by David Calhoun
Before, during, and after Ben Little’s time as a Briarwood Fellow (Class of 2014), his faith journey has been marked by a growing sense of what it means to do good works simply because of the grace he has received, not because of an internal pressure to justify himself on his own merit before God.
Salt that Irritates
The apparent tension between living a morally good life, but embracing grace as the source of our salvation can lead to some churches emphasizing a legalistic form of Christianity that erodes the centrality of grace. This was the case in Ben’s childhood. A clear example is when Ben was told by a pastor he had to be like salt by becoming an irritant to people who were sinning. Ben’s response to this: “I don’t want to be irritating and I can’t be perfect all the time, so that just puts me in a tough spot.” The judgmental and legalistic faith Ben grew up hearing about never appealed to him. So, when it came time for him to leave for college, he left determined to leave his Christian roots behind.
Discovering the Gospel
Although Ben came into college wanting to escape from Christianity, an RUF (Reformed University Fellowship) minister treated Ben differently than other Christian leaders he had known. Instead of trying to get Ben to cultivate a greater awareness of brokenness in himself and others, his minister developed a relationship with him based on grace. Over the next four years, that relationship, and others like it, led Ben to the God he had just recently wanted to leave behind. For the first time in his long journey with the Church, he had heard the true gospel and saw that it didn’t have to be an irritant to himself and others, but was actually a source of healing.
When Ben accepted a spot in the Briarwood Fellows program, he expected it to be a great networking opportunity that would prepare him for a career in the restaurant industry. It was so much more than that. Through his time as a fellow, he saw that the grace he had discovered in college was meant to transform every aspect of his life, especially his work.
Ben’s view of work was transformed by having to reconcile the theoretical concept of all work having dignity with his actual Fellows job placement. While his placement got him in the door at a restaurant, it was not in management, cooking, or even hosting, but washing dishes. This was a very unusual work placement for a Fellow, but they wanted him to start at the bottom to learn every aspect of the business. Spending hours in front of a sink, humbled and challenged Ben. He had to wrestle with whether the concept of dignity in all work could possibly be true. While there were moments Ben felt like he was wasting time, he grew to see that pursuing excellence in his work was how he could live out the gospel. Crushing his work tasks became his goal and led to what was once a discouragement becoming dignified. In fact, his boss, who in Ben’s words was a “salty and worldly Catholic”, cried when it was time for Ben to move on. His faithfulness to the work had an impact in ways Ben never anticipated and planted within him a deep appreciation for the beauty of humble tasks.
Salt that Seasons
After his time as a fellow, Ben moved to Charleston, SC where he now owns and manages his own furniture company, Benjamin Paul Studio. He is living out the lessons he learned as a fellow by seeking to be a source of grace through his entrepreneurship and community involvement.
In regard to the woodworking itself, Ben sees dignity in being able to push back the chaos of the gnarled raw materials as he creates something with order and purpose. His pursuit of excellence in this work hearkens back to the lessons he learned in front of a sink as a fellow. In addition to this, reading Just Mercy and When Helping Hurts, as well as service in a prison ministry led him to wonder, how could he leverage his abilities and resources to show mercy to the marginalized?
Ben has a heart for people who have been incarcerated and views these individuals as people who should not be written off forever because of one bad thing they did. People who have been incarcerated are marginalized through the significant difficulties they face in finding work, but Ben has seen how working with your hands can be a source of dignity and gainful employment. With this in mind, Ben is leveraging his woodworking and entrepreneurship skills to train and employ marginalized members of his community so they have the means to live with dignity.
Grace is at the heart of this vision. After being told he had to judge those who sinned in order to be like salt, Ben is now seeing how the gospel can provide the grace needed to bless the lives of the others. To be like salt is to let the grace of Christ transform the lives of the marginalized, not to write them off for past mistakes. Ben is not doing this out of fear of not being morally ‘good’, but as a response to the grace that has transformed his life. He has been shown mercy, and now he wants to show mercy because “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13b).
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