Jesus said to his disciples: "You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Matthew 5:13)
Two days before Christmas the fog lifted just enough to allow a single chopper to work its way up to us, a dangerous journey, squeezing beneath the cloud ceiling just a few feet above the jungle-covered ridges. Along with food, water, mail, and ammunition came the battalion chaplain.
He had brought with him several bottles of Southern Comfort and some new dirty jokes. I accepted the Southern Comfort, thanked him, laughed at the jokes, and had a drink with him. Merry Christmas.
Inside I was seething. I thought I'd gone a little nuts. How could I be angry with a guy who had just put his life at risk to cheer me up? And didn't the Southern Comfort feel good on that rain-raked mountaintop? Years later I understood. I was engaged in killing and maybe being killed. I felt responsible for the lives and deaths of my companions. I was struggling with a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite, and he was trying to numb me to it. I needed help with the existential terror of my own death and responsibility for the death of others, enemies, and friends, not Southern Comfort. I needed a spiritual guide. (Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like To Go To War)
It's easy enough to lose your saltiness in ministry. We want to be polite, acceptable, 'relevant,' cool, and above all, nice. Perhaps in some corner of our mind or heart we accept and believe the world's judgment on religion, that it's basically a bad thing but something that can be o.k., even with some good points, so long as it is practiced with enlightenment--'enlightenment' meaning according to the opinions and prejudices of whomever is speaking. In little ways, sometimes in ways that are even secret, we apologize for our faith and our religion. We become unsalty salt, good for nothing but to be thrown out.
But how do we get salty? Suffering, I think. Not that we go and look for suffering. We don't have to. We are all born into a suffering world and become, to one degree or another, suffering individuals, perpetuating our suffering with our disorderliness and our sin and making others suffer at the same time. We find ourselves mired in this vicious cycle before we have any chance to reflect on it; that's what we call the mystery of original sin.
Christianity is about this problem. On our own we have trouble finding the way out of the thought patterns that keep us miserable, just like nations can't find the way out of the cycles of oppression and retaliation that scar history and crucify whole peoples. But as simplistic as it can seem to say, Jesus is the answer. God's answer. God's response to the suffering we have insisted upon for ourselves is not to magically remove it, to just 'fix it'--as if he didn't respect the freedom and responsibility that are his created image--but to join his own indestructible self to our human suffering in Jesus Christ, so that, though the historical life of Jesus Christ comes to be destroyed--crucified and immolated--the indestructible divinity of Christ united to that humanity blazes a trail through our suffering and death to the new life of the Resurrection.
"There is no way except through the burning love of the Crucified." (St. Bonaventure)
So our suffering--about which we don't have a choice--presents us with a choice. We can suffer in such a way as to pass on our suffering to others, or suffer in a way that opens us up to the mercy that lets us enter into the suffering of others in solidarity as we seek together the path, already there in Christ, to new life. To take up a metaphor that gets more and more dear to me, our suffering can break our hearts closed or break our hearts open. The open heart knows itself as a sufferer among sufferers; its suffering makes it aware of others who suffer in the same way. And it knows how to pray and offer all that suffering to God. For a baptized heart, this is its priesthood, its sharing in the ministry of Christ the priest, offering the perfect sacrifice of the Son of God.
In a way, then, we must commit ourselves to our suffering, whatever it may be.
Graduation is only a few days away, and the recruits of Platoon 3092 are salty. They are ready to eat their own guts and ask for seconds. The drill instructors are proud to see that we are growing beyond their control. The Marine Corps does not want robots. The Marine Corps wants killers. The Marine Corps wants to build indestructible men, men without fear. (Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket)
The recruits became salty for their new task, role, and communal identity because they had been through the ordeal of their training, and been through it together.
So let us not run from our suffering. Let us not give in to the world's constant offering of something to numb us to our suffering and to help us deny the reality of our death. Let us enter into our suffering together, supported in solidarity, so that we may find the strength of the Resurrection as a means to enter into the suffering of the poor, the sick, and the brother and sister sinners around us. This is our saltiness. This is being the salt of the earth, returning savor to human existence and preserving what nourishes.
"I just don't want to die without a few scars," says the narrator in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club.