Last Wednesday evening I told a story in vespers that I would like to share again. Its title is “Old Joe and the Carpenter” and I first read it in Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales From Around the World by Elisa Davy Pearman. It is a traditional American tale and inspired by Ms. Pearman’s written version I tell it to you in my own words.
Old Joe had lived on his farm all his life. And his father before him and his father before him. And the father before had staked the claim for the land as pioneer back in early days. It was a beautiful piece of land in rolling hills with good pastureland and plenty of room for crops. Joe had married the love of his life and raised his children on the farm. Now his wife was passed on and the children moved to the city. His neighbor across the way who had always been his best friend was his closest companion now. And his wife had also passed and his children gone. They kept each other company, sharing a meal now and then, smoking a pipe, telling stories.
But one fateful day, they fell out! It seems a calf was found on the neighbor’s land away from a herd and its mom. The neighbor claimed it was his. Joe was fit to be tied! “Don’t you see that the calf has all the markings of my best milk cow! It’s mine!” The fought and argued till neither had much breath left and then to avoid hitting one another, they stomped off! Each to his own house, resolving never to speak to the other again!
About two weeks later, one a Saturday morning, Joe had a knock at his door. Early in the morning. Muttering to himself, he went to answer it. “Maybe that old coot has come to his senses and is bringing my calf back!” But when he opened the door there stood a young man with a toolbox at his feet and a knapsack over his shoulder. He had curly hair, a fresh, open face and bright, keen and kindly eyes. He introduced himself as a traveling carpenter and asked Old Joe if he had any work that he might do for him. Joe said, “I certainly do! Follow me!” And he led the young carpenter across the farmyard and into the first pasture and pointed down the hill.
“Do you see that creek there?” The young man nodded yes. “Well, it weren’t there a week ago! My gol-darned neighbor dug a trench from the pond up there in the hill over-looking both of our farms. Out there all day with his tractor and then he flooded it. The creek runs right along our property line. We used to go back and forth all the time but then he decided that a stray calf he found that was obviously mine – same markings as my best milk cow – belonged to him. And we had words and I never want to speak to that lying son of a gun again! He dug the creek bed to separate our land….now I want you to build me a fence all along the creek so that I don’t have to see it or his land or him ever again. There is lumber and posts and nails, all you might need, in the barn. Can you do it?”
The young carpenter agreed and set to work carrying all the supplies he would need from the barn down to Joe’s side of the creek bed. Joe thanked him and then hitched his team to his wagon and went into town for supplies, just as he did every Saturday. The carpenter worked all day, not even stopping for lunch, measuring and sawing and hammering. As the sun began to set, he finished up and began to clean up and gather his tools, put away the lumber scraps in the barn. And Joe returned from town. He drove into the farmyard with his wagon full of supplies. As he jumped down to unhitch the horses, he looked for the young carpenter to see how he had progressed with the fence.
What did he see? Instead of a fence there was a beautiful little footbridge going across the creek. And coming across the bridge was his neighbor. Joe hurried down to meet him. The neighbor said, “Joe, I’m bringing your calf home. I’m so sorry! Your friendship is more important that any calf…in fact, it’s the most important thing to me! Thank you for building this bridge.” Joe said, ”Aww…keep that calf! I don’t need it. Your friendship is the most important thing in the world to me! And as for the bridge…well, it was this young fella’s idea.” Joe kind of hung his head and said,” I told him build a fence.” His mouth crooked up at the corner in a grin and he began to laugh! And so did his neighbor. They laughed till tears were funning down their faces and they were holding their sides.
The young carpenter laughed with them as he shouldered his knapsack and picked up his toolbox. Old Joe pulled the man’s pay out of his pocket and handed it to him. Then said, “Look here, young man, you do great work! Why don’t you stay around these parts? I’m sure we could help you get all the work you need?” The carpenter said, “Well, I thank you kindly. But I have to be on my way. I have other bridges to build.” And with that he shook the hands of Old Joe and his neighbor and headed toward the road whistling a joyful tune.
And that’s the story of Old Joe and the Carpenter.
Now I invite you to prayerfully consider these questions:
Blessings on the bridge building journey,
P.S. For those of you who resonated with my sermon from Old Town, “First or Last?” check out Brene Brown’s “Unlocking Us” podcast interview with Sonya Renee Taylor, “My Body is Not an Apology.” Great food for thought and action in light of our work as laborers in God’s circular realm of justice and love. No firsts or lasts, just all beloveds!
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Read more
Six months is a long time to have a church building closed. I was imagining what it would be like if our physical home had been closed because of a fire or flood or some other disaster. I suspect it would be far more difficult for us to have jumped onto the livestream band wagon if none of the other churches in Fort Collins were having to take similar measures. But we find ourselves still feeling as though we are living in exile from the people and the structural home we love.
I keep thinking about Psalm 137, a lament that speaks of an exiled people who long for their homeland:
By the rivers of Babylon --
there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked
for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Lament is a perfectly acceptable form of prayer at this time in our common life. I suspect that many of us are growing tired of livestreamed worship, and I can tell you that I am really weary of trying to connect over the internet with the hundreds of people whom I suspect are out there, but whose reactions and responses I cannot see. I am tired of the hollow feeling of singing hymns with only four people singing in the sanctuary. It seems as if we have “hung up our harps” and God only knows when we will be back together and able to sing robustly “one of the songs of Zion” with a choir and a congregation. And like anger, lament is okay...but it’s a lousy place to get stuck.
We have to move forward from that place of feeling crummy about the state of our lives and recenter ourselves. The wisdom of the Psalms again comes to our aid, providing a pivot (ugh...I’m tired of that word!) moving us from imploring God to doing what we can do by being faithful. Psalm 13 is short and to the point:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my
heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my
enemy will say, "I have prevailed"; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
[pivot] But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Each of us has something to be grateful for...some bounty that God has entrusted to our care. Even if it something as elemental as waking up this morning, we can give thanks. I find it difficult to be grateful and grumpy at the same time, and since we have a choice about our own outlook, I make an attempt to live in gratitude. I’m trying to pivot into the love and goodness of God, rather than to get stuck in the mire of lament and self-pity. Singing helps...even if it’s alone in the shower.
Isaac Watts, a Congregational minister in London in the 18th century, usedPsalm 90 as the basis for his hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and for those of us who feel as if we are in exile — who miss our home — it contains these lines about our true home, which never closes down: “Still be our God while troubles last, and our eternal home.” Don’t be afraid to call on God directly in these uncertain, stressful times. We all need to allow ourselves and one another a bit of grace to feel our lament, and we also need to acknowledge that this pandemic is not going to last forever, and there will come a day when we can return to our fellow members and our church building.
Keep the faith!
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
The Calling & Caring web page Carla references is here.
In December 2019, Carla started her two-year designated term pastorate at Plymouth. She spent the last 5 years consulting with churches on strategic planning, conflict transformation and visioning. Before going to seminary she volunteered at her church through Stephen Ministry, visiting ministries and leading worship services at a memory care unit and a healthcare facility. Learn more about Carla here.
For me, 2020 started out almost impossibly perfectly: I rang in the new year in Rome, watching fireworks over the Coliseum and eating the twelve grapes that Italian tradition states are supposed to bring good luck for the year ahead. Maybe I accidentally forgot a grape, or perhaps I misunderstood the old man explaining the tradition to me, but “lucky” isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind when I think of the way this year has progressed since those first few perfect moments.
I was supposed to spend the entirety of the 2019-2020 school year in Spain on a Fulbright scholarship, teaching middle and high school students who were absolutely overflowing with energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, and more than a little bit of sass. I treasured every single day that I got to walk into school and engage in the perfect combination of insightful conversation and chaotic shenanigans that can only happen when you’re working with youth. When I was forced to evacuate Spain in March as COVID-19 hit the country, it felt like I was leaving a huge piece of myself behind. In an instant, the deep conversations, the one-on-one moments when students would let their guard down and truly open up, and the riotous laughter when low-stakes games somehow became life-or-death for the students were replaced with long stretches of emptiness and the lingering question, “Now what?”
However, if there’s one thing that I’ve found to be true in my 23 years on this earth, it’s that the universe seems to have a funny habit of working itself out in the most unexpected ways. Taking on the role of Plymouth’s Interim Director of Christian Formation for Youth has in many ways been the answer to an unspoken prayer: a prayer for connection, for growth, for helping others to navigate these unprecedented times and for allowing them to help me as well. As Plymouth’s youth face a year unlike any other, I feel so blessed to be in a position to help provide a sense of community and grounding in the midst of so much uncertainty. During my own middle and high school years, youth group at Plymouth was always a welcome source of laughter, conversation, and connection, and I hope that it can continue to be an oasis for our youth in this exceptionally strange time.
This year may not have been exactly what I was expecting, but it has turned out to be more of a blessing that I ever could have imagined. Maybe I did eat those grapes correctly after all.
Alli Stubbs is our interim Director of Christian Formation for Youth. Read more
Please hear I'm singing a variant of "I Hope I Get It" from A Chorus Line. In that musical, all of the actors desperately needed a job and were singing and dancing their hearts out. I, however, was assumed to be retired and was minding my own business when Jane Anne called. Would I be the interim Children’s Minister?
My husband raised his eyebrows. We are still settling into retirement and we know we love to hike on weekdays when trails, and parking lots, are not so crowded. What would a return to work for me look like?
But I was CALLED. if you hang around church much, you know being “called” has an additional meaning besides picking up a phone.
Children’s Christian education is what i have done for a long time. And one of my earliest memories is singing “Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam.” Yeah, that one hasn’t been on any charts for a long time; but it may have been my first call.
I’ve been a Director of Children’s Ministries for over 12 years in Texas and 4 years in Colorado. I was the interim at Plymouth for 9 months before Mandy arrived. I’ve taught at Plymouth and served on Christian Formation. Some of you might recognize me as the woman helping dress the kids for children’s Christmas Eve service.
So assuming I get get around the technological hurdles -- and for me they look like Long’s Peak -- why would I want this job?
I feel like there are so many possibilities for faith formation in the home that were not there when our children were small. My dad died when our son was five, and the only thing out there was The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. That left both of us cold, and was pretty short on theology. I’d like to act as a sieve for all the faith forming materials that are available now. Each month I can share a few, praying that I can help share the faith in the right size bits for you to feed your family at the best time.
Occasionally I’d like to do a Children’s Moment in worship.
Church is on a slippery slope. Will it survive? Let’s work together to make it so.
Tricia is returning to the interim position she held between Plymouth directors Sarah Wernsing and Mandy Hall. After leaving the Plymouth staff, she served as director of Children’s Ministries at St. Luke’s Episcopal for four years. Before moving to Ft. Collins with her husband Jim, she was Director of Children’s Ministries at the University Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas. Read more.