Living with the grain

Published 9:02 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

By Ruffin Alphin

When you are 11 years old, it’s difficult to swing an axe. The blade is heavy, and it requires considerable coordination of timing and accuracy to split a piece of wood.

My father made it look easy and enjoyable, and I wanted to share that world of manhood. After he cut the tree into 20-inch lengths, he would set each piece on its end on a level place. Then, he would take the axe by its handle, raise it high above his head and swing the cutting edge down with great force into the center of the heartwood.


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“Begin in the center and work your way out. Always cut with the grain,” he instructed. A tree has a grain and the best way to divide it into good firewood is to work along those lines . . .

The discussion didn’t start as an argument, but it soon arrived there. We were talking about something we both cared deeply about, but the care turned into intensity and intensity into a quarrel that ran in so many different directions, like a reservoir bursting its dam, that we soon forgot what the original issue was.

As I walked away, feeling the damage done, I thought to myself, “How did that get so out of hand so quickly and turn so ugly? All I wanted was to win the argument.” Later on, when my emotions subsided enough to allow reflection, I wondered, “Is that what people are for, to be conquered?”

What if people are made another way, for something else: to be heard and understood and valued . . .

A September week at Nags Head is an expedition into the uncertain. All of our kids and grandkids go, and we stay in one big cottage as close to the ocean as we can afford.

The reservation, made months ahead of time, begins to draw near. Anticipation swells, but what awaits is unknown.

The sun might shine for most of the week, or it might not. The hurricane out in the Atlantic might come up the coast or it might not. The air might be harshly hot or it might not. The water might be wonderfully refreshing or it might not. The waves might be glassy and raft-worthy or they might not. The conversations might be rich and stirring or they might not.

Whatever happens, happens. Mostly it’s out of our control; it simply comes to us as a gift with all of its unpredictability, sometimes fulfilling, sometimes frustrating . . .

There is a grain to life that asks for our surrender.

Rex Alphin is taking the month of August off. His brother, Ruffin, the senior pastor at Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church, will be writing in his place. Email Ruffin Alphin at