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Why in the world am I sorting spinach? you might ask.

Well, because the big bag of spinach we bought from Costco (with all the good intentions in the world of making salads and smoothies galore) has been slowly turning that dreaded dark green which signifies that certain leaves are better suited for compost than for consumption.

And because there are still a bunch of good leaves left, and–I think to myself–perhaps I can still eke out a couple more salads from this bag . . . .

For some, this stage of development is the stage at which they simply throw out the rest of the spinach and get a new bag. And sometimes I do that, too, considering that my time is worth more than it would take to separate the yummy from the yucky, and deciding that composting is not quite so wasteful as throwing the whole mess in the trash. But tonight it seemed worth my while to sort through the bag of spinach looking for the good leaves in and amongst the mush.

And as it is a rather large bag, there is time for thought as well as for action . . .

I take a spinach clump in my hand. The dark green seems to be predominant. No, wait, there’s a nice vibrant and whole leaf still on the bottom. And in pulling that one off, I find a couple smaller ones all bunched together. Ew, this dark green sludge can go in the compost stack, and with it these other leaves that are so covered in the sludge that I doubt they’d last long even if I did save them.

I take another clump. The one on top has a large bit of dark green in its center, but I see that it’s from another leaf that has turned to mush on top of it. The leaf itself may still be good. No, actually, it’s starting to rot, too, right where the sludge was lying on top of it. This leaf won’t last long. Too bad. If I weren’t trying to salvage more than just today’s salad, I’d probably keep it and eat it as it is. But I’m hoping to save some for tomorrow, so this leaf won’t make it.

It occurs to me that much of my life is spent sorting spinach. Pulling things apart to see what is good and what is not; what to keep and what to discard.

I am surrounded by ideas–from books, from tv and movies, from stories people tell and from actions that people take, from conversations and from silences. Not ideas, as in “hey, let’s do this!” but ideas as in opinions, beliefs, themes, and notions. What is good? What is worthless? What is decaying, and what is alive? Like spinach, the ideas are all clumped together and sometimes seem inseparable. And like spinach, sometimes a vital thought comes sandwiched between worthless ones.

I’d rather not have to sort the spinach, of course. I’d rather buy it from the store–presorted, prewashed, certified good and ready to digest.

I’d rather not have to sort the spinach. When it’s starting to become all gross and slimy, I’d rather just toss it and get a new bag. But tonight, its value as a source of nutrition was worth the trouble of taking the time to sort through.

And it occurs to me that we all choose what is worth sorting.

Here are a few reflections that come to mind in thinking about sorting:

First: It’s hard to sort carefully. And sometimes we don’t want sort carefully, we just take whatever we can get at the moment! We’d never do that with a handful of dark green–and slimy–spinach, but we don’t mind it with a funny movie! I’m not here to disparage our viewing habits, I’m simply reflecting on the fact that I know I have swallowed things I’ve seen or read or heard without really recognizing that they were decaying rather than vibrantly good–and often at the same time as taking the good.

Second: Sometimes we choose not to sort. When we come up against something that is clearly slimy and icky, it is sometimes quite best for us to decide to toss the whole thing and start afresh. (I tend to feel this way about horror flicks. It’s pretty easy for me to decide to toss the whole thing rather than picking through for the one or two leaves I might find there. Might.)

Third: Sometimes we choose to sort and get little from it. We toss and toss and toss and toss, and we are left with nothing. The thing is that there really are some bags that are completely gone. But sometimes it’s just that we don’t want to touch anything that’s not perfectly whole. If it’s even slimy, don’t wash it off; just toss it! That’s not going in my mouth!

Fourth: Sorting often yields surprises. My family and I recently visited the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Fascinating site! Also fascinating to watch the scientists carefully sorting through all of the tiny little pieces they find, painstakingly separating them from their asphalt coverings and reconstructing prehistoric (and not so prehistoric) skeletons. To them it is worth getting down in the black sticky mess if they can come away with a shred more information to add to what they already know about “life back then.”

And it’s no different with us. Where we might be terribly tempted to discount ideas where we see absolutely nothing but slimy green . . . it’s somehow worth our while to do some sorting when someone we know and love is handing us the spinach of life. We can toss out everything they say as untouchable, but we toss them out with it, too.

And this is where Common Grace comes in.

Because every human is made in God’s image, every human has good leaves mixed in with their decaying ones. In fact, all of us have slimy green beliefs mixed in with our very best ideas about life, the universe, and all things in between. And because we are each made in God’s image, it may just be that our ideas are worth hearing out and sorting through rather than being thrown out at the first sign of sludge. It’s one thing to sort out a horror flick, but what about my neighbor?

I can think of some very personal examples–things I have been sorting through in my own life lately, finding unexpected good leaves and being uncertain about others (will they stand the test of time and eternity?). But rather than giving a lot of backstory for personal sorting, let me choose a more national example.

Islam.

For those of us who have lived our lives by the truths and traditions of Christianity, the thought of welcoming Islam into our schools, communities, and friendships–let alone our country!–is a no-brainer. Islam is not the truth, it’s the dark green decayed sludge. Toss it out! Keep it out! It’s dangerous in more ways than we can count (even without its associations with terrorism). Don’t sort it, toss it!

But I remember a movie I saw the summer of my junior year in high school. It was about a young adult who’d gone to an Islamic country on a mission trip, and had made friends with a Muslim man who, in the movie I watched, immigrates to the United States. The American man does his best to win the Muslim man to Christ, but instead finds that he is learning from this non-Christian’s example how shallow his own Christianity really is. We’d love for the movie to end with the Muslim recognizing his need for Christ and being gloriously saved, but the movie ends instead with the Christian man recognizing his need for Christ and for the lovely zeal he sees in his Muslim friend’s life.

Thinking back to that movie, I see that it forced me to do some sorting. Rather than throwing Islam out, I had to recognize that it had something to teach me. No, not that I should be working harder as a Christian, but that maybe my love for and zeal for God should be strong–though for a different reason, perhaps.

And thinking today of the White Helmets of Syria, the group that goes into danger to save as many lives as they can, I see many vibrantly green leaves to honor: courage & compassion among them. Their motto “Whoever saves one life, saves all of humanity” comes from the Koran. That isn’t something I can easily toss.

And so I find myself sorting spinach yet again.

 

 

May 2009

I’m going to go back to
Not being human;
The more human you are
The more easily hurt:
Complexities misunderstood,
Comments misinterpreted,
Soft heart opened up
And then stepped on by
Eager expecting feet—
Some of them your own.

I’m going to go back to
Not being human;
The more human you are
The more easily you hurt:
Slow reflexes miss immediate needs,
Selfishness sucks life from others,
Clumsiness mis-times comments
That tread on others
Creating confusion rather than
Infusing peace.

I’ll build myself a shell
Impervious to the elements,
The same in fair weather
And foul.
I’ll cover my too-
Readable face with hardness
So no stray expression
Will play me or you
False.
I’ll eradicate my needs—
My hunger, my weariness—to
Enable endless service,
Mathematically rule out
Painful Imprecision.
I’ll be the perfect servant.

I’m going to go back to
Not being human.
The more human you are
The less trustworthy.
No more mistakes,
No need to be forgiven.
Finally existing for the
Good of others only:
Utterly useful—
Painlessly disposable.

Another September 11 has come and gone. As I wrote the date yesterday, it suddenly hit me what day it was–and what the significance was! September 11 was the day that terrorist attacks became more than just international news; they became part of the American experience.

The thing about terrorist attacks is that they are unreachable and indefatigable. Difficult to pin down, they exhaust you and make you start to wonder if there are other ways to obtain peace. Because that’s what you want–you didn’t want to pick the fight with them; they lashed out at you while you were busy living and letting them live. And as you start wracking your brain for other alternatives, as you try to make sense out of what happened, you start to see their point of view a little more, start to grasp their motives a little better. And then it’s easy for things to become more and more twisted from the effort of trying to make sense out of it all. And then you begin to accept the blame little by little for what happened, hoping that if you come half-way, if you accept your part of the blame, they will admit their part and meet you in the middle. After all, isn’t that how peace comes in normal relationships?

But terrorism is not a normal relationship. And the terrorists are not interested in making peace. They are not going to admit they were wrong. They are not the ones that want peace–you are.

Somewhere along the line we have to realize what forgiving others really means. Forgiveness stems from a recognition of the wrong that has been done to us, not from rationalizing the behavior. Forgiveness has to be firmly grounded in truth. Sometimes the truth may include the fact that the person who wronged us did so unintentionally, but it cannot ignore the wrong! Nor can it ignore the fact that there is a price to be paid for what was done to us. Instinctively we know that the price must be paid, and that’s how we get things twisted–when the other person refuses to acknowledge his wrong, we begin to wonder if perhaps we deserved it all along and then start to think that we are simply paying for our wrongs ourselves. That mindset bears only a small resemblance to the truth and it stops us from truly forgiving and moving on. Instead it makes us a slave to the one that has hurt us and now holds power over us.

It works that way with bullies on playgrounds. Why would it be any different between nations and people groups?

Oh, God of dust and rainbows, help us see That without dust the rainbow would not be. ~ Langston Hughes

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