After reading the gospel text in Morning Prayer (Matt. 3:1-12) this morning I realized I'm in a pickle...or maybe I should say, I'm being pickled. I suppose you've heard the phrase before? It's a phrase that alludes to being in a tough spot, in a jam, in some kind of difficulty. It's also a great euphemism for being baptized. Humm.
You may remember from this text after John the Baptist is introduced with all of his eccentric qualifications it describes him turning the stage over to Jesus. John suggests that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Did you know that John chose to use a word that comes from the home economics field? To baptize literally meant to dip repeatedly into something, for instance a vat of dye when one wanted to change the color of a piece of cloth. It also is used for the action we might think of when we are going to make pickles. Taking the cucumber and dipping it into a container of vinegar, seal it, and let it just sit for a long time. The whole process is to baptize. Humm.
I can think of other products that use a similar method; wine, beer, or whiskey, but I wouldn't want you to think I know much about that first hand. Humm. At any rate the idea is to place an object in something else so that by just sitting there, over time, the solution (in this case Spirit and fire) changes the original object.
Wow, what an image for spiritual formation!
When we choose to follow Jesus we are being pickled. It's not so much about the sacrament of using literal water (even though I really believe that ceremony is critical). He uses the Spirit of God and the fire of life's circumstances as the vinegar, if you will, to change us. John shifts images over to agriculture to describe the process of what happens in our pickling (or spiritual formation). There is a separating of the wheat (the part of us that is healthy and useful) from the part that, at one point in our lives, seemed to protect us but now is only called chaff. The chaff is burned up...and apparently we get a clue as to how long it will take to remove all of the chaff; (an unquenchable fire) all of our life. Humm.
Go back to the home economic image for a moment. What do we do when we are being pickled (by the Spirit and life's fire)? Really nothing. But something is being done unto us. Oh we still breath, go to bed, get up, eat, go to work, attempt as best we are able to be in relationship with those in our lives, don't rob banks or steal from others...all the normal stuff. But the real work is being done unto us. Spiritual disciplines, of all kinds, are helpful and good, but they are only used by the Spirit to peel off more chaff, which is a good thing. But the real pickling (transformation) is done unto us as we sit there. It's a mystery. Humm.
Much like what some of the ancient Christian writers wrote about when they talked of things like a dark night, or the well being dry, or in a cloud, they refer to a work of God that is secret and mysterious. Like pickling there is something being done unto us, but we may not understand it. All we may experience is the painful removal of our securities, now called of old chaff, or in bible language called idols, being stripped from us and burned up.
I think being pickled may be a good image for the retreat we are hosting next weekend. We are conducting a weekend retreat called Light of the Dark Night (you can click for more about it). If you want, we also have an option of just coming out on Saturday for the teaching.