For most of his life, my father was able to spot road debris with uncanny ability. One of the first driving skills I learned was how to pull to a stop on our dirt roads and back up along the edge of the ditch so that Dad could retrieve a screwdriver or tire iron or piece of scrap metal that had found its way out of someone else’s pickup. He spotted things that I, with my bad eyesight and tendency to daydream, never realized were there.
When we got home, Dad would usually toss his new prize into a bucket in his shop, and Mom would cast a weary glance my way.
“It’s just more junk, Dennis,” she would say.
Dad would grunt and keep it anyway, unable by nature to throw away a good piece of metal. It could be just the right size for something one of these days. You never knew.
I thought about this today as I walked across the parking lot to work. It’s not unusual for me to pick up something as I go. Pennies, mostly, but occasionally other coins and once even a ten dollar bill. Today, however, I found something unusual: a hex wrench, partially rusted and nicked up from being pressed against the asphalt by car tires, but still perfectly usable. I picked it up, and a thought entered my mind.
Oh no. I’m turning into my father.
Perhaps not, at least in any meaningful sense. But the internal dialogue got me to thinking about other things I’ve picked up along the way without knowing their usefulness at the time.
When I was a student at Arkansas Tech Wesley Foundation, I learned about serving without counting the cost, and finding life by living outside of myself. I didn’t think of these as foundational Christian virtues at the time. Several of us just lived that way, every day.
My early appointments taught me more than I care to remember about dealing with conflict. And, since only one ministry I’ve ever served had any money to speak of, I’ve picked up plenty of handyman skills. Again, these were not lessons I set out to learn. They were responses to the situations at hand.
My on-the-job learning continues, and not just in a professional sense. I have lived long enough and thoughtfully enough to know that the most difficult things to deal with in campus ministry—discouragement, isolation, immaturity, volatility—are whetting stones that sharpen skills within me. I don’t enjoy the hard lessons, but I believe they will prove useful.
Even when I don’t believe that, I have to make myself believe it. That’s the only way to stay sane sometimes.
My father no longer has the ability to collect discarded steel artifacts. My brother and I joke about the buckets upon buckets of scrap metal that make up our inheritance. Someone, we know, will have to deal with it somehow.
But I have to admit, many of the pieces my father collected proved more useful than I ever thought they would. One large screwdriver with a chipped handle has pried open hundreds of paint cans. Odd shaped scraps have proven just the right size to patch a hole in a trailer bed, or to weld as a support brace on some custom mechanical contraption Dad or my brother have made.
If nothing else, I have come to believe that it is a good thing to keep your eyes open. Sometimes the scraps that we pick up along the way turn out to be essential. They are useful to us, and they help make us useful to God.
You just never know.