AMBERGRIS AND GRACE ABOUNDING
By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
February 10, 2013
Life on earth contains all kinds of unpleasantness. We deal with it and drive it from our minds in the hope that we will eventually arrive at some sort of paradise.
We often resort to fantasy to counter the facts. Romantic literature, for example, flourishes in brutal times. Sentimental cinema abounds in times that are severe. We attempt to beautify where there is ugliness and to ennoble where there is barbarism. The racial memory of Eden causes us to shrink from our exile into misery. Our material lives, our physicality and the facts of the matter that constitute the realm of nature, subject us to inconvenience and humiliation.
Surrounded by the beauty and grandeur of God's world we have to face the realities of decay, dirtiness, rubbish, and mess. There are eyesores everywhere and tasks and substances we would prefer not to handle. Our own ablutions and bodily wastes are stark reminders of our lowly station. We have a lot of maintenance to do to remain healthy and presentable. The basic facts of our humanity are humbling, and rightly so. Our experiences of imperfection and our encounter with various physical functions of need and necessity remind us not to cling too tightly to this temporal phase of our existence, or to think too proudly of ourselves.
Holy Scripture is very frank about the glories and embarrassments of our animal nature. Simon Jenkins in an interview (re Ship of Fools.com) speaks of the colourful language of the Bible, its use of satire, and pungent vocabulary that people of taste would find unacceptable. He comments that modern Bible translators cannot cope with this candid, spicy mode of expression which is too scandalous for the church (see one recent paraphrase of Holy Scripture where King Saul enters a cave to relieve himself and is described as going to the bathroom - 1 Samuel 24:3. Folk will demur at strong language in the sacred text but blithely condone it on television or in the movies). It is designed not to amuse lovers of smut but to shock us into reality. As Jenkins and any honest expositor of the Bible will tell us that Paul considers everything else to be the equivalent of excrement compared to Christ our Lord (Philippians 3:7-10). It is rumoured that Martin Luther was "in the closet" when he came to be aware of his moral trashiness and need for justification through Christ by faith. Others of his era shared that same lowly estimate of themselves "in the bathroom".
A recent discovery of ambergris on a British seashore has become a minor sensation. This waxy substance is the ultra expensive base and stabilizer of exotic and costly perfumes. The current notorious lump is estimated to be worth about $130,000. Somebody has called it ocean gold. Sophisticates and celebrities happily spray these perfumes onto face and body. Ambergris is actually whale vomit. It is a reminder of a former Asian politicians's wife who customarily massaged a lotion into her face for freshness and beauty based on skylark, or nightingale, droppings. For reasons of commerce and vanity we find a use for what would normally be regarded as disgusting.
Scientists observing the navigational patterns of dung beetles have observed that these lowly and unclean creatures roll their balls of dung back to their habitats by the guidance of the stars. When their view of the heavens is obscured their sense of direction goes awry and they dash about in confused circles. It seems that in nature filthy insects and obnoxious waste can rise to a form of nobility. The discharge from a sea mammal and the habits of a grubby beetle can attain unexpected heights of dignity that in their raw reality could not be expected. Such observations are manifestly parabolic.
This fallen world, in man and in nature, reflects the tragedy of our tumble from created excellence to moral and constitutional degradation. Nature sighs, heaves and convulses with the anguish of man's breach with God, and man has become corrupt and misery-ridden as a result of this alienation from God that besets him. The best observers of the human condition agree that the lot of mankind is wretched. Donne, Pascal, Calvin, and even the sceptics find unanimity in this conviction. The Book of Ecclesiastes provides a remedy in modesty of mien and faith in God by portraying the vanity of human life and ambition severed from our Maker. Physical destruction and moral depravity are prevalent everywhere to signify the grim seriousness of our revolt against heaven.
Unlovely ambergris becomes an essential ingredient of something appealingly scented and lovely. What is passed by the whale as waste becomes sought after and prized. Unlovely sinners, obnoxious to God, become sought after and made lovely by sovereign divine grace. They exude the aroma of the Spirit of Holiness that delights the Lord, a sweet scented offering of praise, gratitude and love. Castaways become costly companions of the Lord restored to his happy fellowship. When we look at ourselves and others in our evil unworthiness we cannot tell when God might effect a transformation from waste to worthiness as saints of the Most High. As best we can we must honour the remnant of the image of God in fallen beings and hope for their redemption. Who in God's purpose, and the purpose of our prayer, might be swept from the ocean of destruction to the shore of safety as it were. We as ambergris might be ingredients in God's project of restoration by grace abounding.
The humble and despised dung beetle looks to the stars for the way to its nest, burdened by its nauseating load. It may be, in the scheme of things, performing a cleansing service, but it is not an attractive creature admired for its role. But nonetheless the bodies in the heavens steer its body on its rancid journeys. The loftiest leads the lowliest. At least the dung beetle can look upwards by nature. Sinful man, through bad-will, does not even look up to the Lord of the heavens for help. And yet the bright and morning star has appeared to guide us to a point way above our loathsome nests of sin if we will only look up. Scripture is the chart that will locate and reveal him.
Things that are contemptible can be transformed into and treated as something admirable. We see it in nature and through the wit of man in his inventiveness. Grace can never be underestimated in its decisions, power, and compassion. Grace abounding in human lives is evident. The human equivalents to ambergris and dung can be changed into creatures of glory, beauty, and holiness. That was the project of Jesus the divine craftsman on earth (Proverbs 8:30) and it continues in heaven. In the brilliance of Christ's perpetual presence cleansed sinners will be "bright shining as the sun" and more dignified and majestic than the angels. They shall resemble Jesus which is a stupendous thought considering our origins, pollution, and vile ways.
God by his grace makes his people precious. His workshop is this world where the shaping and refining is performed. The great display, the exhibition of his artistry will be witnessed in heaven where he will lay his treasures before him and exult over them, and we shall exult in his work of recreation. From excrement to excellence. That is our story hinted at by ambergris and dung beetles.
The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church
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