For some, like the Reverend Paul Johnson of Carbon Hill, Ohio, the pencil sharpener is more than a tool to take care of your writing utensils, it’s an art form. Rev. Johnson began collecting them in the late 1980’s after his wife gave him some as a gift. He kept them in a small shed outside of his home, organizing them into categories that included cats, Christmas and Disneyland. The oldest one was over 100 years old! After his death in 2010, the tourism board of Logan Ohio decided to put the collection of over 3,400 sharpeners on display in their welcome center. Pencil sharpeners may be basically simple in design and function, but they are one of the most useful gadgets in your home. No one likes a dull point on the end of their pencil!
Of course pencils are not the only thing we like to keep sharp. Saws, knives, needles and scissors are frequently sharpened to keep them in optimal condition for use. And many of us enjoy word or number puzzles in order to keep our minds “sharp”. The Bible offers up this advice about sharpening: As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another- Prov. 27:17 (NIV). Iron was a widely used element in the ancient world. Farm implements and weapons were the most common items made with it (Gen. 4:22; Dt. 27:5; 28:48; Jos. 8:31; 2 Sam. 12:31; 1 Ki. 6:7). It was valued for its hardness and replaced copper which was the dominant metal in use from 3200-1200 B. C. Iron was introduced into the Biblical world by the Sea Peoples of the Greek Islands, Crete and Philistia but it wasn’t until the reign of David that it became a part of Israelite life. Iron is found in several lists detailing metals throughout the Old Testament (Num. 31:22; Jos. 22:8; Dan. 2:35). It was recognized as an ore found in the earth which needed to be smelted in order to purify it (Dt. 8:9; Job 28:2). Though practical and useful, like our wonderful pencil sharpeners, iron’s grandest role appears in the figurative sense in the Book of Proverbs. Here it is a most useful tool in the form of other people who help to sharpen one’s character. The verb used here is not a soft and gentle one. It’s the intensity you see as sparks fly when a blacksmith grinds his handiwork on a grinding stone.
The idea here, as one commentator noted, is that “good friends have a way of making us better people- and we them”. It would be nice to think that character can develop all by itself, but that is not the case. Character develops in the process of interacting with other people. The sharpening of Proverbs takes place when we are engaged in conversation, exchanging ideas, even in healthy disagreements at the workplace, in small groups, at home, in school and anywhere that people gather together. I have noticed a disturbing trend not just in our cultural penchant for “social media” (which really isn’t social at all since it’s all done with the tap, tap, tapping of your fingers) but in Christendom’s growing disdain for the institutional church. I do understand its shortcomings. It can become stale. It can become routine. It can become dogmatic over dedicated. Since it is a human institution, it has all the ability to be humanly fallible. The sad thing is that once condemned, I see person after person leave- but never go anywhere else. “I’m done with it!” they proclaim. But is this what the Bible tells us to do? How can iron sharpen iron if it is not pressed together and pressure applied? I think the writer of Hebrews had this in mind when he encouraged the believers to continue gathering together (Heb. 10:24-25). The world can be a big, angry place and it’s easy to pick up that negativity. But when we are together, we can encourage and stimulate one another in a Christ-like way just as iron sharpens iron- or a pencil sharpener refines a point.
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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