The Work Of Our Hands

 In Business, Culture, Duty, Evangelism, Faith, Fred's Blog, Identity, People, Theology, Vocation

Listen to “The Work of our Hands” by Fred Smith

 

For two summers as a student I took a job in a canning factory. For nine hours every day I stood on a hard concrete floor beside a press stamping out thousands of tin can lids. My job was to inspect the seals, stack them in a metal tube, bag them, put 24 bags in a box, and shove the box down a chute.

The constant din of the machinery made any conversation with each other impossible. This was long before the Walkman or iPod so we were left alone with our thoughts for hours at a time. During the 15-minute breaks the talk was about family or sports — the stuff of everyday life. I never had the sense they took their work home with them. They left it at the end of the shift and picked it up again the next day.

My fellow line workers (we did not refer to each other as peers or colleagues) would not have called the work a career or a vocation. It was a job for a paycheck. Most of the people I met had been doing it for over 30 years and felt fortunate to have the steady employment and benefits. They worked because it was a matter of self-respect and being a responsible provider. It was mind-numbing, repetitious, and even hazardous but none of that was discussed during the breaks.

I don’t remember anyone ever talking about the work and wondering if it was their “calling.” I never heard soul searching about finding meaning or significance in what we were doing —or a discussion about the relationship between our faith (church) and our work (inspecting lids). The search for meaning did not take place on the factory floor.

Around the same time in our country, a number of Christian business leaders and professionals started the Faith At Work Movement. At the heart of it was the growing realization that the traditional distinctions between clergy and laity were being challenged. While the Faith At Work movement was begun to help executives learn how to share the Gospel in the workplace, it has shifted over the years.

Bill Hendricks and Doug Sherman wrote “Your Work Matters To God” and the movement turned toward finding deeper meaning in career and not only using it as a platform for evangelism. The focus became the search for significance and intrinsic value in our work. It was not enough to find a job. We now had to follow a calling.

Unfortunately, over time, what we focused on as mattering to God became defined by the vocations of the middle and upper classes — not factory employees whose labor is necessary but not interesting, influential or creative.

I’ve never been able to put my finger on why all of this pains me but several years ago I read an essay by Brian Dijkema that nailed it for me, “The Work Of Our Hands.”

“We get excited about those who open local coffee shops or become journalists or start a nonprofit or (fill in the blank). But what do our ‘faith and work’ books have to say to people who work on the line at a Ford assembly plant, or to medical assistants who take care of the elderly? Will landscapers and receptionists see themselves in the ‘work’ we’re talking about? Would anyone who has to wear coveralls to work feel comfortable at our ‘faith and work’ conferences?

“It’s nice to say ‘It’s so good that you care for our elderly,’ but it’s much harder to talk about having to change colostomy bags, or how you smell when you’re done cleaning out a chicken barn. Yet this work takes the waking hours of many people—perhaps even the majority—in North America and certainly the world. Leaving this work out of the conversation not only leaves too many on the outside, but unwittingly communicates a certain hopelessness, as if joy and satisfaction—indeed the LORD’s satisfaction—cannot be found in this type of work.”

I agree with Studs Terkel in that “Most of us, like the assembly-line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.” However, I also believe we have created unrealistic expectations for our work and what we derive from it. Paul says, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

Maybe we should relax a little and even ask the question, “How much does our work really matter to God?” Maybe we’ve made it into something it was never intended to be.

Art by Laura Knight

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Showing 19 comments
  • Avatar
    Kerry Hasenbalg
    Reply

    Wonderful word! Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

    • Avatar
      Sam
      Reply

      A society that praises its philosophers because it is perceived as a ‘noble’ profession, but disdains its plumbers because plumbing is perceived as a ‘lowly’ profession, will have neither good philosophy nor good plumbing.
      Neither its philosophy nor its pipes, will hold water.
      Craftsmanship should be praised.
      Shoddy work should be disrespected.
      Better to be a skilled craftsman working proudly with his hands in wood or in metal or in stone, than a lawyer who does shoddy work.
      But, in fairness, GOD respects craftsmanship and quality work.
      It is we, we fallen struggling folks, who like the Corinthians, exalt the supposedly ‘superior’ folks and professions.
      May we ever grow more Christlike, so we can see the world as HE sees it, with HIS Values.
      In high school, I worked full time after school each day for five nights a week standing on an assembly line working on a riveting machine making folding aluminum lawn furniture. To support myself at Tyler Junior College, I worked full time in a mobile home manufacturing plant making kitchen cabinets out of cheap particle board. But what I made were perfect. And so, on an inside piece of plywood where it would never be seen by anyone ever, I signed each of my cabinets, for they, even though made of cheap particle board, were my craftsmanship.
      So too, we are GOD’s handiwork, HIS craftsmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works from the foundation of the world. Ephesians 2:10. So too, shall the work of our hands, whether in a ‘lowly’ or an ‘exalted’ role, be worthy of our Calling in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12.

  • Avatar
    Ken Merrifield
    Reply

    Thank you, Fred. This latest blog resonates with something inside of me that I’ve been trying to pinpoint recently as I help my son with job searches.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Ken. I think we have done our kids a disservice by all the insistence on finding our “passion” or “significance “ instead of work. I hear that from parents more than ever before. You are kind to write.

  • Avatar
    Steve Perry
    Reply

    First of all, Happy Thanksgiving. I don’t know if this is disagreement or just the other side of the coin to your conclusion. When the Apostle Paul wrote in Col 3:23 “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not men” he was speaking to slaves, maybe a life worse than being on an assembly line. Yet they can find meaning by realizing their work, no matter how meaningless, serves some purpose by serving God. Brother Lawrence found such meaning in the mere washing of dishes.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Oh, okay! I think Paul had a shorter horizon in mind and whatever state we were in (married or unmarried/slave or free) would not matter short term. That said, you have a point!

  • Avatar
    Joe McIlhaney
    Reply

    I think God made us to work. We live lives that are more fulfilled if we work. If the job is working on the line of a manufacturing business or as a physician as I am, we are more fulfilled to just be working- in contrast to one who lives on inherited wealth or welfare.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Agreed. I witness the spoiling effect of too much too soon in my work all the time.

  • Avatar
    Tony
    Reply

    Should the worth of our work be measured in degrees of personal satisfaction, or in the value it provides to society? If the latter, we have a lot of misallocated resources in current society.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Charles Koch’s new book “Believe in People” is about measuring our work by how we make a contribution to others.

  • Avatar
    Jonathan Lee
    Reply

    Thank you Fred for this important and timely article. My father, who is now with the Lord, was a supermarket produce clerk for thirty years and did find it his calling to not just provide for his family working at the store but also to share the Gospel with customers when opportunities arose.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Jonathan. This is encouraging.

  • Avatar
    steve graves
    Reply

    Fred, Love this blog. And for that matter, thanks for the consistent posts of such great insight and thinking on your blog. It’s always helpful, pointed and worth sharing with others. steve

  • Avatar
    steve graves
    Reply

    Fred, Love this article. It touches so many things in my heart and mind. And for that matter, thanks for the consistent posts of great insight and thinking on your blog. It’s always helpful, pointed and worth sharing with others. steve

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Steve. That is so encouraging to me.

  • Avatar
    Jeff Kahler
    Reply

    Fred,
    Thank you for this. My view is that were were created to to work and relate and that for most, life will never be complete or satisfied without doing both. Life depends on work, all work, and more importantly the mundane work that provides for daily needs. All work is service from the bottom to the top, but in the upside down Kingdom we know the bottom and top are often reversed.
    Blessings
    Jeff

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Jeff! Yes, we were created to work. Thanks for the encouragement.

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