Friday, May 31, 2013

The Potter

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The cart lurched, throwing Abel off his stride. He stumbled but kept his grip on the shafts between which he walked. He pulled to the right, willing his shallow crate on wheels to slide as easily out of the rut as it had sliding in.

Romans tax us to death and they can’t even fix the roads. How often had Abel heard his father mutter that complaint under his breath as he had carted earth back to their hovel? Well, the old man was gone and now it was his son’s turn to haul the rusty-red dirt.

With the cart now securely back on the track Abel paused to adjust his garment, tightening it around his waist. His torso glistened with sweat. Putting his hands back on the handles of the cart, he inhaled deeply and pulled. The wheels protested but yielded to the man’s persistent and stubborn resolve.

It fell to his brother, Benjamin, to transform this plain dirt into the pots and pitchers used every day here in Palestine. Some were quite beautiful, others very ordinary, but they all had their purposes.* He carted dirt as his father once had. Ben created beauty from dirt as, well, as only he could.

Not two miles away, another man bent down to pick up a handful of red earth. Benjamin, returning home from the marketplace, craned his neck to see what was happening. Who was this uncouth stranger who would pick up the dirt he had just spit on?

They said he was a Rabbi, but surely he’s made himself ceremonially now? I can see it on the faces of the Pharisees.

The itinerant teacher, still hunched back on his heels, mixed the two ingredients together in the palm of his hand. He got back onto his feet, reached out and gently applied the red clay to the eyes of a younger man who had been standing close by.

Ben shuddered, his sensitive, creative spirit at once horrified and fascinated.

Someone muttered to his left. He cocked his head and caught the tail end of the conversation.

“…the fellow was born blind. Must’ve done something wrong for God to punish him. A lotta good dirt in ‘is eye’ll do ‘im.”

Days later the rumours reached the outer limits of Jerusalem where Ben and Abel lived. They told of a blind man who could see. Not only that, Ben confirmed, suddenly the center of attention in his small world, but he had been thrown out of the synagogue for becoming a follower of this so-called Rabbi.**

Some time later Benjamin and his brother visited the field where Abel was accustomed to collecting the clay. Pots had been the last thing on their minds in recent weeks. The city was abuzz with all kinds of strange events, some of which revolved around the itinerant teacher whose actions had so disgusted and then amazed Ben. But there was more to come.

“What the—?” said Abel, as he stared at the two scruffy figures digging in the field.

“I’d say you’ve lost your exclusive rights to this patch of ground,” teased his brother.

The two men they were watching ignored their approach until Abel called out: “Hey, what are you two doing? If you’re working for some potter, no need to dig a hole that deep.”

At that moment the two potters noticed the bundle tossed on the ground beside the hole. The dirty-white cloth was rusty with some kind of stain.

Benjamin nudged Abel. “That’s a shroud,” he whispered.

“And that’s why the hole is this deep,” called back one the sharp-eared gravediggers.

“Who is it?” asked Abel. “Why are you burying him here?”

“Man hung himself, and nobody else wants what’s left of the mess. The priests told us to put him here. Seems he turned in that Galilean Rabbi to the authorities and then got to feeling bad about it.”***

One of the men had turned toward the potters and caught the horrified look they exchanged. He laughed: “Don’t worry, we’ll mark the grave so you don’t dig him up by accident.”

On a hill not far away, drops of blood dripped to the ground at the foot of a rough cross. Red mingled with red as the earth from which all men come and to which all men return received the Master Potter’s offering.

In a potter’s field, two men heard the sound.

* Romans 9:21
** John 9; 2 Corinthians 4:7
*** 2 Timothy 2:20

Friday, May 24, 2013

Faith Measured in Bottles of Oil

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No one knows her name. Her story is recorded briefly, tucked away amidst epic battles and personal issues of life and death. Of what importance is a preacher’s widow, living in reduced circumstances, in the light of bigger news events?

But when your creditors are pounding down your door demanding that you turn over your children so that they can work off a debt; when you have nothing to offer in exchange for their servitude except a little oil in the bottom of a jar, it really is of little importance who’s fighting whom in some faraway conflict on a foreign battlefield. The immediate and the urgent take precedence over everything else.

The story is recorded for us in 2 Kings 4:1-7. The woman is the widow of one of God’s prophets. We aren’t told how the family got into debt. It wasn’t unusual for the time. In fact, Leviticus 25 gives the rules to be followed when a member of the community sold himself to another because he couldn’t provide for his family any other way. And whether it was the prophet’s own debt, now to be paid off by his sons, or debts that accumulated after his death as the widow tried to look after her family, we are not told. But she was in a desperate situation.

So the widow went to find the prophet, Elisha. She explained her problem. And she includes the statement: “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord” (4:1). Did she wonder if “revering” the Lord was enough, considering that the Lord her husband had revered had not protected her children from the possibility of indentured servitude?

Elisha asks: “what do you have in your house?” What little she may have had to pay off the debt was already gone. She replies: “your servant has nothing there at all...except a little oil” (4:2). The comment reminds me of the answer the disciples gave to Jesus when asked by the Lord to feed the crowd. What do you have? Nothing—a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread, but that’s not enough to feed all these people.

That all depends on who has his hands on the fish, and the bread, and the oil. And what happens to all these “few” depends on just how far the possessors of the “little” are willing to trust God. Elisha instructs the widow to collect all the jars in the neighborhood. He specifically tells her: “Don’t ask for just a few” (vs. 3). How far was this widow willing to go? She and her sons collected all the jars they could find and then shut themselves up in their house and went to work. Elisha’s instructions were to fill all the jars. We don’t know how many jars there were, but she filled them all, and she filled enough. And when the last jar was filled, that “little” bit of oil stopped flowing (vs. 6).

The story goes that the widow was able to sell all the jars of oil, pay off her debts, and still have enough to live on afterwards (vs. 7).

What would have happened if the widow had ignored Elisha’s instructions to collect the jars, thinking him crazy to suggest such a project? What would have happened if she had not collected all the jars, or if she had grown weary and decided not to fill them all?

Her complete faith, her unqualified obedience, her tenacity in not giving up in the face of a humanly impossible situation, provide us with huge lessons that we can learn. When our situation is desperate, when we only have a “little” or a “few”, when the pressure is on us and we don’t know what to do, God leaves a little story, in the middle of “bigger” stories, to remind us that faith exercised in absolute obedience will always be responded to by the Almighty God in whose hands we rest.

Friday, May 17, 2013

It's In The Genes

(Author's Note: A little bit of nostalgia today)

At the beginning of our sidewalk, I went into stealth mode, tiptoeing up to the three steps that led me to the porch door. This I opened very slowly. The speed had to be just right or the hinges would squeak. The next obstacle was the inside door. I applied a little force—it was always a bit swollen. Again, I had to be careful. Too much pressure and it would surely make a sound that she would hear from her bedroom.

I crept across the porch, willing the floorboards not to creak. The biggest hurdle was yet to come. There was one more door to conquer. This one was as old as the house and complained bitterly of its age if not handled with due caution.

I turned the handle and gently, oh so gently, applied pressure to the door with my hip. The door slid open. I was in. Just as carefully, I closed the door and locked it. Her bedroom was right inside the front door and it was after 11:00 p.m.

There was no sound coming from the room. That was a bad sign. If she had been asleep, I would have heard her gently snoring. It was deadly quiet. That meant she was awake, pretending that she hadn’t heard me come in.

Who was I kidding? She always heard me. Sometimes she spoke when I came in, sometimes she didn’t. Now that I was safely in the door, she could go to sleep.

My mother was a pain that way. I would tell her where I was going, and more or less when I expected to be home. If I were fifteen minutes late, she would call and ask me why I wasn’t home yet. There were even times when she called more than once. When I was a teenager, it was slightly embarrassing; when I was in my 30s and 40s, and home on a visit, it was really embarrassing. Who knows what she thought I might be doing five hundred miles away and living on my own?

I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t trust me. After all, the only people I visited were friends from the church. What trouble did she expect me to get into? On second thought, maybe you’d better not answer that—Christians aren’t exempt from getting into mischief. Still, I had never given her a reason to worry about me. So why the phone calls? And why couldn’t she go to sleep until I was inside the front door?

Then the truth came out.

It was during a visit with my mother’s younger sister that I began to discover another side to my mother. How we got on the subject, I don’t remember, but the conversation went something like this:

“You know, your mother and Beatrice were always getting into trouble with my mother.”

“My mother? Aunt Bea? How so?”

“Well, they used to pretend to go to bed at night. Then when mother and dad were asleep and everything was quiet, the two of them would sneak downstairs, slip out of one of the living room windows and go off to meet their boyfriends—fellows mother and dad didn’t approve of. Then, they’d come back in through the window, close it, and sneak back upstairs and get into bed as though they had been home all night.”

My mother? My straighter-than-rigid, serious, no-nonsense, strict, be-home-before-you-even-leave, mother?

“You’re kidding!”

She wasn’t.

Now if it had been Aunt Esther, I wouldn’t have had any trouble believing the story. Esther was the one with all the boyfriends, the flighty, spoiled, baby of the family. To think that it was my mother, and her equally straitlaced sister, who perpetrated such misbehaviour, well, that was a stretch.


Years later, I discovered a photograph of my mother with my father’s brother. They were obviously very good friends—if you know what I mean. Thinking back on what my aunt had told me, if I had been my grandmother, I wouldn’t have approved of Uncle Eddie either.

I never told my mother what her sister had told me. But it certainly explained why mom made such a big deal out of where I was, how late I was out, and who I was with.

She must have thought that I might be pulling the same kind of stunt she had once pulled on her own parents. Still, why would she think that?

After all, I didn’t sneak out a window; I used the door.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Little Bird Told Me

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The barnyard was all a-buzz. Actually, all a-twitter might be a more accurate statement.

“I tell you, Sweetie, Gertie Goatbuster is in big trouble now.”

Swiftness Swallowpater didn’t stop to catch his breath, not even once, as he shared the news with Mrs. Swallowpater. All the little Swallowpaters kept up an unceasing chatter asking impertinent questions of their unheeding elders.

“What, Daddy …?”

“How, Pappy …?”

“Where, Padre…?” (This particular Swallowpater was at the head of his Spanish class. As you know, swallows vacation in Capistrano, Argentina.)

“I overheard … er … heard it personally from Clarissa Cowbell herself. Gertie got up at the Barnyard Brethren Assembly and spoke.

Sweetie looked puzzled.

“Gertie is always bleating about something, so what’s …”

“Mama, goats don’t bleat,” admonished the Swallowpater who thought he was smarter than every other bird in the nest.

“… so unusual about her speaking?” asked mother without missing a beat.

“Dear, that’s Harry Horsenpfeffer’s job. Remember, he went away to Equestrian College and learned the meaning of all the knee nudges and the whip whaps. He’s schooled. Gertie’s a goat—garbage in, garbage out.”

“Swiftness, the children are present, please watch your beak!”

“Sorry, but this upsets me so. Percy Piglettington is calling a meeting of the Barnboard to discuss the situation. You know what he’s like when he gets his tail in a curl.”

Sweetie cocked her head, ruffling her feathers at the thought of Percy on a rampage.

“I don’t understand. Did Harry know this was going to happen?”

“That’s what Percy is going to bring up at the meeting. Harry knew. In fact, he encouraged the outrage. He told Percy that Gertie was gifted and that he wanted to help her use the gift.”

“Oh cool. Do we get presents too, Daddy?”

“Hush, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m saying that Harry told Percy, who told Clarissa, who sort of told me, that Gertie has a special ability to speak to the Barnyard. It’s a gift she got from the Cre-itter-ator.”

The mention of the Cre-itter-ator inspired silence in the little Swallowpaters, if only for a brief moment.


“Yes, son?”

The smart-beak hesitated, not wanting his question to reveal any ignorance on his part.

“She’s a she.”

The elders exchanged puzzled glances.

“I mean; Gertie’s a nanny goat. Didn’t you tell me that nannies were not allowed to speak in the Barnyard? The Cre-itter-ator must have made a mistake if he gave her that gift.”

Father Swallowpater considered for a moment. If he said that the Cre-itter-ator, who held all their lives in his hands, had made mistake—well, that was unthinkable. However, if he said that Gertie did have the gift, he would be building his nest in the farthest corner of the pasture next year, no longer welcome in the barnyard. Percy would see to that.

“Well, maybe Gertie has the gift so that she can tell the Cre-itter-ator’s stories to people like Calico Caterwaul, or Penny Heninger, or …”

“Sweetie Swallowpater?”

Swiftness looked at his good wife. There was a glint in her unblinking eye that warned him that he might be building that new nest BEFORE next year.

“Swiftness, if Gertie has the gift, her stories wouldn’t be any different than Harry’s, would they?”

“No, but …”

“If the stories are the same, who delivers them doesn’t matter, does it?”

“But, we’ve never had a she tell the Cre-itter-ator’s stories before.”


Swiftness turned to the littlest of the swallows.

“Yes, son?”

“Gertie’s been telling the kids, the calves, the foals, the chicks and the piglets, all those stories for years. Everything we know about the Cre-itter-ator, we know because of her. Did she do something bad talking to us?”

Swiftness’ heart was torn at the troubled look in his youngest son’s eyes. More importantly, the question had reminded him that just about everything HE knew about the stories he had also learned from Nanny Gertie. She’d always had the gift.

Truth triumphed over custom.

“I’m sorry, Sweetie. Kids, please forgive me. I shouldn’t have said what I did about Nanny. She does have the gift. I know it, you know it, and Harry knows it too. I’m sure the Cre-itter-ator wouldn’t have given it to her, if he didn’t expect her to tell the stories to anyone who would listen.”

Sweetie pecked her husband on the cheek.

“What about that Barnboard meeting?”

“How about we take the fledglings? Gertie isn’t the only one with a Cre-itter-ator-given right to speak.”

Friday, May 3, 2013

It Seems Like Only Yesterday

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The old woman told me to my face that it would have been better if I had never been born.

And was I expected to accept the blame for that?

I lost my innocence then—at the tender age of twelve. Like the gush that announces the blooming of womanhood, came the understanding that no one is safe, not even a child in the presence of someone old enough to know better.

At one time our city mayor was a lowly high school counselor—well, I guess to us he didn’t seem so humble then. My one, and thankfully, only visit to his office was on the occasion of his dispensing advice concerning my future. He asked about my plans. I told him. He informed me that I didn’t have the brains to do what I anticipated.

It’s a good thing I didn’t believe him.

It was at that point in life that I came to the conclusion that free advice might actually be worth exactly what you pay for it, and even those in lofty positions of influence might not always know what they are talking about.

Four years later, within weeks of graduating from my chosen institution of higher learning, I was asked to be the valedictorian of my graduating class. Days later, a rather shamefaced dean informed me that the Board of Directors of the school had rescinded the invitation. After all, they argued, the school was trying to attract men, making it inappropriate to have me, a woman, as valedictorian.

I guess I should have been doubly insulted.

So I learned that sometimes even the most godly men do ungodly things. History tends to repeat itself, but it’s that first plunge into the waters of disillusionment that seems the coldest. With time I would become much more familiar with my own frailties and become much more sympathetic to the weaknesses of others. All the same, during those chaotic days I discovered friends I really wasn’t aware that I had, classmates who refused to allow the scions of ecclesiastical power to do the wrong thing.

During the adventurous twenties, I was to learn that with patience and perseverance, even the harshest critic can be won over, and that not every open door leads directly into the next room. Sometimes there are hallways to be dealt with before we are ready for the next door. A hallway can be a humbling place, something akin to standing in a corner except that it isn’t punishment. It’s, well, a place to wait, reflect, and get things in perspective.

In one of those hallways, in middle life—the lower middle—a shock awaited me. I discovered that God wasn’t impressed by my job description. He showed me that I needed to describe myself, not by my title, but by my relationship to him. He was more impressed by my being than by my doing. To teach me that lesson, he had to strip away all that he had given me so that I would learn to focus, not on the gift, but on the One who had done the giving.

In my forties, I took the first steps toward learning not to tell God how things ought to be done. I also learned to tell my mother what to do, and then discovered what a wonderful thing it was to be able to relinquish the role of “mothering” my mother and to return to being a daughter.

“Freedom 55” came and went. I resented that, especially since my brother retired with a nice package at the age of fifty-two. But then, I argued, what would be the use of having learned all those lessons, gained all those experiences and acquired all that expertise just in time to be relegated to that proverbial “pasture.” I remembered Caleb, who demanded the right to take on the toughest assignment possible—at the age of eighty-five. I’m barely crawling out of my nappies compared to him.

Now, on the cusp of years that are physically rusty but spiritually golden, I realize that my battles are not fought with the same naivety as in the spring of my life, nor with the same heat as in my summer years. The fall is cool but fresh, and bright with colour. There are still possibilities to explore, mountains to take, more lessons to learn, before winter comes.

And I have a message to deliver to an old woman.