Tuesday, September 8
At some point in my childhood, I encountered an object lesson based on a pencil. I might have heard it from a grade school teacher or a sainted aunt, or possibly I read it in my cherished monthly copy of Highlights, the “Fun with a Purpose” magazine.
My recollection of the story was vague. As I remember it, the pencil was offered as a symbol for purposeful living, proper attention, and good effort and achievement. I remembered only a few details: we must be sharpened like a pencil, which isn’t always nice, but necessary; with correct use, we can leave our mark beautifully and meaningfully; and if we mess up, we always have a way to undo our mistakes (having a built-in eraser). At this time of year, I always think of this object lesson, especially when I see a new box of pencils amidst the back-to-school advertising.
Still the memory was sketchy (pun intended), so I decided to see if the Internet had any insight on this. It was a bit of a shock to me to discover that the Parable of the Pencil has been around for a while and is fairly well-known. Furthermore, the story that I thought was simply a secular lesson on how to be a good student was in fact a parable about the Christian experience and our relationship with God. I encourage you to follow the link above (or google it) to read the parable for yourself, but in short it goes like this:
The Pencil Maker tells the pencil:
- You’ll do many great things, but only if guided by a hand.
- You will experience painful sharpening, but this will make you a better pencil.
- You have the means to correct any mistake you make.
- The most important part of you is what’s inside.
- Everything you do will leave a mark, and you must always continue to do that, no matter what your circumstances.
These five instructions are given in various order in the various versions I looked up. The Pencil Maker’s instructions can be understood as direction on being a good disciple and leading a life of faith. You need only think of yourself in place of the pencil:
- You will do great things upheld by God’s hand and under God’s guidance.
- You will occasionally find yourself painfully sharpened by adversity, but will become a stronger, better person for it.
- Mistakes can be wiped away, by your own spiritual understanding of forgiveness and through God’s great mercy and grace.
- Your inner heart and core values—what’s inside– are most important.
- Everywhere you go, you leave a mark, and no matter what the situation, you must continue in that purpose by sharing and showing Christ’s teaching.
It’s an analogy that is easy to grasp and with lots of room for extension and amplification. Of course, it’s not one of Christ’s own parables. The modern pencil wasn’t invented until 1564, and pencils weren’t mass-produced until 1662. Only by the 1890s were pencil manufacturers starting to paint pencils and imprint them with their brand names. Depending on your age and place of childhood, you may be able to conjure up some of those names: Faber-Castell, Steadtler, Berol, Dixon (now Dixon-Ticonderoga) and the General Pencil Company.
I can imagine by now you have a specific image in mind of a neatly packed box of standard HB number 2 pencils, smelling faintly of cedar and graphite, all perfectly symmetrical and uniform.
But let me derail that image and add something more to the parable of the pencil. The fact is some of us are pencil crayons. Some of us are pens. Some of us are highlighters or sharpies or novelty pens or wax crayons. We are not all the same, and we are certainly not all new in the box. The Maker has created all kinds of instruments, which make their marks in the world in very different ways. We’ve all been set to work as Christ’s followers in different contexts at different times.
You need only look at a pen jar in your kitchen or study right now to see the rich variety of writing instruments that congregate there. I am not going to unpack the metaphor further here. Instead I encourage you to look at an everyday pen jar as a symbol of a faith community. Spend some time this week on your own in prayer and reflection on this object lesson. If you’re reading this on the webpage, you’ll find I have included a few pictures of pen jars from around my house, in case you don’t have one of your own. (These aren’t staged! We actually have this many pen jars and they do look like this!)
As you look at a pen jar’s assemblage of pencils and pens and other stray objects (in my case, screwdrivers, paintbrushes, scissors, and inexplicably, a purple long-handled magnet), pray for not just for the sharp, reliable go-to pencils in the bunch, but also for
- the ones that bring colour or highlights or interesting textures or aromas
- those that are unique, but rarely called into service
- those that are dried out, broken, worn down, or slightly chewed up
- those whose purpose or usefulness isn’t immediately obvious or commonplace
- those that aren’t like the others and maybe don’t at first glance seem to belong but that fit right in all the same
As Christ himself prayed for the unity of believers, “may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
Heavenly Maker, you have created each of us as wonderful, unique, and full of promise. We trust you to guide the marks we make in life each day. Help us know our purpose and to see the inner gifts of those around us. We give thanks that you forgive our mistakes, and we ask that we may faithfully be instruments in your hand. Amen.