It is the season of Lent, a strange time when someone wiser and kinder than ourselves comes into our midst and speaks hard truths.
In a few hours, I’ll be heading over to the church where I’ll finish cooking chili with all the fixins’ for 100 people. There are a lot of working poor, and more recently, homeless folk in our neighborhood and so doing this only monthly seems hardly enough. Furthermore the fact that I am, in any way, in charge of cooking seems like a terrible mistake; these people deserve better. As I told my friend, it’s akin to putting Gilligan in charge of the island, not that the professor did much better with his coconuts.
Soon, I’ll be making vegetable trays and whipping up a Jell-O salad (yes, with pineapple and mandarin oranges) and wearing an apron and plastic gloves, and after a warbley prayer serve food with a lot of other great volunteers from our church. On one level, it seems the most basic of Christian commitments: to offer hospitality to others, to hand them food and a warm place to rest for a bit. But on the other hand, it seems so small, such a pathetic jab into human suffering, as earnest and well-meaning as it is, like a 3 year-old boy flexing his muscles for his admiring family in order to show how tough he is. We all know the truth; his ability to fight off the bad guys is dubious.
Unless you’ve been holed away somewhere, you know about Japan and the tragedies that unfolded there. The earth beside them buckled and life as they knew it was undone. In the Arab world, leaders are attacking their own people. Last night, after putting the chili together at church I came back to an email from a friend in the Los Angeles area who wrote that 10 — 60% of their air pollution drifts over the Pacific from China. The point is (and this isn’t news to anyone) is we’re all in this together.
And so it gets one to thinking: do small gestures mean anything? Does it matter if we recycle plastic bottles when we discover that no one is buying that plastic to reuse? Are the efforts we put into growing a butterfly and bee gardens worth it? Does it make a difference to write a love song? Is it of any value to look an awkward, tall teenager girl in the eye and ask daunting and heartfelt questions? When you hand over a bowl of chili to someone and point to the sour cream and say “help yourself,” does that mean squat in the grand scale of things?
The hard truth is it might be all we have. Even with our technology and our good intentions, we will always have the earth plates crashing and we will always have people rising up against their leaders. We will always have terrible diagnoses and dire news. Some things, we together, can change yet some of it is beyond all human control. But here we are, with Easter coming upon us, and we stand upon an uncomfortable and less-than heroic claim: that our God became flesh, was knitted together as a child, left us with crazy legacies like the first shall be last, died an embarrassing death, and returned all because of love. For us. It is hardly triumphalist; it is barely manageable and it is of course, ridiculous.
Yet, it is here we start our theologies, and here we end them, in the folly of the cross and resurrection. And so we try. We jab, we make a go at things, and we are kind. We fall, we fail, we flex our tiny muscles, we smile and try to mean it. We plant seeds and we believe in love and we pray. We do all these things, not because we’re trying to fix others or even remedy ourselves, but because God asks us. Because God so loves this world. Because God became foolish and small and in doing so, said foolish and small things matter. Because the promise is that Christ, this most absurd idea of a god, has taken care of the big things, and we are free to love our neighbor, to tend to trees, and warble our small prayers.