy-speaky-hole. It’s very confusing, chaps, isn’t it? The settings are right next to each other.

(By the way, the term ‘sexist’ is so over-used now that a different word might help us to see why these attitudes are so destructive – let’s call them ‘abusive’.)

hb3Historically, something I’ve found saddening is the way that some (or many) in the church have helped to perpetuate the global inequality between men and women. I’m pretty sure Jesus would be aggrieved by this too.

Overt complementarianism is the visible challenge, but one with easy answers. It’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, like this iPad holder for children’s potties, the shoe umbrella, or wigs for cats.

Complementarianism is an approach that derives from an unnecessary interpretation of the Bible. And with nearly 800,000 words in it, people can infer anything they like into that book (remember when Michael Drosnan claimed the Bible predicted future events in a secret code?). Proof-texting is easy. It is a much more difficult task to carefully relate its messages to both our context and its own, piercing the significant boundaries of language, place, culture, time and textual juxtaposition that stand between us and the meaning intended by its writers. When one does so, however, several conservative stances like complementarianism begin to crumble.

The other challenge though is more insidious, hiding in the shadows. This is an unspoken reluctance to appoint women to key positions of leadership for the fear of offending people, of controversy, of disunity. But fear should not be a friend of Christians. Far from it.

DSC06933-2-1I wonder if time might be running out for the church to emerge as a leader in gender equality. I don’t think that God needs the church to work through. If the church refuses to do His work, He’ll use other means. The risk for the church now is that it gets left behind as gender equality slowly marches forward, part of the work of God in the world.

It would be a real tragedy for the church not to be at the forefront of something its own God is doing. We can either get ourselves in gear and witness the awesome and refreshing justice of equality in Christianity, the living-out of what Galatians 3:28 meant,  or we can continue to sit in the same camp as Vladimir Putin, surrounded by cats in colourful wigs. It’s our call.

On Suffering

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As regular readers of this blog will have spotted, I fly quite a bit with work. So I’m pretty used to the circus of zapping, fondling and rummaging that is airport security.

I’ve got a system now. I have all my stuff ready to go so I can breeze past people fumbling with belts, tiny plastic bottles of goop and arguing about whether a Kindle counts as a laptop. I know which items of clothing not to wear, because the metal in the buttons makes the Archway Of Truth go ping as you walk through. This is worth avoiding if possible – it means a designated Security Wizard will subsequently wave his Wand Of Bleepy Investigation over you and you’ll end up having to take off your shoes (which is annoying in a range of ways).

Sometimes I get extra-unlucky and have to enter the Chamber Of Nuclear Surrender – where you stick your hands up and brace for a good, hard blasting of radiation. Faceless Security Wizards in some other dimension will then scrutinise your unmentionables on their Screens Of Ultimate Intrusion.

On the plus side, some airports still do manual frisking, which is nice, because if you think about it, it’s kind of a free massage.

Recently, as I was restoring my dignity item-by-item after going through security (shoes first, then belt, then wallet, etc), I overhead a lady challenging the Security Wizards on the necessity of all this. “It’s for your own good, madam,” said the Wizard.

This is not a phrase I associate with happy times. ‘It’s for your own good’ was the catch-all excuse for many of my unpleasant childhood experiences. Injections at the doctor’s, studying for exams, not being allowed to ride my bike along a six-foot-high fence – these things were all, apparently, ‘for my own good’.

Tesco also have a rather sinisterly threatening approach to queue control.
Tesco also have a slightly threatening approach to queue control.

So it’s with this natural suspicion of anything that’s ‘for my own good’ that I greet verses like Romans 8:28, where Paul wrote in the Bible that God works through ‘all things’ for the good of those who love him.

Often, when we think about this, we think of God like a kind of cosmic handyman, doing the best He can with the materials He’s got. With the cards He’s been dealt. And while God probably likes the humble image of the tradesman, and the honorable estate of rolling up one’s sleeves for hard work, this is not accurate. In fact, God is more like a chess Grand Master, where every move by everybody else will end up delivering His Master Plan, irrespective of their intent. We do indeed have the freedom to play any move, but His ultimate aims – for our good – will be met.

It can be difficult to buy this when we are immersed in suffering.

One of the reasons for this is that the Enemy has great PR. Evil is very good at looking like it’s winning. It has some fantastically impactive imagery and plays on our natural, biological tendencies for fear and self-preservation.

Good is much harder to see  around us. It requires effort to see it, because good is mostly quiet and often hidden. We don’t gossip about it. It’s not selling newspapers and filling 24-hour news channels every day like bad things – all the aircraft crashes, international crises and plagues that didn’t happen through good work don’t get reported.You don’t notice all the things you do have as much as the absence of the things you don’t. We’re not wired for as strong an emotional response to good as we are to evil.

So, where does this leave us?

In this video, the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks plays the lead character, storming the beaches at Normandy in World War II. He looks around at the horror and chaos, apparently overwhelmed for a moment. He has a choice – he can be consumed by it, or he can hatch and execute a plan to get through it.

The hard truth about suffering is that, like Tom Hanks’ character, we have a choice.

We can see any one thing that happens as a threat or an opportunity, no matter how small or great. We get to choose how we see it and how we respond. We can see it as a threat, and fear the loss or pain that it will cause. Or we can see it as an opportunity to further the agenda of Good.

(And if you think this is silly religiousness, you’re wrong – such principles are at the heart of pretty much all forms of life-coaching. God came up with them first.)

The challenge, as Christians, is not to think of suffering as singular events that happen to us. Instead it’s to accept suffering wholesale as part of our lives and weave our experiences of it into the patchwork of our life-story; to allow these experiences to become part of us and who we are. We do that by seeing – and taking – the opportunities for doing good that they present. That’s how we conquer evil. If you can train yourself to do it, you become unimaginably powerful.

Dr Kate Granger is a 32-year old medical doctor from Yorkshire. Kate’s career, hopes and dreams were challenged when she became terminally ill with an aggressive sarcoma. Kate’s response has been to use this an opportunity to drive forward improvements in how doctors relate to patients. She’s having an amazing impact, using her situation to change healthcare.

Resist the urge to compliment her on how inspirational she is and then forget about it – Kate is role-modelling how we must all greet all suffering. Kate isn’t the “oh, isn’t that nice?” story. She’s the challenge, to you, to live like her.

After combat, military veterans wear ribbons on their uniforms to show where they have been and what they did. For Christians, scars – whether emotional or physical – should be worn in the same way. Jesus kept his scars (Luke 24:40). For us, they are a reminder of the victories that we won by taking evil events, and outweighing them with the good we bring out of them.

Bible Stories If They Happened Now: David And Goliath

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Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war. The Israelites pitched camp  and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines.

A giant named Goliath came out of the Philistine camp and mocked unto the Israelites. On hearing the Philistine’s words, King Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

But David sayeth, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

This was reported unto King Saul, who sendeth for David. David sayeth unto him: “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”

“I am delighted by your enthusiasm,” sayeth Saul. “Our graduate internship scheme starts next summer, so you still have plenty of time to put in for it.”

“Next summer? But Goliath threatens us now, oh King!” replieth David.

“Be that as it may, you cannot participate, as our insurance doesn’t cover you. You’re not actually in the army, you see. And we would need to carry out a Risk Assessment. Have you brought in a resume?”

“I have been a shepherd,” sayeth David. “I have fought bears and wild lions. I will slay Goliath just as I did them.”

“That does sound impressive,” admitteth Saul. “But those examples don’t quite hit the competencies we’re looking for. The role of Israelite soldier requires problem-solving and communication skills. Perhaps thou hast organised a event whilst at college? Or was there a project that you found particularly demanding? These may be more helpful examples.”

“College? Projects? Oh King, we will be over-run!”

“Thou art David, yes?”

“Yes, oh King.”

“David. Incline thine ear. I’m trying to run a very complex operation here. I’ve got to think about the impact on the community of appointing you on the spot, haven’t I? It’s hardly fair to all the other possible giant-slayers if I just give you the role, is it?”

Other giant-slayers? Where? I hardly had to weave my way through a crowd of applicants!”

“I put the advert on Facebook. And a lot of people ‘liked’ it.”

And David was greatly disappointed. But, undeterred, he returned home and began building work experience and was ultimately overjoyed to enter a fruitful career in retail management.

God again set a certain day, calling it ‘Today’. This he did when a long time later he spoke through David…”Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Hebrews 4:7

The Twelve Days (and Four Months) of Christmas

Last year's Christmas cracker toy - a spaceship on cartwheels with an unidentified frontal appendage - is best described as 'unexplained'.
Last year’s Christmas cracker toy – a spaceship on cartwheels with an unidentified frontal appendage – is best described as ‘unexplained’.

So it’s Christmas again, with the ruthless predictability for which the calendar is notorious.

I got down the decorations from the attic this afternoon, in the usual shower of dust, lagging and swearing. Well, most of the decorations, anyway. We got lazy with the nativity crib and it’s been left out in the living room for two years. We tell surprised visitors that it’s a ‘pan-seasonal Bethlehem diorama’.

The usual parade of shameless cash-ins are all reporting for duty. A James Bond 007 cologne is advertised in this week’s Guardian, described by GQ as “the most dangerously sophisticated fragrance in the world.” This seems a bit of a stretch for a product based on what is, effectively, a  comic-book superhero. And in any event, I’ve seen the movies. I imagine that James Bond smells of sweat and cordite most of the time. And I never see him brush his teeth.

If you fancy giving a loved one a religiously-themed present, a number of companies have been excelling themselves in the ill-conceived ideas department. Products designed by people born tragically without taste this year include a ‘Let My People Go’ Moses toilet seat cover, a dog nativity set and a  ‘Jesus Is My Gymnastics Coach‘ plastic figurine. All of which are almost as inappropriate as alleviating your boredom in church by pretending that they’re singing about you.

Now that booting up my Toshiba laptop requires three weeks’ notice and a jump-start from the car, I’m hoping for a Macbook for Christmas. I intend to arrange this by asking Wifey for something unimaginably expensive like a Patek Philippe watch, a yacht or a new spleen ‘for cosmetic reasons’. Then I can negotiate her down to a Macbook and she’ll think she’s winning. Macbook owners, I am told, generally do not need to rely on the power of prayer if they wish to access the internet.

This sounds luxurious.

“I wish it could be Christmas, every daaaaay…”

For Christians, it’s a tempting time to complain about how the ‘reason for the season’ has submerged beneath a rising tide of boiling, frothing commercialism. However, this is something we usually do while simultaneously buying shed-loads of presents to indulge the kids we love (thus inadvertently imbuing them with the same consumerism of which we have grown tired – and the circle of life goes on).

There’s truth in the increased secularisation and over-consumerism of Christmas. Of course there is. We all recognise that. Some people were trying to spread the cost of Christmas this year by starting their shopping four months early, in September. But what might be more interesting than mourning the evolution of the modern Christmas into a festival of present-buying and “er, well it’s about family, yeah, and being nice to people for a bit, right?” is to ask whether it really is as ‘unchristian’ as many of us often think it is.

If we truly believe that the God we worship exists, then we don’t need to feel marginalised by people participating in our celebration without believing in the reason for it. Instead, we could have the confidence to look for the opportunities this social oddity represents. You see, if we complain too much about Christmas becoming a popular festival rather than a Christian celebration we take ourselves down a wintery mental cul-de-sac.

The startling thing is that not only does God like Christmas, but He wants to see more of it. All the positive things about it – the focus on giving to each other, spending time with each other, the sense of hope, the random goodwill to strangers (charity donations rise at Christmas) – are what God wants to see all year round. Christmas – even in its current Western format –  is a fleeting glimpse of what Jesus was talking about when he described the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christmas is an opportunity to describe the Kingdom of Heaven to people who don’t know what Jesus was on about, more vividly than any ivory tower-dwelling theologian could.

Jesus described a way to live and see the world where people give freely to each other, forgive each other, think more inclusively and commit random acts of goodness against people they don’t know. It is a way to live that is underpinned by the electricity of hope. It is way to live where the same indefatigable spirit that drives a person through the misery of the High Street on Christmas Eve to buy gifts is deployed every day to fight suffering in the world.

From God’s perspective, Christmas may have lost less Christianity than many of us think it has. Instead, maybe it gives us a brief and partial insight into the world that we, as Christians, are supposed to be trying to cultivate for the other 11 months of the year.