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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On Suffering

planes2

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.

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.