By David Williamson.
Magnificent, skillfully worked, hand-crafted carvings are scattered throughout our home; they are fresh works of art, a personalized adaptation of folk art, from an untrained yet masterful wood carver, my father. I am coming to appreciate and value these pieces more each day. They are mostly owls and eagles, lovingly carved out of basswood.
A manager of people, machines and manufacturing process all of his working life – a metallurgist – is in charge of a foundry. He worked with his head, skillfully understanding and applying the science and mechanics of fabricating steel into parts for a piece of farm equipment. He knew the process of melting grey iron, building and using molds to form precision pieces to be assembled. And he knew, and worked to fulfill, the company’s goals – their procedure and policies (developing some of them himself), which he was expected to achieve. And he knew people, bringing heart and head together, knowing whom to hire and how to manage, motivate and reward in order to maximize productivity and minimize costs, while producing the highest quality product with microscopic precision. He knew labor polices, union objectives and strategies, and how to engage the union as allies and friends. He knew and demonstrated that effective leadership was built on strong and skilled relationships.
My father the metallurgist, manufacturer, people-and-process manager was a respected and trusted leader and friend to both senior management and workers on the line. He use his head effectively in the production of the highest quality products while building cordial, productive, meaningful personal relationships. His career was an expression of his mind and heart. With modest consciousness, my dad embraced and expressed the best of the Protestant work ethic and Catholic social thought.
When my dad, after several extensions, finally retired, he began to work with his hands. Beginning with an old pocket knife, and a small piece of scrap wood, and perhaps out of some boredom or restlessness over newly acquired but unwanted idleness, he started to whittle and quickly developed skills for wood carving. They were simple objects to begin with, and then masterful works of art. The Scandinavian “flat plane” is a long-cherished wood carving tradition. Perhaps my dad had a bit of genetic heritage, but soon took his carving into his own distinctive style.
He used his hands in new ways, from writing out reports, calculating costs longhand, shaking hands with a union boss or with a new employee, to feeling the texture of a beautiful piece of wood, skillfully working a knife to shape that wood into a new form of beauty. Many became blue-ribbon winners at the state fair, and prized possessions by all to whom he gave a finished carving. He gave away generously.
He built relationships with the wood, and all the people who received a carving as a cherished gift, or of those who would simply admire the finished piece on display. He never sold a carving. All 200-plus were gifts, first to immediate family, then to neighbors, friends and extended family. As I write this, I look around my office at a large bald eagle, a regal horned owl mounted on a tree branch, a blacksmith, a golfer, and – perhaps my favorite – a man on his knees next to his bed, praying. Each is a wonderful memory of my father, and also a profound awareness of the value of the work of our hands. Hand work as well as head work, both of which are ordained and blessed by God. My metallurgist father, an artist, manager of people and process, expressing what it is to be made in the image of God.
God is presented in Scripture as one who thinks the logos (God’s great idea), who thought the grand story and makes it happen by the sound of his voice, an act of his will. Jesus, thinking, speaking, creating-out-of-nothing, calls us to love God with all our minds. Faithfulness to God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth – the woodworker, carpenter’s (technon’s) son – makes full use of our mental and artistic capacities.
We are called to love God with our minds, and we are called to love God with the work of our hands. Hand work is honorable work for the God who make us in the image of God, the one who formed the original garden. God creates humans to “till the land, work the soil” (Genesis 2:8-9 and 15). Creation is the product both of the grand idea (logos, word), and hands-on shaping. “Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth and the heavens are the work of your hands” (Psalm102:25). The writer of Hebrews quotes this, referring to the activity of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, the agent of creation through whom God fashioned the heavens with his hands. God works with his hands and we reflect the divine image when we work with our hands to create, form, shape, carry, hold, touch, etc. The work of our hands is good, reflecting the imago dei.
When Paul challenges the young Christians in Thessalonica to live a lifestyle for each other, he directs them to aspire to live quietly, mind their own affairs, and work with their hands.
Perhaps the most direct understanding of “work with your hands” is the call to be gainfully employed, taking care of our own living expenses rather than living off the generosity of others. It can be easily applied to all physical labor. The work of our hands is joined to God’s work. So too, the work of our hands for creative expression. Like wood carving.
Work is good, hand work as well as head. Both are an extension or reflection of being made in the image of God and fulfilling the directive to love God with our whole being: heart, head, and, yes, hands.
My dad has been gone for 30 years but his hand work remains, encourages, reminds, in our home and the homes of my grandchildren, cousins and scores of friends and strangers.
Love God with all your heart, soul, body and mind – and hands – robustly with thanksgiving.