Life Lessons in Firewood


The old rotten piece of cedar fencepost that was to become my wife’s
next birthday present wasn’t much to look upon at first.

It was one of those preternaturally cold January days in the Deep South —about ten degrees out. The kids were inside doing school, and there was something or other I needed to do in the workshop. I bundled up and trundled out into the frigid weather.

My workshop is a nice metal building maybe 60 meters or so from the house. I have a wood stove I built from an old oil drum that I use to heat it in the winter. I stack my wood scraps on the floor next to the stove all year long and burn them for heat. By springtime the shop is tidier, and I haven’t frozen to death. This particular winter had already been so cold that my scrap pile was about gone. I got a little blaze going with some sawdust and a capful of motor oil and began poking around for firewood.

Half buried in the dirt outside the shop I found an old rotten piece of 4×4 lumber. We had only been in the house a couple of years, so construction detritus was still not unusual. I wrenched the rotten beam free and brought it into the shop.

I put the piece of worm-eaten wood through my chop saw and cut it into roughly one-foot chunks suitable for burning. As I opened up the stove to toss in the first piece I caught a glimpse of the freshly-cut end. Instead of the sallow yellow I might expect from a piece of weathered pressure-treated pine I saw a deep and sultry red color. Hefting the scrap up into the light I could tell that it was actually seasoned cedar.

The end result is a combination of some fairly unrefined raw material and a little love.

Cedar ages exceptionally well in the dirt. That’s why it has so frequently been used for fencing. There had been another homestead on our farm a century or so ago, but nothing remains beyond some unusually resilient shrubs and the errant shard of broken china. I gave my cedar scrap a once over with a wire brush to remove the dirt and non-viable bits. What was left was unexpectedly solid given its profound age. That’s when I had an epiphany.

I trekked back up to the house for some proper firewood from the household stash and turned my attention to my new discovery. I put the piece of aged cedar through my table saw and ripped it into thin sheets. I cut them to even rectangular lengths and then beveled the edges into 45-degree angles. I glued the pieces and clamped them while they dried. I built up a floor and crafted a lid with edges shaped on my router table.

Once I had the basic box fitted, glued, and set, I ran the whole thing across my sanding wheel. I then used my bench sander to polish the exterior to a high sheen. Several coats of high-gloss polyurethane later, I beheld my wife’s next birthday present. That’s when it hit me.

That rotten old piece of wood was me. On my own I’m ugly, decayed, and irredeemable to my core. I’m unpleasant to look upon and suitable only to be thrown into the fire and burned. I can’t change myself or improve my lot. I am utterly helpless. Then I’m found by the carpenter.

He doesn’t see me as others do. The carpenter sees past the rot and the dirt to appreciate my potential. He doesn’t see what I am. He sees what I might become.

The transformation is painful. It involves cutting and sanding. I have to be clamped into a shape that might not seem natural at first. However, the end result is better than anything I might have been on my own.

The final product is a hybrid of sorts, a combination of my raw material and the carpenter’s transformational skill. I am far from perfect. In fact, I am full of tiny flaws, many of which are known only to the one who crafted me, but now I am useful. I have a purpose. I am actually kind of attractive to look upon.

What God does to a human soul is much like what I did to that old rotten piece of cedar fencepost. My wife’s jewelry box didn’t cost me a nickel’s worth of materials, but I spent hours in the workshop crafting it. Now it looks pretty and exudes that intoxicating cedar smell. That’s the gospel of Christ embedded in an old piece of firewood.

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