141. The Combination

When I arrived at the church to which I had been newly appointed, I found a stack of papers, notes and suggestions left for me by the previous pastor. He included the numbers to the combination for the old-fashioned heavy steel safe that protected the church records, checks, and petty cash. I carefully typed out the numbers on a small card, memorized them, and taped the card on the interior wall of my desk drawer where no one would see it.

The pastor mentioned that the safe was reliable, but could be a little stubborn. Whenever I would finish spinning the numbers, I had to wrestle with the big handle, jiggling it back and forth several times to open the heavy door. The secretary and the bookkeeper had the same troubles. Nevertheless, the safe served us fine and we lived with its idiosyncrasies for years.

Ten years later the secretary, the bookkeeper, and I came to the conclusion that the safe had become more temperamental and more difficult to open. I suggested we call a professional locksmith to adjust, lubricate, or repair it. When he arrived, he asked the secretary for her combination and stepped into the room with the safe. He worked with it for five minutes and then said the safe was working fine. The problem, he suggested, was that the secretary had the wrong combination! He then proceeded to write out the correct numbers for her.

The secretary called me out of my office to hear the news. She told me that she had been using the combination taught to her by her predecessor more than fifteen years before. As she called out the numbers she had been using, I expressed my surprise that those were not the same numbers I had been given by the previous pastor. Then we discovered that the bookkeeper had been using a third incorrect combination that she had been given by the bookkeeper before her.

We had been using three different, inherited, incorrect combinations! Our well-meaning predecessors—the previous pastor, secretary, and bookkeeper—had received their combinations from their predecessors and passed them along to us. Each varied from the others, and from the true combination, by only a number or two.

When we tried the new combination given to us by the locksmith, not only did the safe operate smoothly, but the tumblers literally clicked into place as the safe opened. No jiggling. No wrestling. No heavy lifting. The safe opened quickly, smoothly, and effortlessly.

For years each of us had been using numbers close enough to the correct combination to allow us to force open the safe with a few under-the-breath threats, but none of us were using the correct combination that would open the safe the way it was made to operate. We were all so astonished by this that after the locksmith left, we took turns opening and re-opening the safe, listening to the happy click of the tumblers, and amazed at how smoothly it worked. We laughed about the experience for weeks.

This makes me think about all the other things we have learned from people who have had trouble themselves figuring things out and getting things to work. Sometimes they have passed along to us incorrect answers that we have accepted without question. I think of the false “combinations” offered by our culture for success and happiness, taught to us by people who themselves have had trouble unlocking the secrets to these things.

When Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” he was not speaking arrogantly, egotistically, or narrow-mindedly. He was expressing a genuine desire for us to use the right combination that opens us to God, to one another, to meaning, to connection, to love, to life. Self-centeredness, greed, and fear are not the combination that works. Loving others as Christ has loved us, seeking to serve rather than to be served, living in trust rather than in fear—these provide a combination that makes things click into place more smoothly. These open the door to the treasures God intends for us.

What are the values, attitudes, and behaviors that we have received that are not working for us anymore? What closes us off from what God intends for us? What do we need to learn afresh?

The locksmith didn’t repair or adjust anything, except our own individual inherited mistaken beliefs and practices. And that made all the difference.

Yours in Christ,