Sunday, May 15, 2011

Salt and Light

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

I once heard a funny exchange between two Christians about airplane travel. The one said that before he flies, he always prays for some unsaved soul to sit next to him so that he can serve as a witness for Christianity to that person. He loves doing this because the unsuspecting person is trapped next to him for the duration of the flight. The other’s travel prayers are quite different: before he flies, he always prays for an empty seat next to him so that he can stretch his legs and sleep.

I’ve always identified more with the second person and with the less combative and less demanding faith he embodies. Don’t get me wrong, I make no secret of my spiritual life and have no problem talking about it--in fact, I enjoy doing so when there are appropriate opportunities. But I don’t like feeling pushy or violent. I’ve never known quite what to do with the salt and light metaphors Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve always thought of them as very assertive, demanding, domineering, and dualistic, as if the darkness stands in stark opposition to the light and fights against us. But reading these verses a few weeks back, I thought about the metaphors differently.

First, we are the salt of the earth. Salt is something that brings out the flavor that is already in the food. No one would want to eat a dinner of pure salt. To me, this metaphor speaks of going into the world and being aware of and making known the beauty of that world, of God’s good creation. That beauty is already there in God’s creation and in God’s people. Being salt is not a call for violent, pushy Christianity but for a life attuned to the good “flavor” that is already in the world. In the same way, light is something that makes it possible for us to see what we encounter in the world. Staring at pure, bright light is not a pleasant experience; in fact, it blinds us. But when the light is right in a room or in a natural setting, we barely even notice it. Rather, we notice the things that it allows us to see. I think that being like light is about reflecting the goodness and love of God, being aware of how others participate in God’s love, and inviting everyone to a deeper awareness of that love.

I pray that we might all be salt and light.


Paul Corrigan said...

John, Your post resonates with me. It also resonates with a few passages in a book that I'm presently reading, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by James Davison Hunter. (I strongly recommend it.)

Hunter writes that "Christians are called to relate to the world [i.e. witness] within a dialectic of affirmation and antithesis." The antithesis means resisting "all structures that dishonor God, dehumanize people, and neglect or harm creation." This resistance comes through "offer[ing] an alternative vision and direction," i.e., the gospel. But, and this is the part that most closely relates to your post, "Theologically, affirmation must be the starting point . . ." Affirmation involves realizing that "people of every creed and no creed have talents and abilities, posses knowledge, wisdom, and inventiveness, and hold standards of goodness, truth, justice, morality, and beauty, that are, in relative degree, in harmony with God's will and purpose. These are all gifts of grace that are lavished on people whether Christian or not." He goes on to say that we are to be "faithfully present to those outside the faith community." And: "To welcome the stranger--those outside the community of faith--is to welcome Christ. Believer or nonbeliever, attractive or unattractive, admirable or disreputable, upstanding or vile--the stranger is marked by the image of God."

Apologies for quoting so much here. But I thought that these passages echoed and added to your idea that we should be "go into the world and be aware of and make known the beauty of that world, of God’s good creation" while also "reflecting the goodness and love of God, being aware of how others participate in God’s love, and inviting everyone to a deeper awareness of that love."

When I was younger, I thought that the primary task of the Christian was to get as many people to join our team as possible. And I was very aggressive about it. I wasn't, however, very effective. But, with you, I think that God would have us to be more gentle, more of a blessing, more of a "faithful presence" in the world.

Thank you for encouraging us in this.

RC said...

Wow! I love your post, John, and I love Paul's response to it above. Both are beautiful and profound--and, I believe, a word from the Lord to us. I don't think that being agressive and dominating is "witnessing" for God. God is loving, humble, and long-suffering. I love Hunter's term "faithful presence" that Paul mentions. It is vital, Hunter says in his book, that we are "faithfully present" first to God, to one another in our Christian communities, and to the "world." I am grateful to be in relationship with brothers and sisters who are pursuing that kind of faithfulness. So I thank you both!

living stones said...

John, thank you for this thoughtful, beautiful reflection. I deeply appreciate the connections you made--"that being like light is about reflecting the goodness and love of God, being aware of how others participate in God’s love, and inviting everyone to a deeper awareness of that love." Because love is the essence, nothing is compromised in your gentle approach. My heart wants the balance your expression points to--of reflecting God's goodness, of being more aware of others, and acting in more inviting ways. I join with you in praying to be salt and light.
--Blessings, Anna

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