I’m sure it wasn’t just is but when I was a kid there was a meme that I am absolutely certain nobody ever gave a second thought to, nobody ever truly considered what they were actually saying because it was just a part of the vocabulary, just something that people said.
“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
Fifteen year old boys, playing war games in their basement, in their bedrooms, in their parents’ living room in post-war America, post war in the sense that since the draft was passed and gone, we were unlikely in our middle-class neighborhoods and our middle-class sensibilities to ever be called to serve.
Military service was not something I was raised to expect might be in my future. I would go to college and then maybe go to some more college, and then on to great success, a family, grandkids for my folks to spoil, a tidy house in the suburbs, the whole schmear.
Everything a generation who had lived through the draft would hope for their children, freedom from the horrors of war, a world somehow lifted higher, out of danger, away from the fray, the cost of our society.
Yet the vocabulary lingered, stuck with us in the truly ridiculous assertion by pre-teen and teenage boys that since they were above the fray, since they were insulated from the horrors of war, that it would only touch us if we sought it out, we could be cavalier with the things of war, in fantasy and game, in pastime, war is a pastime for children and young adults all over this earth nowadays, completely divorced from the horrible reality that it is.
By the age of sixteen or so the average American boy has racked up a body count in the tens of thousands, serial killers all were it not for the reset button.
“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades” is something that ought only be said by someone who has actually seen a hand grenade explode, felt the concussion as the blast whips by them, heard the dirt and stones whistle by them. I’m sure the phrase was coined by someone who had a far more intimate knowledge of grenades than the four or five of us in David Richards’ basement.
But we were a universe away, in the comfort of the eighties and the economic advances that came and went while we were largely insulated from that too. We played games where we all drove Porches and Lotuses and Ferraris and lived in exotic locales and played espionage games across national borders.
It is amazing how well the mind can trivialize horror, can trivialize pain and torment once it is lifted from us, once we have been insulated. I didn’t actually realize it until I was writing this but we actually were the people that Punk Rock songs were written to mock and belittle, sitting there, snug in our suburban paradise, trivializing the horrors of war, the terrors of international intrigue by making them into games, into entertainments;
sanitizing them so that we didn’t have to deal with their realities; so that we could send other people out to do them for us without it troubling our conscience too much.
They familiarity breeds contempt but I think they might have underestimated how much insularity breeds contempt, how being removed from something, having it no longer impact your life in any appreciable fashion can make you simply dismiss it as having any bearing or reality for you.
The kids are constantly surprised when we take them to the food pantry, that people from our neighborhood, from Bennett Valley might actually be hungry. Given that we live in a country that produces enough food that hunger on this earth could likely be done away with if Americans simply supplied the rest of the world with the amount of food we throw away each year.
The estimate is that 30-40% of the food Americans buy is never actually eaten. Food is so plentiful and comparatively cheap here that you can get away with buying stuff you might eat and leaving it in your refrigerator until it goes bad because it is easier and seems like less of a burden than making an extra trip to the store each time you don’t find something in your fridge.
If you break that down it’s about 20 pounds of food per person in America per month.
And so we start to trivialize hunger, food is no longer something that carries weight in our thinking, no longer something that matters to how we think about our society; it is simply a background constant, not a conscious choice, not a conscious act.
We should be ashamed of ourselves but we’re not because we no longer think about it, there cannot be a problem if we are not suffering from it.
If 30-40% of the food is wasted, how can it be possible that 17% of the population of this country are what the FDA calls “food insecure” which is just a fancy way of avoiding saying “hungry.” There is clearly enough food for them; we’re just throwing it away, blithely, almost without noticing.
We’ve gotten so successful that we can overlook things that used to weigh us down, used to make an impression on us. They’ve become the hand grenades we no longer understand and so we mock them, make of them a game, a slogan; trivialize them.
If you don’t think that the same thing is true of demons, then you haven’t met yours lately, haven’t met the demons besetting the people sitting next to you, the people across the aisle from you.
I am not confused, I said demons. We may call them something else these days, we have refined our understanding of the human mind and of the things that plague us now so that we might no longer take the word demon seriously, but we are beset nonetheless, constantly under assault by forces we actually don’t understand and can’t always conquer on our own.
If it were me, I’d say that the very fact that we can trivialize any suffering we are not ourselves personally feeling is a demon of epic proportions in our world. The fact that we have removed from the medical model or care and treatment those with mental illnesses and actually fault them for being sick is a demon that haunts most of us. Would we blame someone suffering from Cancer, or Crohn’s Disease or Parkinson’s for their illness? Then why is it we seem to think that the mentally ill should just get over it, the depressed should just cheer up, the bipolar should just get it together.
After all, we’re not behaving that way, why should they?
We may have removed the veil that once hid the atom from our sight, that once made diseases mysterious afflictions that came out of nowhere to lay low even the strongest of people. We may have plumbed the depths of the human mind such that we can see with renewed sight the coding errors, the chemical errors that rob our fellow brothers and sisters in God’s creation of the fullness of the life God gave them. We may have made war the kind of thing we can pretend happens by remote control, out of little control rooms in Virginia, raining death from the skies with joysticks and video screens so that our children can mock the very prosecution of war because it does not touch upon their lives. We may think that we have killed our demons.
But all of the subtlety of the human mind, all of the passionate speeches and heartfelt sermons about the dignity and hopefulness of man will not erase the fact that new demons arise, that mankind is the author of most of the terrors that haunt our own sleep, that there are still windmills worth tilting against.
We cannot be so trivial about food, says Paul, that we lead others astray by our behavior. You can change up the context a little but keep the sentences Paul writes and they apply perfectly to our own world. Our food too is sacrificed to idols but the idols we have are the ones we look at in the mirror every morning and while it may be that the hungry feel the physical pain as we toss away the soft and slimy zucchini we thought we’d eat but never got to; it is we who deny them the legitimacy of their suffering and in so doing, condemn ourselves to the demon of prideful, blind living at the expense of others.
Both Paul and Jesus do something that we are not doing while Paul battles the demon of complacency and Jesus battles the demon in the synagogue. They are looking past today and into tomorrow, not for themselves but for the people to whom they are ministering.
It may seem that Paul is just concerned about the brothers and sisters who might be led astray, about how they might never find the truth of Christ and so win the salvation Christ offers to them because of the eating habits of the disciples but Paul is more subtle than that.
Paul is concerned with those eating the food sacrificed to idols as well. How might it be if you are the cause of another being led astray? How might it be for you to allow yourself to be blinded, blindered by your own state so much that you overlook the state of another, that you allow your own sight to be so drawn to the heavens that you step on the fallen brother or sister at your feet?
Paul is drawing their eyes to the horizon, not the heavens, to the future they can all aspire to where all have heard the word of God and where all are moving together toward a common destination, the promise of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul knows full well that it is the will of God that all should have salvation but that this cannot happen outside of the bonds of family, of seeing one another as brother and sister, of seeing one another as real and actual and human and beloved by God in the very same way that we are.
He understands that without that the will of God is thwarted and that is never a good thing; that is never the way, or the truth, or the life.
Jesus is not looking at the demon, which, by the way seems perfectly comfortable in the synagogue with the other parishioners. Jesus looks past the demon into the life that the man might have if set free. We ought to be grateful that this is also the way that Christ looks upon each and every one of us, into the life we might have, into the ministries we might explore, into the people we might touch with the love that He shows us.
It is not in the nature of Christ to let us remain beset by demons.
Pride, avarice, fear, dread, despair. These are the demons we battle. Envy for sure, and lust as well, the worst part of the modern world is how much it celebrates the demons of our time, urging always for us to be blind to the rest of the story, to live only for the immediate, the urge, the desire, the lust, the hunger and not of the neighbor or of tomorrow and how we will manage to be disciples then.
I have a decade of therapy under my not inconsiderable belt and I can tell you, it can only take you so far because it only deals with things found in the DSM, the diagnostic and Statistical Manual or Mental Disorders. You won’t find pride there, or greed, or dread, they are too mundane, to much a part of the fabric of our culture.
You can get close, but close only counts in horseshoes . . . well, you get the picture.
To see the future that God has in store for us you need faith to renew your sight, to refresh your senses, to show you that trivia to you is bread and butter to someone else, that had grenades are very real and that hunger is everywhere and that what we do and how we do it matters because the future matters because it is God’s.
This may have been a new teaching when Jesus spoke in the synagogue, but by now we should have a pretty good handle on it. May we use such blessings for kingdom of God.