Here’s my July 3rd column for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette…
One of the decisions that my dad and mom regretted was allowing me to join a harvest crew the summer when I was just 14. A man in our church owned a company where he contracted with farmers to harvest their wheat crop. The wheat ripens in the southern states first. This man had contracts with farmers from Oklahoma to South Dakota.
Because the owner had a 14-year-old son I was friends with, and because the man served in church leadership alongside my dad, my parents assumed it would be a good experience, even though I would be gone much of the summer. Besides, I begged them to let me go. I should have been home playing baseball and mowing grass. Instead, I traveled with a crew of men 20 years older than I, driving a combine through wheat fields from near Alva, Oklahoma to north of Pierre, South Dakota.
The very first day on the job I realized that the boss was very mechanical but a poor communicator. Sad to say, the man’s mechanical expertise was diminished by his lack of relational skills.
My mechanical aptitude back then was on par with that of an earthworm. The boss saw this the first day. “You and a pair of pliers don’t get along very well, do you?” About two weeks into the job the operation had moved from Oklahoma to a farm in southwestern Kansas. Early one morning everyone was rushing to get the machines in the field. With a wrench in my hand I tightened a bolt too much. It broke off. The boss snapped, just like the bolt had. In front of the other crew members he said, “Boy, you are the first person who has ever worked for me that I couldn’t teach to do this job.”
I was flat on my back underneath the combine, already covered with dirt and grease, as he screamed, “Get out of the way. Let me do it.” Pulling myself from beneath the combine I brushed myself off and said, “Excuse me but you don’t treat me or anybody else that way. For two weeks you have made assumption after assumption about what you want from me. Here’s your stupid wrench. I quit. I’m hitchhiking home.” With that I turned and headed toward the nearest road.
No, that’s not what I did. Instead, I froze and retreated to the land of numb. I stayed emotionally numb the rest of the summer, hoping every day that I would be fired and sent home. Somehow I slogged through the summer, repeatedly wondering how the boss kept expecting me to know things without him ever showing or teaching me.
When the boss finally dropped me off in front of my house in mid-August he said, “Let me know how many hours you worked this summer so I can settle up with you.” Like almost everything else that summer, this assumption, too, was new information. I had no clue how many hours I had worked. I told my mom I wanted to send him note in the mail saying I had worked 5,000 hours, until she told me there had not been that many hours in the number of days I had been gone. She said not to worry he would be fair with me. A month later I got a check in the mail for a few hundred dollars and 38 cents, much less than I had hoped for.
I still saw the man in church but we rarely spoke again. Years later, I was back in my hometown church the week following my college graduation. The old boss and I literally bumped into each other. Looking startled, he shook my hand and mumbled, “Congratulations. I never thought you could do it.”
Now decades later, having long ago forgiven the guy and my parents, thankfully I know that real wisdom is the ability to discern emotions and talents in yourself and others, and to then manage your responses and relationships constructively. Those relationships include our relationship with God, ourselves and others. It takes courage and humility to honestly discern your emotions. It takes discipline to manage your thoughts, your words and your actions. It takes compassion to understand and empathize with the experiences and interests of others. And it takes a heart full of mercy to have the ability to encourage, cooperate and resolve differences with others in a mutually beneficial way.
This kind of badly needed wisdom is so simple that a child can apply it. And yet it is complex enough to keep you spending the rest of your life developing it. I am sure, though, that it starts with these great questions: “How I am I feeling and acting?” “How are others feeling, especially about the way I am affecting them?” “What is God saying to me?” “Am I pleasing him?”
In the end, Jesus’ famous words perfectly apply to a 14-year-old kid and a 50-year-old boss: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” And of course, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”