Life Lessons in Tile and Concrete

I will never earn a living with my limited construction skills. I have built and repaired a few things and I thankfully I still have all of my fingers. Even so, at my very best, I am only home project hobbist. Through the trial-and-error of home projects I have learned a bit about myself and life. Often times, it is when the project is completed and I am cleaning up and putting away tools that thoughts of analogy and metaphor come to mind. Below are a few of those musings.


Plumb and Level

Some time ago I was working on a tile job in one of our bathrooms. We removed the plastic tub and shower surround and put in a new acrylic tub. We put in green board, cement board, and then tile. The project went pretty well and we (Denise and I) have learned a lot in the process.

During this bathroom tiling project, two thoughts crossed my mind.

First, I have been struck by the importance of plumb walls. You see, in our bathroom the walls were close to plumb—but not quite. From side to side, they were about 1/4 inch off. This may not sound like much (and at the beginning of this project it didn’t sound like much to us either) but this lack of “square” showed up in many repeated ways as we cemented the tiles into place. Basically, we found ourselves constantly correcting for this lack of plumb. We had to trim perfectly square tiles to fit with our out-of-square walls.

This got me to thinking about raising kids. If in our families we don’t have a clear idea of what is plumb and level (what is best/required in character, spirit, behavior) then we will certainly have kids that are out of plumb. And if they’re out of plumb, we’ll spend the remainder of the project (raising them) adjusting to their out of plumb state. The lack of square on the front end will require intensive and often frustrating and heart-breaking effort on the back end. It is better with kids (and it would have been better with our bathroom tiling project) to start with walls that were plumb and square, because this makes the rest of the project flow much, much more easily.

Tile: Hard But Brittle

Secondly, I have also been impressed by the nature of tile. On the one hand, tile is so hard. During this project I had to drill three holes through pieces of the tile. I was amazed by how difficult it is to drill through tile. In fact, I broke three tile pieces attempting to drill these holes. Even when I had the right tool (diamond drill bit) the job was challenging. Yet, although the tiles were very hard, they were also very brittle. On more than one occasion I momentarily mishandled a tile and it easily chipped or cracked. While putting one tile on the wall (with thin set cement underneath) I was amazed as the tile cracked in half as I pushed/slapped it into place.

So tiles are a contradiction, much as we might be. At one moment they are tough and almost impenetrable—tenaciously resistant. At the same time, they are also very delicate and inflexible—very easily chipped, cracked, and broken. And isn’t this like us? I am reminded of how I can move into periods when I become resistant, stubborn, inflexible, and difficult. Yet, during those same periods, I tend to become (although I try not to reveal this to others) easily offended, irritable, and cranky. My stubborn and strong-willed state also brings with it the problem of being easily chipped and cracked.

A dear friend reminded of the similarities between pieces of tile and pottery and a spiritual implication. In many passages (Romans 9:21, Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:1-6) followers of God are likened to clay on a potter’s wheel. “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” Of course—the Potter may do whatever he likes with the clay. In a similar way—God may mold and shape His followers to His good pleasure. Yet, even as He crafts us it is not the pot or vessel that is of great value, rather, the value is found in what is contained in (in what inhabits) the vessel. We are earthen vessels—we are clay pots—but we may invite God to inhabit us. May it be true that we’re pliable and responsive to His movement in us and through us.

Constructing and Tearing Down

In another home project a few years ago, I helped my brother-in-law demolish a bathroom in preparation for a remodel. We were both in the bathroom bashing away at the tile walls. Under the tile we found drywall and framing. Amazingly, in just one afternoon we were able to completely destroy and remove a bathroom that once took many days to construct. Skilled and intentional craftsmen devoted their time, energy, and experience to design and build the bathroom. What they constructed with expertise and a thoughtful approach—Mike and I destroyed in an afternoon of unskilled swinging and bashing.

This reminded me of the truth that building something significant and meaningful is usually an intensive labor of love—-but destruction often takes just a few moments. I thought upon the many things that require sustained effort and skill to build: solid friendships, healthy families, productive careers, clean reputations, and loving marriages. And yet, I was also reminded of how very quickly those very things can be so quickly and thoughtlessly destroyed through hurtful words, poor choices, and pride.


A few years ago I was helping a friend (Tony Wallace) pour a concrete slab for an extended patio. As the concrete began to harden and “heat up” we discovered that in too many places, aggregate (small rocks) were coming to the surface. We wound up scrambling—as the concrete became harder and less workable–to remove the rocks and smooth out the concrete.

When I arrived home that evening and was cleaning up—I got to thinking about the hardening concrete and how it was difficult to shape and contour. This reminded me of being a parent and how raising kids is a lot like working with concrete. When the concrete is fresh and wet, it is easily shaped. It can even be poured like a thick soup. But, once it starts to dry and harden, it becomes like rock. Trying to shape and mold hardened concrete is a strenuous and punishing task requiring much effort with little effect. Reshaping hardened concrete is difficult on the shaper and on the concrete—both parties suffer. Similarly, it is very difficult to shape/raise/influence a child/young adult if they have begun to “harden up”—if there is no longer a loving, trusting, abiding relationship.

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