In the wood shop with Eric Peterson

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republished with permission from The Kirby Laing Center / The Big Picture Issue 09 / March 2024

Jarrod Howard-Browne: Eric, thank you for taking the time to have a conversation with us about the craft of woodworking. As we begin, can you tell us a bit about yourself – who you are, what you do – and share with us where your love for and practice of woodworking comes from? 

Eric Peterson: I’ll start by saying that vocationally I identify as a village pastor, and I serve the church I founded twenty- six years ago. I very much like being rooted in a particular community over a long stretch of time, and it’s important to me that I know everyone’s name. Even more importantly, I want to know every person’s story and to have a role in shaping how those personal narratives develop as they continually intersect with the gospel story and its redemptive arc. 

And while I have long been persuaded that this is the work I was made for, the call to pastoral ministry is something I initially embraced reluctantly and only came to accept slowly. Part of my strategy in delaying a response to my calling was to become a carpenter. For a couple of years after college I built houses and did some remodeling. It was work I delighted in and never fully left behind when I went to seminary and was later ordained. It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to give up the one in order to embrace the other, but eventually I came to see that our avocations can be integrated into our vocations. “Both-And,” I believe, should be favored over “Either-Or” whenever possible. 

Consequently, to this day the smell of freshly-cut wood (especially the primary framing materials of fir and oriented strand board) invariably evokes a sense of well-being within me. Sometimes I fire up my table saw and rip a length of wood just for the beneficial effects of the aromatherapy. 

My wife Elizabeth and I have a blended family that includes six children, and we live in a cedar home on a ten-acre woodlot. Being surrounded by trees, I have found, is good for my soul. I walk and pray among them every morning, often thinking of the image that the prophet Jeremiah gives us: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord, he is like a tree …” 

JH-B: What is the earliest project you remember working on? 

EP: There were three large oak chairs in our basement when I was growing up. They came from an old church that had closed its doors and were given to my dad when he started a new church the same year I was born. It wasn’t long before those antique chairs had been replaced with something more modern, and Eugene and I recycled the material for other projects when I was a teenager. I think the first thing I made was a four-legged stool that he helped me with. I still have it and still use it. 

JH-B: Woodworking requires real attention and intention, and a craft like it, that has been practiced for as long as you have practiced it, surely shapes you over time. In what ways has carpentry shaped you into who you are today? 

EP: Well, to begin with, I still feel like a rookie in a lot of ways. I do not consider myself a fine craftsman. But even though I have yet to master the art of the dovetail joint, for example, I find that working with wood is altogether enjoyable and meaningful. I suppose one of the things I like about it is that it has an easy entry point: with a few basic tools anybody can make a footstool. But those skills can be honed and developed over time resulting in growth and maturity (if not mastery) in our craft. 

And that’s pretty much my understanding regarding the life of discipleship: Anybody can begin a relationship with God by saying “yes” to Jesus, and then, over time, that relationship grows in intimacy as we apprentice ourselves to the Master. Like woodworking, the Christian faith is a combination of fits and starts, delights and discouragement. Perfection may be the ultimate end goal, but the means is what we focus on: the attention to our subject matter; honoring what is before us whether it’s God or wood. 

I think the other thing that carpentry has taught me as a metaphor for my life is that nearly everything can be the raw material for creating something good and beautiful when it’s in the right hands. When I’m intentional about putting my life in God’s hands I have hope that there is a better version of me in the making. 

JH-B: You shared with me that as a minister having a woodshop is as important to you as having a study. Can you tell us more about what kind of place and importance woodworking has in your life today? 

EP: Well, I may have romanticized that a bit based on how little time I actually get to spend in my woodshop these days compared to my study. But I am hoping that disproportionality will realign in the next months as I begin to step away from my pulpit and transition to part-time pastoral work. But I do think that it’s right to integrate those environments as spaces that reflect who I am and what I do: I work with words and with wood. Books and boards are my raw material for creativity. The tools I reach for in my study include such things as commentaries, reference books, a concordance and original language texts. 

My shop, on the other hand, contains tools for cutting, shaping, joining, and finishing various species of wood. In either case, I find that I really like using the tools themselves. 

But whether it’s working with words or with wood, it involves craft: honoring what you’ve been entrusted to care for, putting things together, rearranging simple raw material to create new versions of the transcendental virtues of truth, goodness and beauty. 

I find it to be instructive that Jesus, introduced to us by St John as the “Word,” began his life in a manger, presumably made of wood. Thirty-three years later his life ended on a cross, obviously made of timber. So, in both birth and in death, the body of the Word made flesh was in intimate contact with wood. The coupling of wood and words, it seems to me, is a marriage made in heaven. 

JH-B: Do you think your Christian faith has shaped your practice of woodwork, and, conversely, has woodwork shaped your Christian faith? If so, how? 

EP: Undoubtedly, but I don’t know that I’ve always been consciously aware of it. I have a quote that I staple- hammered to the wall in my shop by Desiderius Erasmus, one of the lesser-known 16th century reformers. “By a carpenter was mankind made, and only by that carpenter can mankind be remade.” I take that to mean that all the creative and re-creative practices in the world – whether by the hand of God or the hands of humanity – are, in the lovely words from the Abbey on Iona, “fashioning us for a truer beauty.” Redemption – the primary activity of God – is the work given to us as well: taking what is and reshaping it for a righteous purpose. 

I have also noticed an evolutionary process that has coincided in faith and in carpentry. In both cases my early years depended on a plan with clear instructions. As I’ve matured, I have come to rely on instincts and sanctified common sense that has developed through years of practice. Both in the journey of faith and as a journeyman carpenter, sometimes you have a template to follow, and other times you just have to figure it out as you go. 

JH-B: What have been some of your favorite carpentry projects to work on and why? 

EP: The last thing I turned out of my shop was a “learning tower” for my grandson. It was a simple project using Baltic plywood and dado joints, but the particular enjoyment of it came as I imagined how Callen would be able to safely stand at the kitchen counter and “help” as his parents were preparing a meal. I think that’s been a pretty consistent experience – that I especially enjoy those projects that are useful and meaningful for the people I love. 

JH-B: In your late father, Eugene Peterson’s biography, A Burning in My Bones, there is a poignant image of his body just barely visible in the coffin he was buried in, with a brief note saying that you crafted the coffin yourself. You shared with me that you also crafted the urn that held your mother, Jan’s ashes. What was the process like of working on those two pieces for your parents in their passing? Why did you decide to craft them and what impact did the process have on you? 

EP: It originated in the family meeting we had a few years before my parents died. I was asking them a series of end-of- life questions so that my siblings and I could honor them well if they were to be somehow incapacitated as they were heading down the home stretch of their lives. And it was then that Eugene expressed his desire for a full meal deal funeral with his body present. Then he looked at me and said, “I want you to officiate at the service, and I want you to make the casket.” In that moment it felt like a burden, but I eventually came to recognize them both as gifts. 

I had initially planned to recycle material from an old Montana barn, but that ended up not being practical, and so I used pine boards that were distressed to give a rustic look, and I fastened a cross to the lid that I had made following a design I first saw at Christ in the Desert Monastery. It was finished with six rope handles so that his six original grandchildren could carry him into the church and then out to the cemetery. He had previously carried each of them; this was the only time they ever carried him. 

When I finished constructing it, I climbed in and lay in it for a few minutes, partly just to reassure myself that his body would fit, but also to sort of experience what it would feel like to lie down in my father’s final resting spot. That’s when I realized that I should add some padding. 

And so ostensibly I did it to fulfil a dying man’s request. But the three days I spent building the casket evoked just a slew of memories of the projects we had worked on together as well as the pastoral vocation we shared and discussed at length. My shop had never been used for such a purpose before, but I found it to be a cathartic environment for my grief and my gratitude to co-mingle. The wood had become well sprinkled with tears by the time the casket was finished. Additionally, I discovered that the process also activated my imagination, and without really working at it, my homily for his service was also being created, the shaping of the wood helping to shape the words. The primary images that came to me were cradle and casket: containers for life and death. One that represents the beginning of a life, the other an end. He had built a cradle for his first grandchild (my son), and I built the casket for him. I had them placed next to each other at his funeral as I reflected on the containers that hold us throughout our lives and even in the life to come. 

It was a similar experience for my mother. She chose to be cremated, so making an urn was the obvious container for her and it allowed her remains to be interred with Eugene’s. I made it out of purpleheart wood – a particularly dense species – because purple was her favorite color. And I used maple splines in the corners as an accent, then hand rubbed it with teak oil. That level of detail is typically reserved for a piece of fine furniture, not for a box that’s going to get buried forever in the ground. But beauty was important to her, and so it felt like an important thing to do for her. 

JH-B: Why do you believe it is important for human beings to pursue and engage in practical crafts like woodworking? At the same time, why is it important for Christians to do so? 

EP: At its most basic level it’s who we are. To be human is to be creative inasmuch as we are created in the image of a creative God. I actually think that the way you framed the question is exactly right: we’re talking about how art is an important aspect of being fully alive, our true selves. The only reason to ask why it’s important for Christians specifically to engage in various forms of craftsmanship is because people of faith are in a deliberate, lifelong process of becoming fully human. That happens as we apprentice ourselves to Jesus who is ever redeeming – or recreating – the world in which original goodness has become significantly tarnished by the effects of sin and evil. 

So, we reflect the work that God does. And while it is, as you suggest, often practical, I believe it’s also important that we not limit our craft to that which is merely useful. When God landscaped the Garden of Eden with plants and trees, many of them had the practical benefit of being good as food to eat. But there were some that were simply “pleasing to the eye.” I take that to mean that God values aesthetics. And so sometimes we should be making things only for the sheer beauty they add, and sometimes we should do things solely for the pure delight they bring us. I’m not sure how to think about it proportionally, but I want to make sure we’re involved in work that is aesthetic as well as utilitarian. 

Jarrod Howard-Browne is a member of the KLC staff team. 

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