Despite the fact that I’m a huge fan of National Public Radio, I rarely catch Morning Edition, one of their primary news shows. Its title doesn’t lie: it’s on in the Morning, and I am definitely not on in the morning. But the other day on my way to Westwood to spend some time with a few young clergywomen, I caught a brief installment of StoryCorps, their weekly series in which friends and family members interview one another in sound booths set up throughout the United States. Just as Morning Edition airs in the morning, StoryCorps specializes in stories. I heard a third-generation steel worker named Ken Kobus tell a simple yet beautiful story about his father, John, and the labor that they shared. I loved the story enough to buy the transcript, because I knew I couldn’t retell it with the grace of the original. So here’s what Ken said. [Truncated due to copyright.]
...I know that [working in the mill] stuck with my father for all his life. I mean, when he was dying - he had cancer. We had him in a hospice and he was in a lot of pain, so they were giving him lots of morphine.
And I was watching him in the bed once. And the doctor came in and my dad was laying on his back and he, like, had his hands up in the air and he was turning and manipulating. And the doctor saw it - I was looking at my dad - and he says we’re wondering what the heck he’s doing? Because, you know, he did it all the time. He would be laying on his back and he would be doing this stuff and they had no clue as to what he was doing.
And I said, oh, I says, I could tell you. He’s making steel. He was opening furnace doors and he was adjusting the gas on the furnace and the draft. I could see. I could see what he was doing. And the doctor was amazed, you know.
To the day he died, that’s what he lived. He lived steel-making.
Maybe I wouldn’t have heard what I heard in this story if I hadn’t been contemplating the letter of James this week. James is a bit of a rogue character in the canon of Christian scripture. The letter has been the subject of nearly as much controversy as the Book of Revelation. Many early Christian scripture collections did not include it, and the reformer Martin Luther called it a letter of straw compared to the writings of Paul.
Whereas Paul emphasizes that we are saved by grace through faith, not by good works, James proclaims that faith without works is dead. He is, I believe, unfairly accused of not giving grace the credit it deserves. But I think he’s asking an entirely different question. He doesn’t explore how we are saved; he is primarily concerned with how faith forms and shapes our lives. How do we live as Christians?
For James, the Christian faith requires action. He doesn’t claim that our actions save us; indeed, he celebrates the implanted word that has the power to save our souls. I especially like the way Eugene Peterson renders this—“ In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.” God’s grace is clearly the source of our salvation—but that doesn’t let us of the hook. We are to be more than passive recipients of the word. More than people who let the gospel go in one ear and out the other. We are to be doers of the word. We are to be shaped by the Word. Our lives are to take on a distinct pattern of compassion and service. As Christians, we do not simply believe the gospel. We are called to embody the gospel, to live it.
And that is how the apparently secular story Ken Kobus told about his father landed in the pulpit this Sunday. Ken confessed that his father lived the steel mills. The ordinary habits of his career were so much a part of him that they became a source of comfort and meaning in the delirium of his cancer. So long as he was carefully monitoring the dynamics of the furnace, he was still a strong laborer, not a man lost to the ravages of illness. He knew the movements of his trade by heart, so that as long as his heart was beating, he was a steel maker.
We often think of habits only negatively. We think of bad habits—procrastination, overspending, nailbiting. Even good habits are considered to be sort of mindless. Going to church out of habit doesn’t exactly sound as romantic as being drawn to worship out of joy in the Lord. But Rick Warren, the author of the Purpose Driven Life, teaches that adopting spiritual habits leads to spiritual maturity.
He writes, “Anyone can become physically fit if he or she will regularly do certain exercises and practice good health habits. Likewise, spiritual fitness is no mystery. It is simply a matter of learning certain spiritual exercises and being disciplined to do them until they become habits.” Pastor Warren preaches here the same message as our Brother James: be doers of the word. Live your faith. Embody the gospel. Don’t simply admire Jesus; walk in his footsteps.
John Kobus worked a difficult job for thirty-seven years. His work was tedious at times. Every cent he brought home was earned with sweat and danger. He did the same things over, and over, and over again until they became second nature.
God’s vision for us—the salvation-garden He labors to plant within the soil of each of our lives—is to be just as shaped by the work of discipleship. Our work is prayer, witness, compassion, service. Our work is bible study, communion, love, kindness. Our work is worship, justice, generosity, sacrifice. May our new lives in Christ be consumed by this work, as a faithful response to God’s great works of grace. Amen.