Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Richest Man Alive

drillWhen my grandfather, Harry, died, he left some old implements here and there in his house, some of which my mother collected and then passed on to me. I had no idea how valuable they were. One was an old electric drill that still works. Another, a razor, also electric, was new to Harry at the time; it is also still fully functional. I use it but rarely since I shave with a blade. hrjakes.elecrazorHe left hammers, a few vice-grips, a tool box or two with various small apparatuses in them, plus a couple of wrenches and a now useless zigzag-shaped manual wood drill with a nob on the end. I say useless because, unlike the other drill he left me, it rarely finds its way into my highly unskilled hands. I can’t recall what else might be out in the shed and it’s raining right now and I’m too lazy to wade through the storm to look for anything else.manual drill

Those tools made me the richest man alive. They did so by not having any real value. Now I’m sure if I went on the Antiques Roadshow some pecuniary sum could be assessed (thirty-five dollars perhaps) for the least useful of them, i.e., the incidentally muscle-building manual drill. But about the other stuff—even the functioning drill or razor—I’m pretty sure they would say, “Well, friend, these aren’t really worth anything.” And that’s precisely why I am rich.

Now at this point, someone might say, “Your incessant use of paradoxes is obfuscating”—at least my wife would, who says this or something like it fairly frequently—objecting to my hitherto nonsensical story. How can valueless objects make you rich? They can’t in and of themselves but the lessons behind them can. My grandfather and his tools obliquely remind me that one really important aspect of the legacy he left me was hard work. He believed that not earning everything you own is less than honorable. He never expected his parents to leave him a legacy—indeed, they had nothing of substance to leave him—and, if they had left him anything at all, he would certainly have shared it with his brothers or sisters or even others outside his immediate family whom he knew were in some way less fortunate. Why? Is it because he did not earn it himself? Well, yes, I suppose, you could say that. In any case, that’s the short answer.screwdriver

A longer answer has to do with the legacy his parents (particularly his mother, Ann) did in fact leave him. That legacy was faith in the face of life’s afflictions, faith in the face of the hardest challenges, even death. Her favorite hymn was “That Old Rugged Cross.” She died in the faith, the faith of that cross. She left him that legacy. That was a gift far more valuable than her knitting needles or her blankets or even the one or two beautiful vases she owned—they went to Emily, one of Harry’s sisters, as his other, Ruth, had preceded her mother in death. But faith, the faith that sustained his mother through that tragedy and throughout her life–that was the legacy that Harry received, and he certainly understood, as much as any of us can, how very valuable that legacy was. And for a while Harry Jakes was the richest man in the world.

tool1I inherited from him a few tools that are not worth very much, if anything at all. But I also inherited from him and my grandmother, Blanche, a fortune. That fortune is an admittedly imperfect love for God and my fellow human being. That is the only unambiguous command of the New Testament, peppered everywhere within it, the central teaching of the faith of the old rugged cross (Luke 23:34; 23:43), that we ought love one another (John 13:34) ; that we ought love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 6:27) ; that we ought love and forgive our enemies (1 Peter 1:9) ; and, finally, that we ought pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:43-58).

hammersI have a friend who these days is squabbling over the inheritance that he and his brother received at their parents’ passing. At one point he said to me that he believes his brother cheated him out of a huge sum, six figures or more. He wants no further interaction with his brother; he may even sue him. He said that I myself couldn’t understand because I had never had access to that kind of money and thus I could not possibly know what it means to lose it, how it feels. And he’s right; I have never had commerce with such funds nor can I imagine losing so vast an amount of money. But I can tell him about the legacy that my grandfather left me. Harry said to be content with whatever work God gives you to do, to work hard at it and earn everything you own. And, once you do possess something, treat it as if it did not belong to you but to God; don’t think of anything as yours. Love God; love your fellow human being. And don’t worry about money, your inheritance, or anything at all but be ready at any time to give whatever you own to the poor, realizing the fraternal gulf between you and them is very slight but that between you and God is very great. “If you think like that,” he said, “you will be very close to God because such thinking is very close to God’s heart.” He told me this when I was a child as he packed his toolkit for a mission trip he was taking to Haiti with his church. He was going there to build houses for the poor, very likely with the very tools, valueless but so very valuable, that I now own.

toolboxIt took me a while to understand all this, to process it. And I am still processing it. In the meantime, even from the little bit I have understood, from the  tools  I inherited, from the twinkle in his eye as he packed for that voyage into the face of poverty, I am certain that it is not Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Donald Trump but it is I, yes I, who am most certainly now the richest man alive.