Sunday, February 15, 2009

Baking Bread and James 4:13-17

Malty Bread Dough About To Be KneadedFreshly Baked Bread
Somewhere between thanking God for opposable thumbs for stirring and hand heels for kneading and electricity for oven-baking, while waiting for the malted* wheat and bran and barley dough to rest and rise, we were talking about the application of James 4:13-17 to baking**.
Come now, you who say,"Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit" — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say,"If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
James follows his general warning to stop the silly and fatal double-mindedness and urging to practise true humility with specific practical examples of what this might mean.

James 4:13-17 appears to be about presumption and arrogance demonstrated in planning for the future: the business plan for next financial year that has no regard for God. This sort of planner is supremely confident in the "laws of nature", the "laws of the market", and his own tried-and-tested wisdom. Why, he took the business over from his father and learnt all the ropes when he was a wee lad on his grandfather's knees. He has seen numerous market upturns and downturns. He has spread his risk and has acquired an extensive business network of trustworthy associates. All his decisions are well-considered and likely to be right. He constantly declines media interviews asking for his predictions for the economy. He can sleep soundly at night and is never over-anxious.

And this isn't just about businessmen, it's about anyone who prepares for the future assuming that everything will go on predictably as before. It is as if God made universe and then just left it to run like clockwork, and that if only we discover how things work, we would be masters of the universe and of our tomorrows.

James isn't dissing planning or business as godless. There is no special spirituality in slackness disguised as spontaneity either. The problem isn't in the planning but planning as if God were not there and as if we controlled our own lives.

And if we were honest with ourselves, we are completely ignorant of tomorrow (James 4:14). Not that we don't have some idea that we will be going to school or work or to meet someone for a meal next week but we are ignorant in the sense that we have no complete control over what tomorrow will bring. Whatever we do, we can't make the future conform to our plans. It always happens that we are shocked when someone laughing and alive today is cold and dead tomorrow. And everyone at the wake will say how no one expected it, and perhaps fail to add, least of all the recently and suddenly deceased. How can we boast about tomorrow (Proverbs 27:1) if we don't know what tomorrow will bring? No one expects certain nations to be at war, or the current world financial crisis, or earthquakes or tsunamis in Indonesia, or people and cattle and animals drowning or being attacked by crocodiles in floods in some parts of Australia and being burnt to death fleeing forest fires in another.

And our lives are so fragile, so insubstantial, like the morning mist (James 4:15). There is only a heartbeat between life and death. Someone takes his attention from the wheel, a major blood vessel bursts, a grand piano drops from the 14th floor, and we are gone.

If we are not in control of the future or of even the length of our lives or how we will die, then we should remember that all things bow to God's sovereign will. That only if he wills, we shall (i) live; and (ii) do this or that (James 4:15). The planned analytical mind is a gift from God, but it must remember that all things are done in the presence of God on whom its very existence is dependent.

James is not encouraging us to take "if the Lord wills" as a pious phrase to be tacked onto the end of every sentence like a talisman. (A similar phrase, In šāʾ Allāh,crops up quite a bit in dealings with Saudis (though notably, not in dealings with people in Dubai). According to wikipedia, In šāʾ Allāh (إن شاء الله) is a term in Arabic evoked by many Muslims to indicate hope for an event to occur in the future. Muslim scholar Ibn Abbas states that it is in fact obligatory for a Muslim to say Insha'Allah when referring to something he or she intends to do in the future. If carelessness leads to the omission of the phrase, it may be said at a later time upon the realisation of the omission. The Victorian Christians had a similar habit of appending bits of their letters with DV, the Latin abbreviation for Deo Volente.)

James is talking about planning the next career move, the next project, the next ministry plan, the next action etc with God consciously in mind and with remembering who we are and how everything might change tomorrow. He is concerned with godliness in daily living now in the planning, today not just plans for tomorrow.

But naturally, fundamentally, man doees not like to be under God and fights to be free from him. But in this "freedom", he finds he is not master but the Satan is his master instead. The natural man is naturally arrogant and confident in his ability to shape the future and this arrogance is evil (James 4:16). But how many would sense something amiss in the chairman's letter in the annual report charting the course for the future of the company without mention of God?

And for us Christians who ought to know better: what is the fundamental attitude of our hearts? Is it total dependence on God for his goodness and grace in giving us lives to live and to work. The sin of omitting to recognise that the future does not belong to us (James 4:17) is very subtle. We all know that it is right to acknowledge God in our lives, but if we can talk to our friends, family, colleagues, business partners without acknowledging that we are not in control but God is, then it is probable that in our hearts who think we are god and are being unfaithful to our God.

(Dick Lucas with a good pastoral reflection: if we don't understand this, then God gets the blame when things go wrong - why has God done this to us, we have not deserved this, we have planned this, done this, prepared that, and then suddenly this. But we were doing our will and then when God doesn't say amen, your will is good, we blame God. It is not our will be done on earth and in heaven but God's will.)

Dick Lucas, James 4:13-17
Andy Gemmill, James 4 & 5

*no exciting stories so far, unlike Kneadyguy's adventures. I attribute this to the lack of sarcastic wit amongst members of my household. Regardless, malted grain is exciting stuff, able to accommodate both bread and whisky in its CV. Whisky-brewing isn't something I intend to try at home, having been irrevocably scarred by a childhood memory of my homebrewed wine (painstakingly squeezed red grape juice fermented in the honest sunshine in a Yakult bottle laced with dregs of acidophilus) snatched away from my lips by a sharp-eyed nanny.
Whisky, Brownie, James
However, the store-bought stuff is lovely with a square of fudgey brownie and a good read.

Kashiwa-mochi and Port Wood Finished Glenmorangie Single Malt
Also completely brilliant, if single malt and port wood-finished, with azuki-bean-paste kashiwa-mochi...

...if God wills that we live long enough, that our taste buds will continue to function, that the whisky or brownie or kashiwa-mochi will be made if we do such and such a thing...

**we all know about the yeast of the Pharisees but before attempting to home-bake bread I didn't know that yeast could also be dead and therefore inactive and useless for anything. You can tell a live yeast is at work by your dough growing, like an alien baby in a human womb, under the damp tea towel.


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At February 15, 2009 11:27 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

A belated Valentine's to you and yours!


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