There is a story about a kind, quiet man who prays in the Ganges River every morning. One day after praying, he sees a poisonous spider struggling in the water and cups his hands to carry it ashore. As he places the spider on the ground, it stings him. Unknowingly, his prayers for the world dilute the poison. The next day the same thing happens. On the third day, the kind man is knee deep in the river, and, sure enough, there is the spider, legs frantic in the water. As the man lifts the creature yet again, the spider asks, "Why do you keep lifting me? Can't you see I will sting you every time, because that is what I do?"
I am the son of a brick mason. I am the eldest of five children. Which means that my summer options, as a schoolboy, were limited. I could be a hod carrier (mixing mortar—called “mud”—hauling bricks, blocks or stone and intuiting the needs of masons not known for their patience).
Or, I could be a hod carrier.
Being a hod carrier is real work. I mean, physical work. Dog-tired at the end of the day work. And I couldn’t wait to grow up and go to college, and get a real job.
My father’s leadership style, typical of Midwestern fathers of his generation, was straightforward, “Don’t loaf. Don’t whine. Don’t make excuses. This’ll make a man out of you.” (I will admit, as a high school football player and wrestler, I couldn’t have asked for a better workout regimen.)
Even so, college beckoned. Real work, you know, where I could make a real difference. And become somebody.
And I did. After two degrees and an ordination, I set out as The Reverend. No longer just a hod carrier, or just a construction worker.
On one visit to Michigan in my late 30s, my father and I drove the streets in the small town of Sturgis, drifting in his pickup truck. We could drive for miles without saying much. (Not a bad skill to learn.)
The truck slowed as if by volition, and I wondered if something was amiss. Then it hit me. My Father slowed to regard a house that he had built; decades prior. He parked by the curb. And he told me stories, about building the house, about the owner, about members of the crew and about pranks played on the job site.
For the rest of the afternoon, we meander the streets, looking not just at houses or chimneys, but also at the quality of work that has stood the test of time. These weren’t just buildings. They were works of art and labors of love.
And then we stopped in front of a house I recognized. Where I spent a summer on a crew, just a hod carrier, building someone’s dream. (But I hadn’t seen it.)
And the light bulb came on.
Now, I never use the phrase “just a” any more. About anyone.
I know this for certain: it doesn’t take much to nurse resentment or regret. There are times when whatever we are doing seems not enough (no doubt a miasma of guilt or shame and the vagaries of public opinion).
There is a parable about three stonecutters working on a cathedral, set in the Middle Ages. Each is asked what he is doing. The first responds angrily, “Idiot! Use your eyes! They bring me a rock, I cut it into a block, they take it away, and they bring me another rock. I’ve been doing this since I was a boy, and I’m going to be doing it until the day I die.”
The second man smiles warmly and says, “I’m earning a living for my beloved family. With my wages I have built a home, there is food on our table, the children are growing strong.”
The third man pauses, and with a look of deep fulfillment says, “I am building a great cathedral. It will be a holy lighthouse where people lost in the dark can find their strength and remember their way. And it will stand for a thousand years!”
This would be heady stuff in the hands of Stephen Spielberg and John Williams. But not all lives are even close to the movies. Not everyone feels the nobility of the third stonecutter. Or the selflessness of the second. But we have all felt the heaviness or bleakness of the first. To wonder, does any of what I do make a difference?
Let’s be clear: the parable is not simply about work. The parable is about how we derive our value—our self-worth and our dignity and our calling—and how that spills
onto everything we do,
and everything we touch,
and every person whose path we cross.
Over the years I have heard, “I’m just a volunteer (or just a member, or catechist, or aid, or worker, or helper, or employee, or friend or mother or fill in the blank).”
To each I say, No.
You see, “just a” creates a label and tells us what we are not.
And when we label, we dismiss. (Regardless of the label. Dorothy Day once scoffed, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”)
So how then do we make a difference?
Here’s the deal: Your work / labor is your turf of responsibility. Which is only part of our DNA. Because no matter where we labor or toil, our calling is to spill the light. And the good news? For this we don’t have to pass a test, or qualify, we have only to be willing.
Jesus made it simple, “Let your light shine.”
Not, when you get your act together.
Not, when you feel noble.
Not, when you find a specific vocation.
Not, after you’ve chased all the gloom away.
Just let it shine. Because the light is already there. Inside of you. Now.
My Father never signed a contract. His handshake was his word. One man told me, “When Jerry Hershey shook your hand you knew you were going to get something you would be proud of. Something that would stand the test of time.”
What did my Father build? Houses.
What did my Father do? He made a difference.
This whole notion of making a difference churned in me all week.
In an episode of West Wing, Toby (mired in a quicksand of world-weariness) says to Will, “I don’t understand what’s going on. I really don’t. I’ve had slumps before. Everybody does, but this is different. There’s no blood going to it. I never had to locate it before. I don’t even know where to look.”
No, it doesn’t take much to cover our light with a bushel. And there’s a whole lot of fear and worry and apprehension and hurry and the need for perfection that can do the job.
When my colleagues and I work with clients it is not infrequent to hear the phrase—about decisions, HR choices, company policy, strategy; “Nothing personal. It’s just business.”
I no longer agree.
Because what we do and who we are touches lives—real people… co-workers, employees, members of the community, customers.
So. What if we let our light shine? What if we build a world where people matter. Where humanity blossoms, permeating inclusion and dignity and mercy and creativity and kindness and magnanimity and hope. Where we walk the earth each day in search of good deeds and acts to carry out. Because how we live makes a difference.
There’s a law of the universe that says, ‘when you feel lousy, go to a parade.’ Lucky for me, yesterday we had parade on the island, at our annual Strawberry Festival. It’s an hour of idiosyncratic islanders, which includes a dozen members of The Old Tractor Club, our grocery store synchronized-cart-drill-team, and the ukulele club on the bed of a tricked out dump truck. The entire occasion was well attended by a spirit of good will.
I’m in my garden today. Drinking in the wisdom and gladness of the blossoms and colorations, which never say, “I’m just a flower.” They simply, and wonderfully, bloom.
Quotes for the week…
Vocation is the place where your deepest gladness and the world’s greatest hunger meet. Frederick Buechner
Note: Stonecutter parable adapted from Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli
POEMS AND PRAYERS
You Reading This, Be Ready
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
We welcome summer and the glorious blessing of
light. We are rich with light; we are loved by the
sun. Let us empty our hearts into the brilliance. Let
us pour our darkness into the glorious, forgiving
light. For this loving abundance let us give thanks
and offer our joy.