Work. For better or for worse, much of our identities are tied up into our work. One of the first questions that we ask people when we’re getting to know them is “What do you do?” It doesn’t tell us everything about a person, but it does help give insight into a significant part of a person’s life. The challenges one is used to facing on a regular basis through one’s work are formative of one’s personality and outlook on life.
To separate work from spirituality would be a great loss. We regularly give our best energy to our work. Many of our most creative thoughts, a high percentage of our waking hours, the skills that we have taken years to develop, go into our work. A contractor, a social worker, a stay at home parent, an engineer, a factory worker, all have different ways of expressing their spirituality in their work.
Gregory Pierce has written a book called Spirituality@Work and uses this simple definition for work: “All effort (paid or unpaid) we exert to make the world a better place, a little closer to the way God would have things.” Pierce names himself as “piety impaired” and says the kind of spirituality he lives out and encourages in others, “has little to do with piety and much more to do with our becoming aware of the intrinsically spiritual nature of the work we are doing and then acting on that awareness. Authentic spirituality – at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition – is as much about making hard choices in our daily lives, about working with others to make the world a better place, and about loving our neighbor and even our enemy, as it is about worship and prayer.” (The Marketplace magazine, March/April 2008, p. 4)
One of the commentaries on the world of work these days is the comic strip Dilbert. I’m not a Dilbert junkie by any means, but I do try and check in most mornings while reading the newspaper to see what’s going on there. It’s been observed that Dilbert is a one joke comic. The joke is that work is spiritually vacant, depressing, and all about a nonproductive confrontation of egos, and everybody is miserably playing along with the game. The funny thing is, the joke works every time. Each comic strip is another meeting, another water cooler conversation, another email or phone exchange, another cubicle confrontation where this punch line shows up again and again. Dilbert’s popularity has to reveal something about how painfully close it comes to many people’s reality.
Sitting around a meeting table with Dilbert and the pointy haired boss, co-worker Wally says, “I took a class on being less useless. Now I see the world in a different light. For example, I recognize these staff meetings as colossal wastes of time, but there’s nothing I can do about them. Now my helplessness makes my uselessness seem unimportant.” At another meeting Dilbert is giving a presentation and pointing to a projection on the wall with lots of different shapes and arrows going every which way. He says, “You won’t read my technical report so I summarized it in this complicated slide. If you stare at it long enough you will either experience the illusion of understanding it or be too embarrassed to admit you don’t. Do you have any questions to betray your ignorance?” To which someone looks at the slide and asks, “Is the triangle thing mad at the tube?” In another comic Dilbert’s boss, who is continually coming up with meaningless work to make the company seem more efficient and productive, is leading a meeting and saying: “Starting today, all passwords must contain letters, numbers, doodles, sign language, and squirrel noises.”
In Dilbert’s world, work brings out the worst in people.
If there is a biblical equivalent to Dilbert, it would have to be the book of Ecclesiastes – only here the burden of work is more of a tragedy than a comedy. Ecclesiastes, written by one called “The Teacher,” is a reflection by someone who refuses to ignore the darker side of reality or be easily comforted by platitudes. The book begins in this upbeat way: “Utter futility, says the teacher, utter futility. All is futile. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? One generation goes, another comes. But the earth remains the same forever. The sun rises, and the sun sets – And glides back to where it rises. Southward blowing, Turning northward, Ever turning blows the wind; On its rounds the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express.” The word used in the opening line, “Futility,” is a theme throughout the writing, showing up in 11 of the 12 chapters for a total of 38 times. It literally means a “vapor” or a “mist,” something without substance or meaning. Useless and empty. Futility. It’s often followed by the phrase, “a chasing after the wind,” an example of something elusive and pretty much pointless.
Ecclesiastes covers more than the world of work and labor, but does mention this a number of times. One of the main complaints is that what we do and all of our efforts make such a little difference. The teacher is fond of saying that “there is nothing new under the sun.” “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is.” The seasons come and go, we do what we do, and things stay pretty much the same. The teacher asks, “What gain have the workers from their toil?”
The Teacher is also mindful of injustices connected with labor and the apparent lack of divine or human regulation going on to right these wrongs. Chapter 4 begins, “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no one to comfort them! On the side of the oppressors there was power – with no one to comfort them….Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is a futility and a chasing after the wind.”
But this isn’t all that scripture has to say about work. Like many other aspects of life, the original vision for what something can be like, comes out of the mythical first chapters of Genesis. Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took and placed the human creature in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” The original vocation of humanity was to be keepers of the earth, stewards of creation. And like the rest of creation, this is good. Work is good. It’s actually a gift. Work has meaning and is part of who we are. It’s in our DNA to long for good work to do. To care for our plot of land, to care for our neighbors, to create and invent and build and collaborate together on projects that enhance the beauty of the world. We can’t separate ourselves from this connection to work. Whether we are getting paid for it or not, we are all workers looking for good work to do.
It’s possible to read the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures as a people’s long journey from poor work – futile toiling and laboring – toward good work. It didn’t take long after Genesis 2, of course, for the joy of work to become the burden of work. And it didn’t take much longer for the burden of work to become the worst form of work, slavery — when one people or nation seeks not to care for the earth and nurture life and beauty, but to dominate the earth and consolidate power. The ancient Israelites found themselves on the underside of an Egyptian empire that sought this very control over the world. And work became not a life giving activity, but a life-draining demand. Exodus tells that, “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them” (Exodus 1:13-14). The harder the Hebrews worked, the more the Egyptians demanded from them, eventually not even supplying them with straw for the bricks they were making, but asking them to gather their own straw while still having the same quota of bricks. And so the people cry out.
In The Lord of the Rings book, Frodo’s companion Sam says, “The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”
Yahweh, the God of slaves and all oppressed people, could not agree more with the theologian from The Shire, Sam Gamgee. Yahweh hears the cry of the slaves and responds with a mighty hand to deliver the Hebrews from their slavery and to bring them out as a free people, giving them laws and commandments in order that they may keep living as free people. A people who will partner with God in the good work of being a blessing to all nations.
There is a phrase in the scriptures that represents the vision of what good work looks like. When everyone has opportunity for constructive, meaningful work. It’s a phrase that also refers to a state of security and peace and social stability. The prophet Micah uses the phrase when he says, “God shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:3-4). Sitting under one’s own vine and fig tree was a symbol of people having the freedom from fear of violence, and the freedom of good work on one’s own plot of land. To care for one’s family and community.
So the Hebrews who become the Israelites make the God-led move from the toil and poor work of slavery toward good work that can lead toward all sitting under their own vine and fig tree.
For the last couple of years I’ve been engaged in the work of pastoring. I have found this to be good work and am grateful for the chance to have this kind of work. Inevitably, there are two common responses that people give when I tell them that I’m a pastor. One is to say that pastoring must be the most difficult, challenging work that there is, something that no one would really do in their right mind. The other is to say that pastoring must be the most rewarding, meaningful work that there is, right in the middle of God’s work in the world. Without meaning any disrespect to the calling of pastors, I believe that this work is no more and no less a part of God’s mission in the world than many other forms of work that are available. We are all engaged in difficult work that we have to be a little out of our mind to be doing, and we are all right in the middle of God’s work that can be meaningful and rewarding.
Here’s a line from a recent essay put out by the Alban Institute that summarizes all of this well: “Every rightful human task is some aspect of God’s own work: making, designing, doing chores, beautifying, organizing, helping, bringing dignity, and leading. Our work then is to reflect God’s work. As the apostle Paul proclaims, ‘Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people’” (Col. 3:23). (Alban “Called to purpose and meaning” 5/12/08)
We’re all called to good work, and even the Dilbertesque Teacher of Ecclesiastes is willing to give some worth to this calling: In 3:12-14 it says, “I know that there is nothing better for us than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we live. Moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before God.”
Over the next few weeks we’ll keep reflecting together on work and spirituality. What makes for good work? How do we encounter God and wisdom at work and through work? As a way of visualizing the coming together of work and spirituality we’re inviting everyone to bring in some object from their work world to be up front in our worship space. This could a hammer, a calculator, a baby toy, a book, or whatever may symbolize what you give your time to throughout the day. I’m going to get things started by placing this sermon manuscript on the table. May God bless our worship and our work and bring them together as one expression of love for God and neighbor.