I woke up early on the morning I was scheduled to preach and drove to the spacious, wooded park a few blocks from our house. In preparation for speaking on the story of Elijah’s widow, I wanted to gather enough sticks to spread across a make-shift altar space, creating a tableau of sorts with a children’s book I planned to read and a small tree.
I was planning to speak about hope, but not the kind that soars.
I wanted to talk about the kind of hope that shows up among the sticks and stones of our lives, the few drops of oil and crumbs of flour; the kind of hope that dwells in the dried out, broken places and is only found in the looking.
Pulling up and parking, though, I noticed a peculiar absence of branches, even in the most likely places, under the old stately trees at one end of the park. But I got out anyway and started wandering around, my head bowed, scanning the ground for useable materials.
Once I really started looking, I saw sticks everywhere and dressed in my Sunday best, I bent and gathered a good armful. Arriving at church, I spread a table cloth on a long folding table and laid out my wares. The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss stood on a small wooden stand and behind it the avocado tree planted from a seed my husband salvaged from the compost bin.
Taking the sticks out slowly I dropped them gently onto the table, making a good old mess and letting more than a few tumble to the ground. Bits of bark scattered and clinging leaves drifted gently to the floor.
There wasn’t anything beautiful about those sticks, not in a conventional sense.
But there was a strange beauty in their brokenness, a beauty in the way they captured the way so many of us feel in hopeless times – dried up, broken and emptied of life.
I imagined that for some in my congregation that day, hope was like a seed, small and expectant, and for others perhaps it was like a tree, sprouting and green. But for others yet, I imagined that hope felt brittle and barren like it must have for Elijah’s widow who hunted and pecked along the ground, gathering just enough sticks to cook one last meal.
I’m not sure if those sticks spoke to anyone that day, but they spoke to me.
They reminded me that when words fail, beauty speaks, even the strange, stark beauty of broken, barren things. Proclamation occurs, not just in the form of words and ideas, but also in images and icons, tangible expressions of our flesh and blood, bread and wine existence.
So when I speak, I bring along my box of props. I hand out colored play-doh and stones for writing on with permanent ink, I press a packet of wildflower seeds into every hand that reaches and leave piles of sleeping flower bulbs as images of resurrection on Easter morning.
In this way I practice what I’ve learned and remind myself as well, that the word indeed was Word among us, but it also came in flesh and when words fail to find entry through fallow ears, then maybe some bit of truth wrapped in the form of beauty may still break in through hands and eyes and hearts.
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