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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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.

God, Smoothies and 80s Pop Stars

free beer

I was in a cafe this morning and decided to have a smoothie.

This is not as easy as it sounds if you’re British, because we’re not as able to ask for ludicrously-named drinks as other nationals. Maybe it’s the accent (something else it’s hard to do with an English accent in particular is complain – you inevitably sound like an Imperial Officer in Star Wars threatening an Ewok. So you overcompensate, become embarrassed, and end up sounding like Hugh Grant trying to ask someone out in a 1990s British rom-com).

The smoothie in question was made of kiwi and pineapple. They had named it a ‘Naughty Crush’.

This is a challenge I have experienced before. The parade of coffee shops up and down the High Street do not serve ‘small’ or ‘large’ coffees. They serve ‘grande’ or ‘medio’ frothalottahunkyfunkychunkycheekyccinos. Ordering cocktails also involves similar linguistic acrobatics. So I was disturbed – but not surprised – to discover that the perfectly-usable names of fruit on the menu had been replaced by Strawberry Kiss, Carribean Way and, incomprehensibly, Bananarama Llama Farmer.

“Hi,” I said, determined to keep this engagement as sensible and silly-name-free as possible.

“Hello!” said the smiley cafe person. “What can I get for you?”

“I’ll have a double espresso and a kiwi and pineapple smoothie.”

“I’m afraid we don’t have any,” she said. And then after the briefest pause, added, “we have a Naughty Crush, though.”

I was not expecting this sly but subtle counter-attack. I took a moment to rally my thoughts, and then delivered my order with aplomb and free of silly names.

“I’ll have one of those then, please,” I said.

(The espresso, by the way, came in a giant cup of such proportions that Wifey asked where the rest of the coffee was.)

What’s going on with all this tomfoolery is an attempt to heighten our customer experience. It’s about suggestion. Give a smoothie an edgy, trendy name and you feel edgy and trendy. Make someone order a coffee in Italian and they connect to an imagined Italian coffee experience. If Bananarama Llama Farmer – which is pulverised banana – was named accurately it would be called Baby Food With A Straw.

The church has, it seems, largely resisted the urge to re-name stuff to make it more attractive and influential (possibly because the church tends to largely resist everything). In fact our own name – Christians – wasn’t even a brand we came up with, but probably originally a derisive term coined by non-Christians. Presumably we’d have been happy to keep calling ourselves Not-Necessarily-Jews-But-We-Do-Buy-Into-The-Old-Testament-But-In-Support-Of-Our-Recognition-That- Jesus-Is-The-Messiah…ians.

At face value, this seems great. We’re authentic. We don’t need advertising executives to tell people about Jesus, we tell it like it is, right?

Almost.

Yes, this is a real thing.
Yes, this is a real thing.

A Brand New World

What the branding world is on to is that the human mind cannot escape making associations between things it knows, and the new things it’s encountering. We short-cut. So the cafe wanted me to associate my Naughty Crush with a cheeky but pleasurable feeling – a deeper emotional connection than simply the taste of kiwis and pineapples.

So when we talk about God, or Jesus, or church, the people we talk to will automatically interpret them in the context of how they’ve been previously presented. And if that portrayal was negative, then what you’re saying is going to get viewed within that framework.

This blog has already ranted ad nauseam about the use of religious language, but there’s a couple of other things we need to watch out for.

The first is how you portray Jesus when you talk about him. Look at how he portrayed himself. Study it. Emulate it. This blog would argue that Jesus portrayed himself as an open set of arms, with a social justice agenda, urging a focus on principles rather than religious dogma, who mainly saved his moral criticism for religious hypocrites. Is lecturing people on their sin (for example) and issuing them with a religious to-do list the best way to introduce Jesus? How does he come across when we contribute our viewpoints in public life? Do we get the balance right in presenting the full range of Jesus’ teachings and personality, or do we find ourselves focussing on certain aspects and risk misrepresenting him?

The second is to recognise that when you talk about Jesus, you may be at cross-purposes (yeah, I know) with the person you’re talking to. You think of Jesus as forgiving and loving – but they may have heard nothing but hellfire and damnation their whole life. When you talk about Jesus as ‘forgiving’, you’re making the assumption that this carries the same collection of impressions and emotions for them as it does for you.

It’s Still Just A Smoothie

A great way to short-circuit these two issues is to avoid talking in generalities completely. They just get filed in the person’s head under whatever category Jesus is sitting. It’s not always appropriate to talk like an international super-evangelist. We’re not spiritual troubleshooters either, using our negligible understanding of God’s plan for people’s lives to diagnose why they have trouble with the idea of God and giving them an action plan to fix it. Being a Christian is not like being a technician at Kwik-Fit.

Instead, talk about your experience. Just tell your story. Tell others about your Jesus. Tell people about how you know him. About how you and he dealt with issues of forgiveness, love, peace, sin, belief, doubt and healing in your life. When you find yourself talking in generalities, that’s the time to wind it back down and get back to the personal level.

Non-Christians are – contrary to how some of us think – not a hunting ground for religious scalps. This is not gaming season, and we don’t get extra credit in the exam of life for having ‘led someone to Christ’. All any one of us does is play a role (cameo or starring) in the story of that person and God. It might be a romantic comedy, a thriller, a tragedy, an adventure – who knows?

But you get to choose what role you play.

Will you confuse the hero, or help them?

How will you describe the smoothie?