Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The pace of ministry

We have an antique rocking chair at home that has been in my family for generations. I remember it sitting in my grandmother’s living room for years, with this blue flannel blanket draped over it. After that, it found its way into a barn for a season, before landing in my apartment before I was married. It has been in my possession since.

This particular rocker has a cane seat and back, which makes it
very comfortable to sit in. Unfortunately, it also means that the cane periodically wears out. I remember my mother having the back re-caned after recovering it from the barn, before it became mine. Early in our marriage, the seat also wore out. When a caned seat or back wears out, the result is a hole that unweaves more and more until essentially you have nothing to sit or lean on-- so the chair went back into storage for a long time.

Recently, though, I’ve been working on restoring it. I decided to do the caning myself, and even received a few special caning tools as a Christmas present last year. This process has been interesting, and a good metaphor for ministry, I think.

The cane seat of this rocker is held in place by a “spline” which is glued and wedged into a channel that goes around the entire seat. Replacing the cane means removing the old spline and installing a new one with the new cane. The work I’ve been doing so far has been mostly removing this spline.

You should know this about caning and splines: if they’re done well, they are VERY difficult to remove. Naturally, you don’t want the spline simply slipping out and the seat collapsing on you! Thus, getting the old one out is an intense act of labor, where I take a very small chisel and, little by little, begin removing parts of the old spline.

I had to start by finding the end, then gradually working the chisel under it. Once it was wedged in there, I pried out what I could, as gently as I could. From there, I worked my way around. At times, I had to shave off a little at a time until I got to the bottom of the spline. At other times, I had to work the edge away from the carcass of the chair, or split the spline with a larger chisel, or use a razor-blade to trim away parts. Underneath the spline is a good bit of glue, which also must be removed.

At the same time, I must be very careful with the carcass of the chair. While the old spline will be discarded and completely replaced, if I’m not careful I could do serious damage to the body of the chair. A slip of the chisel, or too much pressure from gripping in the wrong place, and my antique could break beyond repair. I also have to be careful with myself: my chisel slipped off of the spline and dug into the pad of my thumb once; now I’m cautious about where I place my hands!

This is laborious work. Sometimes it is quite rough and even violent. At other times it requires extraordinary gentleness. There are times when I must work for a while on an area, then leave it for another area out of frustration. Real, substantial progress is measured in inches and fractions of inches. All of it-- every shave of the chisel-- has a significant part in a larger end-goal.

From my point of view, this is what real ministry is like.

It is slow-paced and careful. It takes a long time. Real progress is made in very incremental ways. It can be frustrating. It can be rough and even painful, but most of the time requires gentleness-- and even the rough parts must be done with care.

Yet, all of it has a part in a larger purpose. And if that purpose is kept in view, every shave of the chisel is worth it.

I finished removing the spline last night. I have just a little glue left to remove, and then I’ll be able to replace the cane seating. I’ll post a picture when I’m done-- may it be a picture of the worthiness of a slow and careful ministry.

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