I’m a carpenter and the son of a land surveyor. Jesus was a carpenter and the Son of God. There’s so much space between these realities.
I’ve never been totally comfortable with my identity as a carpenter. It’s a blue-collar trade and I want to be viewed as a white-collar guy that could have gone to Princeton. In truth, I’m a blue-collar guy whose undergraduate education can be summarized as a hodge-podge of lesser known schools, one of which was a community college. What’s more, I was born in the poorest county in my state—small town, southern NJ.
Lots of peach orchards, corn fields, the best-tasting strawberries and tomatoes, pine trees, and sandy soil. Lots of illiteracy, racism, addictions, and broken homes. True grit and simplicity but little desire to read books, grow, or learn from others outside their narrow, independent world. Beaches and boardwalks but lots of poverty and prisons. Small town but lots of small-mindedness.
Don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for farmers and those who work with their hands. They help us live off the land and sustain our basic need of shelter. They work hard and spend a lot of time in dirt. I can relate. I have a strong work ethic and have spent lots of time in dirt… and filth. Although not proudly displayed on my resume, I’ve had more than my share of mice and bird poop, nesting material and feathers fall on my face when replacing wood soffits on old Victorian houses. Then there were the mold-infested basements. Or the kitchen remodels that were grease pits from years of neglect. Wet and dry-rotted wood. Dust. Lots of dust. I can’t imagine what I have breathed over my 35 years in this profession. A dust mask can only save you from so much.
I’m also not fully comfortable with this identity because I have left it behind vocationally. The discs in my lower back were feeling the wear and tear. The truth is, as I became, I knew I couldn’t remain an excellent finish carpenter and sustain the health of my body at 51 in the same way that I could at 21. I still have my tools, but they are now only for fixing up our home, or helping my kids and friends. I’m grateful that there are other things my hands can find to do with all my might besides swinging a hammer. I now serve the church again full-time using my reflective mind and pastor’s heart.
I can’t tell you how many times when introducing myself as a seasoned minister and carpenter, I hear some version of “Jesus was a carpenter so you are in good company… but I guess you probably hear that a lot.” Yeah, I do.
As a pastor, I also went through a phase where I wore my hair long like the main male character, Ian from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A Senior Pastor of a small church in Willow Grove, PA at the time, they asked me to play Jesus in the VBS program. There I stood in the painted cardboard boat, calming the imaginary storm as the kids watched in awe. I have often thought since then, wouldn’t it be nice if all that was necessary to be like Jesus was to wear a tool belt or grow your hair long.
There are things I enjoyed about being a carpenter and one of those is certainly the connection to the God-man who was more than a carpenter. Wood is what crosses are made of, and even filth connects me to the feeding troth Jesus was born in. I enjoyed serving many great customers, troubleshooting, bringing precision, and chipping away at complex problems. Some of the buildings I renovated were around during the Civil War while Abraham Lincoln was still President. Carpentry is a humble, earthy trade that has kept me grounded.
Being earthed in the real world is a good quality for pastor-theologians who reflect, speak, and write about heavenly concepts—that is, if they want to communicate in a way that connects. Life is messy and full of struggle. Rot and decay are all around and, on a positive note, keep all the trades in business!
But being a skilled craftsman, especially a finish carpenter, gives opportunity to beautify a certain space—to strengthen, support, renovate, renew, create, and build-up. This is the part about being a carpenter that’s the most satisfying: you have something to show for your labor at the end of the day. The work of a pastor-theologian is less tangible, but there is still great opportunity to bring beauty, clarity, and strength to faith and life. Like the carpenter, the theologian also works with space—that “so much,” infinite, eternal space mentioned above. Theologians deal in the renovation of the heart and, as magnificently displayed in Da Vinci’s The Creation of Adam, celebrate the God who initiates relationship and draws us near.