Life & Worship: Work

This is the first in a short series of posts for the Easter season, which I introduced last week.

During a good week, the average Christian spends about an hour or two at church – singing, praying, and generally acknowledging God – and maybe a few more hours here and there praying, reading Scripture, chatting it up with other Christians, etc. And the rest of that week is spent at work. That’s four or five hours directly focused on God, and 40+ hours focused on charts, diagrams, budgets, or whatever else working people are up to these days.

This would be a huge problem for Christians if work itself wasn’t a form of worship. But it is.

In my last post, I talked about how the activities of worship include anything that is necessitated by us being God’s image-bearers. That’s pretty vague. To get a better idea of what this might mean, let’s start from the beginning:

Step 1: From nothing, God makes everything seen and unseen.
Step 2: God makes the first human (“in our image”), and calls him “good.” This human has a body.
Step 3: God gives that first human dominion, including naming rights, over everything that He just made. He also tells him to cultivate that garden in the East.
Step 4: God stops making stuff.

At this point, we don’t know very much about God or about people. One of the things we do know is that God is infinitely creative and productive, and that He seems to want people to be as well. Before the fall, God ordains work.

Between then and now, God has revealed Himself to us many times in many ways, including and especially by becoming one of us – the perfect human. This perfect human did a lot of really incredible things, turning water to wine, making a feast out of a few loaves and fish, restoring bodies and lives. And this was over the course of just a few years. For the first 30 or so years of his life, Jesus studied, and made stuff.

Scripture isn’t super clear about how we’re supposed to conduct ourselves in the details of our everyday lives, but I think it’s pretty clear about this. We are supposed to work.

Now we’re kind of treading some tricky territory. Our society has a…complicated…understanding of work, what it is, what it’s for, how much we ought to commit to it, etc. For the sake of clarity, I’d like to define work as productive human activity that sustains and grows us, our families, our societies, and our world. This is a very broad definition; incidentally, there are literally millions of things that qualify as work (and we’re thinking up new ones all the time!) – each of them good, necessary, and potentially worshipful.

One of the mistakes that our society makes in its thinking about work is that it is exclusively related to one’s job. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it’s because we’re kind of obsessed with our careers or we really like money or something. But the legitimacy of work is not determined by how difficult it is or how much money it earns.

Lately I’ve been reading and encouraged by Margaret Peterson’s book Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life. In this treatise on housework, she points out that “in a society dominated by its monetary economy, it is easy to assume that any unpaid activity is either a form of consumption or an oppressive waste of time. But housework, although unpaid, is essentially productive; it is among the ways which humans can and do participate in God’s own work of creation” (Peterson 38). In the office, we might not be particularly creative, and that’s okay. But we should fulfill this part of our human end at home, first and foremost by establishing a hospitable and flourishing household.

Sometimes we also forget that work is a means to an end, not an end it itself. Work is only good and worthwhile insofar as it achieves whatever it aims to do. To be sure, the general aims of work are of cosmic significance.

And this is why work – all of it – ought to be done well. The quality of one’s work is essential to the Christian. Somewhere along the line, the Church (particularly the Evangelical tradition) lost its way and began to devalue tangible worldly things, including work, which was rendered a mere distraction from God that doesn’t ultimately matter.

In her book Creed and Chaos – which is about the things that ought to matter the most to Christians – Anglican writer Dorothy Sayers includes a chapter about work. She reminds us that “the only Christian work is good work well done” (Sayers 108). She also argues that churches should be very interested in how people conduct themselves after the benediction, saying that “The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables” (Sayers 106).

Peterson also makes the interesting and compelling argument that “work is sacramental…In a traditional Christian understanding, sacraments are points at which material and spiritual things come together and God is present and active in particular ways… (work), while not a sacrament properly speaking, may in a similar way allow physical objects and actions to link believers to Christian memory, hope, and present faithfulness” (Peterson 40).

I find all of this deeply relieving. It means that God cares about how I use my time, and not just because He’s jealous that I’m not using it all to pray or something. It means that every day matters, not just Sundays. And it means that it’s not idolatrous to care about the emails I send in the office or the food I cook in the kitchen.

Advertisements

Technology is Killing Me

Okay, that’s dramatic. Aside from some recently discovered cavities, my health is fine. Still, something feels…off. If I was more of a dualist, I’d write about my soul being damaged or something but 1) I don’t even know who is reading this, so I’m not about to start talking to them about my soul and 2) I don’t even know what a soul is.

This rant is about my personhood, and that of those around me. It’s about how technology is making me a little bit less human.

I spend a good bit of each day interacting with data – gathering it, manipulating it, and analyzing it. This data is almost exclusively related to individual people, and I think the things I’m using it for are ultimately good. However, in the meantime, those people are, in my mind, reduced to facts and statistics. They are stored in lists and charts. I know where they live, but not who they are. I have goals for them and their data – Read this email! Like this Facebook post! Donate money! Participate in this community! – and when those goals are met, it is an accomplishment. These people have been reduced to projects, which is a terrible thing for people to become.

Until this season, I was always more interested in questions and truth. I preferred conversations that were left open-ended. Now, I’m more focused on goals and benchmarks that can be quantifiably tracked. These things are more instantly gratifying, but they pale in comparison to the humanizing qualities of the unanswered question.

I still read a lot, but now most of it is on a screen. That’s because a lot of what I read doesn’t come in a hard copy, or if it does, it costs a lot more than what I can download. I don’t remember the last time that I underlined in a book. The other day, I was playing around with the Kindle app on my phone, and discovered this feature that, based on your page-turning speed, estimates how long it will take you to finish that book. This is really helpful, if reading is something that’s scheduled and books are to be marked off some check list. But what about wasting time slowly digesting paper pages?

I used to care more about useless things like art, and play, and God. Now I care more about tools, and that which helps me reach my goals.

Sometimes I try to make an argument to myself that all of this is okay. That it’s okay that  my backpack usually contains three devices that can connect me to the internet. That it’s okay when I see people as fodder for a numerical benchmark. That it’s okay when I invest more energy into what can be accomplished instead of unanswered. But this argument is always utilitarian, and really thin compared to the robust beauty of wonder and uselessness.

I don’t know how to fix any of this.

Post Script – I originally scribbled this into a notebook about a week ago, in a moment of over-exaggerated crisis. Since then, I’ve been more mindful of my relationship with the various devices in my life. I’ve been trying to keep my phone turned off for at least 10 hours per day and keeping it off my person when it’s unneeded. I’ve been writing stuff on paper, and reading actual books. These aren’t significant or inconvenient lifestyle shifts, because it turns out that I don’t actually need to be constantly connected to live comfortably. And I feel just a little bit more attentive, and whole.

What I Will Never Ask My Future Children

When I was about six years old, I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to have all of the jobs, expect whatever it was that my mom did, because her job seemed boring and sometimes she didn’t come home until after dinner. This career ambition was, of course, ridiculous and childish (I was six), but I remember feeling pressure (I was six) from teachers, books, Sesame Street, etc., to settle on a plan for my distant future, so I decided to go with something that covered all my bases.

Looking back on this, I’ve decided to make one of those funny declarations that people without children make so easily: I will never ask my future children what they want to be when they grow up.

To be sure, I certainly want my unborn children to have dreams and ambitions. I just don’t think we have any business expecting someone who was recently potty trained to articulate how they wish to spend their adult life.

I will never ask my children what they want to be when they grow up because we live in a culture where discontentment is the norm. Boredom comes easily to us and we need constant change and stimulation. One of the ways that this manifests itself is in the prevalent need to have something to look forward to – an event, milestone, accomplishment, whatever. In constantly looking toward the future, sometimes we lose interest in the present. Children might be the exception to this: they’re not really thinking long term, and they shouldn’t be. I want to form my children in such a way that they are comfortable being content with the present.

I will never ask my children what they want to be when they grow up because their teachers, books, and Sesame Street will already have already nagged them about this, and I know that they will continue to get that question a lot once they’re teenagers and young adults. We spend our entire youth dreaming about adulthood and when we finally get there we discover that it’s not a dream come true – it’s real life, and it’s actually kind of mundane. In our twenties and thirties, we probably won’t be working at our dream jobs or making a huge difference in the world. Objectively, that’s totally fine, but it’s hard to avoid disappointment – this is what I’ve been looking forward to since I was six?

I will never ask my children what they want to be when they grow up because I want them to know that there is so much more to life that one’s career. If they never get their dream job, or never even figure out what their dream job is, I don’t want them to feel that existential anxiety that millennials are so prone to. While I won’t ask them what they want to be when they grow up, I might ask them what kind of house they want to live in, or what kind of pets they want to own, or where they might go on vacation, or what kind of Christmas traditions they’d like to have with their future families. Because all of these things are important too, and in a culture where jobs often dictate lives, we rarely encourage kids to dream about domesticity.

I will never ask my children what they want to be when they grow up because while I don’t care very much about which college they go to (if any) or which career path they follow, I am extremely interested in what kind of people they turn out to be. I want them to be the kind of people who invest in their communities, love well, and do everything – at work, at home, at the grocery store, everywhere – with excellence, because these things are far more important than what is listed on their resumes.

I will never ask my children what they want to be when they grow up because I am not working at my dream job, I’m totally okay with that, and it’s way more fun to think about what kind of crazy ambitions I have for my future family than it is to think about the next step in my career.