The more I was working, the more I was beginning to feel part of it. I was bitching less. And was on the early stage of actually enjoying the work, instead of fearing it. There was always this mental barrier in my mind, that I would die, or peel over, or burn out if put in these conditions for more than a day. A man like me just couldn’t do that type of work. I wasn’t cut out for it. That somehow my life, my upbringing could not go through that type of experience and come out the other side. Much less a man still intact. And my nuts attached.
The simple repetitions of caulking lines, to the mourning routine before work, which I thought would be soul killing, had a rhythm to them I was starting to settle into and enjoy. Waking up, grabbing all my tools, placing them in the car, spending time praying, and driving to the jobsite contained an order and grounding not experienced in the rush and sporadic life before. There wasn’t this list of a million choices before me. I was painting. Sanding. Or caulking. That was about it. Simple really. And I didn’t have a choice in even that. I showed up to be told orders. It was actually nice to be just told what to do, and to do it. Not have to think so much. Or be told the world had a thousand possibilities to follow those dreams. That wasn’t my choice here.
I started feeling the pride in my job too. I wasn’t just trying to pass the hours, just staring at the clock, but wanting to do a good job, and make the homeowner happy. I wanted to learn better technique. It wasn’t just throwing paint on a wall. Roll well, and caulk solid and seamless lines. I wanted my boss pleased with the product, and my work at the end of the day. I started admiring the work. Not just heading to the next task, but actually staring at what we had accomplished, so proud of what we had help create.
I started feeling more like a painter, not just the experiment this had began as.
It was also true off the job.
I would step into the evening shower with this feeling of accomplishment. The days dust, and spray, and caulk collected on me. The shower was the proof of my hard labor. Of my sweat and work. To be covered in paint and even needing a shower was proof that I had spent the day doing work, which unlike so much of my life, of academics, there was no real tangible sense of what I had accomplished in a day. I never took showers after 5pm. Never needed to. Studying for a test brought at best the reward of a letter or a number. A, 85,C+,76,F,91, these were how I had spent my entire life to achieve. Like carrots held in front of me, I was told to reach for. Rewards that started with a sticker, and smiley faces, and then were told, “you will need this for college one day.” All that validation did much less than when I came home, peeled off the white pants, and shirt, and started scrubbing.
A few friends told me they were envious. That most of their day was staring at computer screens, checking and writing email, and reports. My friend Brian confessed, “I drive by the guys working on houses every morning on the way to my cubicle, and in my mind I am thinking, I want to be doing that. Why the hell am I sitting at this desk? How did I get here?”
I started realizing there was something very admirable in this type of work, I had looked down upon for so long, as below me. Men were almost looking at me like, I wish I could do that. They would tell stories with faces lit up about how they loved mowing the lawn, or how much they loved their first job working as a blacksmith, or on their little 5 foot patch of garden.
As a sign of freedom, I stopped removing every single paint spot from every single piece of skin during my evening shower. Being too tired, or missing spots, and often just not caring to remove it all. I just left areas of paint on my hands or arms. Sometimes walking into a restaurant with my wife with paint on me, and being ok with it. Almost proud of what I was doing.
I started hearing from friends similar stories. A friend who owned a construction business had told me how he had wrestled with his calling staining concrete surfaces. It seemed so far from a true calling in ministry, or working for Jesus—so unspiritual. He was trying to figure out what he was to do when a man asked him, “what if God called you to make beautiful floors?”
He looked at me, and said, that’s what I realized God wants me to do.
“I make beautiful floors.”
It seemed so unspiritual, and yet, so fulfilling, so deep, and so spiritual. That we were to step into God’s creation, and be creators as well. Make stuff. Beautiful things. Nice things. Good things.
Another friend told me of how his father in law had been diagnosed with cancer. Only a few months to live. In thinking about all the things he could do, he decided to make his city, Chattanooga more beautiful. That is what he felt from God. The place was all concrete. He wanted to make it pretty. So he did. Started stopping at interstate exits, and office parks, and planting trees and flowers. People started joining in. Landscapers began donating plants, and before long he had landscaped the city. Making things pretty.
I started feeling that. I was using my body to recreate rooms and peoples living. It was just a room. But I was changing it. Restoring and remaking something old to something new. There was such joy in it, watching rooms explode in colors and richness through my roller and brush. I felt like I was actually participating in something important, as mundane and small as it was.
It seemed at the heart of every man was to create. To build and work on something. A man in Nashville, a pastor named Randy walked into a muffler shop. He watched the man re-do his tailpipe and exhaust, just mesmerized by it. Amazed at what this man was sculpting with metal. He said, “You work like an artist.” This big all fellow stopped, and with tears in his eyes said, “ya know, I’ve always thought of myself that way. As an artist.”
It started making me wonder, how did we lose that? How did it become that we looked so far down on blue collar workers, and laborers? Why was the man of wealth, and wisdom in an office seen as the ideal life?
I did some research and I found out that much of our western thought of work came from Greeks. Even the new testament is written in the language, that society bringing us the words to use to describe the gospel accounts, and Pauls letters to the church. Point being, the Greeks had a great influence on us, and where we are today. The Greeks were thinkers. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle. Their vision was that real work, and honorable work was in the mind. The body was temporal. Thought was where the real work was, “so to speak.” Having money, and not having to do physical labor, allowed you to concentrate on the mind and more important matters of thought and study.
It seemed as years passed, people adopted this for the most part. We put it into part of our Christian lifestyles. The institutions of learning and education were often only found through the church. The schools were the church. The only people that could read and write were the boys who had devoted themselves to study, and who became the priests of the day. The commoners, and laborers and peasants who did not receive this education came to hear their educated counterparts speak about what the scriptures meant, and what the greek words meant. They couldn’t read or spell, and relied on the thoughts of these men to lead them. The priests studied, while the people worked.
It was kinda ironic. Because so many of Jesus parables were about what the commoners were doing, farming, fishing, and the daily things. All the things the people were doing, but very few of the pastors of the day had experienced. They knew things. Intellectually, but few had put their hands to the plow. They were concentrating on the mind, and understanding of scripture. It was important, and we need that, but it gave the power to the intellectuals.
Quite ironic, since Jesus spent most of his life, as just that a commoner—a carpenter.
It seemed before long, labor and spirituality just kinda was separated from one another. And our spirituality became more intellectual than concrete. The study of scripture, and understanding is where most pastors went, as opposed to walking out into a field, and working. Learning the lessons from hardship and sweat, and labor. Our teachers and pastors told stories of their personal lives, which were often spent in a study with a concordance, and volumes of spiritual knowledge.
Talking with a friend about seminaries today, he said it’s a sad story. All these soon to be pastors who had spent their entire life in education. From grade school, to high school, to college, to seminary. Their experiences have been through knowledge of books and education. Good things. But few in the areas of real life, holding a hoe, or landscaping a lawn. All the things that Jesus seemed to speak of in the stories he told. It was quite ironic.
I started seeing all these blue collar workers as having an immense understanding and knowledge of life. They didn't see it as spiritual. And some of it was not. But it was rooted, and grounded in real life, and hardship. Physical stuff. And a world that I had avoided, and had absolutely no stories or understanding. I was starting to see that there was a reason I needed to come here. And experience this. I was on track to be that same guy, like those priests, all in the head. Great ideas, with no grounding, no real life experience to relate to.
I was starting to see this work, not just as a hard lesson on life. But more like a seminary class through real life. My teachers were Carlos, and Juan, and John. My professors.