Last winter my family and I decided it was time for a real dining table. Having moved from a small apartment, we didn’t really have a proper table. We certainly didn’t have one that would accommodate guests. We thought about buying something nice but inevitably what we liked was too expensive (I’m sure we aren’t the only ones to whom that’s happened). There was another factor at play as well—the fact that I wanted to try building one. It had been years since I had the chance to do any woodworking beyond putting up paneling and tacking together garden boxes. I sketched a few options—variations on a traditional farmhouse table—and we agreed that I would give the project a try. “Trying” in this case wouldn’t be risk free. There was the possibility of humiliating failure: the thing collapsing under the weight of Easter lunch. There was the expense: hardwood lumber isn’t cheap. There was the required time: making stuff with your own hands takes time, especially if it’s something new.
Today we are reflecting on the book of Galatians one last time. The author of the letter, Paul, new something about working with his hands. Acts 18:3 says that he supported himself by making tents. I sometimes wonder how he managed that. Here at the end of his letter to the believers in Galatia we read that he wrote the concluding paragraph. He ‘wrote’ it as opposed to dictating it, which is usually what he did. He begins, “See what large letters I make when I am writing with my own hand!” It seem his eyesight was poor. Part of his hand-written conclusion is a reminder that the faith isn’t about obeying the details of Torah or having an outward sign cut into your body. It’s about new creation. “New creation is everything!” he says. Paul’s new-creation faith was worked into his flesh, in tent-making and writing, yes, but in another way as well. Here’s his second-to-last line: “From now on let no one make trouble me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” It’s as though he drops the mic and stalks away. He’s been beaten up for the faith. It’s about new creation but not about theory or little sentimental ideas. New-creation faith is a physical faith; it involves our bodies.
I was telling you about making the making of a table. Our requirements were pretty simple. It had to seat our whole family plus a few. It had to be strong enough for kids to lean on . . . and stand on . . . maybe even dance on. It had to be smooth enough for playdough and homework. Sadly, that ruled out using old threshing floor boards, which were our first choice because we wanted something substantial. The little tables we had used before were wimpy things, leftovers from a more prim and proper era. We wanted a piece of furniture that would serve as a dashboard for our family’s (rambunctious) life. With those things in mind we decided on a table that would be six feet long and built out of solid oak. The top would need to be more than an inch thick, its boards fit together with tongue and groove. The legs would need to be heavy, square and joined to the skirt with strong mortise and tenon joinery. Our table wouldn’t be frilly. There would be no fancy routered edges or turned legs. It wouldn’t be fancy but it would be built for a definite purpose.
Stepping back from Paul’s final, hand-written paragraph, we find two hunks of pastoral advice rounding out his letter to the Galatians. I’m reaching back into chapter five here. Paul’s advice sits solidly on a series of related assumptions about being human. We are most truly human—truly what we were created and called to be—when we are in Christ and when we are animated by the Spirit. Because of what Christ has done, here’s the crucial ethical claim, there is now only a single commandment: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul joins this with the fact that in Christ we have been called to freedom.
We are meant to be free but of course freedom comes in many varieties. The freedom of the ancient Christians was not a directionless space for self-indulgence. That would be just another way of being tied down. Instead, we are free to serve each other. We can think of it as freedom in love. If freedom and love are separated our life together will devolve into a dog fight. The alternative to freedom in love is biting and devouring each other. It’s using each other, consuming each other. It’s shredding teeth and slashing claws. It’s “my rights versus yours,” to borrow a lyric from a band called the New Pornographers. According to Galatians we are crafted and called—purpose built—for freedom in love.
To show this more clearly Paul sets up a famous comparison, two design sketches: the works of the flesh contrasted with the fruit of the Spirit. Want to know if the Spirit is at work in someone’s life, maybe yours? Look for these sorts of features. On the one side are the works of the flesh, this is a sketch of various distortions of the divine design. These are things like jealousy, fornication, anger, factions and envy—to pick just a few. That’s not God’s intention, that’s not the new-creation life the Spirit is building. The Spirit is crafting people with characteristics such as joy, generosity, gentleness and self-control—again just to pick a few. That’s the type of life the Galatians and you were made for.
A woodworker friend of mine says that you don’t ‘design’ furniture, especially if you’re being adventurous and building with hand tools. You compose it. That means working with the possibilities the wood gives you. The arrangement doesn’t just depend on your ideas (ideals) but on the wood in front of you. Any given piece of wood will do certain things well but not others. Part of it is appearance, how the grain lines run. Part of it is structural integrity, over time that grain placed in the wood by sun and wind and water can cause the boards to relax or bend. Oak has a wide open, distinct grain pattern. It’s hard to ignore.
The people Paul was writing too, and us by extension, don’t come into a sterile or perfect world. We’re products of our time as much as we are products of our decisions. I can imagine that envy and jealousy might be temptations for us in ways they aren’t for those from some other cultures. I imagine that not many of our workplaces encourage joy or gentleness. I could be wrong with that last thought—I hope so.
When you’re working with wood the specific character of the boards you select limits you. It gives you a definite starting place. It’s this limitation and definiteness that makes a piece unique. It is one thing to have a bench, say; it’s another to have one that is absolutely singular. In our project we decided to construct our table using as few power tools or metal fasteners as possible—not too many shortcuts. We’d forgo screws, nails and power saws and try to pay attention to the character of the wood itself. I wanted to work with it to whatever extent that was possible. What I realized is that such work—putting traditional hand tools to hardwood—works on you. You can’t force oak to do much of anything, you have to acknowledge it. Such work requires patience and careful attention. It requires that and in turn it produces a relationship. The piece of furniture ceases to be something generically stamped out in a company’s endless pursuit of efficiency. The piece gains a history.
So Paul, if we can turn back to him, offers his readers a second hunk of pastoral advice. It begins it this way: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” Louis Martyn says we can put a “and we have” in the middle of that sentence to feel its rhetorical power. “If we live by the Spirit, ‘and we have’, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” One of the things I appreciate about Paul is that he isn’t overly idealistic. Here he acknowledges that we all have specific inclinations and limitations. So he says, “if anyone is detected in a transgression . . . restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” God has created us for something other than the works of the flesh he sketched earlier. Moreover, part of being the people of God means that we become restoration workers. Our other reading today was the story of Jesus sending the seventy to declare the arrival of the kingdom (Luke 10). Just as he sent them, in the same way we have been commissioned to the work restoration.
So we built this table over the winter. Now it exists. It is far from perfect. The Japanese handsaw and I couldn’t always collaborate on perfectly square cuts. My chisel work wasn’t exact either. There’s a bit of play in some of the mortise and tenon joints. The finish is a bit blotchy. I wish I had been a bit choosier with the boards I bought for the top. All that being so, it is still a singular piece of furniture. It is composed with prayer, with my hands and with those of my sons. In it is a father’s adoration for his family at a particular unrepeatable moment in time.
I know it’s a cliché but there is something unique about each of God’s creatures. And particularly those who bear God’s image. This past week a member of our congregation passed away. That woman was most certainly a singular work of God’s hands. So are each of us. It’s a cliché—but it’s true. It’s also true that, if we are to fulfill God’s intended purpose, we all need restoration. That is part of the work we are called to carry out together in this life. My hunch is that our restoration continues beyond our death in the life that follows. In Christ there is a new creation; in Christ there will be a new creation. It is already; it is not yet.
In my imagination I see the table in our home receiving years of use. I see it as a place where we welcome guests. I see it holding birthday cakes and report cards. I see it absorbing the sounds of our family’s life and our tears too. I see it as the physical embodiment of a family’s love and the hard, frustrating work such love requires. That is to say, for me a table can be a sacramental thing. It can be a thing with meaning far deeper than its function. Even though we can’t separate its meaning from its function, there’s no need to reduce the former into the latter. A table allows a community to share meals, sure, but those meals are more than the intake of calories. They are times of communion. They are profiles of the great feast. They are mimeographs of the Eucharist.
But as I said, the table isn’t perfect. It has faults and frailties. I’m not sure how well the glue that binds the top together will hold. I’m not convinced that the dovetails holding the stretcher in place will stand up to years of kids crawling over and under. The sun will probably yellow the finish. Forks tossed by a toddler have already dinged the top. Life is rough. It beats us up. Sometimes it asks more of us than we feel we can give. Our farm house table is good but it isn’t perfect. The same is true of each of us.
My hope is that someday when the thing is really in rough shape, when it is “detected in transgression,” when it’s form no longer fulfills our intention, when it no longer is free to serve in love—I hope that when that time comes, someone, maybe one of my sons, will restore it. I hope they do it with gentleness, paying attention to what we originally intended it to do. I hope they do it with gentleness, paying attention to what it has undergone. I hope the restorer doesn’t erase its past but brings it back to life.
This is all easier said and done with furniture. Paul’s words about restoring each other make us pause, hesitate, even back-peddle: “Restore such a one in the spirit of gentleness.” That, I’m guessing, is not a thing we want to hear. We’d rather pitch the transgressor and move on to something new.
Here we must acknowledge that more than just the patience restoration requires, there is challenge in its sheer awkwardness. I’m generalizing obviously, but we are a people who commute sealed in cars or behind the wall of sound in our headphones. We are a people more comfortable with the pseudo-intimacy of life online than the risky reality of face-to-face interaction. We live in a culture that prefers to depersonalize conflict and to politicize it. Yet restoration isn’t about political leverage or clobbering others with words. It isn’t, I think, really even about ‘community’. Paul’s encouragement doesn’t let us hid behind “why doesn’t someone do something.” It isn’t about a denomination or an empire. It isn’t about a system.
It is about radical and real personal relationships. It is about relationships where restoration can be risked because each loves the other as they love themself. That’s the best material we can work with: real relationships, real relationships based on the assumption that just as you care for your own wellbeing so you care for the wellbeing of the one sitting across from you.
Let us go, then, even like the seventy, into every town and village, into every classroom and summer camp, into every office carrel and meeting room, into every kitchen and around every table. Let us go there and let us be about the work of restoration, equipped with all the patience and gentleness this requires.
* This coming week is a significant one for the Mennonite Church in Canada. I hope to post some reflections from the national assembly in Saskatoon.