Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Column: God of the Untidy

"We must not be too high-minded. I fancy we may be sometimes deterred from small prayers by a sense of our own dignity rather than of God's." C. S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

My attempts to keep neat while cooking were not only fruitless, but made the process more difficult. And it made me wonder how often I want things neat and tidy and above all predictable in my relationship with God. But whose dignity am I trying to protect?

This reflection appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 27 January 2010.

I went down to the potter's house and there he was, working at the wheel. Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done? says the Lord. Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, house of Israel. — Jer. 18:3,6

Snow days smell of cinnamon in my house. The sudden gift of a day without classes or tech call for the latest drama production lends itself to slow things, like the baking of cinnamon rolls, which must be left to rise three times.

As the snow sifted over the driveway, I pulled out flour and butter and eggs and set to work, not bothering to put on an apron. Soon the counters looked as if the storm had moved inside, and my attempts to knead the bread without getting flour on my just-washed jeans were falling flat. The neater I tried to be, the harder it was to really stretch and shape the dough. And every effort I made to keep the cinnamon filling from dotting my pristine white turtleneck went for naught.

As I stretched and turned the dough I thought about the images in Isaiah and Jeremiah of God as the potter. Of the wheel turning as God's feet kept time on the treadle. Of God's hands covered in wet clay, His face speckled with the spray from the wheel. And His hands firmly shaping and reshaping, until His creation emerges.

These images remind me that God does not hold us — His creations — at arms length. God is actively shaping me, unafraid of getting splattered in the process. And it made me wonder if I am too worried about being careful with God, too worried about the mess to allow God to shape and reshape me.

Dumping the dough on the counter after its first rise, I could feel the warm dough come to life under my hands. In Genesis we are reminded that from the beginning we are made from the clay of the earth, by God's hand, in God's likeness. And if I am made in God's own image, I imagine I am also made to work in clay and earth and flour, to get my hands dirty.

In a reflection on physical labor, The Practice of Carrying Water, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of cleaning the bathrooms in her parish's homeless shelter: "Scrubbing the bowls one by one, I thought of Saint Francis kissing lepers...I thought of Mother Teresa bathing the dying of Calcutta. By the time I reached the third bowl I was entirely out of spiritual fantasies, free to remember that...I was made of the same stuff as other humans."

We are all clay. Being potters in the image of the Potter, we are not meant to hold each other at arms length either. Am I unwilling to dig into the earth and do some of the labor God does? To think first about others and less about what I look like?

By the time I reached the third rise of the rolls, I was also out of spiritual reflections — and covered in flour from head to toe. I finally gave in and simply delighted in making a mess of counters and clothes both. Trying to keep the mess at arms length was ultimately impossible. God isn't worried about keeping His hands clean, why should I?

God our Father, gifts without measure flow from your goodness to bring us your peace. Our life is your gift. Guide our life's journey, for only your love makes us whole. Keep us strong in your love. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen. — Opening prayer for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

4 comments:

  1. I like the C.S. Lewis quote.

    Thank you for the image of God getting dirty. The only way I can make sense of that right now is to think of Christ, but that verse suggests something about God the Father as well. Dirt on versus in?

    [Perhaps this is being overthought as I take a Heidegger break!]

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  2. even I put on an apron. Jeremiah is a favorite and loved your reflection on the potter's wheel. My grandmother made your snow day treat and spoiled me from all but the best.

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  3. Ah, tidiness. So frequently I find that I don't want to deal with the "mess" of making or doing something, ennui sets in and I don't go about the business of creation.

    While I'm less likely to go that route today, than I was years back, the feeling remains.

    This makes me grateful that God didn't feel like God did not want to be bothered when it came to creating us.

    Loved the C.S. Lewis quote AND the Jeremiah reading.

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  4. Too much Heidegger, I think!

    And Fran and Wayne, I find Jeremiah to be an unsung prophet. We hear so much from Isaiah - but a couple of my favorite bits are from Jeremiah (including the famous camel fleeing for the desert!)...

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