I am working away on a new book which will be a companion to the already published Incandescence, the collection of my sermons with spiritual formation exercises set up for the Christian Year. The new book authored with Julie Robertson (who also contributed to Incandescence) will be entitled The Living Legacy and will be out next year. It consists of some of my metaphysical poems, theological reflections on them, and spiritual meditations on them as well (which is Julie's contribution). The following is a small sampling. Reflect on what follows:
Weary, worn, welts on hand
Work has whittled down the man
To the bare necessities
Of what he is, and what he’ll be
Was this then his destiny?
Defined, refined by what we do,
The toilsome tasks are never through
Thorn and thistle, dirt and dust
Sweeping clean, removing rust
All to earn his upper crust?
Sweat of brow, and carried weight
Rose too early, slept too late
Slaving, striving dawn to dusk
'Til the shell is barely husk
Staunch the stench with smell of musk?
But work is not the curse or cure
By which we’re healed, or will endure
It will not save us in the end,
It is no foe, but rather friend
But while it molds us will we mend?
Task Master making all things new
Who makes the most of what we do,
Let our work an offering be
A timely gift from those set free
From earning our eternity.
When work is mission on the move
By those whose efforts serve to prove
That nothing's wasted in God’s hands
When we respond to his commands
Then we shall hear him say “well done”
To those who worked under the Son.
Oct. 4, 2005
Work is something most of us share in common, and unfortunately too often even Christians succumb to the notion that work itself is a curse, even God’s curse on fallen persons. This is a most unfortunate reading of Genesis. Work is something God assigned Adam to do before there ever was a Fall. He was to fill the earth and subdue it. He was to be fruitful and multiply. He was called upon to name the animals and to recognize none of them would be a suitable companion or life partner. Apparently there was much work to do before the Fall.
It is in fact the toilsome nature of work that is a result of the Fall. Work becomes hard work as a result of the Fall. The earth can be unresponsive and require much sweat of the brow to produce anything. And of course we have not made things easier on ourselves as we have fouled our own nests with pollution and garbage of numerous sorts. All kinds of work can be bone-wearying. Is there a way to look at work from a Christian perspective that neither writes it off as a curse and something to be merely endured, nor to see it as our salvation? Could it be our calling rather than a curse?
In this poem I am suggesting work can be a calling, a mission, a ministry, an offering to God, and in any case and at all costs it should never be seen as merely a way to ‘make a living’, which is an exceedingly odd phrase. We might do well to talk about making a Christian life before we talk about ‘making a living’, if what one means by that phrase is making money so one can survive. All too often ‘making a living’ really means ‘making a comfortable living’ or even ‘making a killing’ if we are a greedy sort of person.
From a Christian perspective all persons in Christ are called to both ministry and discipleship of various sorts. Labor is part of this calling some of which is remunerative, some of which will not be. Paul in 1 Corinthians is insistent that ministers of various sorts should be offered pay for their labors since Jesus says a workman is worthy of his hire, but of course they can refuse pay as well. If we see work as part of our life stewardship, just as play and worship and prayer and sleep and so many other things are part of our stewardship, we will begin to be on the right track.
Life is a gift from God, and work can be a blessing rather than a curse if it is done to God’s glory and for Christ’s kingdom. Work is part of what we offer to God on a daily basis as we respond to God’s call to do various things that matter in life, even do things that change life for the better, or even save lives. There are several keys to a proper Christian attitude about work.
Firstly, work should be done in full remembrance that salvation is a gift of God’s grace. Therefore we can neither work nor worm our way into God’s graces, and we shouldn’t ever see work as a means of doing so, or as a means of making amends, or as a means of atoning for things we’ve done wrong and the like. Work has no capacity to save us, nor can it compensate for our lack of salvation, nor can the doing of it make God an offer he can’t refuse. Work done in service to God, as a grateful response to God’s grace can however be a great good. It can even help feed, cloth, and even save the world.
Secondly, we should avoid the mistake of our culture by which I mean we should avoid defining ourselves by what we do. We are all creatures created in God’s image (which is not an accomplishment but a gift) and if we are Christians we are creatures renewed in the image of Christ. This is who we are. What we do, whether we are doctors, lawyers, scientists, ministers, theologians is important but it does not define or eclipse who we are. We have all met doctors who had excellent skills but who were not very good persons. They were good at their tasks but bad at being a real human being, much less a Christian one. It is no accident that Paul in the Pastoral Epistles, when he is talking about ministers says precious little about what they ought to be doing, and quite a lot about what kind of persons they should be (cf. 1 Tim. 3 to Titus 1).
Thirdly, we should not evaluate the value of our work by how much we are paid to do it, nor by the amount of praise, fame, or kudos garnered for doing it. We should evaluate our work by whether we have done it well, done it to the best of our ability, done it honestly and in good time, done it to the glory of God, whatever the human response to the work may be. Unfortunately we live in a world where many people even Christians not merely define themselves by what they do, but define their true worth by their financial or net worth. This is both tragic and it gets in the way of finding out whom and whose we really are.
Lastly, it is right to take satisfaction from a job done well. This is in itself a reward, but since in the end we are playing to an audience of One, the evaluative voice that really matters when it comes to assessing our work is the one whom hopefully we will one day hear say “Well done good and faithful servant”. It is no accident that there is a dialectic set up in Genesis between work and rest, between work and play, between work and worship. Work should never be a be-all and end-all experience, or else it will indeed be the end of us all, prematurely, as we work ourselves to death.
I was visiting the Billy Graham library in