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Spiritual lessons learned from wood

Dave Rogalsky
By Dave Rogalsky, Eastern Canada Correspondent
Tavistock, Ont. | Sep 06, 2017 | Volume 21 Issue 17

Ken Roth with some of the many dishes he has made in his retirement. The Trinity bowl, front row right, is prominent. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)

When Ken Roth retired, he was looking for a hobby that would be creative, be a blessing to himself and others, and needn’t be profitable.

A member of East Zorra Mennonite Church near Tavistock, where he lives, Roth has served on the pastoral care team there for many years. Having worked in construction and as a cabinet maker and carpenter, he struck on woodworking, mostly lathe-turned bowls and platters, with some wooden serving dishes carved with an angle grinder when the piece doesn’t suit the lathe.

What he discovered in the heart of the pieces of “junk” wood and firewood shows a deep contemplative streak. Working with a piece that was rotten at the core he was about to give up, since it was such a mess. Suddenly through the black rot a white shape appeared. At first he thought it a maple leaf, but another person saw a symbol of the Trinity, and Roth was hooked. “It’s hard stuff, but it’s beautiful,” he says.

The bowl reminds him of his daughter Janelle, who died in 1989 of cancer at age 17. Although she struggled, the beauty at the core of her being continues to show up in unlikely places, as people remember her grace and generosity.

Through the years, piece after piece has brought lessons, prompting Roth to share his stories in many settings, including his home church, other local Mennonite churches, other denominations, and even a Kindergarten class in a nearby Kitchener school.

While he has sold some bowls, and even takes commissions, mostly he gives the work away. In particular, bowls made from burls—slowly formed scars in trees from broken branches—are given to people who have survived, or are struggling with, brokenness in their lives, as encouraging symbols of what God can make out of brokenness. Roth looks past the ugliness and wounds to the beauty inside, both in wood and in people. He thinks God does the same.

Maple leaf or symbol of the Trinity? ‘God the Father,’ says Ken Roth, ‘all-knowing and in control. Christ’s amazing love for all of us, and the Holy Spirit to guide and direct us.’ (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)

Ken Roth shows off a bowl with multiple rings. It reminds him of a pastor at a funeral where Roth was serving with Glendinning Funeral Home in Plattsville, Ont. Holding up a paper chain with the name of a member written on each link, the pastor wondered, ‘Do we take the ring of the person whose funeral we’re celebrating today out of the chain? No, they are still part of us even though they’re gone from us.’

A heart at the heart of a piece of Manitoba maple doesn’t need much imagination to see in Ken Roth’s lathe-turned bowl. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)

Ken Roth shows off a bowl with a cross at the centre. ‘Do we not all need to have the cross of Christ at our core?’ he wonders.(Photo by Dave Rogalsky)

Two identical bowls with different histories. One of these bowls shattered as Ken Roth was turning it. Although he wanted to just ‘chuck’ it, an inner voice told him, ‘Glue it back together, finish turning it.’ Two bowls, like the two brothers in the Prodigal Son story, both useful—one always, one after restoration. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)

Not all the images Ken Roth finds in ‘junk’ and ‘firewood’ are sacred. ‘Storm Clouds over the Sea’ appear too. (Photo by Dave Rogalsky)


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