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  • L Trevarthen

Stuck in the bathwater

We have all heard the saying "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." I wondered a little about what that might mean in terms of Christianity, beliefs, and the Church. Yes, I know you can take an analogy and stretch it too far, but here are some thoughts on the baby and the bathwater.

The baby is the Christian, with their beliefs and traditions. The bathwater is something the baby sits in, immersed and washed in, to get rid of dirt and grime that the baby has accumulated. We aren't clean when we get in that bathwater, otherwise why would we wash. That water is supposed to do us good. A good scrubbing, a washing behind the ears, clearing out all the crevices. While sometimes this is getting rid of clearly bad stuff - the dirt that stops us being good, sometimes this is also the gunk that accumulates, bits of fluff, dead skin that's no longer needed.

Sometimes we need to change that bathwater, because it gets cold. It gets boring. It gets dirty and murky. The bathwater is no longer doing its job. It was clean and clear at the beginning, and able to dissolve all kinds of dirt. But it doesn't stay that way after a while.

There is a tendency to hold on to the bathwater as long as possible. Just the process of changing it exposes us to a change of temperature and makes us more vulnerable.

That bathwater has done an awesome job. It was put in the tub to clean the whole family, with the last one to be washed being the baby. It wasn't there for a little while, it was in use for great deal of time, and several times at that. But eventually the water isn't doing its job anymore. Soap no longer suds up.

We need to keep the Christian message clear and visible. To allow others to see it, and experience their own washing. We need the water to be fresh and clear. Maybe the old water is lukewarm, and we need to add a little heat? Maybe the fashion now is to bathe in cold water, and not hot? Well, let's refresh the baby with that.

We have used the bathwater to wash away a lot of our baggage. Yet in keeping the water there, we are holding some of that baggage still. Gone from our bodies, but not truly gone. There's a purpose to the bath, and the bathwater. Eventually we need to throw out the bathwater and step out of that tub. Adding a bit of fresh water only delays the process of stepping out of the tub.

Of course throwing out the baby as well would be a rather foolish thing to do. You might think it is obvious - how could anyone do that!

I wonder if in Christian churches sometimes it is hard to see what exactly is the baby and what is the bathwater because that bathwater has been hanging around so long. Some are wanting to keep traditions or methods because they embody Christianity, and keep alive the essence of where we have come from. And why would you want to change something that has worked so well for us? We revel in the relative comfort of immersion in the water we have always known. The security of knowing exactly what that water is like. One foot in one world and not letting go of the other? Yet to tell the truth, over time, sometimes the water and the baby are difficult to differentiate - you can't see that clearly through the water anymore. Is the baby really clean if it is sitting in dirty bathwater?

Okay, so the baby and the bathwater isn't perfect as an analogy. But I think you get the idea.

In my opinion we often use that old saying to defend not doing something, rather than actually changing the bathwater, and doing something. We might talk about change, but sometimes we put it off. The bathwater has to be changed, and we know that, but we remain soaking in it. However, you can't use the same water for yourself and everyone else forever. And every so often we need to be washed again. And of course we weren't designed to stay in the bathtub forever, either.

The saying is meant to say, let's not throw out the good with the bad. In fact the water itself is not bad, but it has become filled with bad. It has become filled with the stuff we need to get rid of. Yet we resist actually getting rid of it because we are afraid to throw out good stuff too!

Then we have disagreements about what is the good stuff that we don't want to get rid of. So that becomes a barrier to getting rid of anything at all. Instead of changing and adapting with the times, we become stuck in the past. Perhaps we are tempted to justify our half-hearted attempts to stay clean. After all, we are in the water, and we intended to get rid of the bad stuff and work towards getting clean when we got in. Bad habits, old traditions, old ways of thinking and doing. There really was an intention to start anew.

But when we become stuck in the water it begins to stagnate - because of inertia. No one wants to empty the bathwater. Eventually that dirty water is going to make the baby dirty again. It is not good for the baby. It is even harmful.

So are you delaying doing anything about the bathwater surrounding your Christian life, or the Church? Do you have trouble working out what is redundant, unhelpful, or harmful for growth? Do you want to linger in the bathtub longer than is healthy? What are your ways of combatting this problem? Or have you ditched the bathwater?

Graphics by L Trevarthen, using resources from

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