Fathom Mag

A Practical Theology of Tinkering

Working with my hands changes my brain.

Published on:
December 10, 2019
Read time:
4 min.
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Pieces of the inside of my computer’s hard drive were scattered across the plywood workbench when my dad came into the garage and exclaimed, “What on earth is going on here?” It looked as though a robot was turned inside out over every square inch of workspace with screws and hardware components in piles. All of it lay daintily organized in a manner only known to myself. 

“I’m installing the wireless card into the motherboard.” I assured my dad that I knew where each piece belonged and could build the computer back to its original design. He sighed the kind of sigh that I have become familiar with as a parent. The one that says “it’s not worth the fight” and “things are well beyond where I could stop them.” He turned around, threw up his hands and went back inside.

It was 1997, back when computers required a connection to a phone jack to access the internet. Back when we couldn’t use the phone and internet at the same time. I was in seventh grade and was tired of the slow dial up annoyances and had enough confidence in myself to disassemble my Sony Vaio PCV-90. My parents had bought our family the computer for Christmas and my dad intended to install a new wireless card himself. But with his crazy work schedule, it was taking longer than I was willing to wait, so I took the initiative. I figured if all went well it would be easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Thankfully, all went well and as a social seventh grader I could finally make a phone call while chatting on instant messenger.

Active hands make an active brain. 

The Great Computer Disassembly of 1997 wasn’t a one-off incident. I’m a tinkerer. I was the kid who took a toaster apart to try to figure out how it worked. I built remote control cars, helped my dad build model airplanes. There was a swing made out of an old washing machine barrel. A birdhouse made out of scrap wood and corrugated metal. A zip-line in the backyard made out of rope and old bicycle handles. We had a workstation in the garage that my dad built out of plywood and I was frequently found sitting on dad’s olive green, vinyl-covered stool surrounded by scraps, building like a mad scientist. That workstation was where my imagination felt free to wander. It’s the spot I spent most of my childhood.

I’ve always felt the need to keep my hands busy. Even now as an adult I frequently use Theraputty to help my mind focus on a task. 

He reminded me that I need to get into his word on my own, by myself. Just like I work on my kitchen I could do the work myself and don’t rely on others to do all of it for me.

In his TED Talk called “Play Is More Than Just Fun,” research scientist Dr. Stuart Brown says, “The human hand in manipulation of objects is a hand in search of a brain, a brain in search of a hand, and play is the medium by which those two are linked.”

I understand his explanation implicitly. 

A few years ago I undertook a massive home renovation, gutting and remodeling our kitchen by myself. I had countless moments of putting my hands to work. Scraping off laminate from the counters, cutting and nailing plywood planks to the walls, painting cabinets, caulking, spreading and molding the cement counters, sanding, leveling, nailing, drilling. It was hard work, but it was sacred to me because of the quiet opportunity to labor with my hands. 

I don’t need music or podcasts while I work. My hands stay busy and my thoughts keep me company. In this quiet I began to understand the importance of meditating on scripture or a worship song the Spirit has put in my heart. It’s so easy to focus my mind on a hurt, an offense, or negativity, but I want that time to be used for transforming my mind, not tailspinning into anything less. 

Building More Than a Kitchen

During those few months of working on our kitchen, the Holy Spirit put several things on my heart to meditate on.

I thought about how I can listen to all the sermons and podcasts and preachers that I want to, but people are flawed no matter how Godly they may be. He reminded me that I need to get into his word on my own, by myself. Just like I work on my kitchen I could do the work myself and don’t rely on others to do all of it for me. Get dirty. In his word I could find all truth, all comfort, everything. I spent hours thinking about my true identity in Christ, how loved I am, and ways I could pour that love into others.

I turned problems of racism over and over in my head and thought about the role we can play in it as believers.

And the Holy Spirit kept prompting me to pray, “Lord, what would you have me do?” Over and over and over and over. My hands moved and I’d ask, “Lord, what would you have me do?”

When we meditate on positive, wholesome, Christ-like thoughts while we’re using our hands, we are literally changing our brains.

Toward the end of the kitchen project one night after I put the kids to bed, I went into my garage where I had built my own plywood work bench and finished building a small shelf to put our cookbooks. I was deep in my own world of play—sawing, sanding, and screwing together scraps of wood to build this shelf. 

In the quietness of our garage, alone with my thoughts, I listened to my own breathing and the strokes of the navy-dipped paintbrush moving back and forth on the shelf I just constructed out of scrap wood. In that moment the Spirit reminded me—Jesus was a carpenter.

And I started weeping.

Here I was, in the quiet of my home, doing something that Jesus may have been doing thousands of years ago in the quiet of his.

Here I was, in the quiet of my home, doing something that Jesus may have been doing thousands of years ago in the quiet of his. I felt an intimacy with my savior that I had never felt before. It was a reminder of the light in this world—same tasks, years apart, him alive in me, me a light for this appointed time.

Through my tears I thanked him for the gift of working with my hands. For the ability to use my imagination to build something out of nothing, then to use my hands to make it happen. For the time this facilitates with him. For the healing that has come to my brain through the use of my hands and the meditation of my heart on him. How he speaks to me in the silence while my hands are moving. And I asked him to teach me how to build a bigger and better table here on earth for the work he has called me to do. 

Hannah Bunker
Hannah Bunker is a writer and podcaster. She believes there’s a seismic rumbling in her generation of women for the gospel and she wants nothing more than to be a part of it. Hannah was created to create, is an introverted people-lover, a compulsive thinker, deep feeler, and belly-laugher. She’s married to Aaron and is the mom of twins. You can follow her @hannahbunker on Instagram and Twitter, find her writing on her website and listen to her conversations on The Woven Life Podcast and A Stronger Knot Podcast.