By midwinter, the empty canning jars on my basement shelves begin to overtake the number of full jars. Clear glass glints beside the jewel-toned beets, briny pickles and thick spaghetti sauce. By practicing the dying art of canning, I pay attention to these containers. I know that a family of six can put away as many as sixty quarts of green beans in the space of those seasons between gardens. Truly, the container is secondary to the contents.
A recent back injury is making me conscious these days of another container. Paul the Apostle would have called it a clay pot.
That image suits me well.
Serviceable. Functional. Sturdy. At least, I’ve always thought so.
But feeling the brittleness of my mortal clay, it’s clear to me that I’m prone to breaking, and the sharp edges leave me bent and moving about with caution.
On one level or another, everyone fights the battle of fragility at some point in life.
So lest I fall into the mistaken notion that the New Testament saints were bullet proof, I return to the words of Paul who strains his apostolic thesaurus to come up with metaphors adequate to the description of his own deep need:
“We are hard pressed.”
Really? Did his time move relentlessly forward as the work piled higher? Did mounting expenses dwarf his income and suck the air out of his dreams?
“We are perplexed.”
Endless word of widespread persecution and death may have mirrored our present-day newsfeed, blaring a stream of events so unbelievable that emotions struggle to keep pace. How does one meet all the needs, answer all the objections, filter all the choices?
The perplexity and the pressure are overwhelming to me, but Paul seemed to be strengthened by it:
“We are not crushed.”
Across the centuries, I strain my ears for the Uncrushable Wisdom, listening for a raspy voice, ruined from the blatant misuse of vocal cords in outdoor speaking engagements and thick with gravel from having traveled around in a tired body. In exchange for Paul’s emptiness, God offered treasure: “The light of the knowledge of the glory of God.” (2 Cor. 4:6, ESV) Paul became so full that the sheer force of Jesus’ life offset the pressure and permeated all the empty spaces. I’d love to make that man a sandwich and sit down with him for just a few minutes—or even to stand at the kitchen counter. I want to ask him how it all worked for him.
Here’s what I think Paul would say:
“All you have to be, is desperate.”
I called the State Prison yesterday. It’s located in my little town but I’ve never set foot on its grounds. There are people living there who need everything that I take for granted.
The polite and expectant voice that answered the phone did not suspect that I’m sort of “That church lady,” and that I have absolutely nothing to offer to people who live behind bars. She might have suspected (from my halting presentation) that I had not prepared a speech to explain why I was calling her, but the words “literacy volunteer” came to my mind and my mouth at the same time. Reading, writing, resume preparation—I could do this. I could use words to build a bridge to people who frighten me with their crushing problems.
Who do I even think I am?
Yeah, I’m desperate.
Paul clutched his own empty canning jar with both hands and lifted it up to the One who fills.
The container is secondary to the contents. “The light of the knowledge of the glory of God” was the only thing that could have accounted for Paul’s strength and resiliency—not his brittle clay, but his glorious contents as a Christ-bearer, without which he might have actually collapsed into his own hollow vacuum.
There’s a kind of humility inherent in being just a container. If I should ever be allowed to walk through the door of the State Prison and to help someone hone reading and writing skills; if I should gain their trust sufficiently to share eternal Truth with them, it will not be my prerogative to make the message all about me. In fact, the more “me” there is in the message, the less the message will be about Jesus. Who wants to eat ice cream that has begun to taste like the carton?
As Mary became a chalice into which the life of God was poured, my emptiness is an invitation for God to pour His fullness into me—whatever my assignment for 2017. By filling and indwelling believers, Jesus makes sure that the world will continue to see God in the flesh. As God’s expression of what He is like, we become broken bread and poured out wine.
There is no greater fullness.