Working with wood is a very spiritual experience

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I began to learn woodworking from my father when I was about 10 years old. Dad was more of a carpenter than a fine woodworker, but he taught me how to properly use the hand and power tools necessary to shape a piece of lumber into something useful and beautiful. He also taught me a great respect for nature and the wonders of wood, which most people simply take for granted.  Whether a piece of wood was a living tree, a felled log, newly sawn or kiln dried lumber he always talked about it as being a living thing.
As a Baptist deacon and Sunday School teacher of long standing he was fond of using religious metaphors and allegory to characterize a standing tree, a felled log, sawn timber, or a single board.  On our forest walks he would often point to a tree and say something like, “See that sycamore? It looks all pretty and healthy on the outside, but its heart has died and when it comes down it will be useful for nothing but firewood, just like some people.” Then he might turn and point to an old, barkless log covered in dead leaves, moss and fungi and say, “But see that old maple there?  If it were taken to the mill and sawn right the insides would be beautiful in spite of the corruption that’s all crusted on the outside, just like some people. And that old walnut stump,” he would add, “Cut and used right the burl in the grain would make the angels smile.”
As you can tell, Dad was something of a mystic.  But I learned that he was right, both as a minister and a woodworker.
I collect wood wherever I can get it, and whenever I can afford it, so I have boards I have held onto for many years just waiting for the right project to come to mind for which that one piece is perfectly suited. Not too long ago I used a piece of rare kingwood, considered a trash tree in South American, to make a beautifully red grained cabinet. I had kept those boards stashed away for almost ten years. What was trash to one person is now a thing of great beauty, if I do say so myself.
Not too many months ago I arrived at the shop one morning to find a pile of mixed red and white oak, some of it straight, but a lot of it was warped, bent, cracked, and twisted in one way or another.  When the owner of that wood commissioned a rustic style dining room table top to be made from that mess I was apprehensive but tackled the job anyway because Dad once said, “Sometimes the things that look the worst can really be the best, and sometimes that which appears to be the best will be terrible when put to use.”  It took many hours and much careful persuasion of some of the boards, but in the end the table top, even with its worm holes, splits, and flaws, turned out to be very beautiful and useful.
Human beings are much the same way.  Jesus condemned the beautifully dressed and self-righteous Pharisees as “white washed tombs,” and as “chaff fit only for the fires of the ovens.”  And then he ate and drank with the scum of the earth – the tax collectors, prostitutes, and all those who carried the appearances of corruption, warning that those uncomely people would see the kingdom of God long before those proper Pharisees, whose hearts were rotten, empty, and dead.  You see, Jesus had very little use for appearances.  What he looked for in people, as I search for in wood, is the beauty of life and love hidden beneath the dirt and what seems to be outward decay.  I can take a piece of gnarly, broken, and twisted wood and create something beautiful and useful, but  God in Christ, to a far greater degree, takes us as we are – knobs, knots, cracks and all – and lifts us to divine perfection.
So, if I can take an ugly old piece of cherry and make it into a beautiful hat rack, imagine the glory that God works in our flawed and broken souls when we let him.

by Michael Doty