The Work Of Our Hands
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