Back to Tinkertoys

Back to Tinkertoys


Rev. Elizabeth Chandler Felts is the Senior Minister of Beneficent Congregational Church UCC in downtown Providence, Rhode Island.

Scripture:  Mark 10:17-22 (NRSV)

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Reflection: Back to Tinkertoys

The man asks Jesus an enormous existential question – What must I do to inherit eternal life? -- and Jesus brings out the spiritual Tinkertoys, the basic building blocks of faith. He gets about halfway through the roster of 10 Commandments before the man interrupts, impatient with a pre-school approach to his graduate-level question. Yes, yes, I’m already doing all that! Rather than pulling him back to the Tinkertoys, Jesus gives him what he asked for: an enormous, nearly impossible existential challenge. The man retreats, aggrieved because he knows he is out of his depth.

He reminds me of myself. In my twenties, after years of serious study in voice, I set aside my plan to become an oratorio soloist and instead entered divinity school. Over the years, my neglected voice grew croaky and my vibrato wobbly. Finally, I found a voice teacher and came to my first lesson eager to dive back into scales, arpeggios and repertory.  “Not yet,” said my teacher. “First, you’re going to re-learn how to breathe.”

Wait, what? Breathe? But she was right: for the singer, breathing is the foundation upon which all else is built. I had to return to the vocal Tinkertoys. For months, all I did was inhale and exhale to the beat of a metronome, as she corrected my posture and taught me floor exercises to strengthen my core. Soon enough, after singing not a single scale, I had found my voice again.

There’s something to be said for going back to the Tinkertoys. Even the seasoned Christian should re-engage periodically with basic teachings like the 10 Commandments. We may believe we mastered them long ago but as we move through the life cycle and the news cycle, they connect with us in fresh ways. Let’s pick up where Mark’s gospel left off and review the commandments:

I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Like the man who knelt before Jesus, we've been given an enormous existential challenge: to make our world a safe, welcoming place where we all can flourish as our fully racialized selves. It’s the work not of one year but of several lifetimes, and it can feel as if we are out of our depth. But working toward racial equity just boils down to how we live into each of the 10 Commandments, day by day.

You shall not make an idol of your white experience by assuming it is the norm for everyone.
You shall not make wrongful use of God’s name (or your religion) as an instrument of white supremacy.
Honor your father and your mother, but hold your ancestors accountable for their racism.
You shall not murder men cooperating with law enforcement or women asleep in their beds.
You shall not steal people from their land, or land from its people.

You get the idea. I’ll bet you can write a new version of the other five commandments. In fact, whenever life throws you an existential challenge of any kind, try going back to the spiritual Tinkertoys and re-wording the commandments in light of that challenge. It can help you find your voice again.


God, let the old words speak new truth.  Amen.

New Prayer Requests:

We ask churches and church leaders to join us in the following prayers either by sharing them during worship, printing them in bulletins, or sharing them in some other way. To make a prayer request, please contact Drew Page at

Prayers of Intercession:

  • For those grieving for the nearly 530,000 dead due to the Covid-19 disease
  • For the families of the victims of the 79 mass shootings already carried out in 2021
  • For the people of Myanmar where protests have continued resulting in several death after a military coup last month
  • For the people of Equitorial Guinea, where several explosions on Sunday at a military camp in Bata resulted in at least 17 deaths and hundreds injured
  • For the family and friends of Jason Vannais, son of the Rev. Susan Prichard, pastor of First Congregational Church of Norwich (CT).  Vannais died unexpectedly on Feb. 11

Prayers of Joy and Thanksgiving:

  • For the season of Lent
  • For all the people in our lives who identify as women as we celebrate International Women's Day

This Week in History:

March 9, 1841 (180 years ago) The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Africans who had taken control of the Amistad slave ship from their Cuban capturers in 1839 had been illegally pressed into slavery and had the right to fight for their freedom. The 35 Amistad survivors were freed (54 had been taken from Africa) and in November 1841, would set sail for a return voyage to Africa.

“Study the past if you would define the future.”

Elizabeth Felts

Rev. Elizabeth Chandler Felts is the Senior Minister of Beneficent Congregational Church UCC in downtown Providence, Rhode Island.

March 08, 2021
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