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April 2015

Slackers in Need of Grace

When I was 14 I got my first real job working as a "stock boy" in a local department store. It was an all-male crew, and we were a bunch of pimply-faced adolescents with a horizon no farther than the next pretty girl. Trucks carrying lawn furniture, mattresses, box springs, housewares, toys, and other stock would roll to the curb outside Receiving, and we'd hoist much of it on our skinny shoulders and carry it in past the bird-like and bespectacled Edna and her gaggle of female clerks. It was backbreaking work sometimes, but when you are 14 its a matter of your manhood and, besides, "backbreaking" is a middle-aged term and not one for adolescents.

We worked hard, as I said, sometimes, and Scott and Billy, all the time. Billy, an ox of a kid, wore green army fatigues, a white t-shirt, and a rope for a belt every day, like Jethro Bodean. Billy was generally good-natured if dim, unless a comment struck him wrong, and you never knew what would set him off, yet Scott could yank his chain and restrain him. Billy would say something profound every now and then, like cotton-patch proverbs, usually prefaced with “My daddy said. . .”, but I was blind and deaf then and couldn’t appreciate what I heard. Scott sauntered like the body-builder he wasn’t. He rolled his t-shirt up to hold a pack of cigarettes, Fonzi-style, only he was decidedly uncool, his machismo no doubt a mask for some deficiency we'd learn about later in Psych 101. He liked me, perhaps felt sorry for me, under-muscled wimp that I was.

The main form of humor for Scott and Billy was bodily noises, jokes of which they never seemed to tire. We tired of their labor. They carried boxes of chairs on their backs and seemed delighted when trucks would roll in. There was little slack in Scott and Billy. They worked hard all the time. The rest of us talked to girls, laid around in the stockroom drinking Cokes, hid from the bosses, and tried out new recliners, doing our best to do as little as possible, minimum effort for minimum pay. At the end of the day however, we punched the clock and all pulled the same number of hours, and at the end of the week received the same paycheck that Billy and Scott received. It doesn't seem fair, considering what slackers we were. We received what we didn't deserve.

In the parable of the Workers in the Vineyards, a landowner hires men in the morning and puts them to work, and then hires more later, and then yet more near day’s end. Some worked all day, some half a day, and others perhaps only a couple of hours. Theoretically, it wouldn’t have mattered if one worked only five minutes. In the upside-down economy of Jesus, all the workers were paid the same thing, as if they had worked all day. In this most un-American story, Jesus draws a picture of a countercultural realm where we don't get what we deserve, where a just-now believing thief on the cross inherits the kingdom of Heaven just like the most faithful of disciples, where, slacker that I am, I punch in to Heaven same as Billy Graham and Mother Teresa.

Pastor David Zahl describes it this way:

"Christ paints a portrait of a kingdom where reward is not a matter of output or merit but grace, where we are valued according to our presence rather than our accomplishment, where all the boss seems to require of his workers is their need. . . . What we learn is what we never quite learn, the message that is as bottomless as our need for it: God does not relate to us on the basis of our results, or of how well we stack up against others, but on the largeness of his generosity, the gift of his Son, who 'by his one oblation of himself offered a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world."

But in the kingdom of this world, of course, grace is limited, meted out as it is by fallible humans, and so sometime in my second year of employment, I was canned. The assistant manager, Mr. Smith, let me go one day, and I drove home feeling dejected and friendless, as all my peers worked at the store. Looking back on it, I was living on cheap grace, and I endured a season of discipline. Only to return. My good friends father, who was senior assistant manager, re-hired me. Lesson learned. A turning. Call it repentance.

I didn't become a star employee. Not long after, I backed the delivery van into a house, chipping a brick and mangling the doors. We dropped and damaged a new sleeper sofa we were trying to fit into a double-wide, and Robby and I, huffing and puffing and sweating, with an angry owner and a bulldog straining at its chain, learned some new ways to curse. Buffing the floors one night I carelessly let a floor stripper (the machine, not the dancer) ram a display cabinet and damage some merchandise. But I learned to flip burgers in the snack bar, ring up customers, put up stock, and clean toilets (when Leroy the janitor was on a binge), and I spent a lot of time in Accessories and Sportswear talking to women, many the age of my mother or older, and I learned something about working and standing on your feet all day and raising kids and being faithful. In that forgiving place, slacker that I was, I grew up a little.

I now know it by another name: Sanctification. That ever-deepening realization that is rooted in the fact that I am getting what I don't deserve, that my need for Jesus is getting bigger every day, that the best work I do is resting on the perfect work He has done.

And Scott? A voice crying in the wilderness, like John the Baptist in redneck garb, standing outside Receiving, cigarette in tow, challenging me to repent of my lackadaisical ways and work a little harder, so I can fail even more, so that I can realize my deep, deep need of Jesus who forever employs and never lets go.