Honestly, sometimes I just lose my mind. I hear things that nobody is saying.
For instance, Joy came back from her usual morning walk with our six-month old Lab-mix Gracie. Gracie was ecstatic. Joy, not so much.
“Ugh. She was awful,” Joy said. “She kept jumping up for treats. And her stomach is completely off.”
I heard, “She’s never been like this before. If you hadn’t been sharing your popcorn with her yesterday she wouldn’t be like this.”
My first response was to think, “Thank goodness she didn’t catch me feeding her the Wheat Thins.” Then I just shut down. Or, more accurately, I spiraled down with a crazy story about what was happening:
Joy is blaming me for her lousy walk with the dog. How dare she blame me! Oh really, so she’s just going to offload her frustrations on me. Well I’m just not going to take it.
I went from relief at not being caught slipping Wheat Thins to Gracie to full blown breakfast-table sulk in light speed. Our daughter Meredith chatted merrily away as I stared glumly into my mango Chobani Greek yogurt. Joy looked on warily.
Once back in our room, Joy said, “You want to tell me what’s going on?”
Joy realizes that this is the first step in a dance she has had to do with me from time to time. It’s called, Getting Jake to Step Back from the Abyss. We did it much more often when we were younger. It’s fairly rare these days, but Joy is clear about how it works.
“I’d rather not say,” is followed by, “How could you talk to me like that,” to a grudging admission, “Right, actually, that’s not what you really said. It’s what I heard.”
Usually I’m tired or over-functioning, frustrated or anxious. My spiritual batteries are low. That’s when I seem most likely to hear rotten stories about me. I attribute those stories to her or to someone else.
But the truth is, they are false, toxic stories I’m telling about myself. In essence, they all say the same thing. You’re not enough. Smart enough, capable enough, fit enough. Fill in the blank in front of “enough” however you like.
The result is the same. Life is about measuring up, and I don’t. All my little crazy, self-condemning stories belong on the judgment shelf of my interior library.
Joy gently walks me to the grace section of that library by simply hanging in there with me. Her persistent love nudges me toward getting the story right.
Every story that Jesus tells about us starts with being his beloved. That’s the story each of us needs to learn about ourselves. And when that’s the story we tell, who we are toward others changes. As the beloved, we can genuinely love even the unlovely.
We do remarkable things. We accept our imperfect selves. We forgive those who injure us. We make amends to those we’ve injured. We show compassion and generosity to strangers and even to those who hate us.
In other words, salvation happens.
That’s what we see when Jesus encounters Zacchaeus. Jesus is passing through Jericho. Throngs of people press in to get a glimpse of him. Zacchaeus lacks the height to see over the crowds, so he scrambles up a tree for a better view.
Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. That means he’s in management. The people who collect the taxes report to him. Being in the tax collection business meant that you were collaborating with the Roman occupiers. In other words, Zacchaeus had a lousy reputation in Jericho.
We don’t know any details about what Zacchaeus was like before meeting Jesus. We don’t know why he wanted to see Jesus. And we certainly don’t know what stories he told himself about himself.
But we do know that meeting Jesus changed him. Jesus characterized it this way. “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Luke Timothy Johnson suggests a slightly different translation of that line: Today salvation happened in this house. Salvation is something that is happening. In our day to day lives. In small ways and big ways. Again and again.
In Jesus’ culture, sharing a meal with someone brought you into an enduring personal relationship. By eating with Zacchaeus, Jesus was saying, “I am your friend. You are my beloved.”
Contrary to what you might expect from a Roman collaborator, Zacchaeus committed himself to compassion and working for justice. He would give away half of his possessions to the poor.
It takes courage to listen to the grievances others have against you. Zacchaeus committed to hearing those grievances and to restoring relationship with his neighbors.
Salvation was happening that day. And the next day. And the next day. Stretching into eternity.
Salvation, you see, is about who we are becoming, not just where we are heading after we die.
Some Christians narrowly define salvation in terms of our final destination. Being saved means to avoid hell and to get into heaven. Eternal life means to spend forever in paradise. No pain. No sorrow. Endless golf or tennis or fishing. In other words, all play and no work.
In brief, eternal life is all about your address in the next life. Location is everything.
By contrast, Jesus teaches us that eternal life is a way of living. That way of living derives from our relationship with Christ. Jesus imparts his life to us, saturates us with his life.
Jesus gave us the Holy Eucharist to show us what all of life is meant to be. In some mysterious way we partake of him, we participate in his very life. In the bread and the wine we see the Body of Christ. When we partake of it, we become what we have beheld. We become the Body of Christ. Salvation happens.
What the Sacrament shows us liturgically happens in ways mundane and profound every day.
We sit with the awkward kid at lunch and his and our loneliness abates. Tensions dissolve with a colleague over a cup of coffee. Sitting quietly with a grieving friend brings solace to us both.
We feed the hungry and find contentment. Shelter the homeless and feel security. Ensuring access to health care for everyone we realize a new depth of human dignity. Petting the dog at the end of a trying day we remember the basic goodness of the Creation.
Salvation is happening in such moments. Jesus is working through us, making us more like him.
From time to time, we all lose our minds. And Jesus restores us to sanity. Salvation happens.
Friends this is my last vacation post of previously published essays. I’ll be back at work again next week and begin putting up new stuff next Friday. My latest book is Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book About Hope. Click here to learn more and get a copy. As always, you can click the contact page of my site to schedule an event with me in-person or via Zoom.