Lifting the Cup of Life

by Jadell M. Forman

On Mondays at The Neighborhood Café, we’ve been considering Jesus’ question, “Can you drink the cup?” using a glass of wine as a metaphor for life.

When I waitressed at The Happy Chef in my hometown, one of our regular customers was a person, I’ll call Donald (because I don’t remember his real name), with intellectual challenges/disabilities.  He was about 5’8”, slender, and in his 30s or 40s.  If I remember correctly, he lived on his own and didn’t appear to have any disabilities.  Until he spoke.

Usually having a pleasant temperament, he liked to chat, and ordered the same thing, which made it easy to take his order despite his unclear speech.  Our manager Kim set a tone of respect, treating him well and teaching each of us how to listen to him, and giving us an example of how to comfortably interact with someone different from our other customers.  But not everyone treated him respectfully.

One day, on the streets of our small town, I found myself walking about 10 yards behind Donald.  I saw a group of boys younger than I was approach and harass him, calling him stupid and saying other things.  Donald didn’t seem to react or respond.

But I had had enough interaction with him in the restaurant to have seen a variety of his emotions–frustration, anger, sadness, happiness, confidence.  So, I empathized and imagined at this moment, he felt hurt.  Or maybe I was projecting onto him my own hurt of seeing such meanness in our community.

In Henri Nouwen’s book, Can You Drink the Cup? Nouwen shares his thoughts on community.  He likens the lifting of our cup, as we do after a toast among friends, to sharing our lives.  Or it can be like Donald lifting his coffee cup for a refill at our community restaurant.  But sharing our lives isn’t always easy.  Nouwen writes:

  • Nothing is sweet or easy about community.  Community is a fellowship of people who do not hide either joys and sorrows but make them visible to each other in a gesture of hope.  In community we say: “Life is full of gains and losses, joys and sorrows, ups and downs–but we do not have to live it alone.  We want to drink our cup together and thus celebrate the truth that the wounds of our individual lives, which seem intolerable when lived alone, become sources of healing when we live them as part of a fellowship of mutual care” (p 57).

To me, the scariest parts of living in community occurs when harassing bullies misinterpret my or another person’s mercy as stupidity or weakness.  Donald seemed to ignore or be oblivious to his harassers.  Mercy can look like that.

For whatever reason, the bullies walked away from Donald after fifteen seconds of not getting a response from him.  And, sadly for them, they walked away with less of life, not more.

My friend Cristi–the one who helped me discover my favorite wine glasses–is an occupational therapist who has helped me understand more than the value of stemware.  She has helped me understand that people who bully people with disabilities are ignorant of what people like Donald can teach us: for example, how to walk down the street without demeaning others.

Nouwen invites us to ask an “important question”: “Do we have a circle of trustworthy friends where we feel safe enough to be intimately known and called to an always greater maturity?”  That is an important question, I agree.  And I offer another: Do we let Christ embrace our friends and community bullies when they’re unfriendly, knowing that he ultimately holds us safe within his care?

It seems the call to greater maturity is most difficult to answer when someone has ripped our cup of life from our hands and dashed it onto the street.  When someone breaks our glass–our favorite one we were delighted to find and call our own–he breaks community-sacred relationship: first, with God; then, with us.

As retired pastor and author Eugene Peterson explains:

  • …[S]in is basically a depersonalized word or act.  It is not, in essence, breaking a rule, but breaking a relationship….Sin is a refused relationship with God that spills over into a wrong relationship with others (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p 316).

The bully’s wrong relationship with God has spilled over onto us, and we’re left with shards of glass.  And a choice.  Such a hard choice: to turn or not to turn the other cheek.

The world outside Christian community says, “Retaliate!  Rip his glass away and dash it onto the street.  Just like he did to you!  Let him know how it feels.”

Christ wants the bully and us to feel something else: the giving and receiving of mercy.  In contrast to vindictive, violent voices that place personal pride above communal connection, Christ says, something different and other.

Christ says, “Instead of breaking your brother, stand beside him, and help him lift his cup.”

Jadell M. Forman writes on Mondays for The Neighborhood Café.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Lifting the Cup of Life

  1. Georgie-ann

    Our secularized society, imbued with thinking much more in terms of a “so-called” scientific approach to human /social behavior — (given an “if this” situation or procedure, yielding some postulated or planned result) — has over-stated its ability to encompass the incredible dynamics involved in the “human situation.” Omitting any consideration of the spiritual dimension, (which I would over-simplify here as the vast on-going salvific conflict / drama between the realms of God’s Light and the persistent challenge of a dark and opposing negative influence), “scientific thinking” tries to streamline concepts about human behavior in some sort of linear fashion.

    Thirty years ago, as well as throughout history, bullies have often “ruled” by default, “survival of the fittest,” and all that. The little guy, the weak and impaired, have tried to survive in the margins and in refuges where mercy could be found.

    Successful civilization does depend on a viable balance between weak and strong forces, a respectful mutuality — strength that is protective. But as our society has migrated more and more away from Godly influences and teachings as part of the warp and woof (weaving terms) of our developing consciousness, the rawness and lawlessness of what brute humanity is capable of has increased before our eyes.

    Secular society responds by making more analysis, rules, laws, diagnoses, prognoses, rehabs, hospitals, prisons, medications, but fails to stem the unfortunate tide of humans living without self-control and wisdom and compassion for one another.

    Sometimes they have fine, idealistic sounding words and principles, as in “now we’re going to go after the egregious bullies of life.” Perhaps this is OK in theory. Perhaps it is a needed concept. But I agree with this article, that there is a basic inherent futility in relying on simple external retaliation, and demonizing name-calling, against yet another “social ill.”

    When will we ever realize that “you can’t get there from here?”

    Going without God is a downhill proposition.

  2. Linda

    Amen, Jadell. Well said. How often have I dashed someone’s cup to the ground, driving shards of glass into their heart? How often has it been done to me?

    The gift of mercy can be a tricky one. Lord please allow me to be sensitive to what you want…not so much what I want.

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