Sweet Poison

September 20, 2020


The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Sweet Poison”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 7: 6

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine,
or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.


I am hearing a good deal of debate right now about “return to normal.”  When are things going to be without the lingering presence of a public hearth crisis, a pandemic?  A good question.  Wearing the mask is getting old; so much has been upside down for many, many months; and, the uncertainty of trying to reimagine the world is wearing us down.

Considering the challenges of the pandemic, my mind went back to Africa. Big problems often find a measure for me in sub-Saharan Africa.  It’s not, “so you think you have it bad” sort of thoughts.  It’s a matter of perspective and scale.

I think it was the frustration of “anything else.”  Every time there is a disaster or a disruption, I find myself thinking:  The pandemic is more than enough.  Hurricanes, fires, rumors of hacking and violence, there is a part of me that wants to say, “we need to form a line; one at a time please.”  In Africa, though, there is no line and there is no sense of what life will look like when.

The limit of hope was brought home to me on my second visit to Malawi.  We were trying to understand malaria; how a curable condition can kill a million people in sub-Saharan Africa every year.  Not once, or when things get bad.  Year after year after year.  What I learned on my second visit was that the idea of there being no malaria, the freedom we enjoy, that thought was too much.  A mother shouted this at me.  She scolded me for even entertaining the idea.

Part of this limited hope is that Malawi exists with four permanent public health crisis.  They are always there.  Malaria and dysentery kill the most; hunger and AIDS are the other devastating pair.  Just for context, at its height in the U.S. AIDS never accounted for 1% of our population, it was at its worst a fraction of a percent.  That is not to belittle or demean the pain and suffering felt by many, but the infection rate in Malawi for AIDS always hovers between 10-12 percent.

It’s hard to get the immensity of this.  Part of being there and living there and working with people, if you are from U.S., is to comprehend the compounding disasters.  The mother who scolded me couldn’t comprehend the possibility of freedom; I was struggling to comprehend the reality of continual devastation.

There is an ongoing debate about this.  Not about the devastation; that is all too clear and accounted for.  No.  The debate is whether or not we can do anything; given the immensity of the problems (four ongoing public crisis) is any effort truly helpful?

I was on the side of the do-gooders as opposed to the handwringers.  Find a place, find what you can do, and do it.  What we found was that a key leverage of change in extreme poverty is when young women receive education.  When women are educated at least up to the age of 13, a whole nation will begin to rise above suffering.  So we built schools; we promoted literacy and teacher training.  In a catastrophe you need to find a place to hold on.  We found that place in the empowerment of young women.

Focus, though, was only half the equation to avoid the fatigue and burnt out that comes to people caring for others in a disaster.  The other half of the strategy to effect change is friendship.  Here, for us, friendship is a lovely thing, a nice part of life, a source of strength.  In Malawi, friendship was your only real hope.  The only way things are going to work at all.  I have read different assessments and listened to aid workers and it doesn’t take long to see the reason for the complete failure of a project: they used money instead of friends.

I was really lucky.  God gave me friends who saved me again and again.

In 2008, after living in Malawi for a summer, we were heading home.  My children had collected treasures during those months.  Many of their treasures were pottery and wood carvings.  Think: heavy.  I knew it was going to be a hit.  We didn’t have an extra bag; we had many extra trunks.  I gasped when the Air France attendant said, “it will be $4000 in extra baggage.”  Well, that wasn’t going to work. I was hoping and planning on a $1000.  Four?

We argued for a time until my friend, Grace Chiumia, came beside me and said, “Fred, may I speak to the gentleman?”  My recollection is that I muttered, “be my guest” and stepped away.  About five minutes later Grace found me and said, “is $750 acceptable?”

When I reached the counter, the gentleman looked dazed.  All he said as he took my money was, “that woman she is sweet poison.”  And she is.  The world is a better place in that Grace uses her powers for good and not for evil.

A few months ago I shared with you about how she refused a large gift to restore her belongings and her life.  And how her refusing the gift created a fund for destitute widows that changes and saves the most hurting people on the planet to this day.

What I didn’t share is that her efforts didn’t go unnoticed.  After a few years of helping widows, Grace was asked to run for Parliament.  She won.  And then she won again.  She was asked to serve on the President’s cabinet.  In just a few years, the malaria nurse who was cleaned out by greedy in-laws and was hoping for extra bicycles to promote public health held political power only exceeded by the President of the nation.

When the president of Malawi died under strange circumstances, Grace called me.  She was being asked to join the new president’s party, to jump ship.  The only advice I offered her was the lesson she taught me: only friendship will save us.  Friendship is the only way to get things done.  She stayed with her friends and weathered the political storm.

Going again and again to Africa changed me, mostly for the better.  Yet, in one instance, it saved me.  I distinctly remember the epiphany, the moment I could see God’s hand.  I was considering some challenge in my day, some problem to solve, and I realized, finding the right place to make a difference and making this difference with friends is not only true in Africa, in Malawi, it is also true everywhere.  Find the difference you want to make and do it with friends.  Pretty simple. But the truth is simple when it is clear.

Our little riddle today, unfortunately, is not clear.  If you remember from when we started up the ladder, I told you it would get progressively more difficult.  We are near the end so the challenge is great.  This is not only hard to live, as all the teaching of Jesus are hard to live, it is hard to understand, to grasp.

Part of the difficulty is our independence.  Our sense of autonomy, self-reliance, do-it-yourself: they are all counter intuitive to friendship.  Friendship is about more than you; it’s trusting others.  We can see this in the idea that you don’t throw your pearls to swine or give what is best to dogs.  No.  You give what is best to the ones you love.

This sounds very straightforward until you need to find the holy, the pearls, the beauty of life.  Here is where the riddle starts to unravel.  What is more is the riddle suggests what is best and what is beautiful must be given away.  Jesus will teach: You only keep what you give away.  Here it is the admonition to give what is best to friends and not dogs.

Again, this doesn’t seem hard until the pearl you must give is freedom or authenticity or honesty or forgiveness.  And to give them away as sacrifice, to give without expectation of return, to give in freedom.  Well, this is what makes life wonderful when it occurs and what ruins life when it doesn’t.

People get divorced for many reasons.  But mostly, marriages go south because people stop being friends; their friendship has ended.  All the markers of success can surround a marriage, but if friendship has been ruined or neglected, well, things fall apart.

In January of 2019 our friend Grace came to the U.S.  She was part of a delegation to the U.N. on empowering women.  We met her on the street outside the Metropolitan Museum.  A taxi dropped her off.  I asked her why she didn’t take the subway per the directions we gave her.  Oh Fred, she said, that submarine train, it frightens me.

We ate lunch at our favorite diner a few blocks away.  Midway through lunch she got very serious.  She shared with Kathy and me her big secret.  She has cancer.  There was hope for a treatment; but it was very costly and difficult.  A part of me knew my dear friend was saying goodbye.  We would talk again and see each other again, but this was our moment to be honest, to be clear about the gift we were given.

Grace is in hospice now in Mzuzu with her husband and family around her.  Covid is keeping her daughter, Ruth, from flying home and being with her.  She has demanded Ruth stay and finish college, keep focused. Grace Chiumia is in her mid-forties. It’s heartbreaking to reach the limit of hope.

No matter the crisis, be it one public health disaster in 2020 or four that never seem to end, no matter what the challenge, freedom is found if you keep your eye on where can make a difference and you keep to this with friends.  This is not only the power of the riddle, it is also the power of the church.  Here in this place we can make a difference, do remarkable things, change the world even, if we keep to the path of friendship.

We all know money doesn’t change anything for the better.  Power corrupts.  Beauty and splendor fade.  Prestige?  Nah.  We know better than that.  Sometimes we can become convinced that our traditions or our definitions or our sense of security are the true pearls of life.  Too often we Protestants have treated the Bible as a sacred offering we can dispense.  But this is the path of hypocrisy.  I love the bible but it is not the pearl.  Can help you find pearls for sure.  But that’s about it.

Later on, Jesus will tell his disciples, when two or more gather in my name, I am there.  What if that is the promise of salvation in our riddle?  The presence of God, what is holy, is found when we gather, when we share a life, when we live in friendship. And when we don’t gather as friends, we turn on each other, we trample over each other; we are ruined.

My dear friend Grace is Sweet Poison.  Being her friend, her co-conspirator, ruined me.  The Air France guy with the vacant look, he saw what she could do in five minutes.  I know what she can do in a decade.  She saved me money that day.  But in the end, she cost me.

Bob Dylan said, I bargained for salvation and she gave lethal dose.  I know the pearls now; and I know life is lived giving them away.  This is a sweet poison.  Amen.

Bible References

  • Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2
  • Matthew 7:6