Sawdust and Soul

Over the past fifteen years I have carried on a lively conversation about woodworking with my good friend John de Gruchy—he in South Africa’s Western Cape, I in the mountains of western North Carolina. On our many trips back and forth we have had a chance to build some things together and to talk about how our Everett_DeGruchy.Sawdust.44633woodworking reflects and shapes our approach to life in both its practical and transcendent dimensions. And, as academic theologians, we have talked about how we have expressed our theological inquiries in wood and how woodworking has shaped our theology. In short, we have talked about the spirituality of woodworking.

With the gracious help of Wipf and Stock Publishers and our supportive editor Robin Parry, we have put together a glimpse into this conversation, with its stories and projects. It’s just appeared as Sawdust and Soul: A Conversation on Woodworking and Spirituality. While we can’t enable you to feel and smell the wood, we have put in a number of photographs to give you a sense of what we have been making as well as how we work. In addition, John’s wife Isobel has added some terrific line drawings to enhance the presentation.

Sawdust and Soul also introduces you to the wider conversation we have had with other woodworkers and with the wider woodworking community in our countries. Our topics range from the shaping of a sense of balance in our lives to dealing with loss, memory, and our sense of wonder as creatures in the midst of an amazing abundance of life and artful design. Whether you’re a tree-hugger, an all-thumbs reader, or an honest-to-goodness woodworker, we invite you into the conversation.

Bill and John enjoy their new Adirondack Chair

Bill and John enjoy their new Adirondack Chair

Sawdust and Soul is available now through your local bookstore or online at Wipf and Stock Publishers. Readers of this site get a 40% discount by entering “SAWDUST” in the coupon code box on checkout.

In a couple of weeks it will be online at Barnes and Noble and Amazon. It will be available on Kindle by mid-January.

While it’s too late for Christmas (but maybe not an Orthodox Christmas!), you might think about it as a gift for the woodworker in your life. If you don’t have one, by all means reach out and find one! They’re handy for home repairs as well.


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Of Patriots and Matriots

For us Northern Hemisphere folks who follow the Greco-Latinate calendar, this is a time of endings and new beginnings, of passage into darkness and out into light, from the dying of the year and its rebirth. In church circles we’re trying to wrest Advent out of shopping, Christmas out of the solar cycles.  We’re hearing readings about apocalyptic hope and fear, the anticipation of a victorious Messiah, the trembling of anticipation of a world beyond the brutalities and tragedies of the ever-flowing news cycle. Yes, it’s a time of mothers and beloved babies, of tender mercies, and gracious new birth.

This Advent season finds me buried in preparations for our return visit to Cyprus, trying to draw together the pictures, documents, and whispers of the past that tie me to this island through my grandfather’s work there in the Skouriotissa mine in the 1920s. I say buried, for it was a work of shafts and tunnels, dark passageways, of ferocious heat, noxious gases, and, yes, fatal injury. Through internet and conversation I am linked to a growing circle of people whose lives have been touched by this mine, the oldest copper mine in the world, they say, still yielding copper, gold, and other minerals that support the technology we depend on for our way of life.

I am also aware through this work that the mine lies on the “buffer zone” that has separated the island’s Greek-speaking south from its Turkish speaking north for 40 years. Forty years of division and alienation reverberate in our Biblical memory. It is a time of wilderness and displacement, of two generations having the chance to leave bitter memory behind and embrace a new future. And I think of Germany, divided forty years before the Wall came down. I think of the sign in Nicosia at the crossing between South and North: “Nicosia: The last divided capital in Europe.” But forty years is not magic. Korea has been divided for over sixty years. It matters what we do with forty years. Something may still happen to change things. We need to wait and be watchful for opportunities—maybe the work of the least expected person in the land, maybe the work of God, of the earth itself.

The geologists say that Cyprus actually arose from two pieces of earth’s mantle, crushed together by Africa’s plate and Asia. If I am not mistaken, the fault line lies roughly where the buffer zone is now. It lies on the axis of earth’s pain. But earth has also healed itself at this suture of its past division. It is the unity of the island that finally presses us to struggle for its reunion and its healing.

The mine’s position on the buffer zone, only a mile or so wide, has meant that the reclamation of the land polluted by the earlier workings of the mine in my grandfather’s time cannot move forward. It is not merely a matter of economics but of political division. And the political division is caught in the vice of much larger tectonic forces of global politics. The healing of the earth, the healing of a people, and the healing of a polity are all bound up with one another.

And for me, it is also a healing of memory, of mining my own emergence as a human being. Because we generally bear the family name of our fathers, we often don’t realize that we are genetically and psychologically as much products of our mother’s family as our father’s. And so I didn’t internalize this memory of my other’s heritage, cut off not only by patriarchy but by my maternal grandfather’s death when I was four.

This patriarchal bias of memory leads me to yet another association around my Cyprus research, for our Latin word for father — pater — lies at the root of “patriot,” one who is devoted to his or her “fatherland.” This is a devotion tied to the work of the fathers in defending a land by force and self-sacrifice. It has its vicious side in military violence, but also its generous and caring side in devotion to the commonweal of a land and its people. But it is always limited by the bounds of our fathers’ world. In contrast, what if we spoke also of “matriots,” people who defend and nurture planet earth itself, its only boundary being its outer gravitational field? What if our memory was shaped by our ancestry as earthlings, our scope of feeling by the blue around us all, our hope by the life of earth itself?

And so the task of reconciliation, of healing, of finding a home on earth, would turn from the narrow defense of our patria to the expansive defense of earth, our mother. Maybe this is an Advent when we can take on the work of being matriots, drawing from the call of the earth to heal the divisions of our nations and ourselves. Maybe it is time to take the Madonna out of the stable and into the wider world whose rebirth we eagerly anticipate in these wintering days.

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Maybe it was a gift that started up the universe. It had to be a gift, since there was nothing there to exercise an obligation, nothing there to reach out and receive it. There wasn’t a law requiring it. There wasn’t a person, worthy or not, to elicit it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude lately. As our Thanksgiving approaches maybe I should write about it, even if you didn’t ask for it. I recently replayed an old tape (yes, a tape!) we have of my former colleague Fred Craddock’s meditations on Advent themes. He called them “Exhortations.” In one, he remarked how he had “never known a person who was grateful who was at the same time small, bitter, cruel, and selfish. Never.” He called gratitude the mother of all virtues.

And indeed, it is at the heart of creation itself. Maybe that’s why the idea of creation ex nihilo, out of nothing, arose. It is all pure gift. And maybe that’s where our ecological ethic should begin. I’ve often thought that it might start with a sense of stewardship, but that doesn’t get to the depth of what gratitude is. It still hangs on to the idea that all we have is our “property” somehow, rather than simply a gift. We have an obligation to be good stewards. This is not just a gift that becomes our property in the sense that we have some right to do with it what we want. It is always gift, for it could vanish in a moment, especially if we grasp it too hard in the vice of our fear of loss and our greed for gain. No, gratitude arises in the awareness of the sheer giftedness by which we live. And gratitude then leads to praise and song, outbursts of awe that are directed…where? In ordinary life we receive a gift from a giver and we thank the giver. But for life? Where, who, what is the giver? The giver is not “here,” not “there,” not “he” or “she.” So we call this Giver “God,” the Holy One, the “I Am.” Not just the “I Am who will be what I shall be,” but the “I Am who gives.”  So maybe gratitude is the beginning of what we call religion. It is at the heart of faith in the Giver. If I have it right, it is Meister Eckhardt who said, “If I have only one prayer to pray, let it be Thanks.”

If gratitude is at the heart of faith and ethics, what would it mean to begin our ecological ethic with gratitude? What would it mean for those warring over land, whether in Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, or Kashmir, to say, this is God’s gift, how do we live in it as gift? What would it mean for sharing in the gift of good health? of fresh water? of language that conveys truth? of communities that evoke trust? I don’t know. But I am thinking about it as I move first into the American time of Thanksgiving, with its travel snafus, family gatherings, and overconsumption, and then to the Christian time of Advent, where we simply open our eyes and try to imagine an unimaginable gift. And how our lives would change if they were more deeply rooted in gratitude.


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While on a visit in Minnesota with my daughter Elaine’s family, I spied a book on her dining room sideboard. It was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. I started paging around in it and, like the introverts she describes, soon found myself immersed in its reflections on the psychological and social worlds of people who are reflective, task-oriented, small-group focused, and cooperative in their social strategies—like me (primarily) or like people who read long blogs rather than Twitter feeds.

Cain lifts up voluminous research showing that our tendency to be “inner-directed” or “outer-directed” (to use David Riesman’s terms from the 50s) is rooted in how our brain, namely our amygdala “lizard brain,” processes stimulation. Introverts function best with a more limited volume of inputs, extroverts require a large volume of inputs to feel alive. No wonder I flee from noisy restaurants! This is the biological basis for the personality trait we call introversion or extroversion.

However, how we develop this trait or disposition can take many forms. It usually finds expression in typical occupations. Introverts, of course, go into research, writing (natch!), and counseling, but they may also be concert musicians and performers, since both activities require immense amounts of solitary preparation. Morever, introverts can practice being more extroverted, learning how to give talks in Toastmasters groups or sermons to a congregation through homiletics courses. If they do, then they need to program in plenty of quiet time to recover.

While her focus is on introverts, who she feels are overlooked in our extremely extroverted culture, she also attends to ways the extroverts can come to appreciate the need for “down time,” transcendental meditation, and cooperative small group work. In doing so they can avoid the pitfalls of excessive exuberance, which contributed so much to our current economic catastrophes, or the arrogance that led American leaders into the Iraq invasion.

There is much more in the book to interest anyone who has struggled with what our culture disdains as shyness, inferiority complex, or simple weakness. But what caught my immediate interest is how much our classic spiritual virtues—humility, patience, self-denial, prayer, and cultivation of inner character—are introvert values created by introverts themselves. Little wonder that they contain such a critique of “the World” and its quest for power, fame, and domination. One is almost left with the question whether extroverts can being loving, thoughtful, and faithful. Certainly, our public religious world is awash with extroverted charismatic preachers, teachers, and organizers, but the core values of Jesus, St. Francis, or Mother Theresa are introvert values.

At the same time as I was reading through Quiet I received the proofs for my book with John de Gruchy about Sawdust and Soul. Here, too, I saw how much of my own struggle has been to balance the demands of extroverted public life with the call to quiet artisanry, even in the midst of the loud machines with which I work in the shop. I guess that’s why I don’t play and music or radio shows on top of it! I find a kinship with Ms. Cain in seeking to carve out a proper space for my own more introverted temperament, but I also have felt that we all need a balance. Our biology puts us where we are on the spectrum, and it is good to know what our basic inclinations are, but then we need to explore the other reaches of our personality as well as the social fields where one or another trait needs to be acted out. In the end, though, we need to find ways to get back to the spring of our vitality, whether it is to “curl up with a good book,” as she says, or to get together with our favorite thirty friends for an evening of idle conversation.

I hope you’ll read Sawdust and Soul when it comes out in a few months, and then talk about it with your favorite thirty friends. Meanwhile, I’ve got to get back to work on my book about Mining Memories in Cyprus. Introverts need those solitary projects…

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