“The path of discernment is unique to each person. None of us has the exact same talents — or failings — as any other person. And God does not use us in the exact same way as any other person.”
from J. Brent Bill’s “Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment”
Have you seen the wire-service photographs of Buddhist monks in cyclone-ravaged Myanmar fearlessly heading into the heart of the destruction to begin rebuilding their nation with hand tools? I recall one photo of a smashed tree, big as a fallen skyscraper, blocking a village roadway — swarmed by monks clearing the limbs with the simplest of saws.
Here’s what’s fascinating about those photographs — and the new book by Quaker writer J. Brent Bill (who you’ll meet Wednesday in our weekly in-depth interview): Brent and the monks understand that healthy communities depend on a diversity of people and skills. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all spiritual calling.
Some of us are good with saws. Some with hammers. Some cut things. Some screw things together. Sound familiar? We’re starting to sound like Ecclesiastes here, aren’t we? Or, the Birds: “Turn, Turn Turn.”
Reading Brent’s new book, thinking about the Buddhists, humming the Birds — I came up with an unusual spiritual exercise, this weekend. I asked a group of friends to take a pilgrimage through the new IKEA store that’s not far from the Home Office of ReadTheSpirit.
IKEA is the chain of gigantic home-furnishing stores with roots in Sweden that has become a shopping sensation in many parts of the U.S. IKEA markets itself as a globally responsible company, trying to provide modestly priced furniture for people living on tight budgets. For example, inside the huge store, IKEA invites shoppers to tour complete layouts of tiny apartments that are typical in other parts of the developing world.
This weekend, as my group of friends moved through the store, I invited them to consider a whole host of questions about their spiritual lives — and their relationship with the rest of the world. For example, one question they had to ponder, while looking at a tiny apartment laid out inside the store — the size of typical homes in urban areas of China — was this: “Could your life fit into such a tiny space? What would you have to give up and set aside?”
Toward the end of the journey through the huge store, IKEA displays inexpensive tool boxes for customers planning to assemble IKEA furniture kits. So, one of the last questions in the nearly two-hour pilgrimage through the store went like this:
“New books about spiritual guidance ask people to start figuring out what kind of contribution they can make in the larger community. Looking at the basic tools displayed in IKEA, you might ask yourself: What kind of tool am I? It’s a serious question. Remember the common saying: If you’re a hammer, the rest of the world looks like a bunch of nails. So, choose one of the common hand tools displayed in the store — and explain why you’re like that tool.”
When we all finally left the store, we sat in a circle with tea and IKEA cookies and listened to the pilgrims explain their choices.
Brian, a scientist and university professor, said, “I’m the carpenter’s level. I’m an even-keeled guy, trying not to let things upset me, most of the time.
Phyllis, a public-school music teacher, said, “I think I’m the level, too. I have a tendency to try to keep the peace in situations of conflict. I don’t like disharmony. I like balance.”
Ernest, a vocal-music professor, listened to what sounded like a stampede toward the level and said, “But, you know, if you have to pick just one tool to carry with you, then you should have a hammer to build things. Plus, the hammer is reversible. You can build things, then you can turn the hammer around and use the claw end to remove nails and take things apart.”
Bill, a software and systems manager for a corporation, said, “You’ve got a point, Ernie. Some tools are irreversible. Think about the saw. If you cut something with a saw, you can’t put it back together again. What do they say? Measure twice; cut once?”
“I think I’m the tape measure,” said Ernest, who is a talented woodworker in his spare time and knows a great deal about such tools. “I like the idea of measuring things. And I’m literal minded. I’m practical.”
“You’re also a musician,” I said, “and a tape measure is like a line of music, isn’t it?”
“You’re right!” Ernest said, nodding. “Yeah. It’s measured, like music — and you read along the line of it. Yes, that’s me. The tape measure.”
Bill said, “Well, I’m the screw driver, I think. I have to be versatile — and the screw driver is versatile. If you have to, you can use it as a hammer, you can pry things with it. You can even knock holes in walls with a screw driver. And, when you’re done, you can carry it in your pocket.”
Megan, who’s heading to seminary this fall picked a fourth tool. “I’m the adjustable wrench,” she said. “I try to be adaptable. I’m strong. I’m able to work in tight places.”
Carole, also a musician and a choir director, said that only the hammer captures the spiritual satisfaction she feels when approaching a tough challenge. “I’ll always be the hammer,” she said. “I get great satisfaction flexing my muscles and ka-chew, ka-chew, ka-chew — driving things home. I want to see that things are hooked together properly. I want to be sure that, when I put something together, it holds together. Hammer. That’s me.”
“Well, I’m the softer hammer,” said Sue, Bill’s wife. “If I’m going to hit someone to get something done, I’m not going to hit them hard. I’ll tap-tap-tap them softly. I’m the rubber mallet.”
In the end, it was Donna, Brian’s wife, a mother and an active community volunteer, who bent the rules and wound up choosing something that was displayed in the IKEA store just past the hand tools.
“OK, first, if I do have to choose from the hand tools, then I guess I’m a screwdriver, because I don’t think of myself as coming up with a lot of original ideas — but I am good at taking other people’s ideas, working with them, bringing people together and screwing together the pieces that are necessary to bring a good idea to reality,” Donna said. “But you know what I really am? I’m a light.”
In the final display, before shoppers enter the giant IKEA warehouse — where they pick up the furniture kits they’ll load into their vehicles — there is a vast display of lamps and lights.
“The lights really touched me,” Donna said. “I thought about all the spiritual questions you asked us to think about as we went through the whole store — but when I got to all those lights — I thought about: What kind of light am I in the world?”
She stopped. She paused. “I almost can’t talk about it because it really did get to me. It was a very emotional moment,” Donna said slowly.
Several people in the group asked, “So, which light were you, Donna?”
“Well, I wasn’t flashy,” she said. “And I wasn’t the biggest light. And I wasn’t the smallest light. I wasn’t fancy at all. I was the medium-sized, round right in the corner of the room there. It was designed to sit on a table at home — or maybe on a shelf.
“I thought: I’m that light. That’s what I want to be. Not calling attention to myself, but a necessary source of good light. I’m the light that will always be there to help you make your way through the house without falling over things. I’m the light you can trust will not go out.”
To that, I say simply: Amen.
Now, if you think our little pilgrimage this weekend was eccentric — in fact, we were only echoing spiritual writers over thousands of years. Do you recall Psalm 90? It ends this way:
“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper us the work of our hands –
O prosper the work of our hands!”
COME BACK TOMORROW for our weekly quiz.
On Wednesday, you’ll meet J. Brent Brill in our weekly Conversation. We’ll publish our review of his new book that day, as well. You’re not going to want to miss it.
Plus, we’ve got a whole lot more in store for you in this week of spiritual discernment.
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