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One of my favorite hymns is “For All the Saints.”
I keep hoping a family planning a funeral will select it, but I’ve been a pastor for 15 years, and it hasn’t happened yet. So, in an act of gentle pastoral prodding, I often pray the words of the hymn immediately following the funeral homily–a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving for the witness of the person who has died.
I like to think that at some point, someone will recognize these poetic words as the hymn and make a note: “I want that sung at my funeral.” Spoken by a pastor, the words are just poetry. But sung by a congregational chorus, the lyrics soar to symphonic proportions and remind me of words attributed to St. Augustine: “When we sing, we pray twice.”
Several years ago, a childhood Sunday school teacher died after a battle with cancer. Paul was a farmer who taught me the Heidelberg Catechism when I was in seventh grade. He was my all-time favorite Sunday school teacher because—unlike so many other teachers who appreciated my rote memorization skills—Paul was more interested in finding ways to live the questions and answers. Even more, the questions of the catechism prompted him (and permitted his pupils) to ask questions for which there were no answers—questions about justice and creation, suffering and evil.
I couldn’t attend Paul’s funeral but I wrote a letter to his widow expressing my gratitude for his deep impact upon my life. Shirley told me she was glad to receive the letter, and she wished Paul had been alive to read it. Sometimes we wait too long to inform the saints among us just how saintly they are.
Yesterday my 69-year-old father went to work for the last time. On the one hand, there’s nothing extraordinary about his retirement; baby boomers retire every day.
Then again, there is indeed something unique about it: My dad worked for the same employer, Vermeer Manufacturing Company (now Vermeer Corporation, Pella, Iowa) for 49 years. Throughout the years, he faced the highs and lows of a manufacturing economy—at times working fifty-plus hours a week to meet high demand, at others working only 32 hours per week when the global economy struggled.
All in all, the Vermeer Corporation has been wonderful to our family, providing stable employment, a fair wage, and excellent benefits. While at times my father worked long hours, I’m grateful that overtime was added to the beginning of the day so my dad always arrived home from work by 4 p.m. It wasn’t always possible for him to attend daytime school activities, but he never missed late afternoon sporting events or evening performances. As a family, we were always warm and well fed, and we were afforded the middle-class luxuries of quality clothing and regular vacations.
Truth be told, though, I’m not sure my father went to work every day for the past 49 years because he loved the work. Depending on his role at any given time, he probably enjoyed some positions. But factory work is still factory work. It can be dirty and difficult, and the clock can seem to move at a snail’s pace. Early morning winter drives to work can be treacherous, and summer afternoons can be sweaty and exhausting.
This begs the question: Why? Why did my dad do this work for 49 years? The answer, of course, is love. My dad did this “long-obedience-in-the-same-direction” work (thank you, Friedrich Nietzsche and Eugene Peterson) because—in addition to liking his co-workers—he loved the family this work enabled him to support.
I’ll admit I find this astonishing. I love my family too, but I’m not sure I could keep showing up for work, day in and day out for 49 years, to a job I didn’t love. I like to think I’m loyal, but the longest I’ve worked in the same job was seven and a half years. In the past 20 years, I’ve lived at ten different addresses and worked at ten different jobs.
At times I’m captivated by the Benedictine vow of stability, but what for me is curiosity about a stable lifestyle is for my dad an embodied experience. He and my mom have lived in the same house for 47 years and have invested in the life of the same small country church just as long. Though the membership continues to dwindle and energy is waning, the collective congregational spirit remains strong, thanks to people who have lived into their covenantal promises to stick with it even when more appealing options are available just down the road.
My parents’ long commitment to one community and one congregation—and my dad’s long commitment to one employer—reveals a robust spiritual geography. We often over-spiritualize “call” these days, romanticizing vocation with visions of invigorating investment without the hard-edged realities of work. But sometimes call comes by way of a family to love and provide for—and it’s fulfilled through the kind of work that is more real than ideal.