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I'm Just An Old Chunk of Coal
Anyone who has ever played the role of pedestrian in a large city knows that it can be a life-threatening exercise. Blocked crosswalks, blind drivers who can't seem to see you or just the plain rude drivers who see you and don't care can make walking in a crowded city an extreme sport.
As a former resident of Atlanta, one of the top five cities in the U.S. with the most pedestrian deaths, I understand the rules of defensive walking. I avoid jaywalking and always cross at lights when I have the right-of-way (of course, pedestrians in a crosswalk always have the right-of-way, but that's a piece in the driver's manual that somehow gets forgotten). I'm scrupulously careful, even though I now live in one of the safest cities for pedestrians - Columbia, South Carolina.
But, statistics don't take a driver's bad day into account. Even in Columbia, it's still possible to cross a driver while crossing the street. It happened to me recently while crossing a busy intersection at a red light. The oncoming car didn't appear to be stopping so I stopped in the middle of the road until I could figure out what he was going to do. He finally stopped - exactly in the middle of the crosswalk. I shook my head and resumed my journey.
"Sorry," the bearded man shouted from his window. I gave him a half-smile, shook my head in amusement (as a veteran pedestrian I've encountered his sort before) and continued on my way.
"Hey!" came the loud voice behind me. "I said I was sorry!"
I stopped again in the middle of the road in complete shock. I turned around to find the man continuing to yell, "I said I was sorry! I'm sorry!"
His volume got louder and angrier. By his tone I was beginning to doubt the sincerity of the original apology. I stood in wonder for a moment and then I felt it - anger. I got caught up in whatever issue this guy was having that day that was causing his anger and frustration at my apparent refusal to accept his apology. I had not said anything. I had merely shaken my head and smiled at him. The gesture was one of shrugging it off for me, but apparently it was gesture of offense to him.
"I said I was sorry!" he yelled again, becoming increasingly agitated.
His energy overtook me. I gave in to the negativity swirling in the air.
I quoted Dick Cheney to him, several times.
Then I realized I was standing in the middle of the road about to lose my red light. I turned and walked to the parking deck leaving him ranting behind me.
I felt terrible. It was not a glory revealing moment.
Jesus says that what comes out of our mouth is what is in our heart. Apparently I have a lot of Dick Cheney in my heart. I berated myself for it on the way home. I could have said "God Bless You" to the man. I could have said nothing at all and left him to rant away. Anything would have been better, more compassionate, more glory-revealing than repeating Cheney's immortal words. But, I didn't. I went with the first thing that came up, and it wasn't nice. Is that really what's in my heart? And what does that say about my heart and what I treasure? What does that say about me? Does that make me a bad person, irredeemable?
I'm the first to admit that I have anger issues. I've had them for most of my life and most trace back to feelings of anger and helplessness over my parent's divorce when I was nine years old. Anger is the thorn in my side, my battle, my personal demon. I'm better than I used to be, but as the incident in the crosswalk proves, I've still got a long way to go. But, does my battle with anger mean that my heart is all bad? Does it mean that I am irretrievably broken and wretched?
I don't believe so. I believe it underscores the fact that we have been taught from birth that our hearts are bad. That we're the recipients of some "original sin" that has stained us as black as coal and that nothing we do will make us better. What we miss is the original glory that has been bestowed upon us. When God created us he pronounced us "good." We are God's "good" creation - a diamond lurking under the self-imposed coal that we believe to be the basic nature and condition of our souls, a message pounded into us by many forms of religion.
As John Eldredge, in his book "Waking the Dead," reminds us, our story does not begin with sin:
It's only the religious dogma that tells us we are bad - born with an original stain on our souls. God tells us that we are good - we are created in God's image and proclaimed a good creation in Genesis. But, we don't remember that. We get so caught up in the religious image of a "wretch" that we forget God said we were good.
We so often believe the lies that we are evil, wretched people. We bury our goodness voluntarily, believing that nothing good could come from us. Our goodness is buried deep in our heart, like precious diamonds formed over many years waiting to be unearthed.
It was Martin Luther who regarding himself as "a stinking bag of worms" before God and I think our challenge when we talk about revealing our glory is to never think such thoughts about ourselves. Revealing our glory is, I believe, ultimately about finding that balance between believing we are a "stinking bag of worms" or that "our stuff don't stink" at all!
Whenever I preach people always come up to me afterward to praise the sermon and tell me how much it meant to them. I never know how to respond, because I'm not good at taking compliments. I simply nod and thank them for their comments. What else can I do? I can't take credit for the sermon because I truly believe it was a message inspired by God. I always pray before writing sermons or essays and ask God to speak what message God wants to speak. Like Anderson sings, I try to kneel and pray everyday so I don't become vain along the way, because I've seen the results of that. Whenever I try to speak my message, it never comes out well. Whenever a sermon or essay is well received and garners praise I know God had a hand in its creation. Those that go over like a lead balloon must have been all my idea.
But, I'm vigilant to not let the praise go to my head. I've known egotistical preachers before and they aren't pretty. Many of them use their talents to personally enrich themselves or lead some "cult of personality" that becomes all about them and not about God. I take them as a cautionary tale and try to put praise into perspective and give God the glory for any positive message that people receive from me.
However, it's often easy to fall into the "stinking bag of worms" trap when you're working so hard to avoid the "my stuff don't stink" trap. If I'm nothing but an instrument for God's use, then how do I continue to value myself? If I view myself as nothing, how can God make me something? God cannot use a "stinking bag of worms" because no one would come near such a person. God needs well-balanced, glory-revealing people who draw in those most in need of God's love. Neither the morose nor the egotistical can do that. Only a person who knows that their heart is good can inspire others to believe the same about themselves.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians know this conundrum well. We're told repeatedly that we're "stinking bags of worms" that God cannot love. We're constantly told that our hearts are bad, that our love is "disordered," and that we must change to be loved by God. We take these judgments to heart, believing them to be true. We abandon God and religion all together, because, really, who wants to feel that way about themselves? We'd rather walk away from such toxic ideas than embrace a system that perpetuates them. But, even when we walk away, we continue to embrace these messages. They are right there under the surface all the time. We believe that our heart is bad, stained as black as coal. We don't understand that beneath that pitch black lurks a diamond - a heart that is good. A heart created and loved by God.
We make what Eldredge calls "agreements" with the enemy of our heart. Eldredge believes in a personified "Devil" that is our enemy, but I believe our worst enemy is ourselves - our very human nature that is ready to believe the worst about ourselves and doubt the best about ourselves. Whichever image you hold of the "enemy" in the world that constantly wants to see us stumble and fall, the reality of such an enemy is undeniable. There always seems to be something out there ready to sabotage our happiness, ready to cut us down when we begin to believe that our heart is good and that God loves us unconditionally. Whether that's a literal devil or our own innate ability at self-sabotage is really not what's important. What is important is learning how to overcome the negative tapes that constantly play in our heads and change them into positive messages that edify us instead of cripple us.
After my encounter with the angry driver, I made agreements all the way home with the enemy that is my selfish ego. "You're an idiot," the voice said. "How can you be a good person, a pastor even, and say such horrible things to people? Your heart is bad, because out of the heart comes our words, and what words were the first to pop into YOUR head? Filthy words - bad, Cheney kinds of words - not words of blessing or grace or peace or hope or joy. No, you cursed instead of blessed. You wanted to say more, really tell him off but the light was going to change. You simply didnít have time to show how truly horrible you are."
On and on it went. I felt terrible. The enemy was attacking me - lowering my self-esteem - making me hate and doubt myself. How can I be a pastor - someone who tells others how they ought to live and yet words of peace are not the first ones out of my own mouth? I had to agree. I was a horrible person. Someone who ought not even be a pastor. Perhaps I should quit.
See where this line of thinking leads? Of course the enemy wants me to quit. Of course the enemy wants me to feel unworthy to serve God. If I feel that way, then the enemy wins. I hang it up and that's one less person talking about God's love for everyone and God's desire for everyone to understand that even when we feel like an old chunk of coal, we can be a diamond if we'll only believe that heart is good and that God loves us no matter what we think of ourselves.
I had to shake myself out of it and realize that the voice did not come from God. The voice in my head was that of self-defeat - the voice of self-doubt and self-loathing. That voice is in all of us, calling us to give up on God, calling us to give up on loving ourselves, much less loving our neighbor. That voice tells us our heart is bad, and more often than not, we agree.
Eldredge warns against making these agreements because the enemy will suggest all sorts of things, telling us that God doesn't care about us, that we're not worthy of God's love, that we can't trust God. The enemy, Eldredge says, "is trying to kill your heart, destroy the glory in your life. It will feel hard - really hard, almost impossible - but whatever you do, make no agreements. You have to start there."
So, that's where I started. I began to sing, "I'm just an old chunk of coal, now Lord, but I'm gonna be a diamond someday." That was something I could agree with - I'm a diamond in the rough, but a diamond nonetheless.
We are all diamonds, every single one of us but we just don't know it. We scorn ourselves endlessly, something Louis Evely warns against in his book, "That Man is You" -
That day on the drive home I was feeling like a bag of worms, not sure what benefit anyone or any thing could get from my life, and God wasn't telling. But, in that moment I had nothing but my faith to rely on, and the assurance that resonated deep from my soul, that God loved me, even if I frequently quoted Dick Cheney. At least I was cognizant of the fact that I should try to not use that particular quote in the future, and work to do better - to "spit and polish my old rough-edged self, 'til I get rid of every single flaw."
To reveal our glory, we must break these agreements that tell us we are just chunks of coal and will always remain that way. To do that, we've got to find a better way to think and a better way to talk. Right speech is important if we're going to reveal our glory not just to ourselves but to everyone.
Our first practice in right speech should be in prayer - right speech to God. "The most efficacious deed we can perform is prayer," Evely says, "for it's in the active passivity of prayer that everything's decided and everything takes shape."
It also keeps us from being too puffed up about ourselves, thinking the things we accomplish are all because of our own effort. Prayer keeps us from falling into the "my stuff don't stink" trap. When we kneel and pray everyday, we avoid becoming vain along the way because we know whatever is accomplished after our prayers is God working through our lives. God is using our talents, our skills, our willingness and our capacity to serve to accomplish what God intends in the world.
The Fourth Mindfulness Training that Buddhists observe reads in part, "Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord." This is very close to Jesus' words in Matthew 12:34-37 where he reminds us that it is "out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. But I tell you that people will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned." Later in Matthew 15:11 Jesus tells us that, "what comes out the mouth" is what defiles a person - so right speech is imperative. We must find a better way to talk or we face the prospect of being condemned by our own words.
But, finding a better way to talk is only half the battle to revealing our glory. We also must find a better way to walk. Taken literally, the idea seems ridiculous. What's wrong with how I walk? Do I swish when I walk? Do I lope? One of the jokes I've always made is that you can tell a lesbian by "the walk." Lesbians always seem to have a more solid, grounded walk, taking longer, more confident strides than straight women, who always seem to take shorter strides and walk more lightly than lesbians.
We're not talking about how you literally walk, however - we're talking about how you walk in life. Does your walk show others your glory? Does your walk reveal the light of God to others, or does your walk show that you still believe yourself to be an old chunk of coal, stained by false ideas of a horrible, sinful nature? Ephesians 5:15 warns us to be careful how we walk, because others watch us to see what we show - will we reveal our glory, or our darkness?
The Bible is full of instructions on ways to walk so that we reveal our original glory. 2 Corinthians 5:7 tell us that we walk by faith and not by sight because we know that even if our physical body should die that we are forever one with God - our creator who has bestowed this original glory upon us. Likewise, Galatians 5:25 admonishes us to walk by the Spirit. We are instructed to live by the Spirit, displaying the fruit of that Spirit, which is our original glory - "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. "
When we learn that better way to walk, we will also "walk in love" as we're told in Ephesians 5:2. When we become imitators of God, we cannot help but walk in love, spreading the light of our original glory to everyone that we meet. We "walk as children of light," (Ephesians 5:8) spreading God's unconditional love into the world by letting our glory shine through everything that we do.
When we walk in by faith and not by sight, when we walk in the Spirit, when we walk with love as children of the light, then we are walking in integrity and "whoever walks in integrity walks securely" (Proverbs 10:9). When we walk in integrity our original glory cannot help but shine through, providing light in the darkness of people's lives, providing joy where there is misery, hope where there is doubt, love where there is hatred, peace where there is turmoil. If we'll search and find the best way to walk, we'll find that simply living our lives is how we best reveal the glory that God has freely given us.
While working on revealing our glory can be a very private endeavor in many ways because we are working to embrace the goodness of our own heart - we must also remember that our glory will never fully be revealed until we are part of a community of seekers who also are looking for ways to uncover their original glory. We must be in community to grow in love, to practice our right speech and walk in love and light. The community that we seek must foster these glory revealing activities and encourage us to always find that better way to walk and that better way to talk so that we truly become diamonds, shedding that old lump of coal that so many religious folk of the day tell us we are.
I've tried living without community before. There was a time that I could not feel at home in a church or any group gathering. I wanted to live a hermit life, and I found it quite easy to do given all of our modern conveniences. When I lived in Atlanta there was this wonderful invention called "Webvan." It was a service that would deliver groceries to your door after you spent a few minutes online ordering them. The delivery person would bring in the bags, you'd give him your debit card and he'd leave with a hearty thank you. I only had to leave the house for work. If Webvan could have brought me beer and I could have found a telecommuting job I would have never left the house.
My soul atrophied during this time. I was lonely, but determined to stick it out. I had been hurt by the church too many times. I had witnessed too many power struggles, too much infighting, too much bickering to trust my heart to that again. I refused. I became a hermit, determined to grow spiritually on my own. It didn't work. I actually became bitter, cynical, more convinced than ever that I was an old chunk of coal, unable to even fathom be a diamond.
Being in community can be hard. There are always feelings being hurt or intentions being read wrongly or someone feeling left out. But, in the end, community is all we have and it is something worth fighting for because when we come together we are stronger than when we are apart.
Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer for example. One season they were battling this Frankenstein like monster who was a conglomeration of demon parts. He was virtually invincible. The only way to kill him was to destroy his battery pack, lodged deep in his chest. The monster, named Adam, had been created as part of a secret Army project and his strength was greater than Buffy's by herself. But, Buffy was determined to face the monster alone, rebuffing requests from her band of friends to help her. In one scene they have a huge fight, full of angry words, accusations and recriminations. Buffy storms out of the room telling them, "So, I guess I'm starting to understand why there's no ancient prophecy about a Chosen One and her friends." She says that if she needs help she'll go to someone she can count on.
But, later on, Willow, the witch of the group, finds a spell they can use to defeat Adam. The only catch is, they all must be involved. While Willow, Giles and Xander work together to create the spell invoking the power of the first vampire slayer, Buffy goes to battle against Adam. When the spell takes over, Buffy is imbued with great power - an original glory bestowed on the first slayer and transferred to her through the efforts of her friends. She is able to defeat Adam, telling him that she is filled with a power greater than him. That power did not come to her on her own - but was only discovered in the power of community. Only with the help of her friends, the people who knew her most intimately, was she able to fully reveal her glory and defeat the enemy.
And so it is with us. We must live in community - a community that knows us well, that understands that our heart is good - that understands that their own hearts are good. Community can be messy. We will always face conflicts when we live in community, but we need to understand that if we believe our heart is good and that the hearts of those in our community are good, then we will understand that our community is worth fighting for - worth going through all the messiness and hurt feelings. Because it is in that community of believers that we become diamonds - we shed that old chunk of coal and reveal our glory.
Let's review. We reveal our glory first by doing a lot of personal work. We must accept ourselves as diamonds and shed the agreements we've made with the enemy that we are old chunks of coal. When we accept that our heart is good we must learn the ways of right speech and how to walk in Spirit, love and integrity. Then, we must find community - a group of people who will help us grow in Spirit, love and integrity. But our journey is not yet complete. To fully reveal our glory to the world we must be in service to others.
Just as Jesus sent his disciples out to heal in his name and spread the word about God's unconditional love, so God sends us into the world to be God's hands, feet, eyes and arms. Our hearts are good and we must tell others that theirs are good as well. We can do that with our words, certainly, but our actions speak louder than our words ever could. We must always be looking for ways to serve others - whether its volunteering at a community service, helping someone cut their grass or simply letting someone ahead of us in line. We must outdo one another in service and love.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 20:26 that "whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant." The "great" one, the servant shows forth their excellence, their glory, while serving. Jesus sends us forth to serve one another - to reveal our glory and God's glory in our actions toward one another. We are told that whatever we do to the least of God's creation, we do unto God. No matter what, we are called forth from our tombs, from our tendency to become hermits, relying on delivered groceries to keep the world at bay, into service to each and every one of God's creatures, from the lowly to the great. If we are to be great, if we are to reveal our glory, we must come forth, live in community and seek to be God's instruments of service in the world. Until we do that, we are no better than chunks of coal. We cannot be diamonds unless we are willing to be out in the world, shimmering with God's glory reflecting from our souls.
Start today polishing that old chunk of coal to reveal the diamond underneath. Break all the agreements you've made with that voice in your head that tells you that God can't possibly love a stinking bag of worms like yourself. Say no the next time that voice tells you that God hates you because you're gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender. Say no the next time that voice tells you you're not good enough to be one of God's children. Say no the next time that voice in your head tells you that no community will have you. Say no the next time that voice in your head tells you that you have nothing to give to anyone else. Say no the next time that voice tells you your heart is bad and that you are stained with original sin. Don't make these agreements.
Instead, cultivate that voice that tells you that you are good, that you are loved, that you are created just the way God intended you to be - good and full of original glory. There will be days, like my innocent trip across a busy intersection, where you'll slip and you'll begin to hear those voices telling you that you're no good. Don't believe it. Understand the voice for what it is - the enemy trying to undermine you, trying to get you to abandon the fact that you are imbued with God's wonderful glory. Even if you quote Dick Cheney - don't believe the lie that your heart is full of evil. It's not, you're heart is good.
Start today, just where you are, and fully embrace this idea: your heart is good. God loves you no matter what. Nothing can separate you from God's love (Romans 8:38-39), not even quoting Dick Cheney. Embrace your heart, guard it above all else, and don't ever let anyone tell you that it is bad. Reveal your glory, live in community, serve others, and remember that you are God's good creation.
Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. She is an ordained minister and holds a master's in theological studies from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. She is also a spiritual director, trained through the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She has worked for the past two decades in journalism and public relations. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright © by the author