At the conclusion of C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, the main character cannot bear to see a particular fallen tree chopped into firewood. Instead, he has the timber used to make a wardrobe and put in his house in the country. A minor detail in the context of the book, the implications of the wardrobe are significant for future instalments in the Narnia series.
I read this story with my children recently and the image of forming a tree into a beautiful piece of furniture stuck with me. This task could not be undertaken by just any person. Creating form from a formless object, be it wood or stone, requires talent, patience, and skill. The work that goes into any object of quality requires sacrifice.
Or you could just build an Ikea shelf.
This choice presents itself to us in some form every day. It can be hard to choose the thing of quality over the thing of convenience. Time, cost, and ease of assembly are but a few reasons why I often choose the quick and easy over the slow and deliberate.
Honing our Craft
In the early days of my public accounting career, I came to the point where my peers and I had passed our exams. Many were now leaving the firm for perceived better opportunities. Over dinner with a mentor one evening, he offered me some advice that I have never forgotten. Talking about my situation, he said, “What is the rush? Take the time to hone your craft.” The words stuck with me long after the meal had ended.
I did not heed those words, of course. Several weeks later an opportunity with one of my clients came up and I jumped at it. At the time, ‘take your time’ seemed like a luxury. All around me, my peers were taking steps to advance their own careers. In the moment, it seemed stupid not to take the opportunity. The financial benefits, a new title, and the excitement of a new role made it easy to choose this option.
A decade later, I can look back and see that where I had felt pressure to move, another year or two to grow and develop in a supportive environment might have been a good thing. In the moment, a year seemed like an eternity, but in an eternity, a year is a blink of an eye.
Despite my hurry, I am grateful for the career path that has led me to where I am today. But if I can look at my work and see that the time to hone my craft would have been worthwhile, what does that tell me about my broader life? How do I become the master craftsman of my own life?
The word evokes images of the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel, or Mozart. Great works; the works of true masters of their crafts. In the traditional European guild system, becoming a master craftsman required many steps. One would start as an apprentice, then become a journeyman. At some point, a piece of work would be prepared for review by the masters of a craft guild. If accepted, the creator would be admitted to the guild and allowed to practice as a master craftsman.
The masterpiece itself is often considered as the greatest work of a person’s life and career. A legacy by which to be remembered.
Within our own lives, we are all equipped to produce good work. A masterpiece, in traditional terms, could take a lifetime to produce. Creating a masterpiece out of our lives is also a lifelong endeavour . For most of us, how we live our lives and the impact we have on others will be our best opportunity to produce a masterpiece.
Admittedly, this seems heavy. Many days, it feels like an accomplishment to put matching socks on. The thought of carefully crafting a life’s work is usually not something that is usually top of mind. The work of creating a worthy life is slow and deliberate. It demands purposeful thought. Thinking of who and what we want to become requires us to consider the impact of our decisions beyond the immediate moment.
And while it may sound like a good idea, where do I learn how to craft a masterpiece life?
I have found that getting clarity on who it is I want to become is an important first step. In my experience, this is easier said than done. Without any reference point, ‘who I want to become’ could be anything. That is why I look to others and identify those that are living lives of quality and are models of the person I want to become, or at least have pieces of that person.
I am blessed in my life to have several people that I can look to as models for how to live life. Learning from these ‘masters’ can be as simple as spending time with them and asking questions or watching how they behave. Or by soaking up the knowledge and wisdom they share in my presence.
It is unfair and unrealistic to try and find all the qualities and skills we need in a single person. To do so would set that person and ourselves up for failure. That said, when I look at the people who can help me in my life, there is one thing they all have in common. That thing is who they themselves are ultimately modelling themselves after.
We do not know much about the hidden years of Jesus’ life. The years between childhood and the onset of his public ministry when he was 30. Likely, he was working as a carpenter, learning at the side of Joseph, himself a carpenter. There is something reassuring in this image. Jesus himself submitted himself to learn at the hands of Joseph. In doing so, he models for us the posture to take in following him as we grow.
God wants us to grow and become masters in our own lives. American philosopher Dallas Willard puts it this way: “A place in God’s creative order has been reserved for each one of us from before the beginnings of cosmic existence. His plan is for us to develop, as apprentices to Jesus, to the point where we can take our place in the ongoing creativity of the universe.” (The Divine Conspiracy)
Our lives are given to us as a gift to create with and we have the opportunity each day to learn more at the feet of the one true Master.
Submitting ourselves to the process of becoming master craftsmen and craftswomen requires a long view. It is a never-ending process. In The Second Mountain, David Brooks observes, “As artists get better at their craft, their vision of what they are capable of dashes out even further ahead.” The process of growing, learning, and working towards a vision does not end.
It is a slow and sometimes frustrating process. There are many days when my work should be crumpled up into a ball and thrown in the waste basket. Over the course of a lifetime, however, my hope is that those days that seemed like mistakes will be the days I learned the most.
Our culture offers us a life equivalent of prefabricated furniture. Components requiring nothing more than an Allen key to assemble. Choosing the deliberate and slow path in this environment is difficult. Yet our lives remain the one opportunity we all have to create a masterpiece.
To do so is a choice. It is the choice between investing a little bit each day to produce a work of true quality. The alternative is settling for the Ikea shelf. But when the work is not furniture, but a life, faith, marriage, children, and relationships, choosing a masterpiece life is a choice we must make.
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