Harley Scalf ~ Grace and an Empty Pop Bottle

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I’m only 34. I’m not old. As life continues on, it seems I repeat that to myself with more frequency each day.

I’m not old, but I do remember something that the teenagers of today do not. I remember the days of glass soda bottles. I’m from West Virginia, originally, so we called them pop bottles…mainly because that’s what they’re supposed to be called! For the sake of everyone reading this, what I’m referring to were soda – or Coke – or pop bottles.

In those days, we lived up a holler: that’s another thing you may not understand. Some people call them hollows. Either way, it was a dirt road with one way in and one way out. It was a holler.

At the “mouth” (aka beginning) of the holler was a small convenience store, an IGA. We knew the owners fairly well. That didn’t mean much in that small, rural West Virginia town. In towns like that, everyone knows everyone. Still, as a young child, it felt important that we knew the family.
When we would run out of pop, mom would set the empty glass bottles in their cartons on the kitchen counter. That was a signal to us kids. She wanted us to carry the bottles from our home to the IGA and bring back more pop.

The process was like this: my sister and I would take the empty RC bottles and walk them to the store. There, we would hand them over to a man behind an elevated counter. It seemed like he was 10 feet tall, but he was probably only a step or two above us. Then, in exchange for the empty bottles, he would give us money. It wasn’t much, but it was something. That money was used, generally, to put toward the purchase of more pop for the family. Most of the time, mom would throw in some extra change so that we could grab a few pieces of bubble gum for ourselves. I know now that it was a bit of a bribe to get us to go to the store for her. I didn’t care as long as I got my bubble gum. After checking out, we would walk the pop and chew our gum all the way back to the house. Those were good days.

There was a name for what we did. In fact, I think I recall that they even printed it on the glass bottle itself. It would say something like “Redeem 5¢” or “Return for Deposit.”

Redeem: we handed something to a person in a position of power (high above us), and that powerful person gave us something in return. It was an exchange. It was a redemption.

The Apostle Paul knew something of redemption, though it was considerably more profound than anything having to do with an RC Cola bottle. He wrote of it to the church in Ephesus as we read in Ephesians 1:7: “In [Jesus] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.”

Redemption is an exchange. We pack up the emptiness of our lives. We walk it to the place of redemption – the feet of our Lord. We hand over our lives, placing our trust in the One with all power and knowledge. In return, we are given grace, forgiveness, hope, a new life in Jesus.
I learned of redemption very early in life, though I didn’t think of it in such theological ways. I learned of grace a little later in life, as a teenager, when I placed my trust in Jesus as Lord.

The grace of redemption can come upon us all at once like a crashing wave. It can reveal itself over a season of life similar to how the autumn leaves move from green to vivid orange, red, and yellow. It can even be relentless in how it floods our souls over and over again.

However grace comes to us, I am grateful that it comes at all. I’m ever grateful, too, that it is worth far more than an empty RC cola bottle.

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Harley Scalf, an Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, is the Northside Campus Pastor at Christ United Methodist in Hickory, NC, where he also leads their Celebrate Recovery ministry. He is married to Jessica and they have one daughter, Madison.

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