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Life from the Up Side
Seeing God at Work in the World
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2004 Dimensions for Living
All rights reserved.
On Being Born with a Rusty Spoon (For Those Who've Had a Bad Start)
JOSHUA 2:1-11: Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, "Go, view the land, especially Jericho." So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, "Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land." Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, "Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land." But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, "True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them." She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.
Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: "I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The LORD your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.
The most surprising thing about the phrase in my title for this chapter is that I've heard it only once. When I think of the number of people who have a right to say it, and those who express the same philosophy at greater length and with less eloquence, I'm surprised that this phrase hasn't become the possession of a whole subsection of our culture.
I got the phrase secondhand from a man who worked with my wife some years ago. It was one of those Monday morning conversations, when workers are sipping coffee and inquiring about the weekend just past. When someone asked if the others had had a good night's sleep, one man answered, "I never get a good night's sleep. I was born with a rusty spoon in my mouth."
As my wife, Janet, reports it, the statement wasn't bitter. The speaker was a pleasant man, not given to pessimism or complaint. He was making a summary of life as he had experienced it. The "rusty spoon" said it all.
When I heard the story, I said to myself, Now, there's someone who knows his theology. Of course, he's right—not just for himself, but for the whole human race. Mind you, the analysis is more pronounced and obvious in some cases, sometimes even to the level of consummate tragedy. But the man who said it, whether he knew it or not, was doing nothing other than putting the Christian doctrine of original sin in graphic, down-to-earth language. All of us were born with a rusty spoon. As for those to whom we sometimes enviously refer as having been born with a silver spoon in their mouths, if you'll look more carefully at their equipment, you'll find the silver is well tarnished. And you don't have to be a theologian to see it; a rudimentary knowledge of psychology will do. We don't start life with a spoon of our own making or choosing; it's been passed to us by other generations.
The classic doctrine of original sin says that when Adam and Eve sinned, they brought a curse upon the whole human race. In other words, they bequeathed to us a rusty spoon. Our Puritan ancestors taught this doctrine to their children as part of the alphabet. Since the issue is so basic, they were pretty pragmatic in doing so, especially since "A is for Adam": "In Adam's Fall, / We sinned all."
And that's the way it is. We know this not because we've read the doctrine but because we're human beings who have experienced it. We live every day with its reality.
Please understand me. I'm not speaking simply of our conduct. That's sometimes convincing enough when we find ourselves doing and saying things that we insist are inconsistent with our self-image. "I can't believe I did such a thing," we sometimes say as we review some irrational or unseemly act. Well, maybe it's an old family trait. Maybe it's something we learned from Adam and Eve.
But I repeat, I'm not speaking simply of our conduct. I'm thinking of all the other evidences that we are born into a world where sin was here before we were. Ponder our human scene. You didn't ask for a world where there's poverty, disease, and war; they were here waiting for you when you came. We inherited them. Let me hasten to add that we also didn't ask for a world where there are such things as the music of Bach, the writing of Shakespeare, and the art of Michelangelo; these, too, were waiting when we came. But in truth, all of us are born into a world where sin (as well as beauty) has a head start on us. It's a world where we are exposed early to pain, hatred, thoughtlessness, and irritability so that these unpleasant realities can easily become factors in our own personalities before we realize it. And this is true even before we get into the embarrassing business of those inclinations and traits that our families tell us we got from some relative who we wish hadn't contributed to our genetic line.
Some theologian a generation ago said that every human being is born with a pack on his or her back. That is, we come into this world with an accumulation from previous generations. We are likely to take the good for granted; our worst sin in that respect is that we don't use our good inheritance more effectively. But our problem, of course, is coping with the bad. What do we do with the pack on our back? How do we handle the rusty spoon?
Before I go further, let me say that some people seem clearly to come out worse in this matter than others. Some are born with poor health, some with what seem to be limited talents. Some folks begin life with a particularly unpleasant temperament, and with such a start, they generally find that those around them cooperate in giving their unpleasantness reason to prosper. I'm sad that many are born into homes where the financial resources are desperately limited, and some (far worse) are born into settings where they're not wanted or to parents who are poorly equipped to love them and to raise them with beauty. Some spoons, that is, are rustier than others.
And incidentally, we never really know for sure about another person's spoon. We don't know the complete history of even our closest friend or family member. In every human life there are interior lands that no one can fully explore, not even the most trusted friend or the most astute counselor. So no one knows for sure the nature of your spoon or mine. And to be honest, sometimes—depending on our moods—we may not evaluate our own spoon too accurately.
When it comes to rusty spoons, let me tell you a story. You'll find it in the book of Joshua, in the Old Testament. You may be surprised to learn that you'll find three brief sequels to the story in the New Testament. It's the story of a woman named Rahab, who lived long ago (very long ago!) in the city of Jericho.
Let me get right to the point. Rahab was a prostitute, operating a house of ill fame at the wall of Jericho. Some make themselves more comfortable with this story by sanitizing it a bit—suggesting that Rahab simply ran a hotel— but this sanitizing can't honestly be done, and people who read their Bibles seriously ought not to try. Rahab was a prostitute. We don't know how she came to follow that commerce of the body. Perhaps her parents lived outside the law, so it seemed perfectly natural to her to follow such a course. Or perhaps she was forced into what Rudyard Kipling called "the most ancient profession in the world." But most likely, I think, is this: She grew up in a culture where there was little sense of sin, or on the other hand, little sense of the sacredness of the body. Therefore, her work was probably seen simply as another way of making a living.
But there's no way to take the inherent sting from it. Her house, built right into the wall of the city, was appropriately located, for she was out at the edge of life. She saw most men at their worst—some of them brutal, many of them crude, all of them furtive. There had to be something profoundly distasteful in having men pursue you in private, then studiously avoid your eyes in public. Hers was a rusty spoon kind of world. She lived at the edge of life: on the edge of the law, on the edge of love, on the edge of hope.
Then one day she found herself hosting two foreigners, Israelites. She had heard about the people of Israel; after all, in her business, she was often the first to get gossip and privileged information. There had been wondrous tales (she could hardly know where fact slipped into fiction) of the way these Israelites had escaped from Egypt, survived a generation in the howling wilderness, and were now marching like a motley but surprisingly disciplined army toward Jericho and the adjoining cities. Rumor had it that the Lord God was with them and that they were invincible. No doubt many of the people of Jericho scoffed at the rumors ("Nothing to worry about when your city has walls like ours!"). Somehow, however, Rahab felt deep within that the rumors were true and that these people were in a march of destiny.
I suspect I should interrupt the story for a moment to answer a question that may well be in your mind: What were these Israelite spies doing in a place like Rahab's? To be honest, I don't know. To give it the nicest spin, perhaps Rahab's was the only place one could get lodging. Or perhaps since these two men were involved in an illegal business, spying, they went to the site of an illegal business where no questions would be asked. And there's the worst scenario: Maybe these two men were taking advantage of being far from the people who knew them.
In any event, I marvel in this story, as I do in so many others, at the unflinching honesty of the Bible. The Bible seems never to gloss over the failings of its characters, nor to explain them. It gives us the unadorned facts, and it leaves the rest to us. And I marvel still more that God so often takes the rather messy stuff of our lives and manages to bring good from it. This doesn't excuse our messiness (read that sin), but it does remind us that God is not undone by our weakness, our stupidity, or our wickedness. Rather, God has a remarkable penchant for mixing grace with our basest ingredients until the will of heaven comes to pass.
But back to our two spies and Rahab. I suspect that she watched these men very carefully. Since they were spying out the land, their presence was soon noticed in the community. Jericho was a cosmopolitan center where strangers were a daily fact of life. But strangers who have no obvious business and who seem particularly attentive to too many details are going to arouse suspicion—particularly when it's known that a marauding band from Egypt is in the territory. The king of Jericho ordered Rahab to turn in the men. Instead, she hid them. More than that, she lied to protect them.
Then she helped them escape. But before she did, she told them why she had protected them. I know the Lord is with you, she explained, and that he is leading you to victory. Promise me one thing: When you conquer Jericho, as you surely will, you will spare my family and me. The two spies agreed. They gave her a crimson cord and asked that she hang it from her window so that when their troops destroyed Jericho, anyone in her house would be saved (see Joshua 2:1221).
Everything went as planned. Israel conquered Jericho, and Rahab and her family were spared. In fact, Rahab and her family became part of the nation of Israel. How much of a part? Well, the rest of her story appears in the New Testament. We next read of her in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in a list of the ancestors of Jesus. She is one of a quite exclusive list; only four women are mentioned by name in the genealogy of our Lord, and she is one of them. Because, as it happened, she married into the tribe of Judah, from which the ancestors of Jesus came, and she was in the direct line.
Then we read of her again in the New Testament letters of Hebrews and James. Both writers hold her up as an example to be imitated, but for different virtues. The Letter to the Hebrews includes her in the select company of its faith Hall of Fame: "By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace" (Hebrews 11:31). By her place in this chapter she is identified as one of the great exemplars of faith, along with Moses, Abraham, Sarah, and Noah. That's pretty impressive company for someone born with a rusty spoon!
She receives, if possible, even greater acclaim in the Letter of James. This apostolic writer wants to show that faith without works is dead, so he proves his point by telling the story of Abraham. Then, as if to show that there's more than one example for his argument, James continues, "Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?" (James 2:25).
That is, the New Testament writers saw Rahab, the Jericho harlot, as a prime example of someone who demonstrated both faith and works. Poor as her beginning must have been, troubled as probably were her early and middle years, she became an ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ and a case history in godly living.
So what does a person do with life's rusty spoon? How do you manage when there are branches in your family tree that you'd rather not mention or when you're not really sure you have a tree? There's an ancient story—originating in Russia, I believe—in which a man is falsely accused of a crime and sent to prison. After many years his innocence is proved, and he is released. But in his freedom, he is marked by great heaviness and darkness.
His neighbors urge him to resume a normal life; instead, he becomes a stranger and a recluse. One day, in response to an earnest encourager, he takes a bottle and a long piece of wire. He bends and bends the wire, forcing it into the bottle. Then he breaks the bottle, and lifts out the wire. "Now you are free," he says to the wire, "to resume your normal life." Yet still the wire remained bent. So it was, he said, for him. His life had been too bent, too misshapen, by the years in prison, with his burden of false accusations. He could never again be what he was before life forced him into its bottle of shame and misery.
I empathize. There's no doubt that the circumstances and experiences of our lives mark and shape us, sometimes to the point of distortion. Some of us are twisted into all sorts of unhappy postures by a variety of factors—perhaps our parents, maybe a thoughtless teacher, unwholesome friendships, bad job experiences, or simply the ugly temperament we seem to have inherited and can't seem to control. Is one doomed, then, to remain so twisted?
The Bible gives a resounding answer, and Rahab demonstrates it as well as anyone. Whatever our circumstances, our start in life, or our present state of life, we can go on to something better. We will need faith, as Rahab did, and we also will have to work at it, as she did. But we can go on. I believe that no one can ever fully estimate how magnificently we can do so.
And consider this: In the case of Rahab, it was the very unseemliness of her situation that provided the opportunity for her to make the new start that led eventually to her unique role in history. After all, the spies would never have met Rahab if she had been one of the comfortable people in the Jericho community.
For the sixteen years that I was the senior minister at the Church of the Saviour in Cleveland, Ohio, I was inspired again and again by the beauty of the stained glass windows in the towering Gothic sanctuary. In time, I came upon a rusty spoon story. R. Toland Wright was the youngest child in a large family. His mother died when he was quite small. When his father remarried, the stepmother was a good woman, but a painfully practical one. She believed that artists were simply lazy people, so she wouldn't allow Toland to have any crayons or paper when he was a boy. As he grew older, she urged him to become a plumber because plumbing meant a steady income.
But the boy had a stubborn streak. When he was still quite young, he left home and got all kinds of odd jobs to earn his way through the art academy. Gradually his remarkable talents began to develop. In the height of his career, he created numbers of magnificent stained glass windows, including the chancel window and the baptistry window at the Church of the Saviour. Toland Wright had a rusty spoon: half-orphaned as a small child, deprived of the tools of art he so passionately desired, twisted like wire into a bottle of practicality—and yet he had faith in his sense of purpose, and he worked to make his faith come to pass.
Excerpted from Life from the Up Side by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2004 Dimensions for Living. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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