After work the other day Joy and I ran by Robbie G’s to pick up some boiled shrimp for dinner. There’s nothing fancy about Robby G’s. Painted crawfish-red and tan, the flat-roofed building is surrounded by a parking lot that is mostly paved but partly gravel. The menu features Po Boys and fried seafood.
Having called ahead, Joy popped in for a couple of minutes. She returned to the car carrying a plastic bag filled with spiced, hot, freshly boiled shrimp.
The aroma filled the car’s tiny compartment. We hadn’t gone more than ten feet before I realized that my vestments were hanging in the back seat.
My blood pressure spiked as I imagined my rochet and chimere absorbing the odor of boiled shrimp. The idea of reeking like a fish market on the coming Sunday lodged in the front of my mind.
I hastily rolled down the windows and spent the rest of the drive home stewing and crabbing about what a terrible idea it was to bring pungent seafood into a small car transporting expensive, hard to clean, odor-absorbing vestments.
It’s painful to remember such a hissy fit and even more embarrassing to admit out loud that I could have one.
But that’s not the whole story.
For the rest of the evening I remained grumpy, and I woke up irritable the next morning.
As I sat to reflect on Scripture, to journal, and to pray silently, a memory welled up from some deep place.
I was about eight years old. Taylor and I were playing in my front yard. I had just gotten a new toy machine gun. Taking the toy gun, we climbed a tree next to the front porch and got on the roof.
As we started back down the tree, Taylor was holding the gun. He said, “I’ll just toss it down so I won’t fall.”
I said, “Don’t do that, it’ll break.”
As he was letting go of the gun, he said, “Oh, it’s not that far down.”
The gun shattered. He said, “No big deal. Just tape it back together.”
It’s not surprising that I felt the loss of the new toy or that the carelessness of my playmate made me mad fifty years ago. The spiritual news flash for me was that in 2016 I still resented an eight year old boy for being, well, an eight year old boy.
Jesus was reminding me that he is actively tending my life, nurturing it and pruning it to bear the fruit of a holy soul. And that’s what Jesus is doing for all of us.
Jesus does not guarantee a favorable set of outward circumstances. Health and wealth elude millions of deeply faithful people around the world and around the corner.
Faith in Jesus does not shield us from pain and sorrow, tragedy and violence.
For instance, in Michigan an Uber driver went on a random shooting spree just days ago. And even more recently a perpetrator in Kansas opened fire at his former work place, having taken aim at complete strangers on his way to the final crime scene.
As Jesus said of those slaughtered by Pilate in the midst of worship and of those who died when a tower in Jerusalem collapsed, “Were these people any worse sinners than anybody else?”
In other words, Jesus is discrediting what was then a common theology. Some believed that when bad things happened to people it was God’s way of singling them out as sinners. Bad things, they thought, happened to bad people. Correlatively, good things happen to good people.
That’s just not how God operates. In Jesus we see that God is intimately involved in our lives. We’re all up to our eyeballs in the messiness of human life. And Jesus dives right in to nurture us into holiness.
And yet, Jesus goes on to say, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:5) Jesus is not contradicting himself. Instead, he’s helping us understand how we are accountable under the reign of God’s grace.
In Jesus, God is wholly invested in each of our lives. Jesus tends us and nurtures us. The fruit that we bear is not what we achieve. Not our outward circumstances or status. It is who become.
In my case, Jesus is freeing me from an old pattern of responding to hurt and betrayal and rejection with resentment. In place of resentment, Jesus is growing a forgiving soul in me.
Soul work is what Jesus had in mind when he told the parable of the fig tree. A certain fig tree wasn’t bearing fruit, and the owner of the vineyard wanted to cut it down. The gardener asked for a little extra time to nurture the tree, believing that with the right care it would yield succulent figs.
We live in an achievement-obsessed culture. So it is small wonder that, when we hear that the tree must bear fruit or be struck down, we assume that God will judge us by our moral and spiritual achievements.
But the fruit that Jesus has in mind is not what we do. It is who we become. And who we become stretches into eternity.
We can resist Jesus’ nurturing love. We can cling to resentments or contempt or indifference or greed, and the increasingly lonely, narrow, hollow soul we inhabit on earth will become our infinitely cold, isolated dwelling place for all of eternity. Our time on earth will have become the beginning of hell. Even the fleeting joys of this brief life will fade into regret.
Curiously, a person confronted with precisely the same trying set of outward circumstances, and even the same initial reaction to those circumstances, will experience an infinitely different eternal trajectory.
When we yield to Jesus’ loving hand, resentment turns to forgiveness. Contempt and indifference to compassion. Greed to generosity. Resting in God and bound to the well-being of our neighbor, we glimpse heaven already in the chances and the changes of this planet.
Boiled shrimp and broken toys may not seem the stuff of spiritual transformation. But they are the stuff of ordinary life. And ordinary life is where we’ll find Jesus tending our soul.