Thursday, December 12, 2013

A carpenter's shop, family baggage, and the thin places of prayer

It's funny how prayer changes what we see and how the mind wanders in response. I've been keeping a number of folks at church in prayer a lot recently. Several have lost parents, which is like living in whirlwind. Others are becoming parents to their parents. The ground shifts. Everything changes. Nothing remains the same.

I've been keeping them in prayer partly because it's what I do, and partly because this season the space seems very thin between life and death, past and future, where our wounds and wonder dissolve into one another and we don't know what shape the future brings. Naming the feelings that rise up as generations shift and change can be like identifying ghosts in a wispy harbor fog.

I went to Jody's shop in Farmington today. She rents space in a larger building that looks a bit like a long metal barn or airplane hanger. It's divided up into various workshops to house the tools, equipment, and work space of machinists, cabinet makers, and carpenters. Jody is working on some remodeling for the church, some of it literally (she's building kitchen cabinets), some  figuratively (she's introducing me to a simple, effective model of consensus decision-making).

Two observations struck me and led to two thoughts.

The first observation: I saw new material in all the workshops. Some was on the floor, some stacked on shelves and pallets, all clearly intended for specific projects in progress. What got my attention, though, was all the scrap. In every workshop there were discarded pieces and parts of old projects sitting around. 

I realized it was those pieces of accumulated stuff, useless in their current form, that would be repurposed to make the new material fit together. An old cabinet door gets cut up and starts over as a smaller piece of cherry, on its way to becoming a drawer front.  A cast-off piece of metal gets turned on a lathe and is reshaped into decorative cribbage board pins. A piece of scrap Silestone miscut for one project and left out in the elements can be recut, smoothed, and shaped into a beautiful countertop for an island for the church kitchen.

The first thought that wouldn't let go came filtered through the prayers I've been praying. It was about how we accumulate scraps of family patterns and habits for generations. A grandmother's china is one thing, but a family structure, value, or prejudice is kept in a different kind of cabinet. Moreover, it's on display everywhere we go. 

I'm sometimes tempted to think we are inevitably just the accumulation of all our past experience, good and bad, our genetic predispositions, our inherited physical, behavioral, and emotional characteristics. There's probably a name for that, but using the language I know better, it's essentially a psychological sort of predestination. 

Jody's shop gave me a visual reminder of grace. 

We may not have a lot of choice about what scrap we inherit from our family of origin, but we have a choice about what we do with it. It's hard to toss out family baggage, but it really can be done. Nothing is unflushable. Some may require a plunger, or in some cases a shovel! And a cousin or sister might get upset. Nevertheless, there's no healthy way to hoard everything we inherit. Some of it must be thrown away.

Thankfully some of it is made of strong stuff that may be useful, even if not in its current form. With creative visioning, careful planning and measuring, cutting off the edges, drilling the right holes, rescaling it in the right way, we can do something good with it. 

Of course, until it's reshaped or repurposed, some of our family baggage has to stay up on a high shelf where it doesn't get in the way. Then, when the time and circumstances are right, we take it down, trim off the parts we do not need, and reshape it into something new and good. It's hard work, but in the right hands, with skill born of practice, prayer guidance from God's Spirit, and a tenacious, creative vision, our lives really do become new. 

What's more, we aren't limited to the scraps we inherit. We can work with some things that are truly new.

Long thought made short: we may be predisposed to walk certain paths, but it's not predetermined that we must. Metanoeia is real. We really can change direction. Even the direction of generations. In fact, we must, if we trust the future is not completely determined by the past. But we will have to reshape some of our inherited raw material to do so.

The second observation: One spot in the the shop especially intrigued me. It's where they spray the rubber cement onto wood countertop pieces before they attach the laminate veneer. The platform the material sits on has accumulated a good 2-3 inches of rubber on one end where I assume the sprayer begins. It looks a bit like a long, yellowish sand dune.  You wouldn't think such thin layers could accumulate so deeply. Occasionally, I suppose, the shop owners just go in and cut all of it away to level the surface again. 

My head was already on its way to my heart, when I saw this part of the shop. I'd been thinking of several people in the church who, for various reasons, are noticing the cumulative layers of their ancestry and experience and wondering how to reshape the landscape of their lives.

So, the second thought: I wondered at our adaptability. We adapt to the emotional and spiritual layers that gradually accumulate on the surface of our soul. Some of those layers were sprayed on when we were too young to notice, and like our own physical growth, were noticeable more to others than to ourselves. Some layers were laid down generations ago.

Layers of religious upbringing are there, surely, blended with atomized relationships, friendships, loves, the shades of meaning gleaned in school classrooms, playgrounds, failed experiments and successful ones, too. Layers of decisions and values are there, along with rules of thumb and habits of the heart. 

Mostly, I suspect we don't even notice the growing dunes. We just adapt. They become our "normal." They become the ground we walk on, wearing paths we begin to assume are the only acceptable ways to go.

What happens, I wonder, in that thin place by the bed of a parent who is dying, when we really notice the accumulated layers beneath our spiritual feet? When we honestly face the struggles our forebears faced, and now are holding on to what matters most while shackles of past determinations fall away, as one friend recently said, like Marley's chains? What happens when we start cutting away what we assumed was our foundation? 

Can we revisit our deeper bedrock, and then with care and determination map out new contours, new paths, that will lead us places our ancestors never could have imagined we would go? 

I'm short on answers today but long on prayerful wanderings that are rising up to mingle with the shapes I see in the thin places of this season. 

May your prayers rise in wonder. 

Blessings and Peace,