Finish Carpentry

I used to believe that the little molding at the bottom (and sometimes the top) of walls was just a decorative accent. Then we remodeled a home we were living in and I learned the harsh truth: molding covers the places where the walls and the floors don’t meet quite perfectly.
And of course, the walls and the floors hardly ever meet perfectly. Tiny mis-measurement in one corner is magnified by the time you get to the other corner. Or little shifts in the foundation put everything slightly askew. Or a worker is not quite as careful in installing plumbing or wiring or lighting as might be wished, and things are knocked a bit out of line.
It would be a shame if all those little oddities were obvious – so we cover them up with molding and half round and sometimes caulk and paint.
I do the same thing when I am making stoles for ministers. It is hard to get the hems exactly even and straight if they are handsewn – so I don’t sew them by hand. I cover the bottom edges with fringe, which has the bonus of adding a little weight so the stoles hang gracefully when they are worn.
Ceremonies are another kind of finish carpentry. Going to school can be a messy business with setbacks and disappointments along the way. Graduation covers them up with robes, speeches, and pageantry. Courtships (to use an old fashioned word) have their ups and downs, but weddings more or less disguise all of the complexities of love with music, flowers, and banquets. Even retirement can be a mixed blessing, gracefully hidden by cake, balloons, and good-bye gifts.
Every day etiquette is another example – we cover up the rough edges of our relationships and interactions with “please” and “thank you.”
Still, even wide molding cannot cover up poor workmanship or shoddy materials, and no ceremony or etiquette can repair deep wounds or estrangement. Finish carpentry only works because it finishes a process that began solidly with the basics. It makes good work look even better.

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to build healthy relationships and strong connections, so that only a little finish carpentry is needed. Amen.

Interfacing

Before it was a verb, “interfacing” was the stiffening fabric that goes inside a garment to give it body and crispness.

I use a particular kind of interfacing in the stoles I make for my small business, Woman of the Cloth.  It is called “hair canvas” and it is a blend of several fibers, including 4% horse hair.  It is used in the collars and lapels of good quality jackets and coats and it costs almost as much as the beautiful cotton fabrics that are visible in a finished stole.

But the beautiful fabrics that are visible could not do the job without the interfacing hidden inside.  The hair canvas gives them substance, helps them to hang evenly, and insures that they will last for many years.

Sermons have interfacing, too – the study and reflection that the preacher does before composing a single sentence.  It may not be obvious to the listener that there were hours of research and several discarded drafts, but it is because the pastor has invested time and heart in those that the sermon has strength, coherence, and impact.

Once you start looking for it, interfacing is everywhere:  teachers put it in their lesson plans and lectures, carpenters put it in their framing, musicians in their practice, authors in their editing, hostesses in their cooking … a lot of things depend upon sturdy internal scaffolding.

When people buy a stole, they are always choosing a fabric that they love.  But what they are buying is just decorated interfacing.

 

Prayer:   Gracious God, we thank you for the sturdy internal scaffolding that makes things strong and beautiful.  Be present in our lives like interfacing, making our work strong and beautiful, whatever it is.  Amen.

 

 

On Mindless Repetition

Most Protestant ministers preach, at least once, a sermon or sermon series about the Lord’s Prayer. We look carefully at the context in which it appears in scripture; we analyze the verbs and the order in which they appear; we look at different versions and translations, and pretend that we have the original Aramaic text to study. We try to make it relevant or modern or at least interesting. The goal is to make the prayer more “meaningful.”

Maybe all of that is, well, wrongheaded. Maybe the thing we ought to be preaching about the Lord’s Prayer is not what the words mean, but what saying the words means.

It means, in the first place, trying to take the words of Jesus to be our own words. It is an imperfect effort, of course, because we don’t have a transcript of what Jesus said to the disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. What we do have is the record of the early church about the prayer he gave them as a model. So we speak those words as a kind of verbal Eucharist – bringing something out of memory and into the present in an embodied way.

It means, in the second place, to pray with Jesus-followers in all times and all places. When we recite these words together in worship, I often see that whole company in my heart’s eye, spread out in great ranks around and behind and ahead of me. I am reacquainted with the great cloud of witnesses that share my longing to follow the Jesus-way.

And it means that when we recite these familiar words, we can enter a kind of meditation in which the words are no longer central and the possibility of connection with the divine is heightened. Think of the Lord’s Prayer as a Taize chant that you sing until you are done singing, or a Hail Mary that you repeat as you finger the beads. “Mindlessly” repeating these words can restore their sacredness in surprising ways.

Prayer: Holy One, help our prayers to be deeper and wider than our words. Amen.

Herod Is on the Throne

It was the most chilling benediction I had ever heard:  “Do not go in peace.  Herod is still on the throne and the children are not safe.”  It was spoken at a seminary chapel service; the text for the day had been the “slaughter of the innocents,” – Herod’s order to kill all of the baby boys who might be the announced “King of the Jews.”

These disturbing words came back to me as I saw pictures of children whose parents had tried to send them to the United States.  And photos of injured children in Gaza and Israel.  And words in church about Minneapolis kids who won’t get breakfast or lunch after summer school is over.  “Do not go in peace.  Herod is still on the throne and the children are not safe.

I read recently read about the Maternity Box that is given to pregnant women in Finland.  It contains everything a new baby will need:  bedding, clothes, diapers, toys, even a book.  The box itself can serve as a bassinette.  To receive the box, the only thing the woman needs to do is to see a health care provider early in her pregnancy.  The box is a public investment in infant health (prenatal care) and well-being (clothing and supplies).  Herod de-throned.

I love the idea of every child being welcomed – not because the parents are prosperous (and can afford it), and not because the parents are needy (and can’t afford it).  Imagine what it would be like if every baby got a box like that. Imagine what it would be like if every refugee child received a box of clothes and vitamins and books.

There is no single “Herod,” of course.  Herod’s threat in our midst comes from institutions and ideologies that give lip-service to children’s welfare, then fail to embody that concern in programs or practices.  I get pretty discouraged about how much time and energy it will take to change all of that – especially during those weeks when there are also wars and plane crashes and various other calamities of human life.

That preacher’s words about Herod were not really a benediction – a benediction is, after all, a “good word.”  They were, however, prophetic words – words that spoke a truth we would rather not see.  May they never stop disturbing us, and may we never stop trying to keep the children safe.

 

 

 

 

 

I Didn’t Love Psalm 23, Until …

I used to have about the same relationship to the 23rd Psalm as I had to the 1994 Honda Accord that I owned.  That car lasted 14 years, went 265,000 miles, survived the Northfield hailstorm of 2005, and never broke down. I respected it; I appreciated it.  I did not really love it.  So it was for me with this most familiar and oft-recited of psalms.  I respected the central position that it has garnered through the centuries, I appreciated the calm and comfort and consolation that it has brought to folks – including many for whom it is their only connection to the Bible.  But for all that, it was not especially dear to my own heart. Continue reading

The Text I Didn’t Send

I was at a denominational meeting, and an amendment was offered to a resolution that was on the floor.  It was only two words, but they were important words to the person who proposed adding them.  It took several minutes for the moderator, the parliamentarian, and the person proposing the amendment to work through the procedure and get the amendment and the resolution appropriately voted on. I felt cranky and impatient.  Really cranky.  I picked up my cell phone and was about to text, “Just shoot me.”

What stopped me on the spot was the realization that anything we text might be read by others – we know not whom.  I didn’t want to be “on the record” with words that could be taken out of context as being a genuine invitation to violence.

What stops me now is astonishment (and embarrassment) that a phrase like “Just shoot me” has elbowed its way into my conversation at all.  I am universally opposed to violence and specifically critical of the easy availability of firearms.  What was I thinking?

One explanation is, of course, that this phrase is just hyperbole – an exaggerated way of saying that I would rather be almost anywhere else doing just about anything else, than sitting through a partially garbled parliamentary procedure about two words.  And while that is true, it doesn’t really acknowledge the insidious way that a violent phrase snuck into my language.

So I will be listening for other phrases to use the next time I am cranky and impatient – phrases that are sassy and irreverent but not violent.  Got any suggestions?

 

Who Thinks Up These Things?

There are four things that can be made “touchless” in a public restroom:  the toilet can flush by itself, the water in the sink can turn itself on, the soap can dispense itself, and the paper towel can advance or the hand dryer turn on automatically.

In my travels, not many women’s restrooms are equipped with all four.  (I can’t speak about men’s restrooms.)  I have seen about every combination of two or three.  The building I am in right now has auto-flush and auto-soap, but do-it-yourself water and towels.   My favorite craft store has the opposite (auto water and towels, do-it-yourself flush and soap).

I suspect two motivations among restroom designers.  One is to offer a mostly sanitary experience to the person using the facilities.  The other is to minimize the waste of water, soap, and towels.  Automating speaks to both of these.

I wonder who decides which parts to automate.  Is there a panel?  Are there experts?  Do the plumbers get to choose?

Of course, I also wonder when in restaurant history the chocolate sauce moved from the top of the dessert to the plate underneath.  And when in cooking history that onions went from “brown” to “caramelized.”

I wonder why butter comes in long narrow quarters in the Midwest and shorter, fatter quarters on the West Coast.  Is there a “butter line” right through the Rocky Mountains?  Did the salesman with the long-narrow packaging machine turn back when he got to Denver?

So I guess my habit of wondering is stronger than my interest in restroom design.  Still, I wonder …

Where are the Schools?

I’ve been spending more time than usual in the Twin Cities this spring, driving around neighborhoods that are new to me.  One of them is an industrial area along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis.  I’ve noticed three schools housed in buildings that I’m pretty sure were built for other purposes.

I understand that this is practical – the buildings are large, have plenty of parking, and are close to public transportation (though there are still a lot of school buses in the morning!).

Nonetheless, seeing them out there makes me nostalgic.  I miss the days when schools were at the center of communities, when they were surrounded by playgrounds and baseball diamonds and big lawns.  I miss the days when towns invested in buildings that were handsome and substantial.  I miss the sense that we are all connected to the nearby school, even if we don’t have children in our household.

Even apart from nostalgia, there is some sense in which this just seems like the wrong place for schools. This location says that education is an “industry,” and not part of our family and neighborhood life.  All three of the ones I drive by are Charter schools, and this location says that innovation is relegated to the margins of our community.  If the students in these schools are (as I suspect) those who have struggled in other settings, this location says “sorry, you don’t get a beautiful school.”

I am trying to be appreciative of the practicality and resourcefulness of the folks who lead and oversee these schools.  I am trying not to be old-fashioned about the importance of architecture and geography and green space.  I am trying to remember that what goes on inside of schools is always more important than what they look like on the outside.  I am trying … And it still feels as though we have lost something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time Optimism

One of the interns who worked with me taught me a valuable lesson about time – what she called Time Optimism.

It comes in two versions.  The first is the conviction that, although you are overbooked and overcommitted right now, sometime in the near future it will be different.  You will have enough time to clean the garage, sort the photographs and put them neatly in albums, and take a real vacation.  The second is the tendency to schedule events in your calendar for the shortest amount of time that they might possibly take.  If it might take anywhere from one to six hours to clean that garage, you mentally allow one hour – and are inevitably late or harried for whatever you are doing next.

As a chronic Time Optimist, I’d like to think these habits are an expression of zest for life, an eagerness to do as much as possible in the time available.  But the fact is that Time Optimism usually results in hurrying, compromising, inconveniencing, and disappointing the people around us.

Time Optimists don’t like to say “no” to anything.  There are dozens of reasons why this might be so, but none of them change the fact that failing to say “no” to some things means saying “half-hearted” or “incomplete” to nearly everything.   Saying “no” is actually an act of spiritual courage, a choice to invest one’s love and energy in the persons, actions, and causes that matter most.

Maybe there are other kinds of Time Optimism that we could cultivate.  There’s the conviction that there is enough time – enough to find rhythms of work and rest, of solitude and community, of austerity and indulgence.  There’s the recognition some human experiences take time to unfold – forgiveness, compassion, and maturity of faith.  There’s the confidence that God is with us all the time.  Those are the “optimisms” that can bring life into our lives.

On Being “Religious”

 

A Sermon from First Congregational Church of Minnesota        May 25, 2014 1

Acts 17:19-31

Have you been to the Areopagus?  Not the one in Athens, but some place where people excitedly talk about ideas and concepts, where debating is the favorite intellectual sport, where folks are always hoping to hear something new.  In class, maybe, or at a gallery opening, or during a rousing political discussion, or maybe Faith on Tap?

That’s where Paul was when he spoke the words we heard this morning, or perhaps more accurately, where he preached the sermon we heard this morning from the book of Acts.  He was a skillful speaker, and part of his skill was his ability to frame his words in the style of the people he was speaking to And so, addressing the Athenians at the Areopagus, he used the rhetorical style of the Greek philosphers.  To my ears, this is one of the most articulate and compelling of Paul’s speeches – but perhaps that is because I am more like an Athenian philosopher than a Judean shepherd or fisher. .

If Paul were somehow to come into the twenty-first century, Continue reading