Theology of Woodworking, cont.

My foray into woodworking with hand tools came through my oldest son, Nate. I dabbled in woodworking for decades (I made a cradle when he was born 43 years ago), primarily employing power tools. About 15 years ago Nate took me to a woodworking show at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds, where we visited a section dedicated to hand tools. He had already picked up, refurbished, and tuned up some centuries-old planes and chisels for himself.

At the show, Nate tried out a new Lie Nielson smoothing plane. Turning to me he said, “Dad, you’ve got to try this – it’s amazing.” So, tentatively I took the smoothing plane in hand and attempted to apply it to the pine demonstration board. I took a couple awkward strokes and quickly decided that I was a dedicated power tool guy.

Lie Nielson Smoothing Plane

Nate was convinced that if I gave it a chance, I would enjoy woodworking with hand tools. So he located for me some turn of the 20th century, classic Stanley hand planes and showed me how to refurbish and tune them. Flattening the bottoms (soles) and honing the blades (irons) and other parts took time – a LOT of time. But there was something quite satisfying about the restoration process.

My 100+ year-old bench planes

I have often said that God is as much or more interested in process than outcome. Since the tuning up and use of hand tools is a relatively quiet process, it has allowed me to sharpen my theological mind. My shop has become the go-to place for me to take in the theological works of a number of scholars, via audiobooks, podcasts, etc. I just looked at my Audible library. This is a sample of some of the books I’ve listened to:

These are but a few of the books I’ve been privileged to listen to while quietly working away in my shop with hand tools. Not included on the list are the historical Great Courses on World and American history to which I’ve listened. To me, context is of great importance and invaluable in honing my theology.

Honing. That’s a word we don’t use a lot in day-to-day conversation. The primary definition of honing is related to the sharpening of a blade. Before my hand tool woodworking life, I viewed the sharpening of a blade as one-dimensional – a one-sided deal. That’s how I’ve always sharpened my lawnmower blades – sharpen the cutting face, reinstall the blade and get to cutting. We did the same thing with mower sickles on the farm.

I discovered there are two equally important sides to a plane’s blade (iron). Honing the back of the iron is equally important in the process. If one were to only sharpen the front and then proceed to plane a board, two things would occur. First, the iron would dull quickly leading to frustration (and possibly the setting of the plane aside in favor of a powered device). Secondly, and maybe even more important, the piece of wood being planed can be damaged. An improperly honed and tuned plane will tear out the beautiful fibers in the grain that we hoped to bring to life when we started the process.

So a woodworker spends as much time honing and flattening the back of the blade as the front. Polishing, actually. If the back of the iron is sufficiently polished, the blade holds its edge and the woodworker has the satisfaction of watching a rough board come to life. I’m not speaking hyperbolically. We get to see the board come to life!

Theologically, there is more to consider here than I should like to fit into one blog post. A couple things I think are worth our pondering…

What are we doing to hone our theology and understanding of God?

An incomplete understanding of God leads to an incomplete understanding of ourselves and the role we are called to play in our world. Remember, as disciples we are invited to join Jesus in his mission. So it’s important (imperative?) that we understand him and his mission.

And, what are we honing?

When Jesus came into the world, those charged with speaking for God were pretty one-dimensional. They focused on keeping the law and entirely missed the intent of the law. I don’t think it’s by accident that the Apostle John reminded the early followers that Jesus came to earth full of grace and truth (cf John 1:14-17).

When ministering to people around us, if we have only one-dimensionally honed our understanding of grace or truth and not both, we can quickly become frustrated. We might quit and give up or, worse, employ “power tools” (i.e. manipulation, guilt, shame, etc.). And we can do great damage to the very people God called us to serve and help come to life.