An Old Desk
Several years ago, my father gave me the inheritance I’d looked forward to most of my life: a century-old roll-top desk. This desk had belonged to my great-great-grandfather when he was president of Fort Worth National Bank, one of the many businesses he founded as Fort Worth was becoming a trading center far out on the Texas frontier.
My father dearly remembered the desk residing in the foyer of the bank when he was a little boy. After I was born, my dad acquired the desk from other relatives and I remember it being a fixture in our home as I was growing up. In fact, my dad had been sitting at this desk one day in the late 1950’s when I stumbled in and sheepishly asked him if he could help me buy a book I wanted: a how-to manual about model rocketry. For some reason that long-ago day, he said yes. I don’t know how much that singular act contributed to my pursuit of degrees in engineering later in life, but I know that day it helped me feel loved in a special way.
Years and years later, I carried the old desk up out of our basement and began the process of refinishing it. Yes, I knew it then and I know it now - refinishing lessens the value of antiques. But this desk had already been poorly “refinished” at some point; big drips of shellac marred the finish and made the roll top completely unusable. I scrubbed and scrubbed the solid oak with a chemical refinisher that wasn’t designed to so much remove the finish as to blend it back into the surface of the ancient oak grain. The result was a piece of furniture that, after a few weeks of struggle, I was proud to use as my father had done and as my great-great-grandfather had done before him.
I have to admit it was a little hard to let it go, but I recently passed the desk on to a nephew of mine who I know to be interested in history and in his own family’s genealogy. The desk will continue to be loved and cared for.
As I scrubbed the surface of the desk and worked at blending the finishes into the wood, I remember that it occurred to me how like our religious tradition this desk was.
The desk, and our traditions, are solid and substantial - we can and should be proud, as I am of this desk, of the traditions handed down to us. But sometimes we may find that it takes a little scrubbing to make them usable: not everything we’ve inherited works for us the way we need it to in our own day and age.
It is, in the final analysis, up to us to polish our heritage for our use today and then, when the time comes, to let it go and hand it on to those who will come after us.
May we know when to scrub and polish. And may we know when to let go.
See you in church,