Monday, December 15, 2008

The Chaff of Life

When it comes to purifying things, there are two images that occur repeatedly in Scripture. One is winnowing, and the other is smelting. For most of us in the modern urban West, these examples lack the potency they had for the original hearers, so we tend to just skim over them. But especially in a season like Advent, where purification is a central theme, it's beneficial to look a little closer at both processes, and how they're used in Scripture, to see what we can learn.

When grain is harvested, you get more than just the grain. You get the husks (or hulls), bits of straw, dust, and other debris in there as well. The general term for this is “chaff”, and it's all waste. In order for the grain to be useful, the chaff has to go. In Biblical times, this was usually done by tossing the harvest on a round flat area, known as a threshing floor, and worked over with a stone something like a big rolling pin, or a wooden framework known as a threshing sledge. This broke the grain free from the chaff. Then workers would take things that looked something like leaf rakes, called winnowing fans (or forks), and with them scoop up the contents of the threshing floor and throw it into the air. The grain, being heavier, would fall back down, while the lighter chaff would be blown away.

Winnowing has a couple of effects. First, it substantially reduces the volume of the grain. A bushel of unwinnowed grain might look pretty full, but much of it is fluff. Once it is winnowed, there is a lot less of it, but it is a lot denser, and all of it is valuable. Another thing winnowing does is thin out the impostors. When viewed from the proper angle, an empty hull can look just like a kernel of grain. Only when you pick it up and it crumples between your fingers do you realize that you didn't have what you thought you did.

In the Old Testament, God frequently used the image of winnowing to drive home what He would do with those who ignored His law. One of the significant prophecies John the Baptist made about Jesus pertained to winnowing (“His winnowing fork is in His hand, to clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” Luke 3:17) The obedient and faithful were the grain, the hypocritical and superficial were the chaff. When the Pharisees heard that, you can be sure they thought of Jeremiah 15:6-9 – and trembled.

What does this do for us here in Advent? It seems to me that the important thing is to notice that chaff is not something harmful like poison ivy, but it is undesirable specifically because it is useless. Even though it is an expectable part of growth (grains cannot grow without hulls), ultimately the chaff is simply discarded. It is natural, it is even useful in its time, but when harvest comes around (which was the purpose of all that tilling and planting and cutting), it is cast aside.

It's also important to note that the chaff is the visible part of the growing. Look out over a field ripe for harvest and you see golden stalks swaying in the breeze, their rich heads rustling as they rub together. Y'know what? All that you can see is waste – ultimately chaff. The valuable part, the kernels of grain, are hidden away and have to be extracted, separated from the hulls and straw. A particular stalk might look robust and impressive, but only after the externals are removed does anyone know how much grain the stalk actually grew.

So it is with our natural life and all the accouterments that go with it. The work schedules and menu plans and home maintenance and retirement accounts are natural and sometimes necessary parts of our lives, but they are concerns that belong to this world. Like the hull that shelters the grain, their purpose is to nurture the spiritual life that is what the Sower really wants from the field of our lives. And if that's true for the productive aspects of our earthly lives, how much more is it true for the movies and the video games and the other idle things with which we fill our time. Again, not that any of those things are innately bad, any more than hulls and straw are, but they're not the goal of our existence.

Perhaps Advent is a time to ask the Harvester to do a little winnowing in our lives. See what harmless but useless distractions He could call to our attention and help us remove. We may not yet be able to experience the ultimate winnowing in our lives, but it may help us to have some of the chaff removed, if only so we can see that our baskets maybe aren't as full as we thought they were – and that much of what they're full of isn't worth all that much.

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