(Based in part on Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time.)
What do you feel when you hear the word “work”? Perhaps you are among those who feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. Perhaps you even feel that you are making a contribution to the welfare of humanity.
Or perhaps you hate your job. It pays well. You have excellent benefits. Some people may even envy your position. But you hate every moment of your work. It’s not you. It doesn’t reflect your character, your hopes, your dreams, your passion. Or perhaps you hate your work because of what it’s doing to you. The stress, the competition, the uncertainty, the unethical practices all take their toll. And you bring all of that home so that your wife or husband or children or neighbors or cat or dog become partakers of your misery. Robert Bly has done much work with wounded men in our society. He finds that work in our society does more soul damage to men than any other reality in our society. He tells of a men’s group he once participated in. One man said flatly, “For ten years I have been involved in corporate crime.” The other men sat there silently for about five minutes after that. They knew what he was talking about.
Or perhaps you are a workaholic. Like an alcoholic or a drug addict, you don’t know when to quit. I find it strange that businessmen will condemn “drunks and druggies” for what they do to their families with never a thought as to what they, the businessmen, are doing to their wives and children by their work habits.
Or perhaps you are counting the years, months, weeks, hours, and minutes to retirement. You may already be counting the days, hours, and minutes to the weekend. Work for you is an unquestioned necessity.
Or perhaps you are among the millions who are underemployed. You know you have far more to offer than your employer and those about you think you have. And one by one you see your years slipping away, and you are not sure you have much to show for your time on this earth.
Or perhaps you are one of the hopelessly unemployed. Now I know that I am probably not speaking about anyone in most Disciples congregations. But let’s not become too smug or self-righteousness about that. Jobs in the U.S. are being lost to mechanization and downsizing at an alarming rate. The jobs that are being created are for the most part in the low-paying sectors, and many are only temp jobs or part-time positions with no benefits. Now we might think that none of this affects us. But what about our children and coming generations?
And then there are those statistics which haunt us. Americans are working longer hours for less money in real dollars than they were forty and fifty years ago. For most workers there is no job security. With the brush of an executive’s pen, benefits like retirement and health insurance can disappear overnight. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there at every level. And it’s a rat race that no one is winning. And even if you win, you’re still a rat!
And then there is the reality of what we are doing to our environment as we continue our addiction to fossil-fuels and our exploitation of the world’s precious resources. We can’t go on like we are. Sooner or later (and all kinds of evidence point to sooner) we’ll exhaust our resources if we do not poison ourselves and this marvelous planet first.
As we reflect for a moment on these opening chapters of Genesis, perhaps we can begin to see a way out. In these chapters work is not a curse, punishment, or drudgery. It is a divine calling. It is part of the reason we are on this earth. We are told that humankind was placed in the garden “to till and to keep the earth.” We are also told that humankind, made in the divine image, is to mediate God’s blessings to creation. We are to be God’s caretakers of this planet and of one another.
The Bible understands all work as an extension of this calling to caretaking. In other words, the ideal would be this: all work would in some way be a blessing to the earth–an extension of tilling and keeping–a furthering of God’s redemptive plan for creation. The issue here would not be profit, production, or economic growth, but does the work we do benefit the earth and humankind or does that work exploit the planet and debase or trivialize our humanity? Is the earth better off for the work we do, or would the earth and humankind, including our descendants, be healthier if our particular kind of work ceased?
The great mystics of the church understood this biblical perspective very well. They saw that we are called to an inner work and an outer work, and those two works should not only flow from one another–they should be a part of the Great Work of God. Our inner work is to be who God wants us to be and to allow God to transform us into joyful, free, loving, and responsible sons and daughters. We are then called to take our desires and dreams, our talents and abilities and to match them with God’s agenda for this world so that what we do as work flows from who we are as God’s children. The greatest of the Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, saw work as a sacred place, a temple, where God operates the divine work on the world. Our work is a part of the Greater Work of God for this world. Now the question is, does all this describe work as it is experienced in our society by most people? My hunch is that for the vast majority of people, work is not experienced as a part of the Greater Work of God and instead has become a curse and drudgery in their lives and in the world or a destructive idol in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.
I think it’s time for the people of God to step out of the rat race and the dog-eat-dog world of the workplace and to ask some questions. Perhaps it’s time for us, in the words of Matthew Fox, to reinvent work–work that is in harmony with this exquisite creation, which reflects the dreams of our hearts, and which participates in the Greater Work of God. Here are some questions that may help us with our concept and experience of work:
- How, why, and for whom do we work?
- Does work came from the inside out? Is work an expression of our soul? Is our work an articulation of the spirit at work in the world through us?
- Are our lifestyles worth the stress, damage, and loneliness our work causes in our lives and in the world?
- Do we enjoy our work? Are we bored by our work? Do we work for the weekend counting the days, hours, and minutes? Or do we work for a certain standard of living for our families or for our retirement? Or do we work out of a sense of vocation–that we are called by God to invest our lives in this manner? Does our work give our lives a sense of nobility and purpose? Is our work in any way a continuation of the caretaking all work should be in this world if we are to reflect the divine image?
- Are we slaves to the clock? To lifestyles which give us little if any joy and fulfillment? To oppressive and unreasonable expectations which serve the interest of a few but which stifle our joy and creativity?
- When we come to the end of our journey, will we be able to look back and smile, knowing that our little lives and our work have in some way been connected to the great work of God for this creation?
- What are we telling our children, by our words and our example, when it comes to their own plans for their work on this earth?
Native American theologian Jose Hobday points out that no Native language she knows of contains words for “late” or for “work.” Native Americans see work as a divisive word, for it cuts us off from our play and our heart’s passion. Hobday’s father used to tell her, “Try many things. When you find what you love, do that. Then figure out how to make a living with it.”
As we see the old paradigms and foundations of our society crumble, perhaps we need to attend to this ancient wisdom. As we reinvent work, allowing all we do to be in harmony with the great work and play of God in this universe, we might just save ourselves, our children, and this exquisite earth.
[Here are some additional thoughts related to work: What is considered “normal life” in America is now a waste of time–a waste of one’s life: working at a job you don’t like and in which you have no say; a job that leaves you little time for yourself and little pride in yourself; working for scant reward, and for the profit of people who usually don’t care for you; at a job with no security; a job that usually contributes to the waste of the very environment you depend upon; and all the while bombarded by media that trivialize everything they touch.
The average working couple spends 20 minutes a day together. The average father talks to his child for 10 minutes a week. To call this “the sharing of our lives” is ludicrous. It is, instead, a collective state of being caught in a maze–a maze in which great and brave effort produces little result, where there’s little time to reflect and less to be free. Michael Ventura, writer and columnist for The Austin Chronicle]
At this Table we receive food that is deeply and spiritually nourishing. But nourishing for what? Are we not nourished in Christ for the Great Work of God of which we are a part? Is not this spiritual food given to invigorate our sacred work in God’s world? And once we reconnect life and livelihood and profess Jesus as Lord of all, is not all our work sacred? So, come and be nourished for your part in the Great Work of God.
Hildegard of Bingen, a remarkable medieval woman of great intelligence and wisdom, once said: “Everything in nature, the sum total of heaven and of earth, becomes a temple and an altar for the service of God.” Our temple is out there where we are called to join in the Great Work of God. Let us worship with our lives and our livelihood to the glory of God.
Marvelous and gracious God, you fill our world and our lives with such exquisite wonders. We are surrounded by dazzling colors, melodious songs, tantalizing aromas, scrumptious tastes, family and friends, love offered, joy bestowed, burdens shared, tears flowing from a common cup of compassion. Daily we encounter multiplied miracles beyond our calculation–grace piled on grace, overflowing, blessing. How marvelous are your works in this world and in our lives!
Forgive us when we cannot see your presence and your grace. Forgive us for thinking that our security comes from hoarding and calculating instead of trusting in you and celebrating your goodness. Forgive us when, oblivious to the wonders before us, we cry out for more of what we do not need and which cannot give us joy.
Transform us, like your servant St. Francis, into one of your jubilant troubadours. May we see a miracle in every flower; a parable in the flight and singing of birds. May we find joy in love given and received–peace in our identities and destinies as your beloved children. Make us instruments of your compassion and justice in this world, that all we are and all we have and all we do might be worthy of the divine image you have stamped upon each one of us.
Hear our prayers for those who need love and healing, peace and joy, compassion and justice. May our energies and our resources be used as a part of your Great Work of redemption, liberation, and healing in this suffering, precious world you have loved through Christ in whose name we pray. Amen.