I'm writing in a chilly hotel room in New England on a fine November day, after having just had a good walk with Rickie and Bryan, two of my bandmates in The Red Dirt Boys. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, and with so much to be thankful for, holiday or not, I'm thinking about thankfulness.
This quote from GK Chesterton is something I might apply more heartily to my good life:
"You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
Summer 1974, I was home in Rhode Island, trying to earn a little money before heading back to Taylor University for my junior year. I got a job at Hasbro, the toy manufacturer in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
It's pronounced Puh-tucket, by the way. I remember when the Pawtucket Red Sox came to play the Nashville Sounds some years back, and a Sounds fan was jeering the boys from Rhode Island.
"Hey Paw-tucket!! Where's Maw-tucket?" I guess it could have been worse.
Pawtucket is an industrial city just north of Providence. The Industrial Revolution in America started there with Samuel Slater's Mill.
I was working the second shift, 4pm to 11pm, on an assembly line making accessories for the popular GI Joe dolls. A vocal opponent of the Viet Nam War, it was an ironic job to have, making weapons of mass destruction for GI Joe, with his popular Kung Fu grip.
Aware of the irony, I went home one night, and sat at my mother's grand piano, and wrote a Christmas Ballad called "GI Joe", about all the little children who'd be receiving him and his accessories on the birthday of the Prince of Peace. It was a nod to two of my heroes, Jesus and Randy Newman.
Now, there's a pair.
My job was to drill a hole and insert a screw into a piece of plastic, the end product of which I can't remember. It was the worst job on the assembly line, not quite enough work for two people, but a little too much for one, at least it seemed so to me. The conveyor belt would bring gray pieces of plastic to me faster than I could send them along to the next person, and before I knew it, I was backed up and buried by these non-descript parts.
Most of the people on the line were speaking Portuguese, and only they and God Almighty knew what they were yelling at me. Eventually, the line supervisor would come to my aid, inserting the screws while I vigorously drilled holes. It was endless and futile. Alas, I was not in the same echelon as Rosie the Riveter.
After my first shift at the new job, I went home discouraged. I couldn't imagine surviving a summer of being the slowest drone at Hasbro. Here I was, a college educated, well-traveled and literate young man, being humbled by illiterate immigrants who had a way with plastic.
I told my parents that I didn't think I could last for long; that either I'd give up on Hasbro or Hasbro would give up on me. Either way, I'd be a Hasbro has-been.
My mother suggested that I read a book by a Pentecostal preacher named Merlin Carrothers. I cringed, naturally. I've been cringing for many years now, with the book suggestions from dear old Mom. "Have you read the John Stott devotional I bawt you fuh Chrismiss yet? I sent one to the President; I wunduh if he's read it."
It's hard enough finding time to read the books I want to read, never mind the ones she thinks I should read. However, on this hot summer night, reflecting on a summer of futile hole-drilling, I was desperate enough to give some consideration to my mother's literary suggestions.
Reading a book by a Pentecostal would be a stretch, but the name Merlin must have softened me to the idea. Maybe some deep magic was at work. After all, a guy named Merlin can't be all bad.
The book was called "From Prison to Praise", just one of many "Praise" titles the good Merlin had written in his literary career. Merlin's magic spell was really a scripture verse: In all things give thanks. He believed one should literally thank God for everything in their lives, no matter how terrible those things were.
He would cite story after story of people whose difficult lives were transformed by thankfulness. Torn-up lives would somehow be restored by the resolute speaking of the words "thank you"; practitioners of this rite would often move from the worst of circumstances to the best.
I'm sure Merlin was praising God Almighty all the way to the bank.
Nonetheless, it remains a radical idea, doesn't it?
Yet, the belief that God is involved with the details of our lives raises more questions than it does answers. Something good happens to me and I say "Thank God"; maybe I just missed getting broad-sided by a drunk driver, or maybe I just made a killing in song-writing royalties. "Glory to God in the highest!." But then the person who did get broad-sided comes to mind, and, on the one hand, "Thank God it was him not me", but on the other... Is the victim's family saying "Thank God"? If I could understand the ways of God, I suppose I'd be God.
Dreadful things can happen in this world of ours, things which make us feel so far from God Almighty's care, things which make Existentialism seem palatable. The idea that God is involved in the details has always been with me; I was raised with it. As a bald man, I chuckle at the scripture verse which says, "He numbers the hairs on my head". No big deal, Lord.
Thinking about a summer on the assembly line, I had few options.
So, there I sat reading story after story about miserable circumstances shifting in the light of the words "Thank you". And I was miserable enough at my Hasbro workbench to begin meditating on the praise of God Almighty. I started my second day on the second shift with a will to thank God for my job. For the next 7 hours, I kept my mind busy with the words "Thank you, Jesus". It is an odd remembrance, the willful occupation of my thoughts with the goodness of God, because, frankly, I've GD'd unpleasant situations more than not. I say this not with pride, but as a matter of fact. I'm not some stellar Christian with a Sola Gloria attitude.
Back at the drill press, with the praise of God repeating silently in my mind, nothing seemed to change. The concrete floor didn't get any more comfortable under my Converse All Stars. I didn't get any faster and the conveyor belt didn't slow down. The gray plastic pieces would start crowding up as workers down the line tapped their fingers. In my mind, I thought, well, this is ridiculous, but thank you, Lord, that I'm in a job I'm unsuited for, and that it's not going great.
Whether it was Providence or just Industry watching out for itself, my little Portuguese supervisor would come to my aid, and catch me up with the assembly line. It must be working, I thought, and I'd keep on thanking.
Friday morning came with a new job offer from a man at Dad's church- Bob Glover. I was offered the job of a laborer for the construction firm that Bob was a foreman for. God be praised, I could kiss Hasbro good bye, and I did. I can't remember, but I probably didn't even bother showing up for the second shift to say "You can't fire me, I quit!". I was happy to move on, and of course, I thanked God, and decided that Merlin's spell worked.
I enjoyed working construction so much that it never occurred to me to continue my newfound rite of thankfulness. It was as if annunciating the words "Thank you" were a spell which I no longer needed. (It would seem that we learn little from good outcomes, although I would hope that's not really true. Perhaps with some reflection, my lesson has become clear after three decades of cloudiness on the subject.)
I recently read, and unfortunately can't remember where, that God is well-suited to receive praise. It isn't neediness which causes the Almighty to desire our thanks; but perhaps it's just as simple as God's deservedness. When we narrowly escape from the speeding car, to whom else do we give our gratitude, whether an Almighty Hand was involved or not? The life which God gives us continues for another sunrise, another day of enjoying the beauty of the earth, of enjoying the companionship of friends, and another day to bask in the delirium of love.
Back on the assembly line, where nothing seemed any different, perhaps the most unlikely of changes was indeed occurring, the slight smoothing over of the rocky terrain of my own heart.
And if that's the case, may wonders never cease.