As I approached Frank Lloyd Wright’s well-known residential masterpiece, known as Falling Water, the home didn’t so much as leap out and cry ‘greatness!’ as it did slowly envelope me in greatness. It is remarkable that such a simple project, a getaway home on a creek in Western Pennsylvania, became a statement of genius, the work of a man at his very peak of vision and ability. Architect Wright made many such statements in his career and all of them were made because the man did not settle for just doing his job. When you hired Mr. Wright, you turned loose greatness on your project.
All of us can relate experiences of being served by the mediocre as well as by those who strive for excellence. Minimum wage does not have to mean minimum ability and it’s easy to see where a young person is going by how they serve at their first job. Fast food is not known for excellence, but Chick-fil-A sets the bar high. Every employee, inspired by leadership example, makes every effort to ensure that every visit there is excellent. I was at my local bank making a deposit and the smiling young man responded to my “thank-you” with a “My pleasure!” I asked if he had worked at Chick-fil-A and he enthusiastically said he had indeed, all during high school. The signature phrase ‘my pleasure’ is now part of him, as is the excellence of customer service he learned. He will go places.
Do you see a man who excels in his work?
He will stand before kings;
He will not stand before unknown men. Proverbs 22:29
Phillip, a 22-year-old Mexican immigrant, was installing stone during my back-yard project. His boss, Biggen Cantrell (he was a big man!) had rescued Phillip as an illegal alien, taken him through the proper channels, and secured legal status for him. Biggen saw that he was an exceptional worker, a man with not only a tradesman’s skill but a true gift. Phillip had vision, and when presented with a pile of stone and a project he knew intuitively where to take it. We were building a wall for the outdoor fireplace and the plans called for just encasing the block with stone. But Phillip had an idea and passionately appealed to me to just let him work and it would be better than I had imagined. I love passion, and skill, and vision, so I turned him loose. And he managed to do a simple inlay of stone, a variation of the Maltese Cross, that is a conversation piece to this day. And, interestingly, the history behind that cross tells us it symbolizes:
“to live in truth, have faith, repent one’s sins, give proof of humility, love justice, be merciful, be sincere and wholehearted, and to endure persecution.”
A lot going on in my fireplace. Because there was a lot going on in Phillip’s vision and work ethic.
I have embarked on a new hobby in my “senior years” of woodworking. It’s actually an adjunct to my hobby of collecting music – I have set out to build things that aid and abet that passion. I built a turntable to solve some functional problems but instead of building a simple box I made it curved and graceful. It is stunning to look at it, by all accounts, and it even takes me by surprise sometimes. So, I set out to build some speakers and they, too, involved curves and unusual engineering ideas. They have proven to be much beyond my existing ability and have stretched me in many ways, solving problems that come with trying to attain art over mere function. A friend asked me why I went with curved baffles – was there a reason? And I told him this story:
In Middle School shop class I was given the assignment to make something out of wood. I decided to build an end table very similar to the tables at home, with an upper and lower shelf connected by uprights that curved upward to carry the top shelf. It seemed like a great idea until I realized my 12-year-old skills may not be up to the task. As I laid out my plans I told my shop teacher I was just going to make the uprights square (because I wanted to take the easy way out!) and his harsh response has shaped me to this day:
“What, are you building a box?”
I didn’t realize that the purpose of the project was to stretch me, make me learn new skills, carry out a vision to its completion. And, like the bank teller and his “My pleasure”, those lessons are now part of my very core. I will never build a box – given a project I will do my best to make it an expression of art and beauty and passion. I want anything I do to resonate with excellence.
“My determined purpose is to be my utmost for His highest – my best for His glory.” Oswald Chambers
It was revelatory to me as a young man to learn that the Christian faith wasn’t about meeting in a building or following traditions, as useful as those ideas may be, but about reaching up. About being the best human being I can be, achieving excellence in every way – work, love, family, even fun. As a father to four amazing children I am inspired as they reach for greatness in their everyday lives, as they try to be the best at what they do, as they leave a positive mark on the world around them. And that makes me realize that our Father above is watching for the same in us. Can we do our best, whether designing landmark buildings, or serving up chicken nuggets, or laying stone in the hot sun? Can we aspire to be our utmost, every day in every way?
Anything less, and you are just building a box.