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Box? What box? 

In the wake of the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street, Martin Sweet reflects on Genesis 24 and what it means to think beyond the box

Outside the box

In the midst of a catastrophic virus, coupled with international negotiations that will forge the shape of Britain’s trade for the next decade, the news is full of the Prime Minister's chief aide, Dominic Cummings, exiting stage left. I daresay for some this will be a much-wished-for early Christmas present.

The BBC commented that ‘in many ways the government's agenda was forged by his ideas, and Mr Johnson relied heavily on his strategic insights’. Controversial, outspoken and seeing himself as an ‘outsider battling an entrenched elite’, Dominic Cummings is credited with ‘delivering Brexit’ and has consequently courted both praise and notoriety (depending on your viewpoint!).

I guess his main impact was that he ‘thought outside the box’. This overused expression was thought to have been invented by management consultants in the 1970s as part of their challenge for businesses to find solutions that required some lateral thinking. To step back and look for solutions ‘outside the box’ has come to refer to the practice of thinking differently, unconventionally, from a new perspective.

The 24th chapter of Genesis is the longest in the book and arguably its most delightful narrative. Here we get to meet Abraham’s chief servant. He is not named, though he may have been Abraham’s former adopted heir Eliezer. However, here he takes centre stage, not only in his role but in his relationship with God as, for one brief chapter, he becomes the carrier of the vision and the promise. At this point he is the ‘main man’ in the history of Israel. Abraham and Isaac act as bookends to his faithfulness, a loyalty that extends not just to his master Abraham but to God.

Where did this man learn to pray like he did? His prayers are wistful, expectant and comprehensively answered. In this short story he sees more wonderful, miraculous moments – however small – than the average Christian notices in a year! And that is why this man is himself so wonderful. He uncompromisingly serves, trusting even the simplest prayer requests to be answered.

Recently my wife and I moved to a claustrophobically-parked street in Bedford. It was not long before I had a debate with someone about whether we should pray for parking spaces! The servant in Genesis 24 would have been unabashed at praying for a space – right outside his house! Of course, we all know it’s only the spiritual elite who get such prayers answered...

No, I don’t pray for parking spaces, but are we right to assume that God ignores this kind of prayer? When Abraham’s servant prays, he keeps it simple (Genesis 24:12-14 NIV):

Then he prayed, ‘Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a young woman, “Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,” and she says, “Drink, and I’ll water your camels too”– let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.’

The next verse is simply wonderful:

Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor.

This man knew something. Had he heard anyone pray like this before? Probably never. But he was in no way confined to a box that deferred the role of prayer to Abraham, the friend of God.

See how he responds when he discovers how God has answered his prayers (verse 26):

Then the man bowed down and worshipped the Lord, saying, ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.’

One day while driving through South London I heard the radio presenter (I think it was Chris Evans) say something like this: ‘Some people think inside the box, some people think outside the box, but the best people I know are the people who think there is no box.’ As I contemplated this comment, I began to see that God had honestly blessed my work ‘outside the box’ of church, as Spinnaker sought to minister to thousands of school children each week through RE lessons and collective worship. But if Genesis 24 teaches us anything, it is that servants can only think outside the box when they remain faithful to their master.

We live in a time when the church has been forced to operate ‘outside the box’, beyond the ‘old normal’ with its often unnoticed assumptions. Do we dare to envisage a no-box scenario where each member of the church can play the part of a servant like Abraham’s, moving freely and boldly within our relationship with God, playing our part in the next chapter of the church in our country?

Whether the servant was Eliezer or not, that name sums it up, for it means ‘God is my help’.

People ask what God is saying during this pandemic. Maybe it’s this: there is no box! I can’t say that for sure, but one thing does seem likely: the ‘box’ of church will never be the same again. And maybe that is the plan – to bring ordinary servants to help deliver the promise. 

Image | Diana Parkhouse | Unsplash


Martin Sweet is the former director of Spinnaker Trust, an organisation with more than 25 years’ experience, based in SE London, regularly supporting more than 100 primary schools in London and the Southeast with RE, assemblies and much more. Martin formerly led the Baptist Education Group. 


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Baptist Times, 16/11/2020
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