It seemed fitting that the wheelbarrow I was assigned to at the church working bee was unruly. Had a flat tyre. Wobbled everywhere but couldn’t be fixed, so I was told. Pushing it along it’s protesting path was indeed purgatory. It allowed me to wallow in guilt, using this barrow. Were John Bunyan at that working bee, he would have gained deeper insights into the pilgrim’s progress.
All my life I have been able to work out my penance on church grounds. Either painting walls, or weeding, or building pews. Church buildings are never finished. They always wait for me, wherever I live, and their protectors persuade me that I, especially I, must work on Saturday mornings at a series of never ending tasks to maintain their appearance. I have moved frequently in my life, and I am at my most vulnerable shortly after I arrive and settle in somewhere. The friendliest guy in the church, the one who first approaches you after that initial service when you are drinking coffee out the back, is the chief of the church maintenance team. He is elected to this position for his rugged appearance, yet salesman like charm.
So there I was again, working on the church grounds. Moving concrete blocks.
It amazes me that I still go. Years ago I decided not to have anything to do with building programmes, let alone regular spring cleaning of church grounds. Such an activity must surely condone the exploitative landholding operations of the church throughout the centuries. To paint those cloisters must, even in a small way, support the sinful continuation of clerical estates. How could it be that I was yet again at this mundane task which was inextricably tied up with all the global evils of institutional religion?
In the car on the way there, I had mused over these important questions. I even thought I might try and raise some sort of discussion among the boys as we toiled away in the gardens.
But I was late. So instead of such an enlightening conversation, there was much delighted pointed laughter and I ended up pushing this wheelbarrow from the garbage site out to the collection bin by the truck. The recalcitrant wheelbarrow. I tell you, pushing this barrow full of concrete blocks with it’s permanent flat tyre was a form of punishment that should be reserved for unrepentant criminals. Or those seeking pain as a sign of spiritual momentum.
By late morning, when I was on my own with this wretched device, I thought I would try and get positive about the whole affair. So I came up with three reasons why I was working on the church grounds.
Firstly the camaraderie. My wife had pointed this out to me that very morning. “What a great time you’ll have down there with the lads,” she said. She can look me straight in the face and say that sort of thing. Master of misinterpretations. No matter what I reply, she will assume the aggrieved party. “I’m serious,” she would then say, if I were foolish enough to impute impishness. Anyway I decided to take her at face value. Sure, good to get down there with the guys. Chew the fat. Not enough occasions to get to know these chaps as it is. Besides if I refused, do I get the chance to explain why? Can you imagine saying that yes, I would love to help but it would imply a philosophical acceptance of various inconsistencies that my long held perception of pure Christian truth would find incongruent with such activities.
The guys would think, lazy blighter.
Secondly, the aspect of pain and hard work. I’m serious on this point. No fooling. Give you an example. When I joined a missionary organisation for a volunteer stint in Africa, every afternoon they had me building. Hammering and nailing. Or painting or digging. Okay, these mission organisations are poor, and they need all hands on deck. Don’t have the wherewithal to employ fancy contractors. But there definitely was another side to it. An aspect of working and sweating because it was good for mankind to do that. Somehow physical labour was esteemed.
Now, I realise this is a totally outdated concept to bring to this page. Protestant ethic, and all that rubbish that we advanced intellects know is outmoded, and should never have been practiced in the first place. Which seemed a good enough reason to think it through behind the barrow. If it gets rejected nowadays, it might be worth looking into. Often a good sign there is something valid in a proposition. Ghandi once left an intense political debate with his leading band of thinkers to apply mudpacks to goats by the riverbank.
I remember it from the movie. And it seemed like a good idea to mention this incident here even though it is not entirely relevant.
The third reason that occurred to me is an evangelical reason, believe it or not. It works like this. Could be that the great unwashed find it easier to enter a building that looks like a church than one that doesn’t. One Sunday morning, they might wake up and say to their wife, “let’s go to church”. And on a whim off they go. They drive down to a structure that looks like a church, you know, spire and steeple. They expect bells to be ringing, to be warmly welcomed by a bespectacled parson at the door, to be invited to stay for coffee after a service that was sprinkled with tunes of hymns that reside somewhere in their thirty year old Sunday school memory. You can even loose the maintenance chief onto them. Such a strategy would certainly lessen my particular life’s burden.
So making the church grounds look pretty is a tiny part of ensuring the tentative experience of visiting church is not marred, that it is what was expected, and surprisingly, more. Enough perhaps to wake up the following Sunday and say to one’s wife, “let’s go to church again.” These musings made me feel warm and useful again. Doing my bit. I laboured on blissfully. Then one of the boys found out the tyre wasn’t punctured, and it could be pumped up.
After I had finished.