This Christmas, my husband and I did something a little different in our gift exchange. Instead of buying gifts for each other, we shared a gift that we bought together: a set of wood chisels.
Now, I know what you women are thinking: “Wow. That Melissa is one lucky woman.” No? Well, actually, it’s the perfect gift for the two of us because we want to do more woodworking. After (mostly) finishing a canoe in 2009, we want to tackle some new projects in 2010. I have always wanted to build furniture, but have never developed the skills. I have no illusions of ever being a great craftsperson and furniture maker, but my hope is to start small and just enjoy the process. It’s possible the end product may be something useful, but even if not, I expect to have fun working with the wood and the tools and learning how to do something new.
That is the thing with tools. Even if they come with instructions (chisels don’t), or even if one takes classes (that’d be fun), it takes time, practice, making mistakes, and more time to get anywhere near proficient. It helps to have some talent to start with, and that is the real gift—one I don’t have. I’ll have to work hard just to create something marginally good.
Everyone uses tools of some kind, if we use the word “tools” in a large sense. You may need a computer to do your job or your school work. Your tools might be cooking utensils or farm equipment or some technology. Whatever they are, you are better at using them now than you used to be, because of practice. While you continue working with them, your proficiency will continue to improve.
What about the tools we’re given for living a life of faith? A giving heart, prayer, love, peace, faith, encouragement, patience, kindness, helping. They come to us as free gifts. We open them, think they are cool, and imagine that they will work for us. These are the gifts that can bring joy to ourselves and others. They do work wonders, but they work so much better when we use them often.
It takes practice to be more patient. The ability to live peacefully doesn’t come to us fully formed; it requires practice. Even faith is something that we practice by being around faithful people and by looking for evidence of God’s activity in the world. We practice prayer by praying, love by loving, kindness by being kind. Over time, through habit, these things get easier.
We mature in our faith not by admiring the loveliness of these tools, but by pulling them out of the box and using them.
Today I am at a presbytery committee retreat at Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, one of my favorite places. I’m surrounded by incredible furniture, beautifully hand crafted because people have spent a lifetime working with the tools of their trade, getting better with each piece they make.
I know I’ll never have the skills to make pieces like some of these (for one thing, I’m getting a late start—no comments, please), but I do hope that with practice I’ll someday be able to build a few pieces that are lovely and bring joy to someone else. However, I will never get better if I just admire the chisels in their box. (It is a lovely wooden box.) I must take the tools out of the box and hold them in my hands, get familiar with them, allow myself to make mistakes, and assume that I’ll get better over time.
What if we concentrated on opening one of God’s gifts to us, and trying to get better at using that tool? How about patience, for example? You won’t become a more patient person by thinking it’s a fine idea; you must practice patience. What if every time you felt impatient with someone in front of you in line, you offered a prayer for that person? Maybe you’d see her a little differently—as a human being, rather than just as someone impinging on your time. What if you performed an anonymous act of kindness for someone you don’t particularly like? Maybe you’d even see a change in him; even if not, there would be a change in you.
The tools of our faith are gifts from God that are intended to be used. The more we use them, the better we get at using them. That in itself is a gift.
May time and habit make your faith practices a little easier each day.
(And, Jerry, if you’re reading this: I would also like a wood lathe. I promise I’ll practice.)
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2010