“A Hammer and Nails and Some Pennies from Heaven”

December 6, 2015

The First Parish of Watertown

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood


Opening Words:

“…“Oh, Marilla, looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them,” exclaimed Anne. “You mayn’t get the things themselves; but nothing can prevent you from having the fun of looking forward to them. Mrs. Lynde says, ‘Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.’ But I think it would be worse to expect nothing than to be disappointed.”…”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables 

Reading: from Phillip Gulley, Hometown Tales

An eighty year old woman in my friend Jim’s congregation lives in a retirement home and ventures out once a week to buy groceries at Safeway. Margaret, Jim reports, is a sweet lady, though that hasn’t always been the case.

Occasionally, Jim says, God builds the house overnight, but most times God nails up one board each day. Margaret was a board each day kind of person.

Several years ago, Margaret felt God wanted her to do something for her church. So she prayed about it, and after a while the Lord told her to save all her pennies for the children of the church. Margaret was hoping for something a little grander, but she didn’t think she should talk back to God. A person has to start somewhere, she told Jim. So, for a few years, as Christmas approached, Margaret wrapped up her pennies, about ten dollars’ worth, and gave them to her church. She told them it was for the kids and not to spend it on pew cushions.

Then, one afternoon a year or two ago, a lady down the hall from Margaret came to visit. She noticed Margaret’s mayonnaise jar full of pennies. She asked her why she was saving pennies. Margaret told her it was for the kids at church.

“I don’t have a church,” the lady said. “Can I save up my pennies and give them to the kids in your church?”

“Suit yourself,” Margaret said.

Before long, thirty folks in the retirement center were saving their pennies for the kids.

Every Wednesday, they climb on the retirement center’s bus and ride over to the Safeway. They steer their carts up and down the aisles, then stand in line at the checkout counter. They put their groceries on the moving belt and watch as each price pops up on the display. When the checker calls the total, the old folks count out the money a bill at a time. Then they ask for the change in pennies. They count that out, too, one penny at a time. The other customers stand behind them and roll their eyes. Or worse.

In the dead of winter last year, these older people all loaded up their jars and took their pennies, twenty thousand of them, to the church Christmas party. The kids staggered out, their pockets bursting with pennies.

When the kids found out who was behind the pennies, they wanted to visit the retirement center and sing Christmas carols, and so Jim took them over. They assembled in the dining room, and Jim watched from the back row. In front of him sat one of the retirement center ladies. Jim didn’t know her, had never seen her. She was explaining to a visitor what was going on.

“These children, you see, they’re from our church, and they’ve come to visit us. We’re awfully close.”

Not too long after that, one of the men in the retirement center passed away, and it seemed natural to call Jim to conduct a memorial service. At the reception Margaret confessed to him that she had been disappointed when she heard God tell her to save pennies.   She expected something more flamboyant and dramatic. But, looking around, she thought it all turned out okay.

Sermon: A hammer, some nails, and pennies from heaven

In France, there is an advent tradition that I had never heard of before, which I thought sounded very sweet; although it is possible that I was just reacting to the novelty.   In my house, it is unusual to come across religious practices that I have literally never heard of – especially when it turns out it is actually somewhat common. Like most advent practices, this sounds child-centered, even though there is something for all of us in the numbering of our days. At the beginning of the month of December, an empty manger is placed in the living room. And then, throughout the month, every time something kind or helpful is said or done, you give a few pieces of straw in acknowledgement. Over the weeks leading up to Jesus’s birth, the straw piles up in the manger, until you have created a mattress of sorts. The good deeds have made room for the baby; created a welcoming spot. I thought, oh, wouldn’t that have been nice to know about at a time when it was relevant.

Then I thought about it some more. Do you have different mangers for each child? That would be a little weird – triplet Jesuses, or one holy child who had to get passed around? I recall a small tug of war with my sister and a baby doll named Elizabeth stretched between us. We each ended up holding a hand, while the armless baby wobbled on the floor. I remember feeling simultaneous revulsion and intrigue, peering in to the doll to see how she had been constructed. But one manger presents other obstacles. There is always the child that acts like an accountant, and knows how much of that hay was his personal contribution, and how little someone else is responsible for. How about the one that points out how scratchy that hay is – perhaps by climbing in to try it out — , and scissors open a few feather pillows, to help out? And then, the scene that I see as totally inevitable: a three year old viewing this as a great game – you put in the hay, and I will throw it on the floor. If you show emotion about this, I will do it some more! This will make the five year old cry, and fret about scaring Santa away, making it necessary to hit the three year old, and then sidle alongside a parent, offering to help pick up the hay, to remind everyone who the good child is.

So this vision of a little French crèche, filled with golden straw representing all the charming deeds of our lovely and innocent children quickly became a vision of something else entirely. And I am so glad I only learned about it after it was too late for me to have to try it.

Sometime this fall I heard an ad on tv that said “Be the hammer, not the nail.” I wasn’t really listening, but it caught my attention and made me think of my nieces, who are in their early to mid-20s and sometimes like to strategize about the roles they should, or should not, take on. They are living in New York City, paying back student loans, trying to build professional and personal lives – sometimes advice can cut a path through the thicket. Be the hammer, not the nail is, apparently, a self help book that is part of a cottage industry – lectures, workshops, life coaches, etc., that you can purchase, attend, take part in, so that you can learn how to hammer rather than get hammered. The idea is that we need to have agency, not be passive. Our actions should have an effect on the world. Like the straw for the manger, it sounds good at first. But isn’t there some saying – if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? The reduction of everything to either the force or that which is receives the blow reveals a lot about what the author expects in the world. I was thinking about how the nail is actually what holds things together. It isn’t such a bad thing to be, and then, what about the wood?

I loved that line in Phillip Gulley’s story – sometimes God builds the whole house overnight, but usually it goes up one board at a time. Margaret, he says, was a one board at a time kind of person. It is a sentence that lets us know a lot more than it actually says, and we can feel the labor and the need to trust that eventually, we will get there. The house will be constructed; the shelter will be provided, the manger will be full. But it isn’t happening any time soon. That which has been promised is not yet formed.

Sometimes it seems that an awful lot of books get published trying to explain the world to us, or to give us instructions; how to manage, how to be successful, how to communicate, how to protect yourself, how to relate, make money, make space, make a life. Yesterday I was riding the T and a young guy boarded at Park Street carrying an ENORMOUS book, which was remarkable not only because it was called How to Be a Supple Leopard and looked like it must have weighed at least ten pounds, but also because he was the only person with a book. Everyone else was looking at a phone. The would-be leopard then balanced on the edge of a seat, with one arm wrapped around a pole and proceeded to study this volume balanced on his knees, much to the visible annoyance of the retreating woman in the next seat. It felt like she was shunning this person existing in a public space instead of being absorbed into the digital world, and I realized that the divide between those who read on paper and those who read from electronic devices was unfolding before my eyes. I, obviously, wasn’t reading at all. I was watching one woman read other people’s phones; and the young teen who looked up as we rattled into Charles/MGH and realized he had missed his stop while beating a game. He smiled sheepishly to himself, as if he knew his own weak spots.

Where does the idea that the world is either this or that, A or B, digital or analog, paper or plastic, come from? At the eye doctors, when the machine flips through the choices, and we are supposed to pick the better one, I am always hesitant. Well, A is clearer, but it is smaller – I like the largeness of B – but the doctor doesn’t want this kind of hedging. I feel like a young child, knowing that the forced choices being offered me – red shirt or blue? – are a trick somehow, but not being quite able to articulate that I am being given the illusion of control. Supposedly, dualism is religious – like yin and yang. We divide the universe into dark or light, night or day, sun or moon. But I think that skips the point — religion is integrated, holistic; and this division is more like a coping mechanism, or a management technique. It is a way of unspooling everything, so the story can begin.

Which is not to say that these methods for planning and orienting ourselves aren’t necessary, or helpful. They are. But how does that work in a season like this one? This is a time of waiting, of living in the dark. In Catholicism, time has not even started yet – we are in the period before everything has begun. Because the liturgical year is cyclical, this month is sometimes referred to as the end of Ordinary Time, but of course, the idea is actually that nothing has started yet. It isn’t so much the end as it is the period of being formless and void. We who are alive right now, in this moment, are supposed to be without our bearings. Light has not separated from dark, land has not emerged from water; we know something is coming, but what? We can’t know. Only that the world is going to change. And yet, of course, instead of waiting in the dark, we have turned it into a time of preparation, a countdown to the big event. And we do make it into an event; a grand finale, not a patient evolution; the slow building up of pennies in a jar, pennies in two jars; then in thirty jars, and children wanting to know where all this treasure came from, and an old woman tethered to life in an unforeseen way, as she confides to a neighbor, “These children, you see, they are from our church and they’ve come to visit us. We’re very close.”

I have read that line at least ten times and it still swells in my throat with an almost unbearable poignancy. What do you expect – from yourself, from your church, from the New Year; from a life in Ordinary Time? What is on the other side of this waiting? This woman’s statement – we’re very close – reveals what most of us actually want. Not a transaction, in which we get something, but a process of moving closer to being the people we hope to be, part of something bigger than our lonely little lives.

Statistically, these weeks of waiting, are precisely when cardiac mortality peak. This is attributed to stress, lack of sleep, too much alcohol and rich food, but in many ways all of these things are about the burden of expectations. We long for something that is promoted dramatically; that ushers in a new day, brings peace and changes everything. But it doesn’t. All that happens is Ordinary Time begins, and so we dread the promise of the New Year even as we yearn for it.

What if this month of waiting focused not on the process of getting ready for an event – building a manger, piling up the hay; making a list, checking it twice; shopping, wrapping, cooking celebrating – but was about getting ready for living in a world we are building together? So often I hear conflict ascribed to the differences between those who are oriented around process and those who are goal directed.

If you are interested in how things unfold and evolve, you might feel rushed and annoyed by someone who is trying to get somewhere specific; if you are determined to reach particular goals, you might feel hindered by someone who wants to explore and detour along the way. We have set these two ways of being as opposites, in conflict, but of course they are not. Process has no reason to exist without the goal, and the goal will not be achieved without some means of arrival. So what is the goal of this season? And how do we get there?   And how does what we expect from this season relate to what we expect from our lives, and our faith?

Margaret, she of the one-board-at-a-time house of God, expected more than pennies. She wanted to hear something dramatic that would turn her life around, make her shine. But it didn’t happen. She never got the big booming voice from the heavens, never made an about face and started over. Nevertheless, bit by bit, over the course of a decade, the world was made new – and not just for her. Going about collecting pennies changed a lot of lives, even though that was never a plan. All Margaret decided to do was save her pennies and give them to the church. There is a difference between having no expectations at all, and expecting something but not knowing what. We get whole lives by simply being willing to be open; by not clinging too hard to that wish for a great narrative quest in which we perform heroically. Margaret had this nagging sense of wanting to do something, and keeping it undefined is exactly what let it grow, and be shared by people who did not even know they were interested. It spread out in complex ways, showering pennies by the thousands.

Before he matured to the point that building houses started breaking his back, my youngest brother had a business called Ha’penny Carpentry, from the old song that ends “If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do; If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you.” Brian likes reclaimed objects, salvaging things from the scrap heap, and restoring pieces made in the days before mass production. I thought of him when I heard the “Be the hammer, not the nail” advertisement. In our childhood, we were often set out to collect the nails that rolled down the roof or fell from the grass, and we had to claw used nails out of old decking, and hammer them straight again. My family has always been what is politely called thrifty and resourceful. But nails really were once considered a precious commodity. They were hard to get in the new world, and expensive in the old. Now, wood is harder to get than nails, but there was a period of time when, if a family was moving, they would intentionally burn the house down in order to retrieve the nails, to bring them along to build the next house. Being a nail might mean tying the past to the present, might mean holding everything together, might mean driving deep into everything and holding on, with hope.

Outside Chicago there is an organization called 2x4s for Hope, started by a couple who went to Haiti to help rebuild after the earthquake in 2010. Back home, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, they looked around and realized how little there is to help people following natural disasters, or just down on their luck. They wanted to make it easy for almost anybody to change lives in a tangible way, so now they buy lumber and invite people to donate $3. That allows you to pick out your board, sign it, write a message, draw a picture. The 2x4s are donated to charitable projects across the globe. Participants, or investors, or donors – whatever you want to call them – have no idea where those 2x4s will end up. They could be anywhere in the world, housing people of any nation, and silently offering hope, and wishes for peace.

We don’t know where we are going, or what we are building. We may know the little things, like what we are doing today, or our plans for next weekend, but as for the big things on our planet, we are all in the dark. All that we have is the shelter of each other, waiting to see what will grow. We can do the simple things we feel called to do, and we can dream, and let one thing lead to another, like Shel Silverstein in his poem – Carpenter, bring out your hammer and nails. Hammer and nails, Hammer and nails, build me a boat to go chasing the whales. Chasing the whales, sailing the blue, Find me a captain, sign me a crew; Captain and crew, captain and crew, take me oh take me to anywhere new.

Closing Words

When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another.”
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God