By Chris Horst
For two summers during college, I worked ten-hour days under the hot and humid Pennsylvania sun as a mason tender—or more commonly, as a mud boy. I mixed concrete, hauled cement blocks and attempted to assist our masons. Some days I lugged, stacked, and mixed like a champ. Other days I became the target of creative expletives.
Many of my colleagues were rough around the edges. They were hardened by years of heavy labor. At first, I only saw those rough edges. I cringed at the blatant womanizing, the profanity, and the quick tempers. I saw only the grit permanently ingrained around their fingernails, not the adept hands at work. But over time, my appreciation and gratefulness for these craftsmen surged. There was no pretense. No conversational dancing. These guys spoke their minds. Particularly one mason, who I’ll call “Smitty.”
Smitty the Artisan Bricklayer
Smitty complained a lot. He didn’t like the direction the world was going. But as a man many decades my senior, he earned the right to voice his displeasure with modern politics and self-obsessed teenagers. I truly appreciated this curmudgeonly old man. Smitty’s irritability was just a façade. He cared deeply about his work and demonstrated unmatched respect for his customers, colleagues and friends.
I worked as Smitty’s assistant on a number of projects. The one I remember most was an expansive brick fireplace we constructed inside a beautiful estate in Pennsylvania farm country. I knew Smitty was a good mason. But it was on this project I realized he wasn’t just a skilled tradesman. He was an artisan.
He became immersed in the project. Measuring, re-measuring, and re-measuring again, he laid out his plan. An hour into the day, the project would swallow him. His masonry pencil could hardly catch its breath as he jotted and sketched, sharpening his pencil quickly with a few swipes of his utility knife. Smitty moved with fervor, nearly fanatical in his attention to detail. I did my best to keep up with him. I sawed bricks according to his marks and kept the mortar loose and ready. Over a few weeks, Smitty demonstrated complete mastery of his craft.
At the end of the project, I caught him standing in front of the expansive mantle. He looked it over slowly, taking in the final product. I joined him. Our eyes scanned back-and-forth between the ornate details and the full panorama. The joints were pointed perfectly. Each deep red brick fit just in its place. The flawless curves and corners masked how difficult it had been to design.
It was remarkable. Smitty had painted a masterpiece.
The Call of Craftsmanship
Craftsmanship runs deeply in my family. My great-grandfather and grandfather worked in the construction business. My dad continues to work in real estate development. Because of that, I’ve always had a deep appreciation for workers skilled at making things with their hands. I didn’t inherit these abilities, sadly, but I know good work when I see it. And Smitty’s work was very good.
There is a rich heritage of craftsmanship in the Christian story as well. As far back as human history, it’s evident God cares about how things are made. The first time we read about the Spirit of God filling a person was when God equipped Bezalel to build the Tabernacle. God gave him “ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze.” Whether it was the construction of the ark, the Temple, the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, or Joseph and Jesus’carpentry—craftsmanship runs throughout the biblical story.
But it’s more than just God’s concern for beauty. It’s also God’s concern for people. When a garment factory collapsed last year in Bangladesh, 1,129 people died. The cause? Poor craftsmanship. God cares about craftsmanship because he cares about things working well. He designed a perfect world out of what was “formless and empty.”
I sometimes lament my early days working in construction. I certainly had a mental superiority complex, contemplating my colleagues’ immorality and my own intellectuality. It’s too bad. I missed out on a lot of opportunities to affirm the ways their handiwork was a reflection of their Creator. To tell Smitty he did his work with precision and beauty.
We all depend on people making things well. The houses and cubicles where we live. The toilets we flush. The outlets we plug into daily. Behind each, there’s a Smitty.
Originally published at Smorgasblurb
Image credit: Richard