Pipes and Problems

pipeBy popular demand – and because some like to glory in my personal pain – a reprint:

My yard is full of holes. Big, deep, muddy, ugly, holes in all shapes, sizes, and assortment. It looks like that gopher-groundhog thingy from “Caddy Shack” has been running wild beneath what used be our lawn. But these holes are not the doings of any rodent. No, they all belong to me.

With this spring’s thaw came the disappointing realization that our lawn’s irrigation system is in shreds. Well, not exactly shreds; in drips, sprays, and geysers is more like it. The pipes must have frozen some time in the arctic that was January or February, and now they are burst, it seems, at every turn, corner, and joint.

So the excavation has begun in earnest, and will continue for the foreseeable future. For years now I have lived in the Florida sand and never had a problem with frozen pipes. Never. But this was an unusual winter, one I hope is not repeated any decade soon, and I got caught with water in the lines.

Yes, yes, I know. I should have drained the pipes back in November. Yes, I could have prevented all this digging madness. Yes, if I had known that April’s warming temperatures would produce Old Faithful in at least a half-dozen places in my yard, yes I would have done differently.

But that is water over the bridge and through the pipe now. No woulda-coulda-shoulda will help me with the mess I have on my hands. All I can do is get on with the repairs, sore back, shovel spades, and blistered hands included.

Some faith leaders – entire denominations and religious systems in fact – make a living on the holes in people’s lives, dug there by the woulda-coulda-shouldas. You know what I’m talking about: Precious little time is spent on helping people really do what is best and good. No, all the energy and time is spent pointing out what people have done wrong.

“If you would have made better choices,” they condemn and criticize from their pulpits. “You could have been more prayerful, more disciplined, or more committed,” they say in disaster’s aftermath. “You should have listened to us! Didn’t we tell you this would be the outcome!” they almost gleefully crow, as poor souls stand in the mud and wet cold of all that has gone wrong.

Those in the church (yours truly included) can sometimes pile on with guilt, shame, and finger-pointing when most people do not need to be reminded of what they have done wrong and how they woulda-coulda-shoulda lived differently. When we mess it up, we are usually the first to know.

And when that recognition comes, we don’t need long-winded sermons about a past we cannot change or homilies aimed at mistakes for which there is no do-over. What we need is help repairing the broken places so things work again. We need help digging the holes, bands-aids for our blisters, and a little glue to hold together the new pipes.

Of course, it’s terribly easy to remain disinfected and clean, while standing in a pulpit or sitting comfortably in a pew. The hard work is on your hands and knees in the mud and muck of people’s burst lives. But doing this hard work is where we belong, as followers of Jesus.

When our lives are full of holes, which is much of the time, I am so glad for Jesus’ words when he said that he “did not come to condemn the world” but to “save” it. He came to fix it. If this world needed sermons and lectures, I figure he could have remained far from it, aloof and apathetic.

Instead, Jesus put on the work clothes of human flesh and crawled onto a leaking, broken, and busted world, blistering and bloodletting his hands, hands he never used for finger-pointing. And thank God Jesus did what he did. Because our mistakes are many, the holes are deep, our backs are sore, and we need all the help we can get. Maybe, just maybe, we can give a little of this help to others.

Where Nothing Is Sacred

open-doorThe words “holy” and “sacred” are sometimes used interchangeably. I don’t think this should be the case, as there is a huge difference between the two. Sacred comes from the Latin, “sacrum.” You might recognize that “sacrum” is also the name of the bones in your pelvis. The ancient Romans called this part of the human body “sacred.” It is where the reproductive organs are, and, particularly in the female, it is from where life springs.

Thus, as one line of thinking goes, the sacred was recognized as something that had to be protected and secured. That is an excellent picture, actually, of how we employ sacredness. Human beings create sacred rituals that draw lines, build barriers, and protect and secure our space and turf. We feel we have to keep everything that is perceived as a threat on the outside, so as to guard our life and our future.

A quick example: Not long ago I was preparing to speak at a church and had my always handy coffee cup with me. Without any thought, I sat it down on the pulpit while I was reviewing my sermon notes. This church had more than a lectern or podium. It was truly the “sacred desk.”

A person came up to me and said, “I would appreciate it if you removed your cup. This furniture is sacred.” I complied but then added, “Yes, it is ‘sacred,’ but do you know why? Because it has been designated so by a church committee, not by God. God’s holiness is not violated by a Styrofoam cup” (I didn’t mean to be snarky, but I don’t think this person became a fan).

And a second example: During one of my pastorates we moved from a shabby little storefront building to a beautiful, magnificent sanctuary. It was an incredible upgrade with actual pews, a baptistery, a steeple, and some other sacred things. In our old location we had been picking up children in our little church van and bringing them to worship. These little people were tornadoes. Turned loose in an empty room, they would find something to destroy. When we moved to our new building we kept picking up these children, but I knew it would not last.

During our first week of Vacation Bible School in the new building one of the church mothers retrieved me from my office. She was enraged. “I need you to come with me right now!” she said. She took me to a hallway, pointed at the wall, and asked, “What are we going to do about that?”

Two and a half feet above the floor was a swatch of dirt staining the white wall. It ran down the entire length of the hallway stopping at one of the classroom doors. A classroom of these “dirty bus kids” had all run their hands down the wall as they walked to class, that’s all. But I knew then that there would be no place for them in our new space.

The sacred is the ritualistic space, community, and people-dividing behavior of human beings. The holy, however, is something completely different. Something holy is something that is “whole.” The root word is “health.” In other words, holiness is something that cannot be divided. It is something that is complete, unbroken, and intact.

Thus, holiness is not something defined by lines of segregation or by different shades of acceptance. It is defined by openness and welcome. The holy doesn’t alienate, it invites. The holy doesn’t separate, it welcomes. The holy doesn’t divide, it embraces.

Whereas what is sacred is a small restricted space that must be sheltered and guarded, the old Norse word for “holy” means “a large living room,” where people are made to feel very much at home. I pray that God makes us holy: Whole, healthy, welcoming people! But I also pray that he never allow us to become a sacred people, for when we lose our ability to be hospitable, inviting the outsider in, we have lost our unique witness in the world.