On display in the Bell Laboratories in Jersey, USA, is a box which always attracts a lot of attention. On the side of the box there is a toggle switch which, when turned ‘on’, causes a hand to appear from inside the box that switches the machine ‘off’ again before disappearing back inside the box. Apparently people stand around for several minutes waiting for something else to happen … and it doesn’t! The box, sometimes known as the ‘useless box’, was invented by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) when he was a graduate student at the Bell Laboratories in 1952. The box is a device which has a function but no direct purpose and was possibly intended to make a philosophical point, or an amusing engineering ‘hack’, or as an intellectual joke. The term ‘useless box’ has subsequently come to describe something that has no obvious function or which malfunctions.
Those of us of a certain generation will recall the song ‘Little Boxes’ made famous by Pete Seeger in 1963. Written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962, the song is a political satire about the development of suburbia, and associated conformist middle-class attitudes. It mocks suburban tract housing as ‘little boxes’ of different colours ‘all made out of ticky-tacky’ (a reference to the shoddy material supposedly used in the construction of the houses in those days), and which ‘all look just the same’. More disturbing, however, is Reynolds’ observation that the people who live in these houses, in these ‘boxes’, are just as soul-less as the houses they live in … at least the ‘little boxes’ had colour!
For many people – not least Christians – this enforced period of ‘lockdown’ has been an opportunity to take a good look at ourselves and, where necessary, ‘press the re-set button’ as someone put it. To think seriously about the way we live our lives, run our country, follow Jesus Christ, ‘do’ and ‘be’ Church, etc. etc. This has proved a rude awakening for some of us with the realisation that there is just too much ‘ticky-tacky’ around … in our world and in the Church … even in our lives and our church?!
We are all probably familiar with the metaphor about ‘thinking outside the box’ meaning to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. This phrase often refers to novel or creative thinking. The term is thought to derive from management consultants in the 1970s and 1980s challenging their clients to solve the ‘nine dots’ puzzle (how do you connect nine dots set in a square with just three straight lines – you can look it up on the internet) where the solution required some lateral thinking. This phrase can also be found commonly in dance, as encouragement to move creatively, beyond simple, geometric box steps and their basic variations, to literally step outside the box into more complex patterns of expression. This catchphrase (which has become a cliché), is widely used to encourage us to look further than what exists at the moment … to try not thinking of the obvious things, but to try thinking of the things beyond them or even other than them.
A young Congregational Minister (in his first church) went to see P T Forsyth, the great Scottish theologian: ‘My congregation are complaining that my preaching is over their heads’ he said. Forsyth looked at the young man over the rim of his spectacles, paused for a moment and then said: ‘Tell you congregation to lift up their heads!’ God reminds us, through the Prophet Isaiah, that his way of thinking, his way of doing things, is so much higher than ours: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8,9). In the Day of the Judges (early in the history of Israel) we are told ‘all the people did what was right in their own eyes’ (Judges 21:25) which is perhaps too apt a description for much of what is going on today than we would like to admit – not only in the world but in the Church as well. Even ‘good ideas’ are not necessarily ‘God ideas’ as the saying goes? Is this the time for us to all make significant changes? Time to tune in to God? Time to get on his wavelength? Time to ‘lift up our heads?
Thinking outside the box is not easy for any of us as individuals, as a nation, or as a church? I shared the Gospel with a lady a little while ago. ‘I can see where you are coming from’ she said, ‘but if I take on board what you are saying … I would have to change everything?’ Are governments, the ‘captains of industry’ etc., etc. really prepared to radically change their views so that we might ‘see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living’ (Amos 5:24 NLT). As church are we prepared to replace outworn (even if much loved) ways of being and doing church with ways that actually ‘scratch where people itch’?
Interestingly, there has been some notable reflection and variations on Minsky’s ‘useless box’ down through the years … which are relevant to our discussion here. Michael Seedman dubbed it the ‘leave me alone box’ and I can just imagine the negative reaction of some people to any suggestion that we need to embrace any change – personally, politically, or church-wise? Arthur C. Clarke (the Science Fiction writer) saw a version of Minsky’s box and commented: ‘There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing—absolutely nothing—except switch itself off!’ which, in and of itself, could sadly be an apt commentary on many lives, societies, and even churches. A chap called Don Poynter produced a version of Minsky’s box with a gold coin on the top. When the toggle switch was activated the hand emerged from the box … and snatched the gold coin … and then disappeared back into the box again switching itself off in the process. Perhaps even this has something to say to us all – individuals, nations, and churches – about the sin of ‘storing surplus wealth in bigger barns’ instead of ‘putting God first’ and using our excess to bless and meet the needs of others (Luke 12:16-21).
One thing we can be absolutely sure of (even if we can’t see it clearly right now) is that God’s ‘new normal’ – for us as individuals, for us as a country, for us as a world, for us as a church – will be far, far better than our ‘old normal’. As he tells us in the Scriptures: ‘I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out – plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for’ (Jeremiah 29:11 The Message).
So here is a new song, written by Mike Clifford, called Alone Together, to both encourage and challenge us during ‘lockdown’ that seems appropriate … you can make up your own tune.
It’s easy to sing in a church full of saints,
To go through the motions with no complaints,
To sleep through the sermon, to murmur the prayers …
Comfortable Christians in comfortable chairs.
But lockdown has challenged our vision of church,
To worship at home requires us to search
Our hearts and our minds and come to the place
Where we can find God in a new sacred space.
Alone together we think and we pray;
Alone together we long for the day
When out from our lockdown we’ll come and we’ll say,
“The Lord has been with us while we’ve been away”.
Our sacred traditions will all have to change.
And even though people may think it strange,
The church must keep moving, we cannot stand still
So stand up together and follow God’s will!