I remember it like it was yesterday (though in truth, it was more like 34 years ago), during my lone venture into the world of dance classes. My instructor, Miss Meredith, was so deeply glamorous to me, and her shiny black dance shoes had heels and they were intensely tappy heels (my love of all things tappy actually started before this moment in my personal history, but it certainly did nothing to dissuade me of a love of wearing tappy shoes and being easily distracted by shiny things later in life. I can be a bit of a raccoon, actually). I adored Miss Meredith.
But even when I adore people, it does not follow that I will be terribly good at following their instructions.
Our little fingers balanced on the barre against the mirrored wall, Miss Meredith instructed us, smilingly, to draw an Easter egg on the smooth wood floor with our pointed toe. And I recall thinking, what, all of us? That seems kind of boring… and proceeded to outline a Christmas tree with my pointed toe. I assumed that as long as it was a holiday-related shape, I was probably accomplishing the task at hand.
Perhaps it goes without saying touring ballet companies have not been knocking down my door and no one applauds when I put on a leotard (I mean, sounds happen, but they tend more towards the opprobrious). I was reminded of all the reasons why this morning while attempting my YouTube pilates instructor’s video on Barre Pilates. I don’t need anyone more scarred from this post than absolutely necessary, so let me try for concision…
Me posture and balance while attempting barre pilates looks an alarming lot like if a goose that had been tippling the cooking sherry stumbled into the path of a man who had a fused spine and the sun in his eyes, and knocked him into the conveniently placed nearby swimming pool. For clarity’s sake, I am the blind man in this scenario. Sherry probably would have helped the situation enormously.
So obviously, the only way to get through 30 minutes of under-coordinated sweat with a tiny woman of uncertain Asian descent (I mean, she probably knows, but if I hazard a guess, I’ll probably just get sued) was to actively think about other things. Which is what led me to ponder the way that God can take backhanded compliments and turn them into bread pudding.
Maybe you had to be there.
Because bread pudding made with leftover challah bread was doing its happy bready thing in the oven and the house was beginning to smell marvelously of cinnamon and bread and sugar while I attempted to get lean enough to justify eating half the pan over the course of about 15 minutes. Do I earn extra carb points for all the wobbling I did? Surely that burns more calories than normal barre pilates… anyway. Bread pudding is such a vivid gospel food. You take bread that is on the verge of utterly useless –good only for dry things like bread crumbs– and saturate it in cream and milk, eggs and sugar, apply heat and taste heaven. It is precisely what God does with our dead hearts, Spirit applying faith and salvation, the heat of affliction maturing us…
But also not really what I was thinking about.
I was thinking about what a Gospel response to backhanded compliments would be. This is something I have a decent amount of personal experience with (and no, not in the way you think. I am prone to all sorts of insensitivity, but generally my offensiveness doesn’t plan ahead well enough to hide behind politeness). Apparently, people often struggle with what to say to me. You understand the concept of the backhanded compliment, yes? Something that sounds like it should be a positive thing, but that has an underpinning of criticism or snark or dislike. Such as (and yes, these are ripped from the headlines of experience):
“Your haircut is so brave!”
“I really like the makeup you are doing these days; it is so much better than what you were doing last month.”
“Your outfits are so interesting. I literally come to church every Sunday thinking, I wonder what weird thing she’ll come up with this week!”
“I often want to throw what you write against the wall.”
Honestly, open and unblinking insults are often easier to take than the backhanded compliment because you do not feel obligated to try and make yourself assume heartfelt and noble intentions. Not all backhands are covering for underhanded criticism; sometimes we all just make verbal snafoos and faux pas (or “fox paws”, as my wise and entertaining grandfather would say). I recently had the privilege of spending an hour at the piano with a delightful jazz pianist in his mid-60’s and he was absolutely convinced that we were of the same generation. He seemed taken aback to learn, when he gathered up the courage to ask my age, that I was actually the same age as his youngest son. That has been happening to me since my teens, though, so I felt no need to be phased by it. The principal of my high school once chewed my 15-year-old self out for being late because she thought I was the substitute teacher. It happens.
But the backhanded variety can make us reel. If allowed to, they can turn our thoughts towards the obsessive, the self-conscious, the insecure, even the hurt and angry. My, how easily we can get knocked off our steed. And then enters the goodness of Christ yet again.
For there is not a single hurt that He will not redeem. And there is nothing in your day that He is not turning to your good, and I don’t mean in a generic, Thomas Kincaid watercolor floofy kind of good. I mean piping hot glory, the kind that takes stale words and bad intentions and soaks them with grace, and then in His kindness, uses the heat of affliction to turn the sweetness He has dusted over you into the caramelized magic of holiness, sweeter than when it began. In Christ, we are freed from the tyranny of taking offense. We have our identity in Him. It leaves us free to accept correction, to have sin called out by the Nathan the prophets in our lives and repent quickly, but not to be easily needled by all the rest. We are free to take refuge in Christ, to leave justice in His hands and watch and see how He will turn our humble state into a glorious pudding of His own making.
“Those to whom God sends suffering that they themselves did not seek or choose, should commit their souls unto their Creator… God created thy soul without any care or assistance on thy part, when you did not yet have an existence. Therefore, trust Him, yet trust in a way that it be done accompanied by good works, that you become not impatient, sad and angry, and be not provoked to take vengeance on those who caused you the suffering. Also, murmur not against God, give Him the lie and fall into doubting; but hold fast on both sides, forgive your enemies and pray for them, and give God the glory that He is merciful, true, and faithful, and that he will never forsake thee in thy need, but will graciously help you out of your troubles, although you may at the time feel differently.” – Martin Luther