As I have shared previously, I grew up working in the family hardware store. My responsibilities included waiting on customers, restocking inventory, and assembling everything from bicycles to lawnmowers. My boss was also my dad, but he placed the same demands on me that he did on everyone else. I was expected to follow the rules.

And one of the rules was to come to work with the right “tools of the trade,” which for us consisted of a pocket knife, a tape measure, a pen, and a set of keys. In other words, we had to be prepared. The knife was important for all of the cutting that we typically did, especially opening cardboard boxes. The tape measure was used constantly since so many things were sold by the foot or by the yard: chain, screen wire, rope – you name it. The pen was necessary for the clerical duties – making entries in the account register, calculating sales, and putting price tags on new merchandise. And we were each issued a set of keys to all of the locks connected to the business: to the front and back doors, the doors to the warehouse, and to the basement.

We stood to get a pretty good scolding if we showed up without one or more of these “tools.” In fact, after suffering the effects of having forgotten my keys once, when I made that mistake again and then realized that I was about to be sent on an errand that required unlocking a door, I quietly borrowed a set of keys from another employee.

Even though my days of working in that store are 40-plus years in the rearview mirror, because my office is on the same block in Iuka that was once occupied by Phillips Hardware, I get constant reminders of that time long ago whenever I see the building where I once sold horseshoes, nails, and plow points. And recently, those “tools of the trade” was brought to mind again.

Perhaps it’s attributable to my vocation or to my age or maybe it’s a little of both, but it occurred to me that those four items point to “tools” we should use in the “job” of living. We should always apply the sharp edge of our intellect to distinguish truth from falsity, the transitory from the transcendent, and the urgent from the important. Scripture and conscience provide a reliable tape measure for evaluating the many choices we have to make in life, and in the same way that my ink pen was used to put prices on merchandise, so must we be purposeful in how we assign value to the things and persons in our lives. And while I might have been able to use someone else’s keys to unlock the basement door, the “keys” to our happiness are not to be found in someone’s possession. They are ours and ours alone to forge.

Whether it’s selling horseshoes or living a purposeful life, being prepared with the right tools is a good idea.

Nicholas Phillips is pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Biggersville and practices law in Iuka. Contact him at

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