On Measurement Conversions and the Gift of Instability

After spending our first month in Edinburgh in a short-term lease, we’ve finally found a long-term flat and moved ourselves in. It’s been a chaotic couple of weeks, but we’re finally settling into a new home. One of the best things about our new flat (in my opinion, at least) is that the furnishing includes a deep freezer — a wonderful coincidence for an ice cream maker, especially because you just don’t find them in small flats here. I plan to start filling up all the storage with ice cream ASAP. After a trip to IKEA and more Amazon deliveries than I can keep track of, we have almost everything we need to get an ice cream kitchen up and running, which means I’ll soon (as in, by the end of this week) be back to regular experimenting and frequently sharing new recipes.

The last thing to get here will be my new churner, due sometime this week. I’m planning to have a base already made, so I can be locked and loaded and ready to go as soon as it gets here — stay tuned for a new fall flavor (or autumn — they call it autumn here, and don’t know what you’re saying if you call it fall).

Needless to say, I’ve been experiencing a lot of new things, and adjusting and changing the way I’ve always done others — from big things like walking and riding the bus instead of having a car, to little things like figuring out which brands of food to buy or how the grocery store is arranged. It’s amazing how being plunged into another culture (even one as similar as the U.K.) can be disorienting on so many levels.

Today as I baked my chocolate chip cookie recipe for the first time since being here, I discovered with horror that the measuring cups we had bought were in milliliters and deciliters rather than cups and teaspoons, and had to spend time writing out conversions on the wall before I could start. It’s a little thing, and if I was better at math would take no time at all. But it made me pause and think, needing to catch my bearings and determine how to continue working in a new frame of reference.

It’s a strangely destabilizing experience, to realize that ways of life you always considered the right way (or even the only way) to act or to be, to think or to measure, to assess or judge, have little or no significance to other peoples in different places. And of course this is as true of the profound as it is the trivial. When we step into new worlds and other cultures, we inevitably discover that much of what we’ve considered self-evident, obvious, unquestionable, or definite is perhaps less ultimate than we had previously found it comfortable to believe.

Such immersion into the new can be jarring, and can cause us to shrink back into the familiar little world that we have built for ourselves before. We can withdraw and hold the world around us at a distance, judging or condemning “them” for living, believing, or holding convictions differently than “us.”  But if we will allow ourselves to remain open to the world, we are given the opportunity to discover that even those things we consider most important and decisive — about who we are, what we believe, how we measure good and bad, right and wrong — were never ultimate or final.

This, of course, is a quite scary realization. But it is a truth that resides at the center of Christian faith. In John 14, Jesus declares that he, and he alone, is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Comforting as it is at times to cling to this passage as a confirmation of the absolute truth of our Christianity, Jesus does not in fact confirm anything about us. He does not baptize our theology, does not affirm our interpretation of Scripture, does not assure us that we are indeed walking along the way, or comprehending the truth, or in possession of the life. He simply declares himself to be these things.

The truth of Christianity, then, is not a certain set of doctrinal propositions, but a person — a living, resurrected, divine person.

In Jesus Christ — Jesus the poor Jewish carpenter-rabbi on the fringes of society, Jesus whose birth to an unmarried woman was an occasion for moral scandal, Jesus whose criticism of the political and religious elite (of those who were absolutely confident in the righteousness of their cause and custom) resulted in his crucifixion — we find that everything we would take for granted about our natural systems of evaluation is overturned by the revelation of YHWH, the God of Israel.

In him, we recognize with the prophet Isaiah that all our righteousness amounts to nothing more than rags, and we discover that if God chose the weak and foolish and despised things of the world to reveal God’s nature and power and salvation, then we are freed from the burden of making the world fit into our conceptions of who God is. We are freed from the need to determine the limits of where and how God could or could not be at work in the world, from deciding who’s “in” and who’s “out,” from speculating on the necessary conditions for God’s presence, from defining the proper terms and vocabulary and cultural sensibilities that make salvation possible. We are freed to seek and find the work of the Holy Spirit in places that we have not already designated as holy. Apart from this revelation, we remain trapped in the smallness of our neatly controlled worlds, clinging with a tight fist to the version of life — and of God — that we devise for ourselves.

This is the gift of instability. It is a frightening gift, and one that we are constantly tempted to refuse, because it calls into question our deepest convictions and sense of self, and with it our security. But it is a gift nonetheless, because through it we graciously find that our stability was an illusion all along.

 

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