“Being a Christian is hard work,” a friend confided over lunch. I found that poignant, in part because of its bluntness. I kept waiting for him to follow up with something trite, something like, “But it’s worth it.” He never did. He resisted the temptation to soften the blow.
After a long pause, he did say, “I guess it’s supposed to be this way.” That of course could be taken a number of ways, but I didn’t detect any hint of resignation. Only resolve. He sounded hopeful, not helpless.
According to the prophet Malachi, our best hope lies in the knowledge that God is fully engaged in the hard work of our redemption. Malachi preached throughout Judah four centuries before the birth of Christ, and, like my friend, he was not one to soften the blow.
“The messenger of the covenant … is coming,” thunders Malachi. “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Malachi 3:1-2 NRSV).
God, says Malachi, is our fuller. Fulling is a process of treating woolen cloth. The wool goes through a series of hot and cold baths and is scrubbed with a caustic alkaline soap.
Fulling in Malachi’s time was rigorous work. The fuller stretched and pulled and pounded the woolen cloth over and over and over again. Fulling was also -- to put it mildly -- intimate work. The fuller used hands and feet. In some instances, the cloth was submerged in a great vat of human urine, which acted as a scouring agent, whitening and cleansing the cloth.
Perhaps for both of these reasons -- the rigor and the intimacy required -- fulling eventually came to be seen as women’s work. In Gaelic Scotland, groups of women would gather for fulling sessions, singing waulking songs (the Scottish Gaelic word for fulling) to pace the rhythm of their work. As the tempo of the songs increased, the work became harder -- and the cloth became both softer and stronger.
Like the refiner who removes impurities from an amalgam to produce pure silver, the fuller removes dirt and oils from newly woven wool cloth, yielding a purer, finer version of the original. Its fibers become tighter and tighter. The result is felted fabric, one-third its original size but soft to the touch and three times as strong.
Perhaps John the Baptist had such rigorous, intimate, hard work in mind when he said “[Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Was he suggesting that part of redemption is coming to see ourselves as small enough to be placed in the calloused hands of the fuller?
Pounded and pulled, scoured and scraped, until all that is rough and weak in us finally falls away, we emerge from the waters redeemed. Smaller, no doubt. Yet also softer and stronger.
Malachi’s tone may be blunt, but the news he has to share is as good as it gets. We are not the dross. We are not the dirt. Whatever it is that covers our hearts and encases our souls, that is not who we really are.
We are the wool demanding holy labor, but not because we are soiled and stained. If that was all there was to say about us, we would not be worth God’s effort. The message of Malachi is that you and I are worth saving. We are worthy of every ounce of God’s rigorous effort and intimate attention.
When it comes to our redemption, God is no reclining judge. God is our fuller. With blood, sweat and tears, as they say, God pours herself out in the work of our redemption.
My friend was right. Being a Christian is hard work. No one enjoys a scrubbing, and soap has a tendency to sting.
Yet in Malachi’s blunt message, it is the possessive that makes all the difference. A thug’s switchblade and a surgeon’s scalpel are both knives. The difference lies in the intent of the hands that wield them -- the purpose of the cut.
The fullers’-soap-calloused hands of our God are not the source of our suffering but the ground of our hope. Through the work of those hands, we become as pure as silver and as soft and strong as the finest fabric.