“I’m constantly filled with the Holy Spirit – But I leak.” I’ve tried to identify the source of that relatable quote to no avail but it describes many of us quite well. It also serves as a fitting intro to the theme of this essay. A far Eastern folk tale goes as follows:
A rich man’s servant had the task of supplying his master with fresh spring water. The well was a distance away so he’d hang two large ceramic containers from a sturdy plank and bear the weight across his shoulders. One jug was perfect while the other one had a hairline crack in its base and was never full when the round trip was completed. The perfect one was proud of the fact it always fulfilled the function it was created to perform. But, because it always came up short, the other canister was ashamed of its defect and in a constant state of sadness. This went on for years until the unhappy urn spoke to the man one day at the well. “I feel it necessary to apologize to you for being so inadequate at my job.” “Why would you say such a thing?” the man asked. “You’ve nothing to be sorry for.” “Of course I do!” the container replied. “When we get to your master’s house I’m half empty every time. This despicable fracture in me causes water to drip out constantly. The result is that, despite your hard work, you’re never able to deliver all the water you drew.”
The compassionate man grinned and said, “Do me a favor. As I walk back to the house today I want you to take note of all the lovely flowers that line one side of the path. They’re impressive.” The jug did just that. The man was correct. Beautiful wildflowers flourished on its side of the road, their spectacular colors shining brightly in the sunlight and they lifted the canister’s spirits out of the doldrums. However, when the journey was over the jug once again felt bad that half its load had dripped out along the way. The man sat down for a much-needed rest. He said to the downcast container, “I hope you noticed all those gorgeous blooms were only on your side of the trail. I’ve always known about your flaw and I intentionally made the best of it. I sowed flower seeds on the side you hang over and every day as I toted you back from the well I knew they were getting the water they needed to grow and thrive. For years now I’ve been able to pick bunches of those wildflowers and use them to decorate my master’s living room. If you’d been in any other condition than the one you’re so upset about he wouldn’t have had those flowers around to boost his spirits.”
Our initial reaction to this story is to highlight the moral imbedded in it and jokingly say it means we’re all crackpots yet God can nonetheless use our weaknesses to magnify His glory. That’s true, but we must refrain from overemphasizing that angle because it’ll dilute the deeper message being conveyed. It’s about being content. What it’s not intended to do is burden us with yet another reminder we’re the clumsy, barely utile dimwits we view in the mirror. We know that. And I’m not implying honest humility isn’t vital to genuine spirituality. Being open and transparent about our fallen state is the key to maintaining a firm grip on reality and to understanding how and why things go south so often. It’s important we be mindful God can always bring good out of the consequences of our sinful deeds and defects no matter how horrible they are. Fables like this one do help reinforce our Christian values, attitude guidelines and ultimate aims. But becoming obnoxious moralizers about everything is counterproductive. We must not reduce the liberating news of the Gospel to a steely behavioral code, a stiff-necked ethic or a joyless philosophy of life. Martha, as she’s described in Luke 10:38-42, provides us with a fine example. “Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he said. But Martha was distracted with all the preparations she had to make so she came up to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work alone? Tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her.”
Some scholars employ this passage to contrast the advantages of a contemplative life to a more active one. If we take the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, and compare it with this incident it we might opine that Christ, via his exasperation with Martha’s grouchy countenance, was informing us that worshipful piousness beats busyness every time. However, Jesus was never ambiguous so He wasn’t trying to confuse us. And, if we hold firm to the fact that our Savior is not only the focus of the Gospel message but the message in its entirety we’ll never get sidetracked into meandering arguments over what He meant when He spoke. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had their priorities straight. It’s all about Jesus. All the other men and women they mention stay on the fringes of center stage, their role being to ask questions of, answer or react to Christ. Never do they step into the spotlight for He outshines them all. He’s the star whom no one in the audience can take their eyes off of. He steals every scene because He’s not just another talented actor. He is God. Therefore neither Martha nor Mary have all that much to do with the point being made. As always, we gain the most wisdom when we concentrate on Jesus.
Consider the context. Our Lord and His disciples are headed for Jerusalem where He’ll lock horns with the Pharisees, angering them to the degree they start plotting His murder. Needing a breather, He detours through Bethany. He’s worn out from non-stop preaching/healing, from the “gotcha” inquiries posed to Him by the Jewish leaders’ spies and from the petty quarrels erupting amongst His closest pals. What He yearns for is the companionship of females for a change and He knows Martha and Mary will gladly take Him in. Mary intuitively gathers that Jesus needs her to let Him vent a little. She stops everything, graciously gives Him her undivided attention and allows Him to freely pour out His heart. Martha, on the other hand, is convinced what the Messiah needs most is a good, hot meal. She concentrates on cooking up a storm and observing proper Hebrew etiquette. It doesn’t take long before she realizes she’s the only one sweating bullets in the kitchen so she marches in and demands Jesus make her enraptured sister get up and start peeling potatoes pronto. Jesus looks straight into Martha’s indignant baby blues and tells her, “Chill out, dear. Din-din can wait. I’m beat down, lonely and running on fumes. I’m on my way to face certain rejection, ridicule and persecution in the Holy City so forget the soufflé already. Come join your sister and hold my hand for just a while. I need you, not your culinary skills. Mary’s doing nothing but smiling at me is precisely what I need most right now. I have a human heart and it’s in the process of breaking so, please, just be kind. Sit with me and together let us simply enjoy each other’s company.” Is it so farfetched to imagine Christ telling us the same thing? To sometimes stop trying so hard to dissect the Scriptures and just quietly be content to spend time with Him?
The rich man’s servant floored the defective jug by telling it how invaluable its contribution of dripping water was. The depressed container had assumed its sole reason for existence was to deliver gallons of well water. It was so engrossed in its self-determined purpose it never suspected that God’s broader will for it was proceeding as planned: to give life to the dormant flower seeds lying alongside the pathway. While you may not be able to relate to the jug, I can. I set my goal to be a successful singer/songwriter early on in life because I’d convinced myself a career in music was my God-ordained calling. When that didn’t pan out I labeled myself a failure. I then spent three decades wasting a lot of time wallowing in self-pity. I didn’t need God because I didn’t think He needed anything from me. I had so many leaks it wasn’t even funny. When I hit bottom and thought I was falling to pieces I limped back to my Heavenly Father’s house and He not only ran to hug me, He dressed me in a regal robe and put a priceless ring on my finger. He said, “Welcome home, son. I love you just the way you are. And, after I make you as good as new again, you can serve me by bringing me other defective jugs who think they’re worthless, too.” Brennan Manning wrote from experience when he said, “Our disappointments arise from presuming to know the outcome of a particular endeavor.” Tongue firmly in cheek, he added, “Entrusting ourselves to Mystery, we move forward fearlessly, knowing that the future of the planet probably does not depend on what we do next.”
Ponder this. If the defective urn hadn’t compared itself with its pristine counterpart it’d likely been content as is. In today’s world covetousness may be our most commonly-shared sin. A plain Jane yearns to look like a supermodel. A fledgling baseball pitcher aches to be the next Nolan Ryan. A small-town minister longs to be Billy Graham. As a guitarist with limited ability I wanted to be Eric Clapton. You get the picture. From childhood we’re taught to set the bar high whether it’s in terms of intelligence, talent, charisma or physical appearance. Anything that even hints at being a handicap must be addressed and corrected ASAP. We tend to measure our worth on a scale that doesn’t and never has existed in the mind of God. In John 3:27 John the Baptist tells us, “No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven.” Manning wrote, “Any attempt to measure the value of our lives by comparison and contrast to others belittles our gifts and dishonors God by our ungratefulness. As an old black preacher on a red-clay road in Georgia instructed a pilgrim, ‘Be who you is, ‘cause if you ain’t who you is, you is who you ain’t.’” Truer words were never spoken.
The defective jug didn’t realize it was meeting a need until the servant revealed the truth to it. Haunted by feelings of inadequacy, it had resigned itself to uselessness and got bogged down in a swamp of self-obsession and discontent. Many of us are guilty of doing the same thing. When we selfishly start thinking it’s “all about me” we inevitably sink into pits of depression and we despair of our lot in life. We chastise the unbalanced stalker who refuses to leave their ex-spouse alone yet we coddle and pamper our own conceited ego that stalks us relentlessly day and night, infiltrating even our dreams. We think we’re doing God a favor by trying to fix ourselves on our own but we’re only inviting the curse of self-fascination to come in and take over our psyche. What Sebastian Moore called “the inescapable narcissism of consciousness” causes us to not only become fixated on ourselves but to eventually become filled with a sense of dread. We might even convince ourselves nothing matters. That what we call life is but a made-up illusion and when we die it all comes to an insignificant halt. We can erroneously magnify to an insane level a devil-encouraged suspicion our relationship with the great I AM is pretention, that we’re only regurgitating ancient writings and beliefs without sincere conviction. When we jettison the Holy Spirit from our hearts we soon find there’s nothing to replace Him with. And that emptiness can eat us alive. The only thing that can grow in that barren environment is self-loathing and, like the defective jug, we’ll feel compelled to apologize to the water carriers in our life. (If you think I’m being overly dramatic take a hard look at the escalating number of suicides worldwide.)
You may be asking, “So what, exactly, are Christians supposed to glean from all this?” I’m glad to respond in the positive. We’re to trust without reservation that our Heavenly Father has bestowed upon His children everything we could possibly need to live life to the fullest. Jesus announced that, unlike Satan the thief, He came so that we “…may have life, and may have it abundantly” (John 10:10). In spite of our physical shortcomings, intellectual borders, neuroses-clogged emotions and spiritual deficiencies we’ve been equipped by our loving Creator with all things necessary to be whom He had in mind before time began. He held back nothing essential to completing our mission on earth: spreading the news about Jesus Christ to those who don’t know Him as their personal Lord and Savior. That the defective jug’s weakness turned out to be its strength adds potency to Saint Augustine’s quip, “All things work together for the good of those who love God, even our sins.” At Celebrate Recovery we emphasize that God never wastes a hurt, that there are no lost causes and that no one’s beyond redemption. Everybody washed in the blood of Christ is not only made white as snow but is instantly considered to be of enormous value in God’s kingdom. The eighth CR principle states “Yield myself to God to be used to bring this Good News to others, both by my example and by my words.”
In 1 Peter 4:8 the Apostle left believers with a piece of divinely-inspired advice, “Above all keep your love for one another fervent, because love covers a multitude of sins.” When a woman of questionable character interrupted a banquet hosted by Simon, a wealthy Pharisee, Jesus first commended her for her display of gratitude and then said to Simon, “…I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much…” (Luke 7:47). Manning wrote, “Trust Jesus, trust the love in your heart, and trust the Word just spoken to you. With all your cracks and fissures, you are capable of greatness in the new Israel of God.” Jesus wasn’t being coy when He told us the second most important commandment was to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). The implication is that if we don’t love ourselves – warts and all – then we’ll never be able to love our neighbor as we should. Don’t overlook the fact that your life is a gift from God. It’s the gift of existence. It’s the gift of individuality that includes our unstable temperament, our unique genetic makeup, our flaws and inconsistencies, our non-duplicated identity. Consider for a moment that your one-of-a-kindness is one of the ways our magnificent Creator has opted to express His glory in the realm of space and time. Jesus acknowledged that it was Caesar’s image stamped on the Roman coin. In the first few pages of the Bible God answers the question, “But whose image is on us?” with “God created humankind in his own image…” (Genesis 1:27). Paul went even further, proclaiming that, as born-again Christians, we’re to “…put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Did you catch that last part? This messy, leaky bag of molecules that I am will one day attain the equivalent of the righteousness and holiness of God Almighty! Wow! Make that a double Wow! And, if you’ve accepted His free gift of salvation, so will you!
God has a purpose for every single one of us. Thomas Merton wrote, “God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of Himself. A word will never be able to comprehend the voice that utters it. But if I am true to the concept God utters in me, if I’m true to the thought in Him I was meant to embody, I’ll be full of His actuality and find him everywhere in myself, and find myself nowhere. I’ll be lost in Him.” Titus 1:2 affirms that God cannot lie. Therefore we must pray for the bravery to let ourselves be spoken.