In the wake of Ash Wednesday and to honor the beginning of Lent, I want to share a story with you. My uncle was a part-time wheat and hay farmer with a small lease of land in what’s now the suburbs of Everman, Texas. He worked in petroleum land management for most his life, even owned a few laundromats and other businesses in the city. But I can honestly say that farming was his passion. And it was that perfect kind of passion, that “love-hate (but mostly love)” kind of passion that consumes you in a relationship or in your work or in your study — because you love it so much that it reveals the best (and occasionally the worst) in you. And there’s no other place you’d rather be. As a kid, I’d ride out from Fort Worth with my uncle in his 20 year old, road weary, 1951 International Harvester pickup. It was red, faded, rusty and patched with so much bondo it was invisible to radar.
On one trip, a muffler brace snapped as we rattled down the Farm Road. The tailpipe dragged and sparked and then there came a loud, “Snap!” My uncle shouted, “Possum snot!” and quickly pulled off to the shoulder. I got worried, “Can you fix it, Uncle Mac? Are we gonna be able to get back home?” He growled at me and said, “Just gotta improvise, Tommy!” Then he continued his utterance of strange alternative curse words as he shut the door behind him. “Dummed down piece of fruit cake!” “Horse Pucky!” The words seemed directed at the pick-up, but sometimes I couldn’t tell because of the incongruence of the words with the tone in which they were uttered, “God bless America!” And then one of my friends’ favorites which I came to later use ubiquitously, “Monkey spit!” He got out some baling wire from the pickup bed, laid down under the truck and began threading and twisting that wire around the muffler, the rear bumper and wheel axle, grumbling out his lexicon of improvised speech. It probably took him only three minutes. He got back in the seat, smiled and let out an exhale of relief. I waited till we got down the road, the muffler and tailpipe still rattling. “Is that gonna hold?” I asked suspiciously. He laughed and said, “Till the next bump in the road, Tommy. Till the next bump in the road.” Our Lenten theme this season, “Open to Peace”, is a reflection on the Prayer of Saint Francis, a sort of “guide to peacemaking”, a rule book for living out our faith. But as I think through the words of this familiar early 20th century prayer, the instruction manual doesn’t seem included. If it were as simple as “just do it”, I’d think we’d have much more peaceful relationships, communities, not to mention the world in greater harmony, by now. But I’m thinking the real key to living out this prayer, to deeply experiencing its transforming potential (something I’ve tended to overlook), may be in the very first line, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” The word “instrument” is defined as “a tool or device used for a particular purpose; a thing which is best utilized (“in its element”so to speak) when it is best suited to the task at hand”. First thing that occurs to me is that I question if this instrument, me, is always best suited to the task of each moment, when in fact I’m pretty burned out at times, or distracted by every other task, and much less aware of what God may be calling me to do. My uncle, on the other hand, seemed confident that improvising with whatever was at hand could always meet the task at hand – baling wire was perfect for keeping a truck moving down the road, at least until the next bump. And maybe that’s the idea — the root for “instrument” is “to build upon”, to make something more complete. The root word for “improvisation” is also “to make new”, “to create”. And the Latin roots for the word “make” are “to match” and “to fill”. If we are indeed created in the image of God, and have our very being and movement and living in God (as the Apostle Paul wrote), then perhaps we are the perfect instrument for the task at hand. Maybe all of life is an offering to build upon, to fill the space, to match our presence and our gifts to the task. Maybe being an instrument for God means being present enough to improvise the moment, to build upon the moment, to be useful to the task at hand. It’s not a simple, once and for all, fix. It’s messy and bumpy and unpredictable. What is predictable is that life is also potentially interesting and curious and mysterious and healing, and we are perfectly designed to improvise how we fill and build and create the space around us — where there is often hate, injury, despair and doubt. We are the image of God, the imperfect, perfect instrument for the task at hand, with just enough “baling wire” to get us all down the road. Tom