Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Out to the Curb

“Only one life, ’twill soon be past ...”

Garbage day in our city varies from block to block, so there is always something out for pickup. Quite often, along with the refuse of daily living, home owners will set outside for collection a few items that are still in good shape but are simply of no further use to them.

So out to the curb they go. Each abandoned item has its story.

A Story of Wasted Effort

A child grows up and leaves home. Hundreds of dollars in toys given on special occasions by dutiful and attentive relatives — some prized, some unappreciated — now serve no purpose. Out they go.

A woman with Alzheimer’s must go into a single room in a home. Her busy daughter sees no value in Mother’s collection of overpriced knick-knacks, each a must-have lovingly acquired for her on special occasions by her long-departed husband at the cost of many hours of labor at a tedious and unrewarding job. Out they go.

A teenage tenant develops bad habits away from home, flunks a first-semester college course and promptly quits the program. Hundreds of dollars in furniture, textbooks, clothes and sundries purchased back in September by loving parents hoping to help their son get started in life are left behind so he can sneak away without paying his last month’s rent. Out they go.

Out they all go, and there they sit by the curb, reminding me of the sheer amount of wasted energy, effort, thought and dollars that go into our daily lives.

More Wasted Gestures

A friend of almost forty years still sends me Christmas cards, and he always tucks in a few recent hockey cards of players from my favorite NHL team, often minor rarities carefully chosen for me at a flea market or dealer. It takes minutes or hours of my friend’s valuable time to find and select the right cards, and a not-insignificant number of hard-earned dollars from his pocket, all to give me a few moment’s pleasure, after which they end up in a dark closet with thousands of others accumulated over a lifetime. Those cards are meaningless to my children, who don’t follow the sport, don’t know the players, and don’t collect much of anything. So these cards too will one day take their place at the curb waiting for the garbage truck, inspiring the occasional reflective passer-by to make up his own stories about where they came from.

Now comes Christmas Day. My sister-in-law has produced batch after batch of delicious baked goods, hopefully without too much Martha-esque huffing and puffing along the way. Her hard work is forgotten moments after it is lustily consumed at our family gathering, mostly by the younger generation, their palates so undiscerning that the contents of a five dollar bag of plain Lays chips would have served the purpose equally. Hours of my sister-in-law’s hard-earned skill, experience, grocery budget, and loving labor pass through a dozen digestive tracts and are carried away by the plumbing.

Forgive me if I sometimes wonder exactly what the point is in all this. And indeed, much of the money we spend, the effort we make, the thought we put into things and the activities we engage in amount to time wasted. So much money, thought and effort is required to produce mere seconds of pleasure in another person, and sometimes not even that.

What’s the Point in That Anyway?

This very understandable sentiment arose among the disciples at Bethany when they saw a woman pour expensive ointment on the head of their Lord and Master. “Why this waste?” “What’s it all for?” “Somebody spent hours buying and combining those expensive ingredients and now it’s all gone in a moment.” “This could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.”

That last statement was not particularly well considered. Sometimes people are poor because of bad breaks. Other times they are poor because they have no impulse control and no appreciation for anything of value. In the latter case, sell anything valuable and give it to the poor, and chances are the beneficiaries of your largesse will just blow it all on cigarettes and beer (or the first century equivalent), and be just as impoverished and miserable ten minutes later. You sure won’t solve poverty or even put the tiniest dent in it.

Actually, when you think about it, in and of itself a charitable gesture is just as wasteful and pointless as anything else you might do with your money. Seen from a merely earthly perspective, the disciples’ problem wasn’t that they were cynical about the woman’s gesture of love; it was that they were insufficiently cynical about the conventional religious wisdom concerning charity.

Frankly, in a purely material world where gravity, inertia, time and entropy rule, every unnecessary expenditure of effort is a waste. Kindness to the poor is of no more value than Judas helping himself to the contents of the money bag. And whether expensive oils and perfumes are poured out or kept in the bottle, they’re all going out to the curb eventually.

How the Lord Saw It

Except ... we do not live in a purely material world. The Lord didn’t see the woman’s act of love like the disciples saw it. “Truly, I say to you,” he told them, “wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” In God’s way of looking at things, even a relatively small, temporal act can have eternal value.

Why is that? Because it is done for Christ. Her loving gesture did not vanish into the ether or get put out on the curb for pickup. The things we do for ourselves and for others out of habit, duty, natural affection or the desire to be appreciated will all pass away very quickly, but every action taken in Christ’s name and for his glory will last forever.

This is not the only time the principle is found in scripture. Even the minutes God’s people spend thinking and talking about his desires are precious to our God. In Malachi, devout Jews heard the rebuke of the prophet and began to discuss what they might do to more honorably and consistently serve the God of heaven. And the Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. He valued their thoughts and conversation enough to make an eternal record of it. Their concern for heavenly values did not end up at the curb.

Christ In and Out of the Flesh

Christ is no longer here in the flesh walking among us. We have no opportunity to pour oil over his head or wipe his feet with a pound of pure nard. But the things we do for other believers in his name and for his glory are still of great value to him. He considers them worthy of eternal reward. Every effort, thought, expenditure or gesture of real value is preserved eternally in Christ. These things do not go out to the curb with the rest of the trash:
“Only one life, ’twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
— C.T. Studd
Let us spend our time and effort, then, on that which has eternal value, not on the things that despite our best intentions are on their way to the curb.

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