The Two Cobblers

A long time ago in an old village there was a cobbler named Samuel. Tall and thin, his dark hair had begun to turn the slightest shade of gray, like an early winter dusting of frost on the ground. Samuel came from a long line of cobblers. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all carefully learned the trade. Even though he had three other brother’s it was Samuel who was his father’s most favored apprentice working for many years under his father’s guidance before taking over the family business. Samuel was well known in the village, trusted for his honesty, and known for his skilled shoemaking. His business did well and while his family was not rich, they were able to have guests over from time to time. They enjoyed sharing a simple meal with their neighbors, it was a way they could be a gift to others. When they could he and his wife would give a little extra in the offering plate, or donate a pair of shoes to one of the poorer children in the village. This felt good and he loved his work. To make and repair shoes was for Samuel a calling.

It so happened that there was another man named Michael who lived in the village just south of Samuel’s. A portly man, with shaggy hair and tattered clothing, Michael too was a cobbler. His family had also been cobblers for many years but means had always been tight. And while he had apprenticed with his father before taking over the family business, his apprenticeship was cut short by his father’s untimely death. And even though their village was very small, his business was steady because Michael’s skill as a cobbler was well-known around the region.

And then something unexpected and outside their control happened.

Both villages went through a number of changes due to the industrialization of labor. While many in these villages had been farmers, or skilled workers of various kids, blacksmiths, bakers, etc, factories began to be constructed along the newly built railroad tracks. Work changed. The slow grind of the iron gears of the factory became the soundtrack to their lives. Many began to work in these small factories. Others opted to work outdoors for the railroad.

And among all the changes these massive innovations brought came the need for an entirely new kind of shoe. Where the soft-sole shoes were once well suited for farming, they quickly wore through in the new work environments. As you might imagine, soft leather on concrete and on the hard-rock and iron of the railroad were not a friendly experience to the people’s feet.

People began rushing to their two respective cobblers seeking solutions. Samuel, the first cobbler, continued to work day and night repairing the shoes as they came in. He lost weight, slept less, and lines of weariness traveled across his face the way a sharpie travels distinctively across the contrasting whiteness of paper. He focused his energy solely on fixing the shoes, patching holes, or even stitching extra layers of leather to the bottom hoping that would make the difference.

Some asked him to make a different shoe. But Samuel felt that the old shoe was best the way it was. This was the design he’d learned from his great-grandfather and this was what he understood to be a good quality shoe. If it can’t work in this world, then something needed to adjust but it wouldn’t be his shoe. This was frustrating not just for Samuel’s customer’s but also for Samuel. He saw his business slowly dwindle, and finally he had to close his shop altogether and join those working at the factory. People stopped going to him for help. They no longer wanted their shoes repaired, they wanted a different shoe fit for their new world.

Michael’s story ended somewhat differently. I just so happened that his brother worked at the railroad and spoke with Michael about the need for something that fit his needs better. Michael listened and began to rework some initial designs. He also listened to his customers and tried to imagine what it was they suggested. He took his old shoe patterns and set them aside, carefully placing them in his filing cabinet. It was only then that he could get to work on newer designs that could be more what people asked for. In fact, Michael even invited a couple of them over for bread, beans and hot tea one evening and experimented with a couple different models of shoes. Finally, after much listening and reworking, he came up with a new shoe that had a durable sole and a little extra cushion in it that helped with standing on concrete.

The villagers were happy and life adjusted. These two cobblers lives were changed forever, one pliable in the hands of unknown circumstances, one held on as long as he could.

In the first story, the old pattern, the old way of doing things worked really well for awhile but then over time, it became an obstacle, a road-block and finally the noose that ruined Samuel’s family business. He was unable to see that change had occurred, or how to adapt to that change. He sat in his shop holding the precious shoe patterns in his hands, those patterns which once were his lively-hood had spoiled and he was unable to, and unwilling to, rework them into something new. In order to find a way forward he needed to set them aside but was unwilling to.

In the second story, the old pattern was used until people had a new need. Michael, saw that meeting that need was more important then clinging to his great-grandfather’s way of making shoes. It was in listening to that need, and setting aside his previous commitments that he was able to see something new be born.

(This is a short story I wrote for part of the message I gave on Sunday. It is based on Jeremiah 18:1-11. The rest of the sermon is in the next post.)