The Flash of a Fish Knife: Calvin Seerveld on good work

I did a posting on Labor Day about work, how church leaders ought to be intentional about helping honor the labors of ordinary folks, and listed some books and websites that we thought might be helpful. If you are reading this, you are most likely a friend of Hearts & Minds, and we are grateful that you are a part of our story, raising these questions, having these converstions, reading these books.
Few writers mean as much to me as Calvin Seerveld, and many of my favorite writers—just for instance, Steve Garber and Eugene Peterson, Paul Marshal and Al Wolters—esteem him. In my last post, I commended the e-zine
Comment that comes out of the Work Research Foundation in Canada, since they often write about work-world matters. A few years ago they printed this excerpt of a classic piece by Dr. Seerveld. Seerveld, as you may know, writes about aesthetics (Rainbows for the Fallen World or Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves) and Biblical studies (How To Read the Bible to Hear God Speak or Voicing God’s Psalms.) Here, he tells of his hard-working fish-monger father. I love it so, as it speaks to me on many levels and is so vividly written. This, my friends, is Biblical faith in all its real-world integrity.
What do you think??
The Flash of a Fish Knife
Winter 2000 – V. 1 I. 1
by Calvin Seerveld

My father is a seller of fish. We children know the business too having worked from childhood in the Great South Bay Fish Market, Patchogue, Long Island, New York, helping our father like a quiver full of arrows. It is a small store, and it smells like fish.

I remember a Thursday noon long ago when my Dad was selling a large carp to a prosperous woman and it was a battle to convince her that the carp, Òis it fresh?Ó

It fairly bristled with freshness, had just come in, but the game was part of the sale. They had gone over it anatomically together: the eyes were bright, the gills were a good colour, the flesh was firm, the belly was even spare and solid, the tail showed not much waste, the price was right–Finally my Dad held up the fish behind the counter, Ã’Beautiful, beautiful! Shall I clean it up?Ó

And as she grudgingly assented, ruefully admiring the way the bargain had been struck, she said, ÒMy, you certainly didnÕt miss your calling.Ó

She spoke the truth. My father is in full-time service for the Lord, prophet, priest and king in the fish business. And customers who come in the store sense it. Not that we always have the cheapest fish in town! Not that there are no mistakes on a busy Friday morning! Not that there is no sin! But this: that little Great South Bay Fish Market, my father and two employees, is not only a clean, honest place where you can buy quality fish at a reasonable price with a smile, but there is a spirit in the store, a spirit of laugher, of fun, of joy inside the buying and selling that strikes an observer pleasantly; and the strenuous week-long preparations in the back rooms for Friday fish-day are not a routine drudgery interrupted by Òrest periods,Ó but again, a spirit seems to hallow the lowly work into a rich service, in which it is good to officiate.

When I watch my DadÕs hands, big beefy hands with broad stubby fingers each twice the thickness of mine, they could never play a piano; when I watch those hands delicately split the back of a mackerel or with a swift, true stroke fillet a flounder close to the bone, leaving all the meat together; when I know those hands dressed and peddled fish from the handlebars of a bicycle in the grim 1930’s, cut and sold fish year after year with never a vacation through fire and sickness, thieves and disasters, weariness, winter cold and hot muggy summers, twinkling at work without complaint, past temptations, struggling day in and day out to fix a just price, in weakness often but always in faith consecratedly cutting up fish before the face of the Lord: when I see that, I know GodÕs Grace can come down to a manÕs hand and the flash of a scabby fish knife.

Reprinted in Comment, Winter 2000, by permission of the author.

© Work Research Foundation 2006

3 thoughts on “The Flash of a Fish Knife: Calvin Seerveld on good work

  1. So, does Calvin Seerveld always write like this? If so, I really like his writing style and I may be tempted to read some more of his stuff!

  2. You’re going to argue with me, I know, but IF ONLY I COULD WRITE LIKE THAT. Go, Cal! I love every detail of this description, and the joy in it.

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