Maybe it’s just me, but I think a curious person who sees thousands of gourds neatly stacked along the side of the road on Walden’s Ridge near Pikeville, Tennessee is within their constitutional rights to stop and find out what’s up. I swerved Beans (Beans is the name of my truck) into an abandoned driveway, looked the other way down Road 30, and whipped Beans back to the gourds.
There were round gourds like cannonballs, gourds that looked like giant pears, other gourds were long and snaky. They all shined a blotchy black and golden hue with the newly fallen rain. It was evident that someone had worked tirelessly to neatly arrange them. But why? Who would do such a thing? What could come of ten thousand gourds? I could think of no use at all for them beyond birdhouses and decorations for Halloween.
We’ve all seen the bumper stickers. “Work to Fish.” Or, “Work to Hunt.” Or, “Work to [add verb here].” The idea, of course, is that we do what we have to do in order to do what we want to do. And no doubt that is true for the vast number of people who live. I would guess more people either hate their jobs or merely tolerant their work than people who love what they do. I know there are so many lamentable conditions around the world – hunger, disease, war, refugee camps. The list seems endless. But somewhere near the top of most pitiable of human suffering is the hatred of work. Work, if you will remember, is the punishment God doled out on humanity after the fall – the consequence of sin – so it seems only natural to hate it. Just as Eve hated labor, just as Adam hated the cursed ground and thorns and thistles and the sweat of his face, hell, even the snake hated having to travail against the ground without legs. To quote the second most inconsequential movie of 1992, Mo’ Money, “What do you want with a job that ain’t nothing but work.”
Bobby and Betty Richardson were busy tinkering with their individual projects when I slipped into the R&R Kuntry Pumpkin Center. They immediately stopped what they were doing and greeted me with hellos and how are yous. Long fluorescent lights barely lighted the room. The building felt organic, edenic. An earthy texture invaded my nose and whatever my fingers touched felt primal, raw, and alive. Painted and decorated gourds hung from the rafters on lengthy metal hooks. Tabletops were filled with other, sometimes more elaborately decorated gourds. I knew immediately I needed to go back to Beans and get my camera. But I talked a while with Bobby and Betty. I told them I was a blog writer and I thought that maybe I’d like to write something about what they do. Sometimes when I tell someone I’d like to write about them, I get a “Why would you wanna do that?” or a “I’d rather you not?” or, even worse, the look of incomprehension. But not with Bobby and Betty. Whether they knew what a blog writer was or not, they seemed as happy as deviled eggs and a sweaty glass of sweet tea.
When I returned with my camera, Betty gave me the tour. Bobby lingered just behind and stayed mostly quiet. It was their daughter, Lisa, they both insisted, who kept the place running. “She can do anything,” Betty said. And then Betty showed me gourd after gourd and yanked on a tightly wound spring at the bottom of each gourd. The gourds crackled and sputtered like thunderstorms. When I held the camera up, Betty struck a pose beside her artistry and her daughter’s work that was as natural as it was practiced; I wondered how many other writer/photographers had stumbled into their shop.
The sincerity and honesty devoted to the gourds was apparent. When my astonishment took them by surprise, Bobby started telling me about professional gourd work and gourd shows and an entire culture of people obsessed with gourds. “Some gourds,” he said, can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.” In just a few minutes of explanation, an entire new world was revealed. I could feel my curiosity pulling me towards gourds in that instinctual way that leads to obsession. I could, I thought, learn everything about gourds and gourd shows because of Bobby and Betty’s devotion -- sort of gourd evangelist by example. But that wasn’t what was so striking.
Throughout Christian history there has been a long running debate about exactly how you managed to tug yourself over the finish line and go to heaven. While I don’t want to ruminate on atonement theories here, there was a strain of Christian thinking that said you manage to get yourself into heaven by good works. This was called Pelagianism. The idea here is that God’s grace is simply given to you in your free will. What you did with that is up to you. If you used your free will for good works, you could merit salvation. This is an exaggerated and simplification of Pelagianism, but needless to say, it was condemned as heresy by the Church.
Here I could talk about how James says, “Faith without works is dead,” and how out of faith flows good works, but all that strikes me as boring. We all know what good works are: helping the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned. What if, though, we also understood good works to be the reversal of the punishment from the garden? It isn’t just good works; it is good work – a sense of happiness, contentment, satisfaction with what one does. Good work is work that makes sense, brings peace and harmony to oneself, and a gift to those nearby. The only prerequisite is that modicum of self-awareness to know what one likes, what one does well, what brings joy. Good work is the reversal of that initial form of punishment. It is a place of grace, maybe even sanctification; good work resides in God’s forgiveness, God’s healing of the human condition.
Bobby and Betty loved what they did. They loved their store. They celebrated each gourd, the fresh eggs, the stockpile of onions, the pumpkin fudge they let me have, the homemade jars full of jams and soups and pickles. Oh, and they loved brewing up the best boiled peanuts I’ve ever had. They loved Lisa who did so much for them, their son who died several years earlier, and their dogs. And they clearly adored each other.
Bobby’s reservations faded and he became increasingly playful the longer I stayed. He even posed for a picture wearing a deerskin cap, showed me a family gourd passed down from generations, and said things like, “Well, we’ve all gottta be different, you know. Nothing wrong with being different.” And Betty had more gourds to show me.
Bobby and Betty were in love. They were in love with each other, of course, but they were in love with the world and the work they do. They had escaped that original punishment of work and earned a sense of salvation through their good work.
Maybe this is a spoiled and privileged understanding of good work. How many single moms and dads go to a job they hate, endure an intolerable boss, count the minutes and even seconds as the day passes by, so a crumb of a paycheck can be had and food put on the table? How many people want to work, look for jobs every day, are desperate to think of something they can do, anything, just to provide for themselves? How many people find they do work that violates their moral sensibilities and/or their bodies because the lack of free will we endure isn’t from God but from the cruel systems of systems where we live?
Here the problem is sin. Not the sort of sin that is a moral failing. Not the sort of sin that says you’re suffering the consequences of your actions. Not the sort of sin that says you don’t deserve to be happy. I’m talking about an understanding of sin you’re likely not to hear about in church, not “actual sins” or Mortal sins or Venial sins. The sin I’m talking about isn’t the opposite of virtue. Sin isn’t the failure to achieve a sort of puritanical goodness, a life devoted to the charade of polite company.
Sin is a placeholder for things without definite names: brokenness, dis-ease, an impoverished human condition. Sin is the retracted goodness the world once enjoyed; sin is the abeyance of our true identity, our original condition. The kind of sin I’m talking about is the nothingness and meaninglessness that traps so many people into work they barely tolerate. We know we are burdened with this sort of sin when we show up for work with our bodies but not our minds, energies, and imaginations. To be clear, this isn’t due to a fault or failing, but it is something, all the same, to try to remedy. Salvation from the punishment of work can be earned by finding a way to love what we do, to love the people we work with, or risk everything to find something loveable.
Heaven isn’t the hereafter, the otherworldly, the great escape from the toils and labors of this world. Salvation is loving the good work God has given us. And if that means stockpiling gourds along Road 30, living simply and peacefully, isn’t that paradise? What was striking about Bobby and Betty wasn’t their work with gourds. I stood in the presence of an Adam and an Eve, two people living life as God created humanity to be.