Truth and salt

September 11th, 2018

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but 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” (5:13). Salt, as Jesus proclaims, is flavor. In the South, we agree. Pots of Sunday beans and greens are often seasoned with salty pork. Whether ham hock or fatback, pintos and turnip leaves soak up the essence of their cooking company. In the South and beyond, salt shakers are a functional piece of dining room décor. Packets are included with to-go plasticware. Grocery stores sell kosher for the ideal seasoning of meat, sea for a less-processed option, pickling for cucumbers, rock for ice cream, and table varieties for my dad, who salts everything before tasting. Some companies offer bacon-flavored and Himalayan Pink options. Epsom salt, when used in a bath, is said to detoxify the body. Dissolved in warm water and gargled, salt is believed to ease a sore throat. In all of its forms, salt is part of a process. From sprinkling to cooking to eating to soaking, salt is story.

I noticed some of my own flavored memories one Wednesday morning as I cleaned tears from the lenses of my red frames. The night before, in my binge-watching Ally McBeal phase, I wept over the death of a character named Marty. He was a nursing home resident and the joy of its being. He organized dances and sported bow ties as he twirled his fancy-feet partners to the tunes of Ella and Frank. To Marty, every woman was a darling, every man gentle. All were friends. And when Marty experienced (unrecognized and undiagnosed) disillusionment in the form of dragons and cyclopes and other fantastic creatures, he offered them as adventures to his lady and fellow companions. Every night at 7:30p.m., Marty and his crew would turn out the lights, gather in twos and threes, and search the home for these imaginative invaders. His friends were delighted to have a quest in a place where much of their time was spent waiting for it to pass. Marty brought life and laughter to men and women who had been missing its taste.

When Marty died, his friends and I gave our salty tears to tissues and the earth.

Wiping that story away from the reflection of my glasses and into the reflection of my spirit, I thought of both the Matthew passage and the other famous salt story in the Hebrew Bible: Lot’s wife. As the scripture tells it, after the negotiation with Abraham to spare Sodom and Gomorrah failed, God sent angels to save Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and his family. These divine messengers instructed Lot to take his loved ones and leave before God brought death and destruction to the place Lot called home. Unable to convince his sons-in-law of the coming devastation, thus lingering and possibly still hopeful, Lot, his wife, and daughters were forcefully moved outside of the city by God’s angels and told not to look back. As sulfur and fire fell from the sky, one of the few to escape turned around to view the wrath: “But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Gen 19:26).

A pillar of salt.

Salt of the earth.

What might those phrases mean, together?

Could it be that this woman who saw her friends and neighbors dying, heard them screaming and felt their hopelessness, was so overcome by grief that she wept? Haven’t we all witnessed loss and cried? Are we not moved by lingering images from war, from genocide, from disease, from floods and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis and tornadoes and poverty? Do we not open our tears to the suffering of those we have and have not met? Is it possible that this woman’s pain was so heavy, her wailing so hard that she could not, would not move? Might she have believed that as long as she stared, her home would still stand? Maybe she could pray the city into safety? Haven’t we done the same at a hospital bedside, over the ashes of a relationship, in the moments after a dreaded phone call or knock at the door?

I watched it happen to my father. It was October of 2002 and I was in my last year of undergraduate studies. Early one morning my roommate woke me with a note left by my sister. She had been trying to reach me by phone and knocking throughout the night on our apartment door and somehow, neither myself nor my roommate heard her pleas. I called home, with my roommate by my side, to find out that one of my brothers had died. It was Greg, Dad’s second child from a previous marriage. He was 38, married, and the father of two young adults. He was the brother who visited us the most and stocked our supply of Sun Drop until it was made available in our local grocery store. He was the brother who would spend a week or more with us over the summer, working in the garden with Dad and carrying the bounty to the kitchen for canning. He was the brother who drove three hours every day that Dad was in Cardiac ICU to tell him that he loved him and us, too. Of the older brothers I had gained when Dad and Mom married, Greg was the one that I knew best.

But I did not know that he would end his own life.

Walking through home’s door that morning was one of the hardest moments of my story. As soon as my sister and I were inside, Dad pulled us in for a close and helpless hug. “I don’t know how it happened,” he said, “but it happened.” Most of that day and the next were a blur for everyone. Making arrangements and packing clothes for the trip to bury my brother, coupled with Dad’s desire to make a stop at his favorite barbecue restaurant, was surreal. Barbecue was such a normal thing; suicide was not.

On the night of the visitation I heard Dad asking, “Where is Gregory?” We were leaving the funeral home after our disbelief, dressed in black, finished one round of sympathetic words I don’t remember. I thought Dad was confused.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was staring at Sodom and Gomorrah and hoping that Greg would appear.

Standing over his son’s coffin earlier that night, Dad was a pillar of salt.

Standing by Greg’s graveside the next day, listening to “Taps” and a 21-gun salute reminder of the way he died, we were all pillars of salt.

As Greg’s body was lowered into the ground, the ground was covered with our sorrow. Like Lot’s wife, we stood in grief, desperate and unmovable. We salted that from which we came and that to which we shall return. Our flavor was strong then. Mixed with the tears of a nameless woman from Sodom and Gomorrah, it still is now.

Perhaps Lot’s wife was told not to look back to spare her grief.

Perhaps she looked back because she believed in truth and salt.

Perhaps Jesus is asking us to do the same, to be vulnerable, to embody love, to season and be seasoned by each other.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. For more information and resources, see the National Alliance of Mental Illness website. If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255).

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