Signs of the Kingdom: Secret Service
By Louis Lotz
An old ash tree came down in a storm and fell across my fence, smashing through the top and bottom rails. I trudged out through the snow with the dogs—sleek, black Gordon Setters—to inspect the damage. Surveying the wreckage, I noticed that the top six inches of the fence post, where the top rail had been nailed, had been shaved with a wood plane. You could still see the marks. Evidently the post wasn't perfectly level, or maybe there was a knot, or some slight curvature in the wood, and the top rail didn't lay flush with the post. So the fence builder, whoever he or she was, planed the top of the post until it was perfectly flat, and then nailed the top rail to it. You couldn't slide a human hair in the crack where post and rail came together, it was that snug.
I brushed off the snow on the fallen tree, sat down, petted the dogs, their heads in my lap, and thought about this. So there you are, building your fence back in—when, 1980?—and the top rail doesn't lay perfectly flush with the fencepost. The top of the post has a bulge, a bend, some imperfection. What do you do? You go ahead and nail it anyhow. It's a wood fence at the edge of a fallow field, for Pete's sake, not a Steinway grand piano. You're a quarter mile from the nearest human habitation. Nobody's ever going to notice that the rail doesn't sit snug against the post. Go ahead and nail the rail and then move on to the next post. But no, this person walks all the way back to the barn to fetch a hand plane, or maybe it was a two-handed draw knife, and comes back and planes the post, scattering curlicue shavings of wood on the ground, until the fit is perfect, and then he nails the rail.
Wendell Berry, in one of his essays, talks about "...willingness to devote oneself to work that perhaps only the eye of Heaven will see in its full intricacy and excellence." I like that. We want to excel in our work, whatever it is. That is as it should be. But we also yearn to be noticed for our labors. We long to be respected, admired. We are Setters, all of us, wanting pats on the head. We hunger for attaboys. But the fence builder couldn't have harbored the slightest hope that anyone would ever, ever notice his craftsmanship. No one would ever know he fought a lonely battle with mediocrity out there in the field—Oh, who cares if the rail doesn't lie perfectly flush with the post?—and was victorious. Jesus said that real prayer and real charity must be done in secret. "Go into your room and shut the door..." Perhaps the same is true of real work.
"Whatever your task," says Paul, "work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men..." (Colossians 3:23, RSV). Think about what you've done this day, the fence rails you've nailed. Was it your very best work? Could you have done it better? And did you do it in expectation of being appreciated and noticed, or did you do it first and foremost as a gift of excellence given unto God?
We all want the esteem of the crowd. We want people to know what a good job we did. That's understandable. But ultimately there is only one verdict that matters—the eye of Heaven. Attaboy, fence builder, wherever you are.
Louis Lotz is pastoral leader of Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.