On Sunday we had the reading at church about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the one that has God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, calling “Adam – where are you?”
A vicar once phoned me to demand that I tell him straight up if I thought that the Bible is “in the ordinary sense” true.
Evidently he had not the imagination to grasp that the reassurance he wanted is inherently impossible – nothing to do with the Bible, just that there is no “ordinary sense” of truth.
Take that reading about God and Adam in the garden as a handy example. The reader’s interpretation of the truth of that interaction is revealed by tone of voice.
So, you could have a jovial, playful God, calling Adam in hide-and-seek tones that implies He always has this trouble finding him amidst all this undergrowth – a kind of “Yoohooo! A-a-da-a-am! Where a-a-are yo-o-o-o-o-u?” tone of voice. Then maybe when later God asks Adam who told him he was naked, the question could be redolent with hurt bewilderment, Adam’s discovery coming as a nasty shock to God.
Or you could tell the story as our reader did at church on Sunday – a brusque, hectoring God roaring “Adam! Where are you!?” in a kind of get-here-mighty-quick-if-you-don’t-want-your-backside-tanned tone.
That God demands to know “Who told you you were naked?” much as a barrister might question a prisoner in the dock.
Or, if you read it right (according to my interpretation) God’s call to Adam “Where are you?” is the loneliest, most heart-breaking question the world has ever heard from Day 1 of creation until now. The question reveals not God’s ignorance of Adam’s geographical location, but that He knows He has lost him. Adam has gone off-radar. Their relationship is broken.
There was a night of unbearable sadness when my first marriage was ending, when I sent a text message to my then husband (who had moved out) asking him, “Please, will you come?” Because we had the same cell-phones and network, I was also able to add into the message one of the optional icons available: a broken heart. I knew it was ending, but I missed him so. When God asks “Where are you,” it is (in my opinion) that kind of message.
But it’s all in the interpretation, isn’t it? Avon calling, enraged headmaster or broken-hearted lover – who’s to say? There is no “ordinary sense” of “true”.
When I came into the church service where we heard that reading, I was already mulling over this, because of two events; one more than a couple of decades back, recalled to mind by another that took place on Saturday.
The one from twenty-five years ago took place in the home of the people who were then my parents-in-law. They had an open-house coffee morning for the churches of the Methodist Circuit. I, then a young mother of a couple of small children, came in from the garden to find a couple of complete strangers sitting either side of the fireplace in my parents-in-laws’ armchairs. Now I was there to help with the coffee morning, and was expecting guests – but the situation struck me as amusing, so I said to the couple: “Hello! What are you doing here?”
Not everybody shares my sense of humour. And how was I to know I was talking to a retired policeman?
The man explained why they were there and who they were, and we chatted awhile and I fetched their coffee and thought no more of it.
Fifteen years later, by that time ordained as a Methodist minister, I came across the couple again. They were in membership of a chapel of which I had just been made pastor. As I came in the door, they went out. Turned out the man had been hating me for fifteen years because I said “Hello! What are you doing here?”
You see, that couple had been new in the Circuit, and this had been the first event they’d attended! He didn’t know me from Adam, and certainly didn’t recognise my brand of jokes. He thought it was about the rudest, most unkind thing anyone had ever said to him.
And I’d just thought it was really funny. There is no ordinary sense of true. Or funny. Or rude.
Then, last Saturday, this was recalled to mind by an encounter in a pub.
One of the Badger’s first acts on crossing the threshold of our church was to organise a Men’s Breakfast group. It’s (advisedly) called the Big Boys’ Breakfast and is a Christianity-Meets-Cholesterol-fest at The Welcome Stranger pub. They have a slap-up full English breakfast followed by a talk from an interesting speaker.
The speakers are good and the subjects intriguing, and I wanted to go too. But I appreciate that single-gender dynamics are different from mixed-group dynamics, and I didn’t want to muscle in on their male bonding.
So while they congregated round a group of tables in readiness for their fried eggs and bacon, I sat just round the corner with my hot chocolate and toast, planning to slip unobtrusively onto the edge of the gathering when the speaker got up to address them.
Mostly they came surging into the pub past me, focussed on God, Grease and Good Fellowship; but not our church treasurer, who is in many ways a gem of a human being.
He saw me, stopped, and asked: “Why are you here?”
So I explained that I didn’t want to intrude on the men’s gathering, and I was happy where I was, and would come over and join them when the speaker started. Having satisfied himself that I was okay and sure I was welcome to join them if I wished, he went and took his place with the others. Later on, when the talk started and I stealthed across to join them, he looked out for me, and welcomed me further into the gathering than the edgemost edge I had opted for.
But what interested me was that here again, there was no ordinary sense of “true”.
If you had a transcript of that situation, to be read aloud in church (I mean, it reads a bit like the Book of Ruth in some ways), then when it got to the bit where it told of the lone woman coming uninvited to the Men’s Breakfast and taking her place on the edge of the gathering with her cocoa and toast, nobody noticing her until the church treasurer comes in and stops at her table to ask “Why are you here?” – I wonder in what tone of voice the reader would dramatise the question?
Because it could be completely misrepresented as the most shrivellingly hostile confrontation dividing men from women of all time, couldn’t it?
Truth, in all its facets and flavours, is relational, contextual and experiential. And it is never “ordinary”, simple, or flat.
(if you don’t know what I’m talking about, see here)
We’re having an auction of promises at church. I couldn’t think of anything to promise that fitted the overlap between what I am prepared to do for a bidder and what they might be willing to bid for. So I said I’d give them a thing to auction instead, and I took along this statue of St Francis – which I think is very beautiful.
Oh, map pins come in boxes of about a trillion, so we didn’t need the whole box for our pinboard. I took these down to church to supplement the stock of notice-board drawing pins.
Now, this was a lovely thing. A kelim (Afghan rug) that I had in my tiny apartment in between husbands. Then Buzz had it for a while. Then it was a sofa throw for a bit. Then we gave the sofa to the Hastings Furniture Services where low-income people can furnish their home affordably. By this time we all have all the rugs/carpets we need in our various houses, so I passed it on.