“What’s the point of this life?” my friend asked over dinner. No doubt, it was a rhetorical question, the kind people ask knowing there’s no completely satisfying answer. It was also, no doubt, a question that arose from a deep hunger to have an answer and from the knowledge that the only answer that counts is the one we come up with ourselves.
It’s a question people are asking a lot these days as they face their own crises of faith, and those who ask it are increasingly coming up empty. Since 1999, the suicide rate in America has increased twenty-four percent. We’ve never been better educated or surrounded by more entertainment and recreation opportunities. Yet more people than ever are choosing death over life. I don’t pretend to know all the reasons why that’s happening, but I believe somewhere in all those many reasons is this: They’ve asked “What’s the point of this life?” and have come up empty.
My dinner companion didn’t expect, just because I’m a pastor, that I’d have an answer to that question. And I don’t expect that the many people who ask that question today think that, because we’re the church, we’ll have a definitive answer. If we had the answer, there’d be no place left for faith – faith being a radical trust in things we hope for but don’t see, in answers we seek but don’t have (cf. Heb. 11:1).
So all the people who are asking that question – what are they to expect from us who are the church, the body of Christ, who profess this unique relationship with God? And what’s our obligation to them in return? The answer, I believe, is found in one four-letter word: salt. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said to his disciples (Matt. 5:13) and says to us today.
In ancient Israel, when the people made an offering of grain to God, salt was added to the offering, sprinkled into it, to make the whole offering suitable for God. It didn’t change the nature of the grain – the grain remained grain. It didn’t change the grain into something else, something it wasn’t before. But the presence of the salt made the grain complete as an offering pleasing to God.
Something similar happens when you cook a good stew. You need to add salt to the stew as it’s being cooked. If you don’t add a little salt while it’s being cooked, or if you leave it to people to add later, you’ll still taste the carrots, the potatoes, the beans, the beef or chicken, and the other ingredients. But something will be missing, some depth and texture of taste, and it’ll be noticeable, and the dish won’t be stew, not quite. The salt is what makes the stew stew.
So here we are, salt in a shaky world that wonders about the point of life and increasingly chooses death. What is it for us to be salt in a world like this? It’s not working for us to try to change the world to our way of thinking or convert the world to our brand of faith. Maybe it’s time to simply focus on being salt.
Like salt in the stew or salt in the grain offering, living our faith with radical authenticity and integrity seasons all of life in the world, makes it richer, more robust, more savory and pleasing to God. And if we don’t do it, who will? “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (Matt. 5:13). But if we do it, who knows? Something might change after all.
When I was working for the University of Missouri, I fell in with a group of other single men who formed a dinner club – each month, two of us would prepare dinner for the six of us. During our first gathering, we had a great conversation about working at the university, literature and the arts, and life in Central Missouri. The next day I heard that after I left, the conversation took an interesting turn. I was the only straight man there, the other five were gay, and they talked about how, much to their surprise, they had spent the whole evening discussing issues that had nothing to do with their usual talk about life in the gay community.
Without changing their sexuality or talking about mine, my mere presence there changed the conversation. It changed the dynamic of our being together then and in all our subsequent gatherings. If we can be who we are as Christians, as authentically and gracefully as possible, without trying to change anyone else, we may change the conversation in the world today. We may be salt to make a bland and hopeless world a little more savory. We may be light to dispel a little darkness. And so, we may fulfill what God wants for this world.
Questions for reflection
- Think of someone in your experience who has made your life richer, more robust. What about that person, what qualities or character, contributed to your enjoyment or appreciation of life? How is the quality of your life better because of that person?
- In Jesus’ day, salt was added to a grain offering as a token of Israel’s covenant with God, to make the grain offering pleasing to God (Lev. 2:11-13). What personal quality, character, or attribute of yours – something inherent in who you are – do you bring to your relationships with others that makes their life richer, more robust? Not something you have or do but something you are? Ask someone you trust to answer that question about you.