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.
‘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’.
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’?
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.
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?’”
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.
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.
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
I found myself on a Virgin Atlantic flight to Miami recently, folded up into my economy-class seat like Ikea flat-pack furniture. As we took off from Heathrow (an airport that offers visitors to our country an authentic British experience – overcrowding, overpricing and people in uniform viewing you with suspicion), I discovered that my entertainment console thingie didn’t work.
Console thingies which – by the way – tend to promise vast quantities of free entertainment. Singapore Airlines for example boast ’80 movies’. Which sounds great, except that half of them won’t be in your language or be for kids (or both). Of what remains, most will be depressing romps with Jennifer Lawrence growing increasingly miserable for two hours, or a mindless series of explosions connected by brief, intermittent images of Gerard Butler pulling his best mean face. This leaves approximately two movies per flight that are watchable.
Quite a few of the console thingies didn’t work on the flight (provoking furious reactions from chubby, slightly-inebriated British tourists). But don’t forget, it’s only about ten years since all we got was one movie, on some postage stamp-sized screen two miles away at the front of the plane, which in order to see you had to perch yourself half on a seat-rest and half on the shoulder of another passenger.
So I read a book.
And all was well, until this happened.
This, the ‘menu’ (a document differing from other menus I’ve seen in that it appeared broadly devoid of choice) informed me, proudly, was ‘Afternoon Tea’.
I like Afternoon Tea. Afternoon Tea is important. Containing cream, sugar, meat and tea, it has all four major food groups. Afternoon Tea is about rainy days out at National Trust properties, trying to look interested in some 17th century collection of toilet roll holders before fighting to get served in an overcrowded cafe. Afternoon Tea is about greedily slathering cream and jam over giant fluffy scones, before the pleasure evaporates after the first few mouthfuls as the overload of sugar and fat dissolves your kidneys and sends your body into toxic shock. Afternoon Tea is about eating cucumber sandwiches (the only time you’ll eat cucumber sandwiches) and pretending that you’re late 19th century gentry.
Afternoon Tea is not about a cheese sandwich and a cake the size of a golf ball. I don’t care if it’s served 30,000ft in the air with breathtaking vistas of a cloud-strewn landscape, it’s not Afternoon Tea. I don’t care if it’s the closest to clotted cream and delicate pink macaroons I’m going to get when I’m 350 miles off the coast of Florida, it’s not Afternoon Tea.
It should have been called Not Quite Dinnertime Snack Thing Box.
So Virgin Atlantic’s definition of ‘Afternoon Tea’ was sharply different to my own. This is not the only time I’ve been caught out by this sort of thing. I visited the US about fifteen years ago and found myself talking to a senior politician in the Midwest. We had a great chat, until it turned into a mortifying experience when I referred to a pet using a word which is quite normal for ‘domestic cat’ in the UK – but has a very different meaning in the US.
Afternoon Tea and God
There’s an interesting difference between what someone calls a thing, what that thing actually is, and what you recognise by the name that the person has called the thing. All three can be subtly – or hugely – different. For example, I used to own a car that I described as a ‘gentleman’s sports coupe in midnight blue’. The manufacturer called it a ‘Ford Puma’. My friends, rather unkindly, called it a ‘purple hairdressers’ car’.
In few other places is understanding this more important, than in reading the Bible. The Bible is a collection of texts written between about 2500 and 1900 years ago. They were written in different languages to English. They were written in very different cultures, and (for most Christians) a completely different part of the world to that in which we live. In short, there are four big barriers between us and understanding what the text actually means. The Bible comes from a:
Different language and a
Different country… to our own.
To properly understand it, we have to look at it through those four lenses. We need to use ‘4D glasses’.
What do Starbucks and the church have in common?
Here’s an example from Matthew 10, in which Jesus sends the disciples out on their first mission to surrounding towns and villages:
Get you no gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, no wallet for your journey, neither two coats, nor shoes, nor staff: for the labourer is worthy of his food.
In our culture, a ‘staff’ is normally a walking stick. So we would tend to see the staff as just another piece of equipment that Jesus is ruling out as part his general encouragement for the disciples to be reliant on God.
But if you look into the background of this text, a couple of things are notable. Firstly, that the disciples are probably teenagers. The disciples of a rabbi are usually teenage boys, and substantially younger than their rabbi (Jesus is, apparently, about 30). So why would they need a walking stick? They’re young and fit. It doesn’t make sense. Secondly, we know that walking between towns and villages in this period (Israel, approximately AD30) is dangerous. There are animals and criminals to contend with, and no CCTV or PCSOs. So the staff is not a walking stick – it’s a weapon.
That’s right – Jesus is urging the disciples to go out and spread the message unarmed. He’s urging them to be physically defenceless. This has real implications for us as Christians, but it’s something which we lose if we don’t look through the 4D glasses.
Wrong and wrongerer
When we fail to properly allow for the context of a Bible text, we don’t just lose some meanings, we also create meanings that weren’t there in the first place. This can be extremely destructive, irresponsible and dangerous.
One of the riskiest practices here is ‘proof-texting’ – extracting a particular verse from the Bible in support of a particular point. It’s usually intended as proof-positive that the person quoting it is ‘right’ about their opinion. We see this a lot at the moment in the church’s discussion about the future of marriage, and we saw it a lot twenty years ago in the Anglican church’s navel-gazing about whether women should be allowed to, you know, do stuff.
Sometimes it’s fine, but a lot of the time it totally misunderstands what much of the Bible is. It’s not necessarily intended as a law book, however much the numbered chapters and verses make it look like one. Most texts within it are carefully-crafted, intricate, and situational. Without fully using the 4D glasses and understanding the nuances and context, you risk disrupting the lives of other people – Christian or not – and causing pain.
Two ears, two eyes, one mouth
The definition of ‘worship’ for early Christians was quite broad. It was not limited solely to ‘singing’, which is for many of us what we think of now by that word. Worship is about communing with God – and studying the Bible, and trying to understand what it’s really saying, is very much part of that.
Rick Warren (FOR IT IS HE), offers a fantastic and clear approach in his Application Bridge. Have a look.
So before we take the dramatic step of carrying out the directions of a particular verse from the Bible, or quoting it to each other, let’s try to make sure it means exactly what we think it does. Let’s research it, deeply and extensively. Look at it in context, try to understand where it comes to us from, geographically and culturally.
I don’t understand what any of it means. I’ve never understood it. There was a brief moment during Euro ’96 when I stood a reasonable chance of keeping up during a conversation with the barber, having presumably absorbed key facts by accident.
I know that England aren’t as good as they are convinced they should be (1966 anyone?), like a singer who had one great hit in the Eighties and has never been able to let go and get used to being a motor mechanic. I know that Sir Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United until, like, just now. But as I go on, I am rapidly reaching the brim of my espresso-cupful of football understanding.
This enables other men to draw all sorts of inferences about my overall masculinity. This isn’t hard, as I am also about the size of a Cadbury’s mini-roll. (You may wonder, if this is the case, how I can use a keyboard – it’s simple. I use an Iphone. It’s tiny keys are apparently designed for people like me, children and goblins.)
Sometimes I meet other guys who tell me they don’t know much about football, and for a brief but wonderful moment I don’t feel quite so much like the weirdo in the supermarket who smells all the cheeses (and then buys only toilet paper). For a short time, I think it might be possible to be a normal man and not get football.
But this is always irritating false modesty, as despair inevitably strikes when a Real Man (TM) comes along and starts a football conversation with the two of us… and the person who said they didn’t really know much turns out to know that Reading are doing all right this year, Arsenal is managed by Arsene Wenger and Plymouth Argyle is a real team (not a type of jumper). Apparently, I know even less than people who don’t know much.
What are you talking about?
So what’s the point of this, I hear you ask, other than the vaguely cathartic feeling of confession? Well, it’s this – I don’t understand what Christians are saying half the time either.
It’s not through lack of knowledge. I am no expert, but I grew up in a church setting, and I have a degree in Theology. So I would hope that I’d be broadly familiar with the cast of the Bible and all the best scenes.
It’s because we have an unchecked relationship with metaphor and jargon. We’re addicted to them. We can’t help ourselves. We don’t even know we have a problem. We think we’re in control of our relationship with metaphors, but by the end of a Sunday morning we’ve knocked out seventeen of them and didn’t even realise we were doing it.
“What?” you say, indignantly. “I don’t have a problem! I can give up metaphors and jargon any time I like!”
Oh, really? When was the last time you tried to explain Jesus to a non-Christian? How many times did you use phrases like ‘personal relationship’? When was the last time you tried to help another Christian going through a difficult patch? How many times did you use phrases like ‘walking in the Spirit’?”
Exactly. You are a dirty addict just like the rest of us, chugging phrases like ‘outpouring of the Spirit’ in dimly-lit rooms on a Friday night. You use the word ‘just’ forty-three times in a prayer at the start of a cell-group (“Lord we just want to thank you and just lift this evening up and just listen and just…”). Goodness, you might even be a long-time addict who uses words like ‘redemption’, ‘missional’ and ‘justification’ on the bus.
There’s a parallel phenomenon as well, which is that we tend to ape Biblical sentence construction. So rather than say, “let me tell you about Jesus and what he stands for,” we’ll say, “let me tell of the glory of God’s Kingdom!” as if we’re a medieval prince in Game of Thrones. And we think we’re being authentic when we do this, we feel ‘closer’ to God when we speak like a Victorian gentleman giving a speech at the Royal Society about their mermaid-hunting expedition.
But the truth is, it’s nonsense – the Bible is written the way it is because the translators are trying to convert an ancient language and culture into a modern one without losing any meaning. Which is really difficult, so you end up with some awkward-sounding, old-school sentences. The original Greek for the New Testament is ‘Koine’ Greek… which is street-language. Normal, everyday speak.
Is this really a thing? I mean, really?
Yes, it is. And it’s a thing for two groups of people. First of all, it’s a thing for non-Christians and people who’ve recently become Christians. When we use jargon, and metaphors that haven’t been explained, people who don’t know what these things mean feel alienated. We’re creating an in-group of superspecialChristians and an out-group of everybody else. We’re making it harder for people to learn about God and making them feel unwelcome.
It’s also a thing for Christians. Are you completely sure when you urge me to ‘do it in God’s strength’ that I have any idea what you’re talking about? Because I’ll tell you now – I don’t. What do you actually mean? I can’t do something ‘in God’s strength’ unless it involves physical heavy-lifting and some sort of supernatural ability to heave a truck takes over my negligible muscles. What is the practical meaning of that phrase? Do you mean, “pray about it and don’t worry, because God’s got it under control and makes everything work for your benefit?” Well say that, then. Don’t just quote the Bible – explain what it means.
Everybody’s doing it
There is a time and a place for metaphor. When we’re talking about the Divine we need to use it sometimes. The Bible uses it loads. But we need to pick our metaphors, and pick our times.
In the age of the informationmegasuperuberduperhighway, everybody’s going jargon-tastic. There’s jargon everywhere. I’ve noticed people rather depressingly referring to pictures, stories, poetry and prose as ‘content’. I was watching 4 On Demand the other day and was told that ‘my content would appear in 30 seconds’ – a message intended as helpful I’m sure but one that only made me think my breakfast was about to re-surface.
But as Christians we need to stop. Because it’s hard enough following an invisible God in a world that opposes Him, and hard enough for people to find out about Jesus, without inventing new barriers like jargon and over-used metaphor. Let’s, er, leave some of the metaphors at the… door…