Encrypted! Thoughts on the Occasion of an Ordination

 

Bird in the Hand 4

He told them another parable, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. And this seed is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”

He spoke another parable to them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until all of it was leavened.” All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. . . This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet, “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.”       Matthew 13:31-35

Stars. They encrypt the night skies with mystery and then steal away into the morning light. Crocuses peer up over shade-stranded snow piles. Daffodils brave late-winter chills to trumpet the arrival of spring. Here and there, now and then, Spirit winds stir up life’s inscrutable veil and we see. The hands of an artist. The hands of a musician. The hands of God.

Psalm 90 speaks of hands: “Let the beauty of the Lord be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands.” I hear these words, glimpse creation’s grandiloquent beauty. And I wonder. What about my hands? Your hands? Too many hands in our world break and destroy. Too many injure and scar. Whose hands will hold broken hearts with gentleness? Whose hands will paint God’s grace on life’s landscapes of despair?

For me, these are questions of Christian ministry that matter. How do my hands, your hands, our hands join God in God’s justice-doing, beauty-creating, music-making work?

“A man took and sowed a mustard seed in a field…”

Maybe we can smell it. The rain-damp soil. Or perhaps we can see him. We don’t often see him. He stays in the fields. Weary boots caked with mud, arms sun-singed and sinewy…

“A man took and sowed…”

“A woman took and hid yeast in three measures of flour. . .”

Maybe we can smell it. Bread. Baking. It is hard not to smell bread baking, but it is easy not to see her. She stays in the kitchen. Where the ovens are hot and flour fogs the air.

“A woman took and hid…”

“A man took and sowed…”

Why these two unnamed characters who do such everyday work? Why are they connected to the Kingdom of Heaven in an ancient Gospel story that has ignited hope and fueled arguments and promised redemption these 2000 years since it was written down? Matthew gives us a hint. The man who took and sowed? The woman who took and hid? Parables about them and other everyday things and people are here in the Gospel to proclaim “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

Something hidden? What hidden things do the church and people of faith today need to see?

A woman took and hid. . .

They are strong hands. Durable. When I first noticed her, she was up to her elbows in 30 pounds of flour. A stray wisp of hair falls across her flushed face as she works the dough. No bread machine. Hands and forearms move forward and back, back and forward. Relentless. Fierce somehow. But graceful. Yes—she is right there in Matthew 13:33. But I have hardly noticed her. The yeast is like the kingdom of heaven, people in the know say. And who wouldn’t notice heavenly yeast? Aren’t the yeast and the kingdom of heaven the point of the parable? Who notices her?

But there she is. A eukaryotic microorganism—yeast—hides her. But it is her hands that hide that microorganism in enough dough to make bread for 150 people. She encrypts yeast into the dough’s viscous density, and the yeast changes the dough. Infiltrates every part of it. The hidden one hides rising up power in ordinary flour, water, and lard. The dough rises. Life rises.  Bread rises. Political food. Poor people’s food. Our food. Sun-goldened loaves seasoned by the scent of the soil.

A woman took and hid.

A man took and sowed.

His hands are strong too, but in a different way. Nimble. That calloused, fleshy part of his thumb and forefinger wise to every shift and change in the texture of the soil. He takes a mustard seed in those hands. A tiny seed. A microorganism of a seed. Once sowed—it is hidden. Never to be found again until…it grows into a garden plant expansive enough for all the birds of the forest to nest in its branches. A man took and sowed.

The word “hands” is not in these verses. But a man took and sowed. Is THAT what we are to see? His fingers sowing into the soil a message of expansive hospitality. A woman took and hid. Is that what we are to see? Her fingers hiding in that bread the leavening of a radical message: the Kingdom of Heaven begins with hidden hands. Fragile hands we don’t expect too much of. Knotty hands we cringe to see. Labor-roughened hands we don’t even notice. His hands planting home for all. Her hands shaping life-giving bread for all. Is it possible that in the hands of God’s invisible people, we catch sight of the Kingdom of Heaven?

I wonder. What about our hands?

And so, you are ordained today. Affirmed and blessed to be a leader in Christian communities. Affirmed and blessed hold bread in your hands and break it at the Lord’s meal.

We live in peculiar times for doing and leading ministry. I feel like almost everything we Google or see in the news—so much of what we know and what we think we know is encrypted. Encoded. Full of hidden agendas. I encourage you. Seek wisdom for all that remains unsettled in your heart and mind about life’s mysteries. Search. Study. Pray. Ponder. Get a decoder ring.

But then, roll up your sleeves. Plant tiny seeds in rich soil and have faith in abundant growth. Get up to your elbows in life’s and ministry’s sticky dough (and ministry’s dough can sometimes be very sticky).  Work—forward and back, back and forward. Be relentless. Fierce. And graceful. And believe that the work will, here and there, now and then encrypt God’s good grace into a beaten down world aching to rise and rise again to new life.

One more word–in the midst of the work, when you grow tired (and you will) and when you celebrate faith come to fruition (and you will), take moment. Always in the midst of the work take moments. Place your hand in the hand of your spouse, and remember this ordination day. You see, in a moment the people gathered here will “lay hands on you.” You will feel the touch of hands. Gentle hands that have put Hello Kitty band aids on scraped knees.  Aching arthritic hands that knit or build or garden through pain. Hands that calm with a touch or write with a flair or feed others with a fierce desire that none will be hungry.  These hands will touch you with that ancient ordaining touch that says “we affirm and bless you and celebrate God’s call on your life.” These hands will touch you with an ancient ordaining touch that says “we anoint you to preach and teach and break bread and baptize.” These hands, these fingerprints will mark your ministry with prayer and grace and love. Remember this day.

And remember. A man took and sowed a seed in a field. A woman took and hid some yeast in some flour. Isn’t it just the way of our radical and peculiar Gospel to proclaim that THIS is what has been hidden since the foundation of the world. God’s reign, God’s justice, God’s grace and love for all people lives and grows right here in my hands. Your hands. Unnoticed hands. Hidden hands. All of our hands holding in them god’s grace. All of our hands, the hands of God.

May your ministry be marked always by these hands. And may your hands be blessed and strengthened to join with other hands in your community to share God’s grace in Christ with the world.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Ashes.
I scatter them. They slip away from cold-numbed finger tips. It is winter. Nothing grows in winter—does it?

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

But the kitchen fire warms my hands.
Its ashes make nutritious things grow.

We are ashes;
our lives seem sometimes to slip through our fingers.

We are also formed from good, dark hummus—the earth.
We are dust.
P
laced in God’s garden “to till it and to keep it.”

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

The season of Lent in Christian traditions is a time to reflect on rhythms of feasting and fasting and feasting again in our world, our churches, our spiritual lives. To   what fasts can we commit ourselves during this season that will teach us how to fashion a redemptive and life-giving  relationship with this earth we call home?  What can we plant in the ashes and dust of Lent’s Great Fast that will bear nourishing fruit for Easter’s Great Feast?

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, our foreheads smudged with charcoaled Palm branches from last year’s now-cold feast, we are reminded:

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Until you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
You are dust, and to dust you shall return.     Genesis 3:19

Life is fleeting and fragile. Yet Lent calls us to work–by the sweat of our brows–to embody the Christian Gospel’s Easter promises of abundant feasts for all people. This is perhaps the most palpable outcome of a holy Lent: people of faith considering what it means to live lives of meaningful sacrifice and redemptive service and then taking steps to do just that.

 

 

Into the Woods

I saw Into the Woods a few days ago. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine capture something compelling and provocative with their lyrical rendering of “the woods”: life is an uncertain journey into mysterious unknowns by way of a path that twists and turns and abides by no discernible map.

No absolutes.
No one as independent as she imagines she might be.
All of our fates intertwined.
These are the most prominent signposts of the woods.

An image from the film came to my mind as I visited my mother today. She lives in a senior adult community. The name of the place where she lives includes the word “woods.”

Early in the movie, Red Riding Hood skips into the woods, her crimson shoes leading the way. She sings as she goes:

Into the woods,
It’s time to go,
I hate to leave,
I have to, though.
Into the woods-
It’s time, and so
I must begin my journey.

Red Riding Hood is young. My mother and others who live in her community are not so young. But I suspect that each has carried a version of Red Riding Hood’s song along as she or he made her way into the woods–away from home and into the uncertainties of aging.

Who are we in the woods? In the film, we encounter a baker and his wife, a witch, a giant, a young boy, two princes, a poor villager, an orphan, and others. In my mother’s woods?

One of the first women to gain her credentials as a pharmacist.
A chemistry professor.
Mother of nine.
Gilbert and Sullivan vocal artist.
Manager of harness racing association.
Teacher.
Bank vice president.
Minister.

Somehow, once in the woods, these identities fade. The commonalities of shared humanity surface, and one of those shared realities is how lost we can feel when we go into the woods, how unsure we can become of those social identifiers that for so long and with such power shape who we think we are.

Red Riding Hood continues to sing:

Into the woods
And down the dell,
The path is straight,
I know it well.
Into the woods,
And who can tell
What’s waiting on the journey?

But the path is not so straight as we’d thought or hoped, not for Red Riding Hood, not for my mother and others in her community, not for any of us who travel down life’s dells. What, indeed, awaits us on the journey? Neither the wisest nor most mystical of fortune tellers can know for sure. And yet, we must journey on. This is perhaps one of the only certainties of human existence–that we must continue into the woods.

One of the messages Sondheim and Lapine offer is that though the woods may be dark and tangled, we are not alone. That, too, is part of our shared humanity, one of life’s most beautiful and lasting gifts. Listening today to older people recount their “once upon a time’s,” their eyes shining with remembered youth as they spoke, I found myself wishing as the characters do in the movie: I wish for 2015 that those in the woods know that no one is alone. Of course, that knowledge comes to embodied life only when we are willing to sit together and let the story continue in our sharing of it. . .

Into the Woods

Magnificat: Christmas Eve Thoughts

magnificat_

Snow falls. Gently. Lights twinkle in houses festive with welcoming wreathes. Santa and his eight tiny reindeer land on a snow-covered roof. Enchanted. Perfect. Bah Humbug!

Those were Robin’s words as she opened the Christmas gift to discover–the snow globe. A holiday scene trapped in a watery sphere. What does a 50 year old woman do with a snow globe? You look at it, and then what? She had no room for one more thing to look at. Her house is too full. Her life too complicated. Her time too cluttered with grown-up worries…

But don’t we sometimes long for a snow globe Christmas? Smiling people on festive streets. Enough snow to cover up imperfections—not so much to make streets unsafe. A lovely Christmas contained in a predictable scene. Oh, the extremes we go to create that idyllic Christmas, and what disappointments do befall us…

We are also perhaps too quick to see the Nativity story as snow globe scenes. Shepherds on a hillside. Joseph in an uncluttered carpentry shop working with well-maintained tools. A baby born in a barn touched by the glow of the brightest star in the heavens. But what about this scene in Luke 1? Mary. Young. Poor. Unmarried. Luke 1? This is no snow globe scene. Things get shook up, but by a message that sends Mary’s life into disarray and unsettles even more an already uncertain future. Mary says “yes” to God’s call but then flees to the mountains. To Elizabeth. And there in the safe space of friendship—can we see her? It is as if Mary holds up a snow globe and in the light of community glimpses God’s vision for the world. A vision that is being birthed in her. A song rises up within her: “My soul magnifies the Lord. God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things.” In me? Through me?

To magnify. In Greek: “to enlarge.” How does a human soul magnify God? In ancient Rome, people used a bowl of water to magnify things. A bowl of water. A snow globe’s watery sphere. Mary’s soul, her life, magnifying a truth about God. And looking through her soul, we see a radical Christmas scene. God’s vision. Where justice and grace replace fear and violence.

Many have imagined a different kind of world—Hallmark, the creator of Rudolph and other Christmas stories, songwriters. But Mary? Mary’s soul magnifies not a snow globe hope for a momentary, seasonal change of hearts and minds. Mary’s soul magnifies a radical vision: God birthing hope in to human life—God breaking through the glassy domes we put around who and what we think God and humanity are—breaking through cynicism and pain—to ignite justice and hope.

Robin decides to donate the snow globe every year. But she never does. Maybe the child inside of her won’t let her give up her hope for a joyful Christmas scene where all is right with the world. We want to believe too. We pray. Protest. March. Cry out to God. We long for a world where hope replaces despair. Where children don’t fear violence or hunger. Robin takes a last look at the snow globe. She will really donate it this year. She shakes it. Watches silver snow fall on Santa and the reindeer. She loved the magic of it all when she was a child. She believed something about it was true. But then she grew up.

Ready to put the globe in its box and take it to the donation center, Robin notices on its side a key she has never seen before. Music too? Probably “Here Comes Santa Claus” or another Santa song. Notes tinkle out. “Away in a Manger.” Oh my. Then something stirs within her. An ancient hope, perhaps? Lost childhood wonder? Or the unexpected belief that what God promises in these Advent stories is real. Maybe the peculiar snow globe scene and music combination isn’t as crazy as it seems. After all, God didn’t come to visit an idyllic scene. God came to earth. God came to the mixed up mess that is human living. God comes to turn our lives upside down, to transform, redeem, heal, restore. Robin put the snow globe on her windowsill and looked through it out into her neighborhood. Out there—in the ordinariness and brokenness of human lives—God comes. The scene is not idyllic. We have much yet to do to see justice done in our world. But the promise is real. God works through you and me to bring hope. What vision does the world see through our lives?

“My soul magnifies the Lord. The lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled with good things. From generation to generation.” Oh God, may your song live in us today.