Leaving Salem

I can remember growing up as a child of the 1970s, envisioning my life as an adult. The turn of the millennium was coming and with it, my thirtieth birthday. I thought my life would essentially be over at that point. Thirty was cane-walking, belly-scratching, false teeth-wearing, old. Now, a half dozen years past that mark, it’s not old at all.

And while silver has begun to appear in my young-punk goatee, I have not yet completely reached the metallic age. You know about the metallic age don’t you?  It’s when you have gold in your teeth, silver in your hair, and lead in your butt. I’m closer, but not there yet.

Still, there was some truth to my youthful anxiety about life ending at thirty. If you are thirty-five years old, you have only five hundred days to live. Let me explain. Based on the average life span of an American, once you reach age thirty-five, subtract the time you are asleep, at work, getting dressed, driving your car – all the necessary but time consuming acts – your remaining leisure time is the equivalency of about five hundred days.

Let that sink in for a minute. Five hundred days. A year and a half. Seventeen months. Seventy-one weeks. That’s not long. The Scripture is right when it says our lives are but vapors on the wind, here only for a moment. My paternal grandfather once put it in these terms, “It seems like it took me longer to get to age eighteen than it did to get from eighteen to eighty.”

The Hebrew patriarch, Moses, who lived a bit longer than the average American, understood the brevity of our lives. He prayed in the Psalms, “Seventy years are given to us! Some may even reach eighty. But even the best of these years are filled with pain and trouble; soon they disappear, and we are gone. Teach us to make the most of our time, so that we may grow in wisdom.”

The basic laws of economics apply to more than the price of gasoline. These laws relate to our lives as well. We have a limited supply of time. As a result, that time is incredibly precious. How do we make the most of it? What characterizes a life of wisdom?

Surely, this is where biblical relevance can degenerate into something much less. I want to avoid that if I can. It would be easy, with limited time, to spend it all on ourselves: Cruises, exotic getaways, self-absorbed hobbies, conspicuous consumption. Is that truly the best use of our time? Is that the way of wisdom? Sadly, there is enough of that kind of counsel in the self-centered Christianese literature of today’s printing presses.

Certainly our limitation of time should give us the resolve to act, but to act in a way that makes the most of our time. Making the most of our time might mean granting forgiveness to that one who has deeply hurt us. It could mean taking those classes to become a foster parent. Could it be picking up the phone and making things right with that estranged family member? It may possibly mean making that job change that will enable you to spend time in a way that really matters. It might mean taking the time to visit that loved one at the nursing home that you keep intending to go see, but haven’t done so yet.

We all have tasks, which if left undone, can never be retrieved or reclaimed. Wisdom necessitates that these things not fall to the ground.

Reverend Ken Autry is the former pastor at First United Methodist Church on the lake yard in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. I say, “former” pastor only because he has now moved on to another appointment. Those Methodists won’t let their preachers sit still for very long.

He once shared a letter with his congregation that I have yet to get out of my mind. The letter, while not written to Rev. Autry, had been written by a parishioner who had become quite disgruntled with her pastor. This is not uncommon. Sometimes there is the perception that those of the cloth should be absolutely faultless. When failures occur, and they certainly will, the fallout can be crushing.

This is too bad. Sure, there are some bad apples in the barrel, but most pastors, priests, and rabbis are doing the best they can to honor their calling and to help others. They make mistakes, but don’t we all. This particular church member gave no quarter for such ministerial blunders.

With teeth on edge she poured out a venomous letter to her pastor. She recounted his failures. She demeaned his family. She compared him to other great pastors that had gone before him (always good for your self-esteem), and pretty much read him the riot act.

It was the conclusion of the letter that still rings in my ears. She wrote, “I pray that you will come to know Jesus as I do, rather than just knowing Jesus like you do.” When we need ammunition against our enemies, any bullet will do. Even Jesus.

Since his incarnation Christ has taken on the form we require of him. The zealots of his time wanted him to be a revolutionary with sword in hand. The legalists tried so very hard to make him a traditionalist. The anxious masses, and those closest to him, attempted to make him king of Israel.

Satan himself even got in on the act. He invited Jesus to seize economic, religious, and political power. Christ, of course, rebuffed all these efforts. In fact, Jesus’ eventual crucifixion was due largely to the fact that he would not play by the rules. He would not be the kind of Messiah people thought he should be. He would not conform.

We continue the tradition. If needed, we will wrap Christ in the red, white, and blue and send him out before our armies waving the flag. We will use his words to strengthen capitalism and justify our greed. We will explain away his hardest sayings in order to get cozy with him. We’ll even drop his name in the right circles if it will garner a few more votes in November.

Yes, it seems we’ve got Jesus right where we want him: Shrink wrapped, canned, freeze dried. In an emergency just add water.

The Jesus who walked the Palestinian hills of the first century was a far cry from these things. Certainly he would have shocked us. The calloused hands of a carpenter; the olive skin of the Middle East; the dirty feet, shaggy hair, and tattered clothes of an impoverished gypsy: He is nothing like the white, middle-class, blue-eyed Jesus that appeared on my Sunday school flannel graph board.

I admit I don’t always recognize Jesus. Just when I think I have him figured out, he does something crazy: Like command me to love my enemies; or tell me to do good to those who don’t deserve it; or challenge me to give away my possessions; or instruct me to turn the other cheek; or allow himself to be crucified, only to rise from the dead.

In his unconventional, eccentric manner he runs roughshod over my preconceptions. He overturns the established order of my life. He surprises me with his fierce grace. He calls me to himself demanding my soul, my life, my all.

Jesus asked his disciples on his last night on earth, “Do you not yet know who I am, even after all the time I have been with you?” I am afraid the answer is still an embarrassing, no, regardless of spiteful letters from unhappy church members. But thankfully, we’ll have all of eternity to get to know this wild-eyed Jewish rabbi a little better. Maybe, just maybe, that will be time enough.

I still chuckle every time I hear the story. It seems a poor fellow’s vehicle had conked out on the side of the road. After waving about like a banshee for half an hour he finally convinced a speeding motorist to stop and help. “If you could just push my car at a speed of 40 miles per hour,” the stranded motorist said to his newly arrived partner, “I’m convinced it will start and I’ll be on my way.”

Sliding back behind the wheel of his car the driver was relieved. The ordeal of being stuck in the middle of nowhere was finally over. He would be rolling again in a matter of seconds, all his worries behind him. His worries were behind him.

He waited for that gentle nudge on the rear bumper that would move him down the road. It never came. Looking around he discovered that his Good Samaritan had disappeared. What a cruel joke! Where could he have gone?

It was then that he saw him in the rearview mirror. His rescuer was a quarter of a mile away and bearing down on the broken down car at 40 miles per hour. The driver had not communicated as clearly as he had intended.

We Christians tend to bumble our communication a little more than most. In these harrowing days when fewer and fewer people seem to stop and listen to what we have to say, we sometimes think the answer is to scream a little louder. Picket signs. Demonstrations. Boycotts. Petitions. Displays of righteous indignation accompanied by red faces and bulging carotids. The result is indeed clearer communication. It’s clear that we are mad as hell about something.

Without a doubt most Christians want to see serious change in the world. I do to. I would love to see less violence, greater compassion, a moratorium on our limitless consumerism, and fewer public displays of vulgarity, just to name a few. But the solution is not to meet cultural failures with the equal inadequacies of judgmentalism, revenge, and condemnation.

If in our passion to communicate something we feel very strongly about, said communication becomes hateful, as Christians we have betrayed our message. The path of Christ is to love those whom we consider our opponents. The path of Christ is to engage and pray for our enemies, not kill them. And don’t be fooled; our words can be as murderous as flying bullets and hand grenades.

Mahatma Gandhi is a hero of mine. We all could learn a great deal from him.  He revolutionized India with his leadership of the Indian Independence Movement, and he perfected the philosophy of non-violent resistance. He met the injustice and oppression of his day with peace, integrity, and quiet resolve.

Gandhi said, “We must become the change we wish to see in the world.” Wow. If I want a less violent society, I must become less violent. If I want to experience more compassion, I must become compassionate. If I want less consumerism, I should pull my own leg out of the commercialistic trap more often. If I want to protect my children from overt sensuality, then I should teach them respect for others, the value of a person and the human body, and I should probably turn the TV off after 6:00 PM.

So, if you are one who loves a good boycott, why not take a different tact.  A little grace, a truce, a lowering of the weapons might be a great change of pace. Oh, and if you have been on the receiving end of a few displays of virtuous disapproval, cut some slack for your accusers as well. After all, we’re all just trying to get the car rolling again. Confrontation without clear communication is nothing less than a wreck waiting to happen.