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Beautiful and Useful


Post Author: Kerry Waller Dueholm

“It’s part chemistry, part magic, part artistry,” I tell my four year old loftily. He nods like he cares, as we plunge the stick blender into the bowl of water, lye, and oils. Carefully, we readjust our safety goggles as the mixture emulsifies, beginning to turn into soap. This is the second batch we’ve made today, the fifth this week. It’s much more than we need (though I do sell about two-thirds of what I make), and I can tell I’ve hit my threshold for stress when I deep dive into crafting. One summer in high school I made fifteen pairs of shorts in two weeks when my boyfriend was out of town. Moody teenager in my household always translated into new craft projects.

My professional work these days is as a pastoral counselor. I absolutely love working full-time in a group non-profit counseling center. I have a diverse client base, and I specialize in counseling children and helping people who have survived trauma. It’s interesting, and each day has something new in store for me to learn, experience, or help someone process.

But being the holding vessel for people’s hardships also takes its toll. I have a long history of eating my feelings, and have to be careful not to eat my clients’ feelings, too. Crafting helps with that, which is why I sew, knit, and make soap from scratch. Sometimes when I guest preach, I even manage to work a few crafting references or stories into the sermon.

Crafting shows up in many Bible stories, though for most of those folks, it was less a hobby and more a survival skill. Yet even so, there’s still a beauty to crafting for survival: people have always wanted to create things that are beautiful and useful. Beautiful and useful is what I’m aiming for with the soap.

If you’re going to be successful at making soap from scratch, there are a few important terms you must remember. They all relate to the fragrance or essential oils that are part of the soaping process. The terms are: performs normally, accelerates trace, and will discolor.

“Will discolor” means that the fragrance oil contains a chemical named vanillin. This will make the soap smell delicious, and also turn the soap brown. The depth of brown is related to the percentage of vanillin in the fragrance oil. The soap will likely emerge from the mold in a state of off-whiteness, but gets much darker over time. If you’ve planned a non-brown color for your soap, you need a different plan when your fragrance oil has a lot of vanillin. Or you can embrace the process, and plan for brown colored soap.

“Accelerates trace” means that the soap will emulsify at a much faster rate than normal. New soapmakers often see this as a liability, but one may also plan ahead for this process which can result in the soap’s taking on interesting shapes. The problem is, if things do not go as planned, the soap may instead seize in the bowl, and the soapmaker will be left with a gloppy mess. My very favorite fragrance oil accelerates trace, but if I am flexible enough to roll with the acceleration, amazing soap designs emerge. What can seem like a design flaw is often a plus, given the right situation.

“Performs normally” is what happens with a majority of fragrance oils. This is where life is like soap making: most people want things to perform normally. But in ministry, we’re often focused on the exceptions, the times when things don’t go according to plan. My husband, who is also a pastor, and I joke that if people performed normally all the time, neither of us would have a job.

Soapmaking reminds me of life in general, and ministry specifically: part chemistry, part magic, and part artistry. We can accelerate when things are good and build on success. We can change the way something looks or works–or reframe unpredictable results as part of the beauty of the process. But most of the time, things will truck along just fine. Sometimes, putting the right things (or people) together in the right time can create magic, artistry, and something useful. There have been many times in ministry when I have felt like things were not going to work out, but all of a sudden things did in a way that had very little to do with me, and everything to do with the Spirit. Being able to trust that God will take the right pieces and turn them into the right thing has shown me many things that are beautiful and useful.

There are lots of times when I don’t feel like I’m good enough, or doing enough to bring about God’s peaceable kingdom. But then I can be reminded that life, like soapmaking, doesn’t always turn out the right way the first time, and can take a long time to cure, and be ready for the next step. Soap takes four weeks to be safe to use when made the way I make it. Ministry and understanding our part in God’s plan can certainly take much longer.

When I make soap, I remember that beauty and utility are the result of a process. I myself am crafted by one far greater than me, one who wants me to be a well and whole person. And I am beautiful and useful, not only because I’m productive, but also because I’m crafted by God.

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