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’.

startup-photos
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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Aberzombie and Fitch

ZOMBLE!
ZOMBLE!

The Walking Dead is back on TV and things have all gone a bit zombie-tastic. Zombies are trendy.

If you haven’t seen the show, it’s hard to get too involved as the principal character is played by that bloke who was in Teachers and Love Actually. This is almost as distracting as trying to get Stupid Prince George from Blackadder out of your head while watching Hugh Laurie in House.

The current zombie craze comes after several years of vampirey things (driven, chiefly, by nauseating lovestruck teenage vampires that would have made Bram Stoker, er, turn in his grave). Vampirey things, in turn, replaced space alien things.

But not to worry, because Halloween is upon us, and various mega-corporations would like to offer us the opportunity to give them all our money in exchange for costumes resembling all three. A spate of inappropriate ones this year included a zombie Jimmy Savile on Amazon – a judgement call that’s even less sound than the cinnamon-flavour ‘Sin-O-Mints’ sweeties (“for the sinner in you”) I found on sale in the Chester Cathedral gift shop recently. Or approaching police officers on Halloween night and complimenting them on their costumes.

One of the most irritating aspects of Halloween in our household is trick-or-treating, as we never remember to plan ahead. Any visiting kids, therefore, run the risk of receiving things we have randomly lying around the hallway. You should see how their little faces light up when they’re presented with a British Gas ‘We Called And You Weren’t In‘ card, half a pack of chewing gum or a Co-op receipt. This year they might be in luck – we’ve got a whole box of mushrooms in the fridge that we’re never going to get through. Although it’s also tempting to try to resolve two problems in one go, by giving them the empty milk cartons sitting by the door waiting to go out to the recycling bin.

Ordinarily we avoid the tiny hordes of costumed kids, prowling the district in packs like miniature Village People, by Being Out. Being Out has been a successful Halloween avoidance strategy for years. The policy of Being Out has become our default position – irrespective of whether we actually are out…

All there is to fear is fear itself

I’m not a fan of Halloween, being the sort of person who would rather have a nice cup of tea. But Christian criticism of Halloween has the feel of targeting the symptom rather than the cause. Halloween merely reflects our society. Increasingly vivid themes reflect our rising tolerance of disturbing imagery and ease of access to it. Criminal damage fears associated with trick-or-treating reflect the general rise in anti-social behaviour.

And there is something not-completely-helpful about Christians issuing dire warnings of the spiritual dangers of ‘celebrating’ Halloween. I’m not sure it fully stacks up that donning a ghost costume and bobbing for apples ‘celebrates evil’ any more than a pirate-themed birthday party promotes maritime insecurity. There’s a sociological and theological debate to be had there.

The more pressing issue is the irony that by making claims that Halloween is a slippery slope to the occult, or a giant battery fuelling demonic activity, we are peddling fear ourselves. If we truly believe that Jesus short-circuited evil’s chances of ultimate success 2000 years ago, then we don’t need to feel threatened by Halloween. We have the luxury of being able to sit back and think more creatively about how we handle this festival.

Guerilla Godliness

Halloween is one of the few calendar events which (through trick-or-treating) includes a mechanism for interacting with our neighbours. In our increasingly isolated society (in which 1 in 10 people are lonely), we could see this as an opportunity. Similarly, Halloween is a festival which draws attention to the supernatural. If we genuinely believe in the supernatural, and that God does supernatural things, Halloween gives us a platform. Thirdly, Halloween creates an environment to talk about belief. 42% of Britons believe in ghosts, but only 31% believe in God (18% with doubts). If the tension here isn’t stark enough, 52% believe that the government has covered up the existence of aliens. This is a space in which to start dialogue.

So a more exciting idea is to subvert Halloween. Dress as angels and, while others are trick-or-treating, go door-to-door giving gifts. On the morning after, collect all the unwanted (and soon to be disposed) pumpkins up from neighbours and make a shedload of nutritious pumpkin soup for those in the community who don’t have so much to eat. Consider running a church healing service on or around Halloween. Take the opportunity to start conversations about belief.

In the horror movies, the guy who stands around complaining and lecturing everybody is often one of the first to get squished. Nobody likes him. But we do like the movies where the good guys win, and the good guys win because they roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. They take opportunities. They inspire others. They chase out fear. They give hope. They take action.

Jesus calls us to be the good guys in our communities. He calls us to be the last to criticise and the first to help. So let’s not stand around uselessly – like Christian zombies.

Let’s get subverting.

Jesus and the Robot Toilet

It must have been a slow news day at the BBC.
The BBC seems to use a somewhat wider definition of ‘news’ to me.

I, no doubt like many other viewers, was somewhat surprised to find that the BBC’s premier late-night political show, Newsnight, interviewed the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street this week.

I’m not making this up, this really happened.

Don’t get me wrong – I was genuinely intrigued to hear the deep political ruminations of a blue puppet with a biscuit fixation. I didn’t hear them, of course. Because it’s a puppet.

The BBC’s spindly news-sniffing appendages did however manage to crawl across a interesting fact-ette a few weeks ago, revealing that a German company manufactures a $9000 toilet.

It’s a struggle to identify which device it is that’s worth more than my university education – a quick trip to the Grohe website reveals that their toilets (or ‘WC solutions’ as they somewhat threateningly call them) do not have prices listed. Elsewhere, a set of taps alone are on sale for nearly $2000, which is more than the cost of my entire bathroom.

It isn’t surprising that the Germans are at the forefront of sanitation technology. During a visit to Frankfurt in 2011, I visited a restaurant bathroom that was so clean and futuristic I genuinely almost washed my hands in a urinal by accident.

But what is a little surprising is the extent of this technology. A company called Pressalit make a toilet that uses lasers (yes, lasers – the things invented for healthcare, science and intergalatic spaceship combat) to determine whether you’ve left the seat up, while Brondell make a toilet which cleans you with a jet of warm water (presumably lovely if you’re expecting it, terrifying if you’re not). Kohler manufacture a toilet which, on cold midnight wee-wee trips will even warm your feet. In our household, if your feet are getting warm during a noctural toilet trip it means you’ve missed.

This is North West England's contribution to global sanitation technology.
This is North West England’s contribution to global sanitation innovation.

A number of these manufacturers promise a ‘toilet spa’ experience, which is all well and good, but does rather sound like a euphemism for an aggressive public school bullying manouvere.

If your toilet vaguely resembles R2D2, you may have too much money. And it’s tempting to be critical and imply that  $9000 is too much for a mundane and functional item, even if it is an impressive robot toilet that shoots laser beams experimentally at your retreating bottom. But it’s good to be mindful of the point made by Sandy Millar on HTB’s Godpod programme, when he was asked how a Christian could wear a watch worth £500 when people die daily of preventable diseases. “If their income is £5m,” he said, “and they give away £4m, and they have a £500 watch, I don’t feel honestly able to be very critical of them.”

Sandy steered commendably clear of one of our great hypocrisies in the Church – to criticise the rich, rather than recognise that on a global level that’s exactly who we are. If you earn the UK minimum wage, you’re already amongst the top 7% richest people in the world. Even my modest £50 throne from B&Q represents comparatively luxurious bottom-servicing… shockingly, most people on the planet do not have access to a flushing toilet.

How powerful is the Church?

The reason the BBC publishes articles about foxes who get their heads stuck in car wheels and interview a children’s TV puppet on Newsnight is because they know that’s what people want to see. It’s the same reason that The X-Factor is back on (for about the millionth time) and that the Government conducted, like, six U-turns on taxation within the first three years of election. They know it’s what people want. It was made clear to them.

And here’s the great opportunity that we so often miss – that the rich and powerful respond to public opinion. In our globalised, wi-fi, Cloudy world, if enough people want something then they often get it.

I don’t know about anyone else, but it seems to me that the Church seems to vaguely resemble a timid teenager at times – pretty sure that it can do something, but waiting to be given permission to do so. Other times it seems to back away from doing things on the basis that ‘the world’ is in such staunch opposition to it that there’s no point, like a weary conspiracy theorist.

Jesus did not wait for permission to attack poverty and suffering head-on. He saw opportunities, and he took them. He was practically industrial in his approach. Jesus showed people who he was through his action – there was no timidity there. That’s how he started this faith – with action. That’s how this faith grows.

Jesus has given the Church permission to get on with changing the world. He gives that permission in glorious technicolour detail throughout the Gospels.

So rather than criticise the $9000 toilet and pray endlessly for revival, let’s be careful about throwing the first stones, and instead see who else amongst your other 2.2bn Christian brothers and sisters are passionate about the cause you’re passionate about.

And do some Jesusing.

If you want to save lives through providing clean drinking water, hygiene education and toilet services, please consider donating to amazing organisations like Oxfam and WaterAid.

The Afternoon Tea That Lied

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, according to Virgin Atlantic, is 'afternoon tea'.
This, according to Virgin Atlantic, is ‘Afternoon Tea’. They lie.

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.

Now THIS is afternoon tea.
Now THIS is afternoon tea.

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 time;
  • Different culture;
  • 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.

Because that’s worship too.