I recently became acquainted with a song called “Jesus was a Carpenter” by Johnny Cash. I am something of a Cash fan (I am wearing a Cash t-shirt as I write), and so when an older friend of mine mentioned this song casually in the course of conversation a few weeks ago, I made a mental note to look it up online. It has a really simple, poetic, thought-provoking lyric that honors the true narrative of Christ, and ponders how He would be received in our world today. That lyric is not really the subject of my post this morning, but its opening phrases did induce a question that will serve as an introduction to the ideas I want to flesh out in the paragraphs that follow.
The song begins with the lines:
Jesus was a carpenter and He worked with a saw and hammer / And His hands could build a table true enough to stand forever
As I was driving home on Wednesday night from the youth group where I lead worship every week, I was struck by that second line, albeit in a negative way. What follows is not a criticism of the song; in fact, I would be very pleased if in response to this post you go and listen to “Jesus Was a Carpenter” and, as you listen, ponder what it has to say to you about your need for Christ.
However, on this particular listening of the song, the words “true enough to stand forever” caught my attention as not being strictly correct. This is no criticism of the song or the writer. The writer did not intend to argue, I am sure, that whatever piece of carpentry came from the hands of Jesus would in fact last forever. He simply meant to say that Jesus, being faithful as He was in everything He applied Himself to, must have been a very diligent and careful carpenter from whom the best kind of work would be expected. This is no doubt true. Being ethically perfect in his humanity as he was, we can be sure that our Lord Jesus was diligent in his craft and so attained the excellence in it that comes from diligence. His works as a carpenter would no doubt have been beautiful in their symmetry and functionality. None of those works remain to the present day, and it is doubtful that great lengths taken by those devoted to Christ could have ensured their preservation. Jesus did not go about his work as a carpenter intent on creating things that would last forever on earth; if He did, He would not have made them from perishable wood. His works as a carpenter were made with an eye to the transient blessings of rest and refreshment and fellowship his works would facilitate for everyone who made use of them.
This is a fact which can bring some encouragement to us as craftsmen, artists, tradespeople and so forth. As children of eternity stranded in time (to borrow a phrase from Michael Card) we humans have a strong impulse to reach beyond the transience of our temporary existence and make in our work an eternal monument to ourselves. We want more for ourselves than to be forgotten, because we want more for ourselves than to be forgettable. We want to make something permanent with our lives in the hope of making ourselves permanent. But the fact is for most of us that when our lives are well past, we will not be remembered, or at least not all that much. The passage of time will carry us and our works away.
As a songwriter this could be difficult for me to come to terms with. There is little I would love more than to compose something of such transcendent, unforgettable beauty that it would be remembered long, long after I am gone. This is certainly a possibility, by no means unattainable, but also not to be expected. Of those who have attempted to achieve such permanence in human memory through their artistic works, many more have failed than have succeeded. I have one precious life, so I might as well try, not for the earthly crown itself, but for the love of the excellence that its achievement signifies (which distinction of values is a subject deserving of its own discussion in another post). I have no desire to bury my talent or sell myself short on my potential through fear of not realizing my artistic ambitions.
But even if I succeed write a song that is sung five hundred years after I am gone, there will still be an intransience to it. The same thoughts and feelings that gave birth to the song will not be passed on perfectly to all who hear or sing it. And what about all of my other works that don’t survive? Must the knowledge that the song I am writing at a given moment will one day be forgotten discourage me from completing it?
The answer is, absolutely not. I believe that a moment of praise, of reverent thought toward God or reverent appreciation for and delight in His works, or of simply enjoying any good gift of His from a pure heart, is a moment of eternal worth and quality; that even if it is only a moment, it is something precious and irreplaceable to God.
And I think that it was because Jesus knew and believed this that he was able to apply himself to constructing transient things for transient purposes without frustration. His carpentry, done as a service to God, has an eternal reward in the moments of thanksgiving around a family table or quiet reflection and rest in a chair that His carpentry made possible or somehow enriched. It is only in the course of working and crafting with this kind of a perspective that we really honor God’s creation for what it is as sub-creators instead of making it a tool for elevating ourselves. God remembers every good thought and every feeling of hope that my songs may have inspired, and they are valuable to Him, even if I or others have forgotten them.
In our temporary lives we are always in the course of moving on. If we didn’t not move on from the past and leave some things in the past we would have no room in our minds for present works and thoughts. When a song I have written has run its course and been sung by the last pair of lips to the last pair of ears that will hear it on earth, it will not cease to be valuable in eternity; it is still a part of the great story of God’s creation, and hopefully a noble and honorable part, however small in the grand scheme of things. I like to think that Jesus thought the same things of His chairs and tables as He worked long and unremembered hours for thirty years in His earthly father’s shop, forever dignifying every honest labor of those who would follow in His footsteps. He could have skipped over that part of life, but He didn’t, and considering that He is the perfect image of the invisible God, I think we can learn something from this aspect of His life about what kind of a God we serve. When our desire for greatness in our works loses an appreciation for the goodness of humble things and the humility of most good things that we see reflected in the life story that Jesus chose for Himself, it has ceased to be Godly ambition and has actually become Satanic. Jesus was fit to begin the work of new creation because He loved creation in ways that Satan never did or could. He has the name above all names because He loved God and His works for their own sake, and He displayed that love by confining himself to a very humble aspect of sub-creation for most of His earthly life.