In a previous stage in my life I worked as a maintenance man (boy) at a summer camp in Central Illinois, just north of Springfield. It was a great job, in fact the only job I have ever had where I woke up each and every day excited about going to work.
Part of what I loved about this sort of work was learning new things all of the time. I am not a very "handy" man, so the work was all new and exciting to me.
My number one job was to wash dishes. That took about an hour after breakfast and lunch. The rest of the time was filled with mowing and trimming the grass, sweeping floors, making beds, and helping to fix things that had been broken.
We had a few construction projects that summer. They were all fairly minor: a new porch, some painting, a new door hung, etc. One such project was putting new trim around a set of garage doors.
It is here that I want to introduce you to Derald Henry Sasse. (For all of you Lutheran scholars out there, it is pronounced more like "saucy" and not like the German-Australian scholar of the same last name.)
Derald was a retired farmer who had also kept his construction business on the side. As he would tell you, he was "a jack of all trades, and an ace of none." But construction was his game. He knew what he was doing.
Derald was the maintenance chief at the summer camp. He lived there in a small apartment with his wife Carolyn and together they kept things up year round.
By the time I had the privilege of working with him, D.H. was in his 70's and suffering from extreme arthritis. So when it come to the work that needed to be done, a lot of the time he was the brains and I was the "muscle". (If you could have seen me then, or have seen me now, you know why I used "quotes".)
So the garage doors needed new trim. Derald was the brains of the operation. He was measuring the boards and I was cutting. He was pointing and I was nailing.
However, for a few minutes Derald climbed up on the ladder to do some measuring while I was down on the ground and supposed to be nailing two pieces of wood together. And I was having some trouble. No matter what I tried the nail would bend.
One hit. OK. Two hits. Bent nail. AGH!
After about my fifth nail D.H. began to get a bit impatient with me. I was supposed to be handing him this piece and he was going to hang it. And his aging body was not enjoying the view from the top of the ladder.
"Hurry up," he yelled from the ladder. "Stick those two together and give 'em here."
"I can't," I replied, exasperated.
And will will never forget what came next. Derald jumped (yes jumped) off the ladder, walked over to the make-shift work bench where I was, grabbed the two pieces from me, yanked the hammer from my fist, took one swing with the hammer and drove the nail home perfectly straight.
"'Can't' never did nothin'," he said. "Do, or do not, but don't ever say 'can't'."
That phrase has stuck with me. I have offered myself that excuse plenty of times. "I can't." I have yet to be cured of it. But the wisdom is potent. We either do something or we do not do it. And if we do not even try, well then that is all the worse. D.H. understood that. "Can't" was just a dirty word to him.
Often, our problem is not so much that we cannot do something, but that we won't. We don't have the will to do it, the gumption to fight on, to push through. But we need to recognize the problem. It is not a lack of ability, but a lack of persistence.
The rest of my days at camp were far from perfect. There were a lot of failures. I tried and failed at a lot of things. But I stopped using that 4 letter word, at least around Big D.H.