I do love a good ordination. I love the theatre of worship: the procession of elders and ministers down the aisle. The ministers in their robes and red stoles with powerful music leading us to the chancel. This is worship at its best, a time when the church says loud and clear: “Pay attention--This is important.” I think I’ve been to about 8 ordinations in the past 25 years which is a pretty good indication that the church is still alive.
Last weekend we ordained a Child of the Church. Her mother and I served on a Pastor Nominating Committee together and by the end of the two years it took to find the perfect pastor, Jeri had conceived, carried and given birth to Alissa. She was the first child Ron baptized after he was installed. And, to this day whenever Ron sees her he will ask her the date of her baptism and she always knows: July 31, 1988.
That's her mom standing at her left with the pastor who baptised her standing behind her.
What made this ordination especially delicious is that many of our congregation sensed this call from God almost from the beginning. Indeed, some of us sensed God’s call before Alissa knew it. It was more than the usual exclamation that a little girl is angelic. It was a gut feeling that this kid was different and different in a wonderful way. She had been set apart by God for good
Then the morning after the ordination I pulled up facebook to see that yet another child of the church has been called to serve a church in St Louis. I knew Erin when I worked at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Usually a person like Erin understands God’s call in generic terms before the vocation shows up. She was doing God’s work long before she fine-tuned it with a seminary education and put a job title with it.
To the folks who worry the church is dying I can say it may just be “re-forming” itself right now. Instead of being housed in stone buildings with pipe organs the church might begin to look like a neighborhood coffee time. When I think of those churches I think of my other young friend who graduated from seminary this month. Stephen may never pastor a church. Instead he will work with youth outside the church walls. And he will still be doing God’s work. There will always be plenty of work but the workers may change their uniforms.
For Alissa’s ordination I knew I wanted to make her something special and I had the perfect raw material in my workshop.
Twenty-five years ago when our congregation moved from the old sanctuary and built a new one across the street we sold the building to a non-denominational church.
The first thing the new congregation did was take out all the pews so they could move around as the Spirit led them. They offered the pews to any in our congregation who wanted one. I didn’t have room inside our house for not even one more stick of furniture but I did want a pew. So I picked one that was broken, that nobody else wanted. I knew the wood itself would be blessed. Barbara Brown Taylor calls them "prayer soaked pews."
I’ve had this slab of oak sitting in our workshop ever since. Waiting for the right moment.
I cut a slice off. Then another smaller slice from that. Then yet another until I had a small enough piece I could work with on the jigsaw. Then I took another cross I already had and traced it to paper. And the creative process began.
Most crosses are simple-- after all, it's not more than just two sticks of wood. I wanted a cross more alive. I tilted the cross piece ever so slightly. Added just enough flow to the ends to suggest a robe with arms stretched in joy. The church reformers “took Jesus off the cross”, meaning they preferred a plain cross with no Jesus. The empty cross represented the resurrection.
We may have taken Jesus off the cross but we forgot to let Him dance. Mine would be a Dancing Jesus cross
They cut me down but I leapt up high
I am the light that will never ever die
And I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He.
Once I got the shape cut I sanded each piece. I made half-lap joints and glued it. Then more and more sanding. I stained it and sanded some more. Then I topped it off with a couple of coats of polyurethane and even more sanding. At every step of the process I was in danger of the wood deciding to throw me a curve, for the wood to break or the stain to fail or the sanding to gouge out a spot. There is always a tension in the creative process because you never know what’s inside the wood until you get there.
This is especially true when I work on the lathe, cutting away wood to change its shape. I turned a bowl once from pecan that once stood in our church’s playground spending its life making shade for children. The tree was leaning towards a power line so the city sent a letter to the church telling them to cut it down.
What I didn’t know about the tree until I got inside the wood is that the reason it was leaning is because it was dying. And the reason it was dying is because it had a black vein of decay running through the heart of the tree. This is called spalting and is actually a desired trait in wood. This decay gives the wood what I call “character”. That black vein is usually gorgeous. Spalted wood always costs more than blemish-free wood. It’s like opening a present—you never know what’s inside until you get there.
I made this bowl for Joy Mullins.
Whenever that happens I remember that God, above all other titles, is a Creator.
I wasn’t the only one who made something personal for Alissa. Her sister is a potter among other professional-grade artistic skills. Jaylin made her a chalice and platen. She told me how nerve-wracking it was. She said most people assume making the chalice was the hardest part but she said the platen was. Then she grew more animated describing the process of making them. She said the glaze was not at all what she planned. I think she was not so much apologizing as much as expressing the surprise lurking inside any creative process. And I knew exactly how she felt. Any creator risks the creation handing them a surprise.
I’ve had a few surprises sending my daughters into the world becoming women I never dreamed. They astonish me every day with talents I never knew they had inside them, with fears I cannot understand. To me they are perfect but they are also surprise packages sometimes.
Don’t you suppose this is how God feels about us sometimes? Through the free will God has given us, we always, have the ability to veer off the path God might have chosen for us-- to throw up a knothole, if you will. Sometimes the wood grain reveals a scar from a past injury and that makes the wood harder. A sometimes a branch grows out of the main trunk changing the direction or the density of the grain. Woodworkers must always be on the alert because it can change the way you need to treat the wood—with a lighter or a firmer grip of the chisel. And sometimes disease can take over and bring in some new design or a more vibrant color than planned.
Once I finished making the cross and the day of ordination arrived I found it extremely hard to let go of it. I kept taking pictures of it, changing the light, zooming in or out. I was surprised to find I had built up such a loving connection with such a small piece of wood.
I know the cross I made is not high art. It might not even fit into the more forgiving category of “arts and crafts”. Handing it over to someone else was difficult. Even giving it to someone I love and trust was hard. No one could ever love it as much as I do. Because I know how much work went into it. I know what is inside it. It was very much a Psalm 139 moment.
To God be the glory.