It’s 7 AM. The tent is folded, the cooler packed, and I’m gassing up at a filling station in Doe Run, Missouri. Yesterday, my dog, Guapo, and I logged over seven hundred miles on our Midwestern road trip.
When the pump shuts off, I pull my truck next to the dumpsters at the edge of the parking lot. I turn off the ignition and offer Morning Prayer. As I begin, I glance in the rearview mirror. Three men are gathered around the hood of a truck eating breakfast. Behind them, on a trailer, a Bobcat trencher poises like a praying mantis.
Cry out with joy to the Lord, all the earth! Enter His gates with songs of praise.
I’m not sure if these workers would harken to exuberance of this psalm. Two of them wear sweat-stained caps and sleepy expressions. The third, a teenager, looks even more bedraggled. They munch burritos as their eyes scan the parking lot. The tallest of the three glances at the sky, then points to a bank of clouds.
I return to my prayer app. The strum of country music from inside their truck accompanies my psalmody, causing the present moment to rub against God’s eternity. As I pray, images of log chains, the smell of diesel fumes and the rumble of livestock trucks on the highway meld with the fragrance of incense, sacred chant and animals waiting to be slaughtered in a long-ago Temple.
Between the second and third psalm, I look up and, for a moment, am distracted by the messages on a digitized billboard. The advertisements are colorful and flashy: “Big dog loans at little dog rates,” proclaims an ad from the Doe Run Credit Union. I glance at Guapo resting on the seat next to me. He shows no interest. The next ad features the smiling face of a local car dealer. This is followed by the phone number of “Get-Outa-Jail-Quick Bail Bonds.” Next in line is a silhouette of soldiers beneath the words, “Marines fight to win.” A Bible verse from The Cornerstone Church of Christ concludes the sequence. I resume my prayers as the loop starts over. When I get to the Intercessions, I include Doe Run’s economy in the petitions: Look with favor on us (and on this town) at the beginning of this day, let us be daily workers with you .
I glance back at the mirror. The three workers are now crammed inside the truck, the adolescent relegated to the center position. The driver gives me a nod as he pulls away. I find myself thinking of a book I recently finished, The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood and Redemption in an American Boomtown.
In this book, the author describes the work of roustabouts and roughnecks in the oilfields of North Dakota. He also reveals a deep yearning for meaning and purpose in his life. He concludes that a worthy man–“a good hand”–is one who “performs honest work, then offers that work to the world as a living prayer.”
I finish my coffee and pat Guapo on the head. I turn the ignition, then pause to consider my hand on the wheel.
In my youth, I swung hay bales and climbed silos but, today, my hand is soft as a peach. Its condition conveys a life of study as opposed to physical strain, a tool bag stocked with Sacred Chrism instead of hydraulic grease.
Had I served as a priest in Jerusalem of old, my hands would have wrestled rams and bullocks and wielded a knife. As it is, my daily sacrifice involves bread and wine, “fruits of the earth and the work of human hands.”
I grieve the loss of my once-tough hands yet, each morning, the Prayer of the Church allows me to join my offering with men who labor on road crews, construction sites and oil rigs. I am honored by the connection, this brotherhood with working men. Like those fellows in the parking, “good hands” who rise at dawn, read the sky and receive communion, not at an altar, but around the sun-beached hood of a Ram 3500.