Monday, September 25, 2023

God's Repair Shop

Preached at Silverton Friends Church

September 24, 2023

I’ve been watching The Repair Shop from England on YouTube. The show is built around a workshop of experts in restoration and repair in woodworking, clock-making, leatherwork, art, ceramics, toymaking, metalworking. These experts meet with ordinary people who bring in cherished heirlooms that need attention. As the show says, “While some of the items pass through The Repair Shop due to unfortunate accidents, others are simply ravages of time.” And still others are there because of bad actors. But all are welcomed into the shop and the skillful crafters there work on them, often with nearly magical results. As Will the woodworker says, “This is the workshop of dreams.”

This show makes me reconsider how God looks at the work of restoration and ask myself, “Do these experts reflect something of God’s response to human beings who  need repair, restoration, conservation?”

There are some problems with the analogy I’m going to draw, so let’s acknowledge them up front. First, when people in the Bible encounter God personally (or even just God’s messenger), God often has to say, “Don’t be afraid.” Something about God is awe-inspiring, filling ordinary humans with dread and even terror. “Woe is me!” said Isaiah. Even Jesus occasionally terrified his followers, as when he stilled the storm.  “Who is this that even the weather obeys him!” The experts on The Repair Shop, though amazingly skilled, are friendly humans.  Not scary.  So there is that.

Second, the items brought in do not have wills. They are objects rather than persons, so they do not resist or evade their repairers, though they are certainly often a challenge. Often these items have been loved almost into life by their owners, particularly if they have been a part of their childhood; nonetheless, the items cannot and do not sabotage the repairs.

So what about this show reminds me of the love God has for human beings? As Psalm 8 says, “What are mortals that You God should notice them? What are human creatures that you pay them heed?” There is a mystery about why God loves us, and we take refuge in the word from the Bible that God is love. Jesus is historical evidence that God loves us and wants to save us from error, from brokenness, from evil. This is simply the character of God.

Many Christians have been taught to think that God sees human beings as evil. Some theologies even say that God cannot look on us human beings because of our sins. Imagine this attitude in The Repair Shop.  Clockmaker Steve looks at a broken watch and all he sees is brokenness. So he simply looks away until someone puts a brand-new watch in between him and the broken one. As long as that perfect watch blots out his view of the broken one, he can be happy. Otherwise, he tosses someone’s cherished heirloom into the rubbish.

All through the Bible, the various writers are well aware that God sees their good and their evil.  Job challenges God by reciting how he is good and asking to be told what he’s done that is so wrong it deserves punishment.  The psalmist who wrote Psalm 139 explores in detail how well God knows him or her: You know when I sit and I rise…and with all my ways you are familiar. Wherever I go or even run away from you, your hand leads me and your right hand seizes me. Search me, God, and know my heart, probe me and know my mind. And see if a vexing way be in me, and lead me on the eternal way. (Alter, 316, 317, alt.) And the writer of Hebrews reminds us that the Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword…a discerner of the thoughts and the intentions of the heart.

George MacDonald, 19th century writer and preacher, believed in the inexorable love of God, a love that absolutely wants the best for us, wants us to be our best, and will work on and with us until that goal is met. When C.S. Lewis suffered the loss of his wife Joy, he wrote that if God was just cutting us open to torture us, we could hope that he would lose interest, but that if God was performing surgery to heal us, we could not hope for any relief until God’s work is done.  (Sounds a lot like Job, who said, Could you not look away from me long enough to let me spit on the ground.) Perhaps absolute love can both terrify and comfort us.  After all, God remembers we are dust.
When someone brings their beloved object into The Repair Shop, broken, worn, sometimes vandalized, clockmaker Steve and his colleagues say things like this:

I love the challenge of [fixing] something like this.

I love to improve things; I hate to see things thrown away.

This is a nice exciting project.

It’s an honor to be working on this.

I’m thrilled to work on it.

I’ve been imagining God’s Spirit with me, with us, seeing our brokenness, our missing parts, our worn-out-ness, and saying to the rest of the trinity, “I love the challenge of fixing something like this.  I love to improve things; I hate to see things thrown away. It’s an honor to be working on this. I’m thrilled to work on it.”

One scripture that comes to mind is this from Psalm 103.

God forgives all your sins, heals all your diseases. He redeems your life from the Pit, surrounds you with steadfast love and mercy….The Lord executes righteous acts and judgments for all who are wronged….As a father [an ideal father] has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For He knows how we are formed; He is mindful that we are dust. The Lord’s steadfast love is for all eternity toward those who fear him.” (The Jewish Study Bible, p1396)

Or this translation by Robert Alter: [God] forgives all your wrongs, heals all your diseases, redeems your life from the Pit, crowns you with kindness, compassion…The Lord performs righteous acts and justice for all the oppressed….As a father has compassion for his children, the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For He knows our devisings, recalls that we are dust…The Lord’s kindness is forever and ever over those who fear him…(Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, “The Writings” p. 239-241)

These words stand out: Forgives, heals, redeems, surrounds, crowns—These are the actions of our God. This is the God we stand in awe of. This is the God who has to say over and over, “Fear not!” Respect is too small a word to describe our response to our God. We can see a little of what it means to see God in action when Jesus stills the storm on the lake, and his close followers and friends fall back in fear and amazement. This is the God who forgives, heals, redeems, surrounds, crowns.  This is the God who, for reasons beyond us, loves us.

It is the attitudes of the repairers toward both the object and the owner that reminds me of God. Their tenderheartedness toward the present owner and absolute respect for the original craftsperson shine through over and over.

When a person brings an object into The Repair Shop to be worked on, The Repair Shop expert will ask: What do you want me to do with this? Sometimes the owner replies, I want it back as close as possible to when it was first made.  Sometimes the owner says, I want this repaired, but I don’t want all the marks of history taken away. Sometimes the owner says, I just want to hear it chime again, or see it move like it did when I was a child, or I hope you can fix the corner the woodworm ate away.

(This is different from when I took my diamond ring in for cleaning and got it back with all the 1970s antiquing removed as well.  I was shocked and sad, but it was too late to change.  Look at how new it looks, the jeweler said.)

The experts listen to the stories of the objects from their owners.  Their response is always tender and hopeful.  They have confidence in their expertise, and they value what the owners value in the item.  No item is beneath their interest. Steve the clockmaker spent hours on a plastic toy spaceship from the 1960s, getting it to spin but most importantly, getting it to hum like its owner remembered.  

Loving the challenge
These experts love a challenge.  They may moan a little over the complexity of the task, but they really enjoy their work.  Will the woodworker looks at a hundred pieces that have fallen off a chalet music box and puzzles them back on appropriately.  Kirsten the ceramicist looks at a shattered vase and not only reforms it but creates the missing pieces and then carefully paints it so it blends in. The toy experts dismantle a much-loved teddy bear, gently clean years of grime away, carefully match fabrics, and return it to the person who loved it as a child. In many cases, the owner does not want the years of love and use erased, but instead just wants it to be whole again. The owners often value the history revealed in scratches and worn patches, and they also are overjoyed that the bear has both eyes again.

Exercising patience
The experts are patient.  They will say things like, “This is the fiddly bit, but I like fiddly bits.” I’m always amazed at the man who repairs music boxes. He gets it moving first, then listens for false notes.  Again and again he solders or files and then tests it again.

Going beyond expectations
These experts like to do even more than asked. When restoring the chalet music box, Will notices a tiny dog house on the front. So he carves a tiny dog for the dog house. Extra. The toy restorers tie a bow around the teddy’s neck just to dress him up. Extra. Lucia, the art conservator, researches the provenance of the painting she has just restored and gives the owner more reasons to be proud of it.  Extra.

God also listens, God loves the challenge, God is patient, and God goes beyond expectations.

Here are a couple of Repair Shop stories that are lovely parables for us.

Lucia, the art expert, works to conserve the paintings brought to her. The one I saw most recently was a portrait with a hole through the lady’s lips, the result of an adolescent boy throwing a dart at it.  So she had first to repair the 15-year-old hole in the canvas by wetting the threads, restoring them to position with an adhesive behind the canvas, filling in the hole from the front with an acrylic filler, and then painting that twice, once with watercolor to cover the filler and once with oil or acrylic to blend in with the rest of the paint.  She also took the time to carefully clean the painting, and in so doing discovered decades worth of nicotine stain that obscured the rich coloring. Her careful work brought the painting back to its original beauty, and took away the damage caused by carelessness, though of course you can see the repairs from the back.  She also took time to research it, and she explained to its owners why it was more than just a sentimental heirloom, how it fit into history.

Steve, the clockmaker, had a pocket watch that was the only family possession saved by a woman taken to the concentration camp in WWII. She had hidden it by sewing it into her clothing. It was so thin and delicate that it gave Steve more anxiety than most of his repairs.  He began by opening it up and observing the works. He cleaned the clockworks of 80 years and he washed its face. Then he put it back together and it ran, as they say, like clockwork. It was a reminder of resilience and also of the present time. The grandson was moved to tears with gratitude.

When people get back their items, they will often tear up in the stoic British way and then apologize for being emotional. They most often say “Wow” and “I can’t believe you were able to do that,” “this takes me right back to my childhood, to happy memories,” and “I want to give this to my grandchildren, to people I love.” They want to share with their loved ones how the item was magical for them, how it brings simple pleasures and sparks the imagination. They want to share joy with their beloveds.

Imagine God asking us, what do you want me to do with you? Do you want yourself restored to like new? Do you want yourself conserved by having areas of wear and tear and damage remedied? Do you want cleaning so you can operate normally? Do you want the signs of age removed? Or do you want to keep the honorable scars of your history, even as the brokenness is repaired and beauty is restored?

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