Early in Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Slaughterhouse-Five”, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is a lanky kid trying to get his bearings in the war. Vonnegut’s description of Pilgrim, as he slinks, perpetually confused, behind German lines is vivid and humorous:
Last came Billy Pilgrim, empty-handed, bleakly ready for death. Billy was preposterous – six feet three inches tall, with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches.
Vonnegut describes Billy’s walk as a repeated “up-and-down” that looked like “involuntary dancing”, all attributed to the fact that he had broken the heel off of one of his shoes and so he wobbled as he walked. He goes on to colorfully round out his description:
Billy was wearing a thin field jacket, a shirt and trousers of scratchy wool, and long underwear that was soaked with sweat. He was the only one of the four who had a beard. It was a random, bristly beard, and some of the bristles were white, even though Billy was only twenty-one years old. He was also going bald. Wind and cold and violent exercise had turned his face crimson.
He didn’t look like a soldier at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo.
The first time I read that section describing Billy Pilgrim I laughed. But the longer I considered it, I was a little shocked at how much it seems to describe the way I feel some days. There are social and spiritual skirmishes that are blowing up all around us throughout our days. We barely catch our breath before there is another volley of problems or stress or pain or exhaustion. To hear many in the realms of Christianity tell it we are supposed to be warriors, charging the gates of hell, defending the world against darkness with the light of the Gospel. But to be perfectly honest, I rarely feel like a sword-wielding hero, blazing a trail through enemy lines. Most of the time I feel like a filthy flamingo; tired, limping, wind burned and basically useless to the rest of the troops.
And as I continue to picture Billy Pilgrim and myself hobbling around, trying to save the world but not really having any clue as to how, I am also reminded of Jacob after he wrestled with the angel. That morning he found himself on the other side of a fight that he was not prepared for, had no real chance of winning and somewhere in the middle of which he had been humiliated by his opponent. But there he walked off into the daybreak, “up-and-down, up-and-down,” limping into the sunrise like “involuntary dancing”. But this limp wasn’t from a broken shoe it was from a broken hip, and to be honest, a broken life in the very best way that can be said.
I thought about Jacob, while I was thinking about Billy Pilgrim and myself, and it occurred to me that it was this “filthy flamingo” whose name was a part of the Hebrew declaration of Yahweh, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Perhaps there’s room for some of us in the kingdom. Maybe God even likes to keep a few flamingos around. We remind the world that God’s arms aren’t short and His mercy doesn’t know when to stop. We keep beautifully declaring that He changes lives, and hearts and names. We are the bonafide evidence that He finds great value in the least of things. We make sure everyone knows that He really does invite the beggars and street urchins into the wedding feast. Our lives prove that He actively looks for people who need doctors, passing right by the doorways of those who are sure they’re just fine.
Though he’s been gone for quite a few years now, the preacher Vance Havner’s quotes will likely never die out. One of my favorites has to do with God’s remarkable ability to use the dregs of us, “God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume.” Maybe I’m in better company than I thought. Not just Billy Pilgrim, but Jacob, and David, and Peter, and even old Vance Havner.