A group of elementary aged boys were milling around the modest gravel track at a nearby community center. I got out of my car to use the track when one of my son’s classmates recognized me, and I, him.
We exchanged greetings with that gusto children exhibit when they’re astonished to see someone they hadn’t previously realized existed beyond the ordinary place of familiarity, in this case, his school. He had never seen me on his stomping grounds.
One of the smaller boys was fiddling with his bike as several others watched. He looked up at me, “Can you help me fix my bike?”
At this point, none of the boys had even a hint of my buffoonery when it comes to things mechanical. I felt esteemed. And wanted to be worthy of their expectation.
“Sure, buddy, let me take a look.” I was mostly bluffing but did know I had a far greater likelihood of repairing bike ailments, than any other sort that might come across my path.
Hoping it would be something that would require only brute strength, perhaps a tug here, or a push there, I noticed that his chain had fallen off the sprocket.
Without the quick release wheels, I realized (even I!) that I was going to need a tool to accomplish the job.
“Well, buddy,” I said regretfully, “I’m sure sorry, but I believe we’re gonna need a wrench to get that chain back on. We’ll have to take your wheel off to set the chain back in place.”
“Well, cain’t you go get one out yore car?”
A reasonable enough request.
Their confidence in me was touching. They surely realized I was the only man in my part of the mountain who didn’t drive a truck as big as a house. But they were giving me the benefit of the doubt. Surely, even I had a wrench though.
I answered in Camry-driving, wrench-less shame, “I’m sorry man, but I don’t think I have any tools in my car.”
“Well, don’t you work?” he honestly inquired with a baffled astonishment.
An unintended humbling by an earnest 2nd grader.
Besides the massive laugh that my congregation once got out of that episode as well as the unsolicited set of wrenches from my small group as a end of year gift (I had wrenches, just not in my car!), it was instructive. On several fronts.
The young hero of our story had only been around men who carried tools in their trucks when they went to work.
A Heartening Humbling
Once I got beyond my desire to defend myself to a seven-year-old, I found the whole episode enchanting.
The little boy was being daily instructed, perhaps without realizing it was happening, in the importance of work. He had come to associate adulthood with working and working with tools. Someone in his life was doing some good modeling, and he was incorporating the message into his own understanding.
He was firmly convinced that it would be an anomaly for me not to work.
It makes me wonder what I’d say to to my own sons if I could pinpoint the critical features of work, and especially, why we do it.
I think I first want them to know that God works and we are crafted in his image.
And so ordinarily, unless we are of advanced age or have some infirmity of body or mind that prohibits it, we are privileged and commanded to labor as agents of God of sorts, entrusted by him with the daunting and ennobling privilege of providing the needs of others and ourselves through the spending of our own lives and abilities. God providentially supplies for the world but brokers the deal through us, in other words. “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does,” insisted Martin Luther.
He also, understanding the importance of all vocations within God’s busy and comprehensive economy, memorably suggested, “when we pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ the bakers have been up since 4:00 am baking.”
Not Just For Money
Of course, in this definition, all kinds of work is necessary, but only some sorts generate money. Other critical labors don’t make the laborer a dime.
A mother taking care of her children works and worries incessantly for the well-being of her brood. And a grown son may likewise find himself returning the favor for an aging mom whose dementia has made her unable to carry on by herself. Neither of these make a cent. Their work merely costs them. But it is vital.
So I wouldn't want to teach my sons to value work merely according to money or to suggest that they work primarily to “keep the lights on” though that is an undeniably important reason why we work. We work to supply for our families and even, suggest the Scriptures, to make sure our extra can supplement the deficits of those in need around us.
The Single Greatest Gift of Work to Us
There’s much that could be said and demonstrated about work. But if I were hard pressed, I might suggest the single greatest gift of work to us personally is that it emancipates us from the “gloomy dungeon of ourselves.” That is a precious aspect of why work is a gift and not a curse.
The curse of work is that you bang your knuckles when you're using a wrench in a tight spot. And that your computer freezes up precisely when you're bumping against an urgent deadline. The curse of it is that coal miners develop black lung and office-workers, carpal tunnel syndrome. Its curses are felt in as many ways as there are jobs.
But properly conceived, a chief benefit of work not commonly extolled is the simple joy of forgetting about ourselves as we spend ourselves in our daily labor, especially sweetened as we offer it, “unto the Lord.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his typical perceptiveness suggests, “Work plunges men into the world of things.” And this world, he goes on to say:
“is an instrument in the hand of God for the purification of Christians from all self-centeredness and self-seeking. The work of the world can be done only where a person forgets himself, where he loses himself in a cause, in reality, the task....In work the Christian learns to allow himself to be limited by the task, and thus for him the work becomes a remedy against the indolence and sloth of the flesh. The passions of the flesh die in the world of things. But this can happen only where the Christian breaks through the "it" to the "Thou," which is God, who bids him work and makes that work a means of liberation from himself.
How many people have been rescued from tyrannical self-regard because they've worked? How many folks have been zapped out of their preoccupation with their own troubles or have been plucked from purposelessness, because someone was depending on them, whether they felt like it or not, at 7:30 AM to open the store, to start framing the new house at the construction site, or to relieve them of their shift at the hospital.
Overcoming Narcissism Through Washer Repair?
Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head, wisely affirms this notion by proposing:
“The clearest contrast to the narcissist that I can think of is the repairman, who must subordinate himself to the broken washing machine, listen to it with patience, notice its symptoms, and then act accordingly.”
And though I use no wrenches, I experience this in so many aspects of my work.
For instance, I love preaching, yet I often hate having preached.
When I'm preaching, I feel connected to and concerned for the dear folks with whom I’m speaking. I'm not watching myself, or thinking about myself as a preacher.
I’m not evaluating myself. I'm watching faces, delivering words and feel alive as I do it, believing even, that God is cooperating in the endeavor in mysterious and inarticulable ways.
But when the work of preaching is done, it’s easy, if I’m not careful, to sink down into myself. I can easily start rummaging through the piles of embarrassment in my mind. I can get stuck in a labyrinth of self-scrutiny, bemoaning my own idiocy, inadequacy and failure.
We Don’t Have to Pay So Much Attention to Us!
Even when you dread your daily work, your job can still, should you offer yourself to God in it, and offer yourself fully to the demands, requirements, and necessities of the work itself, become a health club where you sweat out so much of the toxic self-centeredness and self-seeking that can easily plague your non-working hours.
So much of the atmospheric encouragement around us and within us is to pay particular attention to ourselves. Work militates against that.
If you have ever had the “blessing” (quotation marks heartily intended) of using FaceTime or Skype, you will have encountered what might be the perfect symbol of the ailment of our age (or all ages?), namely the presence of a box portraying a little living image of yourself in the corner of your screen. It never leaves. The entire conversation with another, there YOU are.
One of the most joyful features of conversation with someone we care about is immediately robbed, by design---the gift of paying complete attention to another, being lost in their words, affected by their facial expression, moved by the content of their speech.
Those things may still be present to you, but so are you! And so is your hair. And what your eyes look like that day. And how much weight you have apparently gained. And the insecure, self-querying, “is this what I always look like?”
Going to work each day, engaging in the tasks before us, provides the gift of emancipation from the tiny box of your self. It demands we focus on others. It requires we pay attention, to to us, but to the Quickbooks entries, the leaky toilet, or to our Sales Manager leading the Wednesday morning check-in.
A Welcomed Respite
And whether we realize it or not, we are getting a respite in those moments.
It must have been along these lines that Professor Clyde Kilby included the the number 5 reason in his thoughtful “List of 10 Resolutions for Mental Health”:
“I shall not demean my own uniqueness by envy of others. I shall stop boring into myself to discover what psychological or social categories I might belong to. Mostly I shall simply forget about myself and do my work.”
Those boys on the playground were going about their work of play just fine, not at all troubled by what “psychological or social” categories might describe them. They were just trying to fix a chain. So they could get back to riding bikes. And they were laughing. And piddling together.
I was the one who didn’t have a wrench. For them that was tantamount to being out of accord with reality. A man who didn’t work. A sad state of affairs.
Folks who don’t regularly give themselves to some form of “work” that plunges them into the life of others and “things” are stuck with a lot of troubled self-watching. And that’s a recipe for a stale and moldy life.
I reckon those boys were even wiser than I realized.
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at firstname.lastname@example.org