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Taking Matter into Our Hands


Imagine nearly two dozen elementary children on a Wednesday afternoon in a church gathering space. Each is handed a paper plate. There's a bucket on one side of the room. An adult leader holds up a tennis ball and tells them that they need to figure out how to get the ball into the bucket using only the paper plates. Delightful chaos erupts. After many long minutes of mayhem, they figure out if they stand in a line and tilt their paper plates, they can form a human trough. And the tennis ball can reach its destination!

It's a great lesson about taking matter into our hands. It is also a teaching opportunity for taking matters into our hands - discovering the difficult delight of responsibility. But to take something - even a simple paper plate - into our hands and do something creative and clever with it - that's just delight without the difficulty.

These attachments at the end of our arms are remarkable instruments. Some people read books with them. Others communicate with them at the speed of lightning. Many make music or create works of art with them. Everyone blessed with them uses them daily with little thought. We wave them in a friendly gesture. We thread needles, catch fish, sort laundry, grade papers, examine watermelons, text messages, and cradle babies' heads with them. Scientific studies show they have a healing power in them. It is an extraordinary gift to take matter into our hands.

Remarkable things can happen in a community when people show up with their hands readied for helpful service or loving labor. In her magnificent book An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor asserts that Jesus was onto something when he, in preparing his disciples for his departure, gave them something to do rather than something to think about. She writes, "Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper?" We might prefer something more spiritual, less messy. But Taylor insists it's all by divine design that "Jesus gave them things they could get their hands on, things that would require them to get close enough to touch one another. In the case of the meal, he gave them things they could smell and taste and swallow. In the case of the feet, he gave them things to wash that were attached to real human beings, so that they could not bend over them without being drawn into one another's lives."

Sacred things happen in a community as people show up ready to take matter into their hands. A bag of groceries lifted into waiting arms. A gentle push of a child in a swing. A steadying elbow offered to one advanced in years. A hand resting on another hand in a hospital bed. Bread broken and shared. Water caressing a calloused foot. To take matter into our hands is not to be taken lightly.

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