Before the most recent siege of the White Death, I spent more than two hours looking for salt for my daughter’s wheelchair path to the schoolbus. I’m not the only one. Cities and counties all over are worried about their salt supply this winter. It’s been the kind of winter when people who never dreamed they would need road salt have been caught in dire need of the stuff down in Atlanta. I was getting weay and desperate as the first snow/sleet mix started falling that afternoon. I was ready to go home and excavate the basement pantry shelves for that bag of ice cream salt when I found what I believed could be the last three bags of salt within 15 miles. These three had each been sliced by the box cutter before coming to the sidewalk in front of the store. Salt puddled on the ground where it had escaped the bags. For a few moments I struggled mildly with an ethical dilemma: Do I pick up all three bags, though damaged, in order to secure my salt supply for the rest of the winter, or do I take only one and leave the other two for another desperate soul? I’ll come back to that. For the shortage of salt to put on the sidewalk, there is more than enough coating the sides of my car and my boots. If I could just repurpose all of that stuff….
On the other hand, if you have ever tried to reduce the amount of salt in your diet, you are all too keenly aware of how MUCH salt is all around. My daughter had to restrict her salt intake while taking a certain medication for seven years. Do you have any idea how much salt is in “kids food?” School lunches? It was a struggle, and we didn’t always succeed.
I remember a marvelous elderly woman I visited in the last years and hours of her life. She had been on a restricted diet for salt (and sugar and fats and everything else good to her) for some time. “Grandma Cookie” had earned her appellation, so you can see what a hardship this posed for her. I visited her in the hospital one evening. Visitation hours were over and the floor was very quiet. A tray of bedtime snacks were set on the bed tray in front of her. The treats were untouched because she couldn’t she couldn’t open the packaging or feed herself. I settled in next to her and opened the packaging on the pudding cup, the graham crackers, the juice container. When it became clear to me that she couldn’t feed herself, I fed her, asking direction from bite to bite. She took things slowly, and drank in the companionship as deeply as she drank from the juice box. My memory of that visit is bathed in soft light, as if it had been communion. As I tidied up the bed tray and disposed of the packaging, she told me, “When I get to heaven I’m going to spend the first thousand years with my tongue on a salt lick.” In the morning her granddaughter called to tell me that Grandma Cookie had died peacefully in the night.
I return to my blog this weekend with the lectionary readings from the Matthew’s sermon on the mount. After the beatitudes, Jesus turns to what many have called “ethical teachings.” You are salt, Jesus tells the crowds hungering for his words. You are the light of the world. I think about Grandma Cookie every time I preach this text. I smile as I think about her yearning for life’s seasoning was attached to her yearning for life itself forever with Jesus. I think about Luther’s love for his dog Toefel, saying that heaven would not be heaven and complete if Toefel were not there too.
In the throes of a cloudy, snowy and bitterly cold winter, the craving for light is almost palpable. When I woke up this morning, the sun was shining for a few brief minutes and then disappeared for the rest of the day. I wanted to just stand in the window and inhale the sun. Come summer we’ll be slathering on sun screen, pulling on sun hats, and hiding our eyes behind sun glasses. But not now. That seems like a distant hope at the moment. I crave the light as acutely as Grandma Cookie craved her salt. Like Luther’s musings on his beloved Toefel, heaven can’t be heaven for me unless it also bathes me in light. A photographer, or any visual artist, craves light but also knows the power of shadow to sculpt the light and entice the eye. Sugar tastes sweeter with salt. Salt tastes saltier with a tiny bit of sugar. Light grows more beautiful as the sun rises and as it sets, as the shadows lengthen and the colors glow in radiance. The harsh light of high noon is anathema.
You are salt. You are light. Jesus doesn’t say “Go Be Salt. Go Be Light.” He declares it. This is what you are. BE what you are. Salt and light for the world.
I think the world craves salt as fervently as Grandma Cookie did, yearns for light as achingly as I did, standing in the window until the clouds covered the sun. Salt and Light are elemental. Jesus could have said Chocolate and Champagne, but then….but then, what? We are the garnish, the excess, the luxury, the decoration of the world? That won’t do. It’s salt. It’s light. Things we yearn for most keenly in their absence. Things that are experienced badly in their excess, but are acutely wonderful when paired with their seemingly opposites–sweet to salt, shadow to light.
Sometimes I am embarrassed by other Christians. Majority Christians in the Central African Republic are slaughtering minority Muslims, but that is underneath the news radar with all the attention on Sochi. I am reminded of the genocide in Rwanda, off the news radar while we heard 24/7 reports on the O.J. Simpson trial . I am embarrassed by the Christians who claim to speak for all Christians in public debate about creation and a host of other topics. “If you are a Christian, then you must….” But that’s not how Jesus taught. Jesus declares: You are salt. You are light. For the sake of the world, be what you are. Don’t lose your saltiness doesn’t mean “Don’t compromise your opinions.” It means don’t set yourself apart. Get out of the salt shaker and mingle where the world’s greatest yearnings for salt wait for you. Don’t hide your light under a bushel doesn’t mean protect your light so that Satan doesn’t poof it out. It means that light that is hidden serves no purpose. Light must shine where it is needed, and must not fear the currents of air that might cause it to flicker. Protected from the world’s currents, fearful of challenge, the light is useless to everyone except the one holding it under the bushel. And you can’t do much that is very interesting while cowering under a bushel, light or no light.
While the sermon on the mount is a study in higher righteousness, a call to holy living, it is also a countermeasure to cowardly holiness. It is the blessing that declares the gift even while it gives it. You are Salt. You are Light. Words that recognize and affirm while at the same time calling out the gift we have been given, for the sake of the world. Light doesn’t hide from shadow. Salt isn’t consumed apart from food.
I bought only one bag of salt. Maybe the next person bought two, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that there were two left for someone else. I might regret that decision if winter’s siege goes on with too many more snow and ice storms. Feel free to wag your finger at me. I think that’s part of the risk we take in joining God in foolishness, joining God in foolish and reckless love for the sake of the world. But I just couldn’t be Salt if I took it all.
I have certainly wandered here this week …..but I am not lost. And if I am, I think I have company.