I saw in Dad's hands an ideal, and to me they represented a hard-working man who labored diligently to support his family.
Like most little boys, I idolized my father as a child. You would have had a difficult time convincing me that there was anyone smarter, faster or stronger than my dad. I really did believe it when I told my friends "my dad can beat up your dad!"
And it may well have been true.
Dad was a landscaper, after all, and for eight months of every year he spent just about every waking hour hauling loads of soil from his truck to the gardens and heaving enormous rocks to make sure they looked just right. Though this took an obvious physical toll on Dad, it left him stronger than an ox.
I loved to wrestle with my dad. With my sisters I used to yell, "Can we beat you up tonight, Dad?" But when we used to stage our little battles, we could make no headway against him. Though I would run at him and hit him with all that I had, even with a full head of steam I could not knock him off-balance. With my three sisters swarming around him, hanging onto his legs and wrapped around his neck, we were still no match. He would grab us with his rough, leathery hands, give us a whisker rub with his day's growth of beard, and toss us aside like we were barely even there.
I'll never forget his hands — those rock hard hands. They were working man hands. Holding Dad's hand was like holding a sanding block and just about as uncomfortable. As he toiled day after day and year after year, his hands built up so many rough calluses that they became as hard as dried leather. They were scarred and hardened with the evidence of countless bumps and bruises inflicted on job sites.
I saw in Dad's hands an ideal, and to me they represented a hard-working man who labored diligently to support his family. I felt pride when I compared his hands to those of men who spent their lives at desks — there really was no comparison — and looked forward to the day when my hands would be hard and callused like Dad's.
I sometimes wonder if there's something inside each of us that longs to carry out God's original instruction to humans. God explicitly commanded the first man to till the soil and to care for the earth: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). We're never closer to the heart of that command than when we're up to our elbows in dirt, planting, pruning, tending.
Dad had the privilege of doing that every day. And the even greater privilege of loving nothing more.
Yet behind his love for working with plants and rocks and soil, Dad always felt a twinge of shame and regret. He grew up in an affluent family, one with a long history of politicians and lawyers. My grandfather was a Supreme Court judge, and Dad's uncles were members of Parliament. Surely, Dad felt deep inside, landscaping was not a profession suited to a man from such a family.
Finally succumbing to the pressure he created within himself, he returned to school, upgrading his two bachelor's degrees to a master's. For several years he worked diligently, studying languages, history and theology.
And a strange thing happened. As the months turned into years I noticed that his hands no longer felt like leather. The longer he stayed in school, the softer his hands became. Before long his hands were much like mine were — soft and free from calluses.
Dad graduated with a master's degree and tried so hard to be happy in an indoor job. He tried his hand at a few things and it wasn't so much that he wasn't good at them as that he just did not enjoy them. He found himself thinking nostalgically of burying his hands in fresh topsoil and sculpting beautiful gardens where there had been nothing but weeds and chaos. How could the glaring pixels of a computer screen be any match for the beauty of flowers bursting forth in color with the first warm sun of spring?
Finally it became too much. One day Dad bought himself a great, big pickup truck and hauled all his tools out of storage. He returned to tilling the soil he had left behind.
Now whenever I see Dad he has dirt under his fingernails. His hands are once again as hard as dried leather and I can't imagine my children feel any more comfortable holding his hands than I did so many years ago. As he returns shamelessly to the task for which God created him, his hands again bear evidence of his labor. His hands represent what he has chosen to do with his life. They represent his obedience to the vocation God has called him to.
Dad's hands teach me. They teach me that some day I will stand before God and that He is going to reach down to me and feel my hands. He has assigned to me and to all of His children the same task, and it's a difficult one. I'm called by God to take His message into the entire world, diligently and shamelessly proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ and living in the ways He has commanded me to live. I'm to serve my brothers and sisters in Christ, committing my best to the church that Christ has built. I'm to live dependently and sacrificially, trusting in God to provide for my every need.
If my hands are not as rough as sandpaper, if they are not scarred and bleeding, it may stand as evidence that I haven't been diligent in that labor. If my hands bear no scars, perhaps I haven't received the cuts and bruises that are bound to come to anyone who goes forth on God's behalf.
One day God is going to reward those who labored diligently for Him and all the evidence He is going to need will be written on our hands. God will reward those who, like Dad, have working man hands.
Copyright 2008 Tim Challies. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.