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Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Dichotomic Life of a Rule Following Boundary Pusher

Lately, it seems I hear a lot of voices proclaiming, “It’s so hard to do the right thing!”

And they’re right.  It is hard—doing the right thing can feel impossibly hard.

Well, let’s be real, it’s always exciting for this Protestant girl (who masquerades as Catholic more and more) when the Lectionary turns to an apocryphal reading.  Seriously.  It’s like finding a magical treasure trove (Webster would define that as a valuable discovery, resource, or collection) full of new Scripture!

Sirach 15:15-17, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.  He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.  Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given” (NIV).

Beautiful words…

Yet, sometimes I struggle to determine whether I want fire or water…

To be fair, Scripture indicates that both are beneficial (and, perhaps, that both carry with them some risks).  If we want to go down the road of folk religion and tradition, the choice is cut and dried.  Choose water.  Fire is Hell.  But friends…  I don’t walk that road…

Fire is also a sign of covenant.[i]  It is a sign of God’s very presence, a light to follow in darkness.[ii] It’s certainly essential in the offering of sacrifices.  The Israelites are told to keep it burning.[iii]  Fire makes things (and people) holy.[iv] It atones.  It warms us.[v]

Because I have no desire to pick and choose Scripture I like, avoiding the remaining content (and context); I’ll level with you: fire also consumes and devours and destroys.  Look it up.  It’s all there.

But for the purpose of today, the word of the Lord is like fire (you can decide whether that’s Scripture or Jesus we’re talking about here).[vi]  Fire refines.[vii] It baptizes,[viii]  reveals, and saves.[ix]   God is as fire.[x]  And let us not forget that fire is the very sign of the Holy Spirit, God with us again…[xi]

Mark 9 always blows me away just a little bit, because at first glance it seems that it may be the lynchpin passage for a theology of Hell, with its unquenchable fire and destruction.  It parallels the account of the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew, in some ways (more on that in a moment), but it’s almost as if we just lop off the last two verses, because we can’t make them fit our own unquenchable desire for justice and vengeance: “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.”[xii]

Everyone will be salted with fire

And… it’s… good…


You know, Scripture actually marries water and fire quite often. 

“Everything that can withstand fire shall be passed through fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless it shall also be purified with the water for purification; and whatever cannot withstand fire, shall be passed through the water.”[xiii]

“We went through fire and through water.”[xiv]

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”[xv]

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[xvi]

We can’t live without water, but I’m not sure we can live without fire, either… at least not well…

And then, here comes Sirach again:

“The basic necessities of human life are water and fire and iron and salt and wheat flour and milk and honey, the blood of the grape and oil and clothing. All these are good for the godly, but for sinners they turn into evils.”[xvii]

Look at that.  We need them both.  How about if we just don’t screw it up!

So, I choose fire and water.

I choose the fire that guides and refines and even the fire that consumes, because I need to be consumed.

I choose the water that cleanses and the water that drowns, because I need both.

But if I’m honest, I began this post with the intention of sharing a story that I’ve been holding onto for awhile now.  So let me return to the idea that doing the right thing is difficult.  Cue Sermon on the Mount…

I’ve always thought it would be great to just stand up and recite Matthew 5-7 sometime, without any commentary or interpretation, and let me tell you that’s a huge leap for someone who is not a biblical literalist.

Jesus is so clear here, though.  It’s like he’s saying to us all, “Don’t push the boundaries as far as you possibly can.  Just… don’t.”

But oh, I am a boundary pusher…

Sometimes (maybe even most times), this is OK… even good.  This boundary pushing fire inside of me is what makes me a good advocate for social change, it’s what makes me tough as nails and inspires persistence, hard work, determination, and a little bit of sass.

But there is a huge difference between choosing water and fire and choosing a smokescreen, somewhere in the middle.

So the story…

Some time back, I was confronted by a friend who exclaimed, “My life is so boring.  I wonder how far I could take something scandalous without taking it too far.”

My immediate response was, “It’s not worth it.  Rumors and gossip and accusations are not all they’re cracked up to be.  They’re certainly not a good way to make your life more exciting (light a fire, whatever).”

And the response to this was, “Oh, not rumors…  I’m talking about actually doing something.”

I took a huge step back.  I mean, I literally stepped back… with my feet…

If we’re going to play with fire, let’s play with fire that is worth getting burned for.

I have zero interest in the kind of fire that requires the cutting off or limbs or the gouging out of eyes for restitution.  I want to play with the kind of fire that feeds and clothes hungry people and teeters on the edge of risk to self for the sake of others.  If I’m going to brandish welts or scars, I’d like to think they’re worth more than a fleeting moment of disobedience.  If I’m going to rebel, I’d like to push back against oppression, not the boundaries that actually make sense.  Good grief, who has time for that? 

If our lives are boring, perhaps we could do something real that matters!

And so, let’s come full circle, today:        

Deuteronomy 30:15, 19-20, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction… This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…” (NIV)

Last week I took several flights with Southwest.  During every flight, as the plane approaches the gate, a message rings out that goes something like this: “We know you have a lot of options, and so we thank you for flying with us.”

In life, we have nearly unlimited options about who we’re going to ‘fly with,’ how we’re going to ‘fly,’ or if we’re going to ‘fly,’ at all. 

During my travels, I had an ironic moment of sorts, when I ordered coffee on the plane, specifically because I wanted a heart shaped coffee stirrer (sometimes my reasoning for decisions can be a little random).  During this moment, I thought to myself, how appropriate is it to choose the things that stir our hearts… to action… to compassion… to something in this life, because we really could choose anything.  So choose water… or fire… or both.  Choose the thing(s) that you can’t live without and maybe the people who can’t live without you.  Do something real, but perhaps not something scandalous.  Choose life.  It’s out there, maybe right in front of you.


[i] Gen. 15 (NRSVCE).
[ii] Exod. 3, 13, 24
[iii] Lev. 6
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Isa. 44
[vi] Jer. 23
[vii] Mal. 3
[viii] Matt. 3
[ix] I Cor. 3
[x] Heb. 12
[xi] Acts 2
[xii] Mark 9:49-50
[xiii] Num. 31:23
[xiv] Psa. 66:12
[xv] Isa. 43:2
[xvi] Matt. 3:11
[xvii] Sir. 39:26-27

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