When I started making knives I was twenty-eight years old. I had a new baby girl, a new little house and life was simple. I bought some tools and set up a small shop in my two-car garage. Blink my eyes and boom, my little girl is now six-feet tall, I also have another son and daughter, I don’t work in that little garage anymore, I don’t live in that house anymore. Heck, I don’t even live in that time zone anymore! I have a new home, new friends, and a very different life than I did when I started. Where did I spend all that time?
I spent a lot of that time in a shop full of tools, alone, making knives. What started as a hobby became a business and my love for the craft survived the transition. For that I am grateful.
What Have I Done With My Life?
But what have I done with the past sixteen years of my life? These knives that I make are the love-child of art and tool. Some have cut a few apples, others have been used to clear brush, but many never used for the purposes intended. They sit quietly behind glass in a collection, occasionally admired and used even less. And working here, by myself, I ask the question: Am I spending my life doing something that matters in light of eternity? Did I span the entire decade of my 30s plus a few years on either end making things nobody needs? Have I invested the capital of my life into objects which will, given enough time, return to rust? This question is especially relevant when I find myself sitting in the E.R. dealing with occupational hazards normal to my craft like getting a piece of steel dug out of my eye, or wrapping a giant burn on my leg. What the heck am I doing here?
That I took the road less traveled is clear. Maybe there’s a reason there’s no traffic here.
Measuring Up to Eternity
Held alongside the yardstick of eternity, what on earth actually measures up? Perhaps like my grandfather I should have been a surgeon, who was also a foreign aid worker, who was also a missionary, who was also a Bible teacher. For twenty-five years, he ran a hospital in a small village in Africa. Now that seems like eternal work! But today the hospital is gone, the missionaries are gone, the people temporarily healed are now mostly dead anyway; the inevitable delayed only for a time. And when a life like that can be accounted as a waste by my yardstick of eternal value, maybe the problem is in me.
This is the thing that has delivered me—not once—but over and over as I re-measure myself. In those moments when life slows down enough and I ask: In light of eternity, does my work matter? This is the answer I hear.
Jesus of Nazareth, (whether you see him as the Son of God or merely the most influential human being ever), spent three years doing the work he is known for; preaching, healing, all of it. Three years. And the rest of it? From coming of age at thirteen until age thirty he was what? A carpenter. He spent seventeen years building chairs and hanging doors.
The historical accounts are silent about this part of his life, so my reflections are purely conjecture. I’m not trying to convince the world, nor am I trying to convince you. My private musings are for my benefit alone. I see the accounts of the public life of the man Jesus, and I see the precision of his words, the force of his deeds, and the permanence of his life, and I ask myself: What kind of carpenter would this man have been? The public life of this man has held the attention of the world for 2000 years, yet I am moved by reflecting on his private life. I cannot imagine that a man who lived with such passion and such wisdom could have built a poor chair.
The Important Years
Would hands that allowed themselves to be nailed to a cross have sacrificed any less in the cause of his labor? Can I imagine him simply biding his time all those years as a carpenter just waiting for the important ministry years to arrive? Would he have hidden mistakes with paint to save a shekel? Would he have balked at that because it was beneath him? That picture seems totally at odds with the values he preached that went on to transform the culture of the planet ever since.
So you see, I believe he made a fine chair using the best materials. No shortcuts. No lemons.
However, they were merely chairs. No matter how strong, how well built, how creative or how ornate, they all eventually fell apart. They crumbled and were probably burned for heat. Nothing more. The doors he hung were in time, un-hung. He devoted himself to learning a craft and applying it six days a week for seventeen years knowing all the while that in light of eternity it would all amount to sawdust. Why?
The one story of his childhood tells us of a twelve-year-old boy at the temple talking to the religious authorities of his day who were amazed at his understanding. People love a child prodigy. Why not move on to the important stuff right then? If his life had a fixed limit of thirty-three years, why not spend every second possible doing the things for which eternity remembers him? Surely there is more eternal weight in healing the blind and feeding the mouths and souls of the masses than in working in a shop full of tools, alone.
Doing Work That Matters
And yet this is where he stayed until age thirty. He and his father with their tools, and some really well-made chairs and doors—why? This, I believe, is the answer. Because in light of eternity, it does matter. The chairs and the doors…and maybe even the knives. They matter. Or rather the making of them matters. Because the millstone of eternity will certainly pulverize all the chairs and doors and knives back into atoms at some point, but the making of those things… Ah, now that is quite a different matter.
What if the effort put into the things I make exists as something apart. The effort, offered back to God as thanks for the life and breath given me slides between those millstones and passes unscathed to the other side. What if the time spent devoting my life to the work of just making these knives carries with it the possibility of pleasing God. What if the physical products of my work serve their purpose in this time and though doomed to eventual destruction, the work itself—the attitude, the passion, the blood, sweat and years are themselves eternal?
In a first-century letter, one of Jesus’ most passionate followers wrote, “Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands.” Maybe there is value, in light of eternity, to the work I do. Maybe it is enough to bleed and sweat and spend the best years of my life right where I am. Maybe like the man from Nazareth, I am right where I need to be.