Work of Human Hands

My grandfather was a baseball player. I learned this as a young boy when he snagged a blazing line drive hit into the stands at an Oneonta Yankees game—and in the pastures of his farm when aunts, uncles, and cousins would ride out in a wagon together to play softball as part of the annual family reunion.

My grandfather could hit the ball beyond the farthest relative and down the next hill. As family legend has it, he could have left the town team he played for in the 1930s for the minor leagues, if not the big leagues. Instead, he accepted the inheritance of his father and grandfather, and labored in familial pastures and the milking parlor.

I have not lived with the clarity of my grandfather. I sought other forms of physical exertion. With Olympic aspirations, I ran several times a day, more than a hundred miles a week. On top of this, there were sessions in the weight room. The regimen was sustained by ibuprofen, ice baths, and liquid calories—food as nothing more than fuel. It also required an immense output of spiritual energy. To narrow one’s life to a single athletic endeavor is to engage in a form of worship, though not of Abraham’s God.

I do not say this to disparage the work of bodies. Christianity is at its core about bodies. Discipleship is the remaking of our bodies together with our souls, which is why the early church thought so much about what its members ate and about their sexual habits. Not surprisingly, the first questions the church addressed were about foreskin and diet. Baptism and communion are themselves the physical embodiment of the story of death and rebirth that prepares Christians to share in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

But the formation of our bodies is not limited to sacramental practices. Playing baseball, farming, and distance running-or sitting all day in front of a computer—also matter for the life of Christian discipleship. Some types of labor are better suited than others to forming bodies capable of imitating Christ.

Yet we live in a culture in which physical activity is paradoxically both over- and under-valued. Sports are exalted by a nation of TV watchers; we seek every technological convenience to free us from every physical task. Disconnected from traditional forms of manual labor, we are damned to “health club” treadmills, fad diets, and extreme makeovers. Since we produce almost nothing with our hands, our bodies serve only to consume. We have replaced industry and thrift with sloth and greed. An economic system that eliminates physical labor does not necessarily serve the human good.

For this reason, I have sought labor other than sport. I have followed my grandfather’s path back to farm and field. With my wife and children, I tend a small seventeen-acre farm. The farm provides good work and feeds the six of us. It also provides enough to give, trade, and sell to an expanding community of family and friends: pork sausage, whole chickens, lamb chops, eggs, watermelon, sweet potatoes, or whatever else we have had the pleasure of raising.

Like running, farming is hard work. There the resemblance ends. No common good was served by the ability to run a given number of miles one minute faster. The labor of the farm, by contrast, creates ever wider circles of community. Our need for others and their labor and knowledge grows. Our customers become companions in a shared journey.

Farm work also restores our sense of season. Mucking out a birthing pen, carrying water to pasture, turning a compost pile- these simple tasks retrain us to see that there is time enough to care for all creatures. As Wendell Berry has reminded us, good work requires an attention to detail that the scale of grand projects precludes. As we cultivate each square foot of soil in a long raised garden bed, we are drawn back over and over again to the needs of this particular place. The soil discloses a pattern of fertility familiar to those who would follow Christ—after death and decomposition, life springs up anew.

During another of those family reunions, the softball game was preempted. With the other grandchildren, I crowded into the aisle of a barn sweet with the smell of manure. We watched my grandfather’s strong hands—that could belt a ball into pastures beyond—disappear into the womb of a frightened Holstein and grasp the calf hidden within. What prayers joined with the work of his hand to bring that calf around, I do not know. But the calf emerged to gasp its first praises to the creator of all things, and that vision has held me as the hope for what good work might be.

Published in the 2008-10-24 issue: 

Richard Church is a lawyer, farmer, and writer living in Coleridge, North Carolina. His book First Be Reconciled: Challenging Christians in the Courts is forthcoming from Herald Press.

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