Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Space Dog: The Animal of Regret

Laika was the first animal of any kind to travel into orbit. Otherwise, she would have been just another mutt rounded up in the streets of Moscow.

The first-ever animal to orbit the Earth and to die in space was a dog named “Laika” (Russian for “Barker”).  When the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 in 1957, Laika out-performed two other dogs to earn the dubious honor of participating in this experiment on the impact of spaceflight on living creatures. Laika’s reward was a one-way ticket into space. There were no expectations that she would survive.  She didn’t.

Years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the scientists said this:  “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We shouldn’t have done it.   We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”

We all have our regrets- if we are honest, that is.  We regret that we did not party more in college, or majored in biology when home economics was our passion.  We regret that we married too early.  Or that we married the wrong person. Or that we didn’t marry the right person. Or, that we didn’t have children.  Or, that we had too many children.  Or, that we didn’t spend enough time with our children. The possibilities for lamenting lost opportunities, poor decisions, failures or wrong turns are endless.

I remember sitting with a dear friend just weeks before her death.  She told me that “all of her demons” had come back.  By that she meant all of her deepest regrets.  All of the things that she had held against herself, God or others.  Mistakes.  Wrongs.  Unfulfilled dreams and desires.

She was not alone.  A recent study found that when men and women come to the end of their lives, many often have regrets.  Typically, the study found, men are more likely to regret vocational choices, and women, relational ones.

The problem with regret is that while it may be entirely justified- we may harbor legitimate gripes about how we have lived our lives or the cards life has dealt us- remorse of this sort doesn’t help us live fully in the present.  Sure, to a certain degree regret can teach us something if we let it, whether it be that we not let others live our lives for us, or that we seize opportunities as they come.  “Carpe diem!,” as the saying goes.

But some regrets are harder to learn from.  Or more paralyzing and incapacitating.  We screw up, blow it royally and make a mess of our relationships and never fully recover.  Or, someone else screws up royally, makes a mess of our life, and we never fully recover.  Or, despite high hopes for a family, we never find the right mate. Or, we are simply unable to have children.  In these instances, regret can become a noose around our neck.  The more we indulge it, the tighter the noose becomes, sucking the life and possibilities for new life right out of us.

Regret is not just an individual malaise.  It is systemic as well.  We see it in the church. In remorse over our fractured life together or our inability to be who we were meant to be.  In all the times we failed to be a prophetic voice or proclaim the Good News.

A pedestrian walks by grafitti on a downtown street in Detroit, Michigan, in 2008. (Credit: The Huffington Post)

We see it on the national scene in the justifiably angry calls of protesters over big bail-outs and extravagant bonuses to America’s richest one percent at the expense of the other 99 percent.  Or, in our public lamentation over 9/11 to the degree that it may have been preventable.  Or, in our regret, many lost lives and billions of dollars later, that we went to war in Iraq on the basis of a false presumption. These regrets feed an attitude of national, moral and existential despair.

Parker Palmer, in his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, describes this despair in American democracy and politics as a kind of “public brokenheartedness.”  I identify with Palmer, who has himself suffered several bouts of severe depression: his own, very personal experience of despair finds points of resonance with the existential angst and hunger for healing that we see these days on a national scale.  In the disenchantment of “Occupy Wall Street.”  In a mother’s grief when the body of her child flies home in solemn military ensemble.

Regret at its core is essentially broken-heartedness.  Broken-heartedness over the existential lostness of all humankind.  Despair at our inability to break free from the “nothingness” of what we had hoped to become.  Or achieve.  Or discover.  Or believe.

The great nineteenth century, Russian writer, LevTolstoy, in his Confession, much like the writer of Ecclesiastes before him, described his own experience of despair this way:  “If I had simply comprehended that life had no meaning, I might have known that calmly- I might have known that that was my fate.  But I could not be soothed by that.  If I had been like a man living in a forest from which he knew there was no way out, I might have lived; but I was like a man who had lost his way in the forest, who was overcome by terror because he had lost his way, who kept tossing about in his desire to come out on the road, knowing that every step got him only more entangled, and who could not help tossing. That was terrible. And in order to free myself from that terror, I wanted to kill myself…The terror of the darkness was too great, and I wanted as quickly as possible to free myself from it by means of a noose or bullet.  It was this feeling that more than anything drew me on toward suicide.”

When we stare into the abyss like Tolstoy did, when we behold our own deep broken-heartedness, about our lives, about the state of our world, about our limitations in fixing our individual and corporate problems, we have two choices.  We can either fall apart.  (Many of us have.)  Or, we can allow our heart “to break open,” as Palmer suggests, spilling out in embodied compassion for the world.

To do this, though, we need more than the grit of our own self-determination.  We need a Savior.  We need to trade in our own noose of regret for One whose “yoke is easy and burden light” (Matthew 11:30).  We need to ask for His help.

“One nation under God” goes the pledge of allegiance.  What if we actually believed it? How would we live?  How might we learn from our regrets, as opposed to letting them serve as an easy excuse for cynicism and disengagement from the world?

Because apart from the grace of God our lives really do dance on the edge of despair.  But in Jesus, there is hope. Even when the noose is in our hands, we can know that Jesus holds the other end of it.  He will never let us go.  Just as I believe He never let Laika go, either.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s “5 Ways to Tame the Animal of Regret.”

Politically Incorrect Jesus: Weird Sayings Continued

"This evening at 7 pm there will be a hymn singing in the park across from the Church. Bring a blanket and come prepared to sin." (Funny Church Bulletin Bloopers, Beliefnet)

“You always have the poor with you, don’t you?  But you won’t always have me.”  Matthew 26:11

It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t running for office, because if he were, he’d probably lose. Can you imagine a political leader saying something to the effect of, “The poor are just part of the furniture, but I won’t be around forever?”  Weird.

Of course the big difference here is that Jesus isn’t about to win an election.  Unless a placard on a cross, with “King of the Jews” as its inscription, qualifies. When he makes this statement, Jesus is preparing to die. Two days from now.  At Passover- a time of year that reminds the Jewish people that their God is One who frees God’s people from bondage and oppression.  In the same way that God brought Israel out from a life of back-breaking sweat and tears as slaves in Egypt to a wide, open, promised land of milk and honey.

So this scene drips with irony.  Because what the disciples and gathered dinner guests cannot appreciate, in their lofty, high-minded “fury” that a woman would waste a whole jar of expensive perfume on Jesus’ head- (“this could have been sold for a fortune, and the money could have been given to the poor!,” they exclaim)- is that “the poor” in this case are right there in front of them.  In the form of a man who will unjustly die a criminal’s shameful death.  And in this nameless woman: her extravagant display of worship can only stem from a poverty of spirit; she, perhaps better than all of the others in the room, apprehends that it is only in the saving actions of Jesus that she has a name and identity as a beloved child of God.

“I’m telling you the truth,” Jesus says.  “Wherever this gospel is announced in all the world, what she has just done will be told, and people will remember her (26:13).”

But what are we to make of “the poor will always be with you”?  What is Jesus really saying here?  That we are to ignore the poor when we worship God?  That all God cares about is that we spare no expense in our worship?  If we were to make these conclusions we would be dismissing a host of passages in Scripture that define true worship as caring for the poor and needy.  This misses the point.  Of the many things that unite Jews and Christians, caring for the poor vies for first place.

The text provides one clue as to what Jesus is really getting at.  When the disciples protest, “What’s the point of all this waste?,” and “This ‘Passion by Liz Taylor’ should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor!,” we read that “Jesus knew what they were thinking (v. 10).”

And they could have been thinking anything.  About their own embarrassment and awkwardness over the fact that this anonymous woman was touching Jesus.  About their annoyance, like jealous older brothers, that she, the younger sister, had stolen the show and was enjoying all of the attention.  About their shame that they had brought nothing to give.  About their pride that it was this lowly woman who brought everything.

Whatever the disciples were thinking, it wasn’t really worshipful, as a free, authentic expression of gratitude and awe to God.  It wasn’t really beautiful, as an unnecessary, selfless demonstration of service.  It didn’t ring out with joy at simply being in God’s presence.  At simply being.  Like a flower.  Or, a butterfly.  Or, a baby’s smile or cry.

We, like the disciples, can find it easy to sugar coat our insecurities about the fact that we ultimately exist simply to glorify God.  We can do this best by looking at resources and the world around us, including our neighbors, as nothing more than a means to an end.  Valued only insofar as they produce something.  Made in God’s image only to the degree that they are beneficial to us.

But this mode of being couldn’t be further from reality.  Because God created us and our world and saw that it “was good.” Not because we produced anything.  Not because we were to achieve something great or selfless or noble, like feeding the hungry or earning the Nobel Peace Prize.

But because God made us and fell in love with the work of His hands.  Like an artist or sculptor making out of nothing something that is beautiful.  That is how God looks at us.  And here Jesus is saying that our gratuitous response of praise and worship is most in keeping with how we were wonderfully made- most in alignment with reality.  The flower basks in the sun.  Because that is how it was made. The butterfly flits and dances over the flower.  Because that is how the butterfly was made.  The baby smiles or cries.  Because that is how she was made.

And we?  We tell God how great God is- and that we don’t know where we would be without God.  We do it extravagantly.  Without self-consciousness.  Without asking whether our expression of worship is politically- or, for that matter,”biblically”- correct.  We worship God- and if we’re not worshiping God, we’re worshiping the things we attach divinity to.  Because that is how we were made.  We were made for God and to worship Him.

 

 

 

Reader Poll: You Vote On Our Next Series

Over the next few weeks we are finishing up our series, “Weird Sayings of Jesus.”  Which means we’ll be embarking on another series not too long from now!   What follows are some ideas, and I need your vote.  As incentive, I promise not to tattoo my behind like new manager Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) in a recent episode of “The Office.”

But a bit more seriously, what you come up with may turn into a first book.  Or at least part of one. Then you’ll be able to say that you helped a struggling writer…struggle more.

Simply post your first and second choice below and lobby your friends to vote as well.  You have a few weeks to help me make my decision.  If I don’t hear from you, then don’t say I didn’t warn you!  I’ll post the results on our last day of “Weird Jesus Sayings”:

The Gospel According to The Far Side

If you haven’t caught Far Side’s depiction of highlights from the Gospels, then you’re in for a treat.  My sermons and reflections will just be “window dressing.”

Bumper Sticker Theology

In a day and age of often vacuous, shallow and commodified spirituality, bumper stickers are often the closest we come to finding a common language for our discourse about God (“theology,” in other words).  In this series, I will unpack some of my personal favorites in the way of bumper stickers, and will entertain some of yours, with a view to finding the biblical connections while opening up our conversation about God, faith and the funny stuff in between.

On Angels’ Wings with Devils’ Horns: The Top 10 Saints and Sinners Of All Time and What They Teach Us

This series will require your input.  I’ll compile a rather long list of saints and sinners and ask you to weigh in on which ones make the short list and why.

“As Through a Looking Glass”: Our Questions for God This Side of Eternity

The Bible is as full of questions as it is of answers- questions that are as relevant today as they were in biblical times.  This series will look at the questions, with a view to poking holes in the common presumption that to be a Christian means to have all the answers. Or, to give all the answers.  The apostle Paul was one of the first to admit that “now we see [God] through a glass darkly,” but one day we will see God “face to face”- and that while now we “know only in part,” one day we will “know fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  So as people of faith we can and should be people who ask questions about God.  Tough questions.   This series will give us biblical permission to do so.

“Sanctification” Embodied:  How One Group of Women Is Living in Grace and What We Can Learn

“Sanctification” is a “churchy” term for growing in God’s grace so that our whole person looks more and more like Jesus Christ, who modeled a new way of being human in His life, death and resurrection.  These days the church is really good at talking about “justification”- that life-changing moment in which we discover that because of God’s love we can become “right with God.”

But I suspect that the church in large part could do a whole lot better when talking about “sanctification.”  For one thing, “sanctification” isn’t very “cool” or “hip”: there is something in us that recoils from the notion of “becoming holy” or “set apart for God.”  And sanctification requires a bit more work on our parts.  Sure, it is as chock-full of God’s grace as that first, often more dramatic moment of initial conversion, but it demands more of us.  “Sanctification” is not just a one-time experience but a whole lifestyle.

The problem is that we miss out on a whole lot of God’s grace when we emphasize “justification” at the expense of “sanctification.”  Because if “justification” is that “first kiss,” then “sanctification” is “going steady” with God.  If “justification” is dipping our toe in Living Water, then “sanctification” is getting dunked in it.

The question, then, is: what does “sanctification” look like and what does it require?  The women of Magdalene House, a residential treatment program for women coming off the streets, have found their answer.  Their “Rule of Magdalene” has embodied grace and second chances after a dead-end life of drugs, crime and prostitution.  Every week we will unpack one of the 24 “spiritual principles” that comprise the Rule by exploring what it has come to mean in the life of one of these Magdalene women.

“The Kingdom of God” Unleashed: Jesus’ Use of the Term and Its Application for Today

When God is Cruel:  Places in Scripture We Like to Avoid

Unmerited Suffering: The Book of Job for Our Times

“Church” Revisited:  The Book of Acts for Our Time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a Saint Named Betty

Betty Henderson (1923-2011)

For all the saints, who from their labors rest, Who Thee by faith before the world confessed, Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!…

Betty died peacefully in her sleep last week.  She was 88.  I had coffee with her husband of 58 years the other day.  The two of them have spent their lives pouring their faith into others.

In the days leading up to Betty’s death, they had added a new element to their bedtime routine. Bob would read hymns aloud.  Old hymns like “For All the Saints.”  On the night Betty rested from her labors, they had read it together.  She had laughed and peacefully drifted off to sleep.

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might; thou Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight; thou in the darkness drear, their one true light. Alleluia, Alleluia!

When during the turbulent years of segregation and the civil rights movement, Bob was pastoring a mill town church not far from the campus of Duke University and drawing fire for inviting people of color to join and help shepherd his congregation, Betty was right there with him.  A quiet, under-stated and reliable presence.  A stalwart partner in a difficult, often agonizing struggle.

O may thy soldiers, faitfhul, true and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win with them the victor’s crown of gold.  Alleluia, Alleluia!

In the last five years of her life, Betty was feeble.  She was often falling.  She suffered a stroke or two if I recall correctly, and Bob, five years her junior, was her spry caretaker.  (Note to unmarried girlfriends: there is a case to be made for younger men.)  When I was pastoring at a conservative, midtown church, they would sit at the back of the sanctuary during services. Like rebels with a cause, they were always holding up a mirror to the church to ask whether the “kingdom of God” Jesus talked about- the one we read about in Scripture- was evident there.  Among us.  In that place.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!  We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.  Alleluia, Alleluia!

I saw Betty in church just two weeks before she died.  As usual she hobbled in with her walker and that same serene, gentle smile; and as usual she immediately took to asking about me.  No matter that her life these days was taken up by the hard vicissitudes of old age. But she looked as good as she always did- young at heart and joyful in spirit.  Because when other women had been staying young with Botox injections, Betty alongside her husband had been pouring her time, wisdom and radicalized faith into relationships with young people. Many of them pastors and leaders, or disaffected and eccentric church-goers, or restless lovers of Jesus.  Some of them all of the above.

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Betty was one of the brave ones.  She wasn’t afraid to listen to people instead of talk at them.  The older I get the more I understand that to do this requires greater courage and inner power than inserting one’s tongue into conversations.  But doing this makes room for our ears to hear “the distant triumph song”:  it opens up a space in which we can better hear God speak.  And what do we all need more than to hear God’s voice amid the toil and strife that so often belong to our lives?

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia!  Alleluia!

My favorite line of the Westminster Catechism, one of the Reformed confessions of my church, is this: human beings’ chief aim is “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”  Worship and enjoyment came naturally to Betty.  They streamed out of her life, a bit like “pearl streams.”

Which is not to suggest that Betty was less a sinner than all the rest of us.  I”m sure she had her moments.  I just never saw them!

But in the end I suppose that what makes a saint is not their perfection but their posture.  It is not whether they lived their life flawlessly but whether they found their beginning and end in their Creator- a realization that brings us to our knees in humble adoration and joyful worship. Betty did just that.  She spent her life “on her knees”- in prayer and in service, singing to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

The Psalmist speaks of all creation singing out praises to God.  On this side of paradise that song has its painful interruptions.  We lose the tune or forget our parts.  Other more discordant sounds break in and eclipse the melody.  But there is something deeply reassuring about this image of all the saints, Betty there among them, singing without interruptions.  Belting out their praise to the One who knit them together and now has called them home.  To that One be all the glory, now and forever.  Amen.

 


                    

“Supply-Side Jesus”

Al Franken was more creative than I am this morning.  Besides, the “gospel” in certain politicans’ rhetoric about how to fix America’s unemployment crisis really does resemble this sometimes:
YouTube Preview Image  Like the other day when Rick Perry told the New York Times that he “doesn’t care” that his tax proposal, (which would dramatically lower taxes on the richest Americans and increase the burden for the lower and middle classes), would only increase steadily rising income inequality.  Hmm.  To echo some of Jon Stewart’s sentiments, does Perry feel the same way about the some 234 people executed, including juveniles, since he became governor of Texas eleven years ago?

Walking With A Limp

"Dear God, I wish you would not make it so easy for people to come apart. I had to have 3 stitches and a shot."

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.  Genesis 32:24-31

Last year when in a few weeks my world turned upside down and I found myself in a deep depression, a wise friend told me this: “From now on you will choose as your friends the ones who walk with a limp.”

I didn’t know entirely what he meant at the time.  But these days I’ve been thinking once again about his words. This time because my hip has been aching- and it would be disingenuous to claim that I have been wrestling with angels.

Unless wrestling with my four-year-old son qualifies.  A favorite activity these days is to body slam mommy on the bed in some sort of primordial, male-bonding ritual that leaves me feeling as beaten up as the Mickey Rourke character in the last episode of the movie, “The Wrestler.”

But these days, when my hip aches I think I understand a bit more what my friend was trying to tell me. It has to do with the blessing of our wounds.  Jacob asked God to bless him and God gave him a sore hip that made him limp.  (Maybe we need to be careful what we ask for!)

These days when the pain in my hip acts up and I find myself hobbling, I remember a five-year-old boy, Trey, who loves playing sports.  Just about every kind.  Recently his parents noticed that he was limping at T-ball practice. Then one day Trey said he didn’t want to go to T-ball practice anymore.  Because his legs were hurting. So his parents took him to the doctor.  The doctor found a cyst.  Now they are doing more tests. They say that little Trey most likely has a degenerative bone disease.

When the pain in my hip starts, I remember Trey.  And I ask God to heal this little boy with the great, big smile and even bigger love of sports, so that he can play T-ball again.  I ask God to comfort Trey and his family and to strengthen them in all manner of grace.

Our wounds, whatever they may be, can serve as a gateway to entering into God’s compassion for ourselves and our world.  Our pain can become a sacred meeting place with God.  Our fragility?  A reminder of the times when we have wrestled with God and prevailed- when God, in the very act of contending with us, is actually closest to us. Locked in an embrace that will forever change us.

In our own and others’ woundedness we have an opportunity to experience in small part the very woundedness of God Himself.  If God is Love, then God is wounded.  Love cannot exist apart from woundedness.

The Bible affirms this truth.   God is One who was “wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5).  The great mystery and bitter-sweet miracle of the Good News is that only in God’s being “bruised by our iniquities” are we healed.  Jesus on the cross is the clearest picture of this divine love.

So my friend was right: there is a whole lot that our wounds and other “walking wounded” can teach us. About God.  About ourselves.  About what it means to love and be loved.  From now on I will walk with those who limp.

Read more funny kids’ prayers here: http://www.beliefnet.com/JesusDaily/Features/Funny-Prayers-From-Kids.aspx?p=8#ixzz1bsfP3O5m.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Another in my on-and-off-again, feeling-less-creative-but-more-convicted series, “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”  This is compliments of friend Jennifer Berkowitz via Facebook:

5 Ways to Stay Spiritually Grounded When Fantasy Calls

Addiction and fantasy can often go hand in hand.  An alcoholic friend of mine will often say that there are times when he “gets stuck in his head.”  I know what he means.  While I have never craved the bottle, I know what it feels like to get stuck in my head, too.  Many of us do.

We can get stuck in our heads imagining all sorts of things, depending on our strongest attachments.  If it’s money or things, then we’re thinking about the next paycheck and how to spend it, or the dress at the mall that will make us look stunning. If it’s work or achievement, we’re anticipating the next deal or book contract.  If it’s affection from someone we love, we’re fantasizing about being in their arms.  For those of us with especially active basal ganglia, we’ll find just about anything to obsess about, whether it is the meeting with our boss or our next interaction with the guy at the gym who is always ogling us.

In such instances, when our imaginations run wild, we can find ourselves increasingly untethered from ourselves and from God in the present moment.  Because we are stuck some place else.  In a place that is not real.

Below are five tips for staying grounded when fantasy calls, inspired by philosopher Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace:

1. Recognize your thoughts as illusions not reality.  How do we do this? “We must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise,” Weil writes, and goes on to provide a litmus test.  “A test of what is real is that it is hard and rough,” she writes.  Ouch.

2. Which leads to the next tip. If our fantasy represents an escape from something in the here and now, like pain, hurt or sadness, don’t be afraid to stay with the feeling and wait it out.  It is here, where we behold our own unfulfilled longings, emptiness, and frailty in their nakedness and in the light, that God will become realer to us.

2. You don’t have to “stuff” your fantasies but you need not indulge them either.  You do this simply by thanking God for the truths God is revealing through the needs and personal imperfections that underlie these fantasies.

3. Don’t make illusory future perfection an enemy of the present good.  In other words, whether you dream about a perfectly just society or a perfect sex life, don’t let yourself be robbed of appreciating aspects of that justice or relationship in the present moment and actively living into them.

4. Pay attention to the goodness that is real and right in front of you in the present moment.  Give thanks for these things.

5. Gently remind yourself of God’s love for you and let it be the thing that you mindfully return to when you begin to seek escape in fantasy.  “Love needs reality,” Weil writes.  To which I would add that reality needs love.  Love and reality need one another like a lover and her beloved.

 

 

The Difference Between Grace and a Sears Appliance Warranty

If you have one of these, be afraid. Be very afraid.

The $400 Kenmore Inteli-Clean vacuum cleaner I bought last year as part of a crusade on dog hair and allergens is on the fritz.  Again.  When I turn it on, it squeaks, moans, whirs, shakes and does nothing. If Jesus were here in the flesh, I would ask him to exorcise it.  Since he is not, this will be the second time in just a few months I will be trekking to the Sears appliance center for a free repair, thanks to my two-year, extended “master warranty.”

I called the store today in hopes that I might avoid the long schlep.  They referred me to a 1-800 number for folks like me whose occasional trips to the repair center are frequent enough to spark questions about whether a refund would be better. If not a refund, then at least an exchange or store credit.

When I tried the 1-800 number, a Sears customer service representative with a kind, sympathetic voice diagnosed my situation:  “we call what you have a lemon,” she said.  As if she were initiating me into an insider’s language for broken appliances.  As if I could not have told her that.

She went on to explain the benefits of my master warranty:  in order to qualify for a refund or credit, my vacuum cleaner would have to be fixed and then break down and be fixed one more time, all within one year’s time, before my warranty would expire.  “So, what you’re telling me is that I paid for a master warranty that really won’t help with my lemon,” I asked.  “I paid a lot of money for something that doesn’t really help with my problem.”

“Um, well, yes.  But you can call the store that fixed it for you and ask if you can replace it.  It is up to their discretion.”

“So, they can tell me that they won’t replace it then- if that is their prerogative?”

“Yes.”  And then, “I will transfer you over to them, but just in case here is their number.”

The same number that I started with.  The number that I had called in the first place.  Where a less kind-sounding, more officious woman had referred me to the 1-800 number.

“I just called them and they referred me to you,” I explained to the kind-sounding customer service representative.

Apologetically, “I’m sorry you’ve had this run-around.  I will call them and explain your situation when I transfer you over.”

She called.  I waited.  Then another woman answered.  “So I take it you would like your vacuum cleaner repaired but are wondering if your warranty will cover it,” she stated.

“Well, actually, no,” I said.  And then proceeded to give the explanation that I had hoped the kind-sounding customer service representative had already provided (when in fact she had not).

Thirty minutes after I had first dialed Sears I was told that I would have to bring my vacuum cleaner in on a day when the store manager- apparently the only one in the store with any authority to act outside of warranty stipulations- could either bless me with a refund, credit or exchange, or tell me the same thing.  That my warranty requires three breakdowns and repairs before any such blessing might materialize.

When it comes to our brokenness, we can sometimes treat it as if it were under divine, limited warranty. That if God is going to repair our brokenness, God will only do it at our expense.  Or will only do it a certain number of times within a certain period of time and then we’re on our own.  Or, that it is up to us and our initiative to make things better, and soon- before the warranty expires, or before God’s good graces run dry.  Other times we think we need to cajole or persuade God, like the store manager, into getting something back for the money we put in.  We think we deserve at least something in return for our inconvenience.  And we often think, if we are honest, that what we get ultimately depends on us. Our efforts.  Our strength.  Our weakness even.

Thank goodness that the grace of God doesn’t operate this way! The Good News, in spite of ourselves, is that God loves us and desires to be in relationship with us, brokenness and all.  And God finds us before we ever have to go looking for God.  We don’t have to do phone acrobatics or schlep to some heavenly appliance store dragging all of our stuff with us.

God is right here.  In front of us.  We have a direct line.  And God is offering a free, no-strings-attached, lifetime warranty on all of our broken parts.  This isn’t just any “master warranty.” You might call it the Master’s warranty.

By the way, the other day I found a vacuum cleaner that someone in the neighborhood was throwing out; since ours wasn’t working, I took it home and gave it a spin.  It worked just fine.

Wanted: A Few Salty Men and Women

“For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at  peace with one another.”  Mark 9:49,50

Julia Child doing some taste testing on her show, "The French Chef."

This passage is weird in a number of ways.  First, what does it mean to “salt with fire”?  The image that comes to mind is God in Julia Child attire, apron and all, sprinkling the disciples with flames of fire. Which begs the question: is God doing the “seasoning” here, or is someone or something else?

And then there is the issue of how salt can lose its saltiness.  I was never good in chemistry, so those of you who were can maybe explain this to me.  As incentive I’ll throw in a free subscription to Fellowship of Saints and Sinners.

And what about the whole “have salt in yourselves” command?  If someone or something or God is doing the seasoning, how do we “have salt” in ourselves?  Do we do this by being at peace with one another? Or, is the being at peace with one another a byproduct, like the finished casserole, of our having salt in ourselves?  Or, are these two states of being meant to co-exist? If so, do they co-exist in spite of, or because of, one another?

The encouraging news here is that commentators are asking the same sorts of questions.  The less encouraging news is that they differ in their answers.  But a general theme that emerges is the purifying and seasoning nature of salt in Jesus’ time.  Salt served to flavor not just hummus but the sacrifices that the Jewish priests offered on the altar to God, in keeping with the Levitical command: “Season all your grain offerings with salt.  Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Leviticus 2:13).”

To be salted in this act of worship was essentially to be set aside for God.  To be “made holy” or sanctified.  To be conscripted for God’s mission to God’s people.

And in this sense Jesus when speaking of “everyone” is directing his remarks primarily to his followers. Elsewhere, for instance, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his disciples “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).  But I would also add that this statement and its context can be understood more broadly, too, as part of a more universal appeal.

While the “fire” to which Jesus is referring may be the angry flames of persecution that his disciples will soon face, it could also be the hot tongues of hell to which he has just referred in the preceding verses. Hell in Jesus’ time was an actual place just outside the gates of Jerusalem:  “Gehenna” was where all of the city’s refuse went to be burned; a big, smoldering garbage dump; it was a metaphor for what happens when we reject God’s love for us.  Our lives go up in flames, with all of our “rubbish”- even our best virtues- being burned away. In times like these, God’s Spirit, convicting, encouraging, prodding, pulling us up when we fall, or giving us a good shake, can feel much like the “refiner’s fire and “launderer’s soap” of Malachi 3:3.

So it may be that Jesus is intentionally conflating several “fires” here insofar as they represent the painful clearing away of anything that stands in the way of God’s Love penetrating and transforming our lives.  The fire of persecution. The fire of hell. And, the fire of God’s Holy Spirit which at Pentecost appeared in the form of tongues of fire on the heads of the believers.  To be salted with each of these fires is to undergo a necessary and painful process at the end of which are left only the gold and silver. Those pure, precious nuggets that shine.  That tell a unique story that is necessarily “salty.”  A story that contrary to popular stereotypes of Christians these days is never boring.

I made the acquaintance of Frankie this morning at my favorite local coffee shop.  Frankie’s tattoos are like chapter markings in a book about his life.  There is the knife on his right forearm- a reminder of the time he was stabbed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while seeking shelter at the Superdome.  On his left bicep are red flames over the bold inscription, “Washed by His blood, not by water.” They describe his conversion to Christ.

In Frankie’s case the “refiner’s fire” came in the form of a Category 5 hurricane.  Frankie was at The Bourbon Pub, the gay dance club he managed, when Katrina hit. He remembers those seven minutes of kneeling on the floor as the most surreal, terrifying moments of his life. The swat team arrived within minutes, and Frankie found himself being led, wading chest-high through a river of water, to the Superdome. In the days following, this former member of the military joined the rescue squads that would airlift out the vulnerable and wade through waters to look for the stranded and lost.  It was during one of these moments that Frankie said a prayer, something along the lines of, “God if you bring me through this safely I will let you love me.”

The Bourbon Pub & Parade advertises as the "only gay pub" in New Orleans.

For many of us it takes a “fire” in the form of a cataclysmic event- if not a hurricane, then a divorce, a breakdown, or bankruptcy- to help us see that our lives exist for One greater than ourselves.  That we are not our own but belong to a Love that seeks to ravish us.  That in the furnace of hardship and suffering, whatever its source, God is refining us.  Making us into people seasoned by experience with stories to share. Each of them particular.  Each of them interesting.  Each of them with a savory message about how God’s love has found us and is wooing us.

When we “have salt” in ourselves, we are letting that salt be there.  This is a hard thing to do. Because it means that we have to get over ourselves.  We have to be willing to acknowledge the painful things that have “salted” us and how they made us who we are today. We can’t just pretend these things don’t exist somehow.  They are part of our story.  They are forming us into people who exist for Love.

Being “salted with fire” is a necessary, unavoidable thing. How we receive it, however, is voluntary. “Having salt” means letting our trials become opportunities for growth and open doors into fuller, more abundant life.  “Having salt” means trusting that not just our humanity but our personality and character are undergoing transformation for the better when we find ourselves in the furnace of trial or temptation.

There is nothing boring or replicable about a “salty” person.  They are a gem in the ruff.  A rare find. One-of-a-kind.  A real “mensch.”  They know they belong to a kingdom that is not of this world and they live like it.  If you have met such people, you can probably count them on one hand.

I’m not exactly sure why Jesus includes this final exhortation to be at peace with one another.  Perhaps he knew that too much of anything can be dangerous.  Sure, he probably didn’t know that too much salt can cause high blood pressure.  But he probably did have a premonition that if his disciples were already arguing only minutes earlier about who was greatest (Mk. 9:34), even their eventual forms of suffering could become easy fodder for more spiritual one-upmanship.  It is amazing how we human beings can find just about anything to compete about, and, if truth be told, the early church soon found itself in similar wrangles.  The fourth-century Donatists claimed that those who had fallen away from the faith during previous persecutions were not qualified to administer the Sacraments.  In their eyes, one’s level of suffering and one’s capacity to endure it were somehow a requirement for priestly ministry. Thankfully, Augustine put an end to this silliness.

“Have salt in yourselves and be at peace,” Jesus says.  Let the seasoning be there. Welcome it rather than run from it.  And don’t use it to pretend that you are somehow any better than anyone else. Understand that your salt may be different from another person’s; welcome their salt as you welcome your own, as something God is using to season the world.  To make God’s love a little more palatable and a little more flavorsome for the rest of us.

 

 

 


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