Redeeming Our Work

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Swinging open the kitchen door, I almost swung back out again. A skillet flew past my nose, and an answering saucepan flew a few feet farther in, lower and slower. The older brother had worse aim.

The two sons of the resort owner were fighting in the kitchen. Again. My first thought was to turn around; my second was that I had to get through this to pick up my order and get it out to the table warm. I ducked and ran. I was small and fast, and I needed the tip.

Though the volatile kitchen at the resort scared me, it was better than the summer I spent working at Long John Silver. Tips were good, when the diners were sober. At least there were no fryer burns involved.

Working my way thorough high school and then college meant restaurant work every summer—the only option in our small blue collar town.

I hated restaurant work.

Why don’t we like our jobs?

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Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash

Less than fifty percent of Americans like their job. In our continuing discussion about the Garden, the Fall, and other words important enough to merit capitalization for theological purposes, work matters from the very beginning. Like relationships, it inherits one of the greatest consequences of sin. The two things we most often find our identity in—family and career—are dealt the greatest post-Eden blows. Funny that, huh?

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3)

Humans not only don’t like their work, they appear to be destined to that dislike. Most of us are far removed from a life of sweating and digging for our food, but the reality remains—if you want to eat, you need to work. And work, according to over fifty percent of us, is disappointing.

Why?

Work sometimes merits this dislike

There are, to be sure, rotten aspects of he current state of work in America. Young people, even with college educations, often cannot find jobs that offer them longevity, health care, or a fit with their actual area of study. The gig economy hits them the hardest, and not surprisingly, they more often consider their jobs to be bad ones than older workers do.

Racial and gender bias cause minority and female populations to be more dissatisfied as well, given that they do the same work for less pay and are hired less often based on their skin color or gender.

Dead end jobs haunt us more than they used to when people could expect to climb the corporate ladder and move steadily upward.

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Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

More people want and expect their work to mean something, not just put in time. That’s not a bad thing for a Kingdom-minded person to want and expect.

These are valid reasons to hate a job. I will not discount them with condescending statements like, “When I was your age,” “Just pay your dues,” or “Be happy you’ve got a job.”

We all long for our work to mean something, and there’s a reason for that.

Work as blessing

The first work was part of the first blessing, just as family and community were.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Genesis1.28-31)

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Work for the first humans meant joy. God created the Garden as a temple of sorts, sacred space where we could live with him and do what fulfilled our purpose. Work served as an extension of our being, a way of living in God’s likeness. Take this land. Reign over it as I would. Tame the animals. Spread this good garden over the earth. Be as I would be in this place, and it will give you meaning.

Ruining that first relationship ruined our work, too. It’s been a battle since to find that meaning again.

Work redeemed

Yet if Christ came, as mentioned last week, to renew all things, work, the first thing humans were set to do, must be among those things. Renewal and restoration of our work life must also be part of the promise. But how?

I think it goes back to looking at that original and doing some detective work. What about it can we take away to find the blessing in our work?

The original blessing of work

First, God meant work to be a a partnership. Adam and Eve both received the commission to reign. They both heard the word to create a people who would work together to form the garden in the world.

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Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Yet so much of our work today is done in solitude, or at least in self-imposed loneliness. We’re stuck in our cubicles, not considering that work could be more of a blessing if it was more of a community. But those boogeymen we talked about last week—fear and shame and pride and power—stick their noses up in the workplace as well.

  • We’re afraid to cooperate with others because they might steal our promotion.
  • We’re worried our ideas might get shot down and we’ll be ashamed, so we don’t offer them.
  • We’re intent on consolidating our own power and position and leverage so much that we miss the opportunities to listen and learn from others.
  • We’re fearful that there won’t be enough room at the table for us, too, if others succeed, and that scarcity mindset sends us into a spiral of self-fulfilling insecurity.

Second, work was done in the garden for the fellowship with God. That we could relate to God while we’re working seems foreign to most of our thoughts. Even more foreign, maybe, is the idea of bussing the table, typing the memo, or changing the diaper for His glory.

We’ve divorced God’s original intent and linked work to success, money, power, dreams—with the result that our identity is linked to our success and happiness and not our relationship with God.

Third, God intended work to spread blessing in the beginning. Does our work do that? How could we make it so?

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Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Now what?

Some of our jobs truly do stink. I can’t deny that. Yet in the middle of them, it seems we could still look at these three parts of the original plan and find a way to redeem them. Even as we plan and hope and pray for better.

  • If the work seems meaningless, maybe the purpose is to bless rather than be blessed.
  • If the work is boring, maybe the plan is to ask God into it, practicing his presence, as Brother Lawrence would say.
  • If the work feels lonely, maybe God meant for us to focus on supporting others’ work, refusing to believe the lie of scarcity, partnering with others outside of our tiny workspace.

It’s like evil to aim at the things most dear to our hearts and minds—family and work. It’s like Jesus to take them back for us and give us back the garden offer.

He can make work very good again.

It’s Whatever

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I just walked a mile around he lake in our nearby forest preserve. That might not sound like much. It isn’t compared to a mere six months ago. Six months ago on vacation, I routinely walked 8 miles a day. Every day. For two weeks.

When you stack up today next to six months ago, today appears to fall pretty far short.

But that wouldn’t be telling the whole story.

Almost four months ago, I injured my back. In ways known only to witch doctors somewhere in deepest darkest Africa, I managed to get a herniated disc just getting into the car. Pray you never experience this. The level of pain is off the charts, and recovery has been ponderous.

I don’t like slow. I yell at slow drivers, give side eyes to dawdlers in the grocery store, and have zero patience with organizers of anything who aren’t properly organized. It’s the curse of the high-strategy person. (Fortunately, Jesus holds his hand over my mouth and puts my heart in the place it needs to be. This, in itself, is enough reason to believe he’s real.)

So extremely slow physical recovery isn’t my best game. I want to be able to get back to 6-8 miles within weeks, not a year. I dreamed of a sixteen-mile hike in the Channel Islands this summer. That dream just isn’t going to happen. It’s going to be slow, careful, one mile by one mile.

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Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men. (Colossians 3.23)

So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10.31)

I’ve heard these verses a lot. They’re good words. I think, though, I’ve let these well-known verses bully me, in a way neither God nor Paul ever intended. It all depends on where we put the emphasis. (It also, always, depends on context.)

I’m used to looking at these verses and seeing the words “heartily,” “”work,” and “all” first. Like, we have to do everything. A few things won’t do. And how we do that everything? With all we’ve got. All the effort. All the perfection. As all coaches’ favorite woefully unmathematical motivational platitude goes—give it 110%.

Go big or go home.

But sometimes, big is more than we have. It leaves us feeling like we should be making those 8-mile hikes every single day, signing hymns all the way, and if we’re not, we’re just not enough.

I think maybe I’ve been seeing the wrong words first.

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That’s not the way Brother Lawrence read the verse when he chose to have a joyful life working in the kitchen slicing carrots and stirring stew.

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

As long as he did it with gratitude, he considered washing dishes glorifying to God. It wasn’t everything. It wasn’t perfect. It was enough.

Why do we hear these verses and think that one lousy mile for God isn’t enough? Small things aren’t sufficient. We ought to be doing grand things, big things, amazing things, if we’re really doing our best for God.

Shouldn’t we be going 6-8 miles, or 16 miles, like others? Or even like ourselves, six months ago?

Whatever

I know all about the illls of comparing myself to others. But I hadn’t thought too much of the illls of comparing myself to . . . myself. So what if I could do more this time last year? Does that negate the mile today? Is it any less significant an accomplishment because a previous me could do better? Why is the me of today less than the me of yesterday because of some arbitrary mile marker I use to determine my worth?

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Our yesterdays don’t determine what we are today. Or tomorrow. Today, it’s enough to do whatever I can do to God’s glory. To take the focus off the “all” and the “heartily” and put it on the “whatever.” It’s the first word, after all. Whatever we are able to do. It doesn’t matter at all if that’s different than it once was or from what it will be someday. “Whatever” is the word I want to concentrate on.

It’s a mile. A good mile. One enjoyed on a warm April day, a rarity this year. To have enjoyed it, to have been grateful for it, to have raised a fist in victory after it—those are the things that bring God joy and glory. They do so no less than to have run a marathon and bested the field.

Whatever you do.

*By the end of this month, I hope to be at two miles. I’ve signed up for the Human Race again, raising money for World Relief and refugee resettlement. With God’s help, I’m going to get there! If you’d like to donate to my walk, please follow the link. I and the amazing refugee population I know and love would appreciate it greatly!