Category: Pondering Peace

What do a mustard seed and a coffee mug have in common?

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

                                                (Luke 13:18-21, NRSV)

If you come to visit me at Lake Dabinawa some day, I will welcome you to my studio. I call it “Amani Clay Studio.” It’s a wee little structure that I built on the ruins of an old boathouse here at my home in rural Kansas. “Amani” is a Swahili word that my African born spouse taught me. It means something like the Hebrew term, “shalom”: peaceful, well-being, aspiration, wholeness.

For many years I have created functional pottery as an avocation. Nothing that comes from my Amani studio is large or ornate. Mostly I make coffee mugs and soup mugs, oil lamps and incense burners, soap dispensers and utensil holders, chalice and paten sets. If something created in my clay studio is considered beautiful by its user, all the better. But I aim to be useful, for my art to find function somewhere in the world.

Every little thing created in my studio is subsequently given away, in some cases with opportunity to make a donation to charity.

Some years ago, a seminarian whom I’d had opportunity to teach returned to his home in Kenya. One day while teaching in a rural area about peace-making, Wilson Gathungu was presented with three young children, orphaned siblings, who needed a home. Wilson took them in despite lacking an income sufficient to fully provide both for their needs and his own. Ever since then, the donations received from my pottery creations have supplemented what Wilson lacked.

My African brother calls his NGO project the Mustard Seed Home. The siblings who live there he calls the Mustard Seed Children. Such a small endeavor. Just one extended family impacted. Does it really matter in a world where millions of children still go to bed hungry and lack opportunity to attend school?

In recent years, all Amani pottery funds get channeled through a new international humanitarian nonprofit organization that we call LivingLove International. A few dozen Ethiopian children and their impoverished families thus far have received assistance, in part from small donations made to LLI when someone receives one of my pottery creations.

Not one of my coffee mugs or oil lamps has altered the structures of systemic oppression that result in the sort of poverty experienced by those Mustard Seed Children before Wilson Gathungu offered them a Mustard Seed Home. Nothing thrown on my wheel or fired in my kiln has impacted the political violence in Ethiopia–or the United States. Functional clay pots and the donations they generate have brought clean water and shoes and school supplies only to those few dozen households in one small Ethiopian town assisted by LivingLove International and an Ethiopian partner. Another 50 families in another town still await that sort of meager assistance. Millions elsewhere are not even on our radar yet. Poverty there, and here, is endemic. Does anything we do truly matter? Can we make a difference, just one mug at a time?

Jesus said that the kingdom or reign of God is comparable to what? A mega-church? A mega-march? A multi-million dollar campaign? Federal legislation to expand healthcare coverage? A successfully negotiated peace treaty between warring ethnic groups?

No. The reign of God, according to Jesus, can be compared to the smallest of seeds which, when planted and nurtured, might grow up to provide a home for a few little birds. Even a grown up mustard seed won’t shelter an entire flock, but it still matters to the few—and to Jesus.

Jesus says the reign of God is comparable to a small spoonful of yeast, which when mixed with a few cups of flour and water, might leaven one or several loaves of bread. Not many are fed thereby, and there will be need for another loaf of bread tomorrow; but even that little bit of yeast matters to those who eat today.

Large and influential projects are commendable when working for peace and to alleviate world hunger. Systemic change is needed to prevent downstream injustices for African kids and their families. But I dare to hope this Lenten Season–and you might also–those of us who are not at all omnipotent can take hope in the possibility that the reign of God might be found in a coffee mug. The reign of God is comparable perhaps to a functional clay pot created in a little studio out here in rural Kansas. Could it be?

I dare to believe that even a mug might matter if it helps one child in a village in Africa. For Jesus also said that to such belongs the kingdom of God.

So be it. Amen.

Rev. Tarris (Terry) Rosell, Ph.D., D.Min.

You may also view the video of this blog.

The Rev. Tarris (Terry) Rosell, Ph.D., D.Min. is Terry is Professor of Pastoral Theology – Ethics & Ministry Praxis at Central Seminary.  He also holds the endowed Rosemary Flanigan Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics.