in praise of work

Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Ephesians 4:28

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

There’s no doubt that work can be overrated where I live. Or should I say what we call work? Long hours, whether “blue collar” (like what I do) or “white collar” is the norm, maybe even especially so the latter. The expectations for production, achievement and success only seem to become more and more, not work as God intends. And against greed and graft, of course. But work necessarily is a large part of our lives. Not to be overdone either, but the way in which we provide for our family and ourselves and bless others. Not to be despised.

Work was intended in creation. God works. “The Fall” resulted in difficulty in work, up against the curse imposed on creation, including on ourselves. Yet work continues, and just as we can be blessed, so can the work of our hands.

I often find work therapeutic, helping me get my mind off something troubling or worrisome. Instead having to focus on the task at hand. But I’m not referring to work that is unmanageable, and stretching us beyond what we can achieve and endure. We are limited, and there can be a breaking point. And we indeed need a Sabbath rest, or break from our work. Not just every day after the work time or shift is done, but at least one day at the end of the week, where we can do not only other tasks at hand like house and yard work, but where we can actually just rest, relax and enjoy.

Work especially in collaboration with others, yes in my line simply with others, can be a good exercise in teamwork, in helping each other, each of us stepping up, learning from another, letting others learn and do well while we step back in supportive roles. So many interesting dynamics possible and really at play in work. Developing relationships there which hopefully help both ourselves and others toward the most basic relationship of all: with God. But in the meantime hopefully more and more doing our work in the way God works. In and through Jesus.

do the best you can, but from God

Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.

Galatians 6:4-5; MSG

Our days, weeks, and lives are full of things that need to be done. Some can be left undone, but others require our attention and simply have to be done. God gives us the tasks, and however mundane they may seem, we want to do it all to God’s glory, which means we want God to receive all the praise in what’s being done, so that in a sense our work is simply serving others for the praise of God. I think that point is evident from what follows from Paul* in this passage:

Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life.

So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.

Galatians 6:7-10; MSG

We need to press on, not in our own strength and wisdom, but in the help received from God by the Spirit. This is ongoing, over time, but something we should be intent on each day. God will help us. We just keep doing it, whatever task is before us. Knowing that amazingly enough we’re involved in the very work of God. Along with others in and through Jesus.

*Here, Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Paul.

“incremental”

The word “incremental” has become an important word for me at work. It probably is not hitting the precise meaning, or the way it’s used, but I see it as meaning little by little, to add up to making work easier for me and others. It’s not like I’m trying to slough off of hard work, but making it manageable, and being willing to relax more when things don’t work out, even when mistakes are made. But to keep pushing on this direction.

I used to work full tilt, kind of trying to do something of this, but with more of an accent on working hard. I still work full tilt, but in a different way. Now it is more thoughtful in terms of trying to keep myself relaxed and through that example, to help us all do the same. So that others aren’t stressed out, beginning with the fact that I’m not stressed out. Of course I can’t handle how others do their work, but hopefully my example can rub off on others, if it’s really helpful. And part of my goal is to make everyone’s job easier, so that they can concentrate on what’s in front of them, to minimize the extra they have to do.

This is making a world of difference for me. I keep thinking of the word, “incremental.” I have it firmly in my memory, finally now, or so I think. But my first thought as far as my work is concerned is to do it little by little, in manageable chunks, even if that means more movement on my part, which it inevitably does. And trying to avoid being in a hurry, insofar as that’s possible. I find the hard work is in a sense easier, certainly easier to manage, and therefore less stressful. In fact there seems a fallout in stress, none or not much at all. Kind of a part of my goal, to avoid undue stress beyond just the normal minimal stress each part of the job requires.

Add to that just lately, I realize I won’t entirely achieve this, so that I have to depend on others to pick up where I can’t. So learning to relax, even when I can’t always achieve “incremental” as I intend to. But making it my first priority as far as the nuts and bolts of my work is concerned; to do so incrementally, little by little, with plenty of room to get things done comfortably. Something I consider clearly to be a needed help of wisdom to me from God. Sometimes in God’s generosity, a kind of wisdom given to anyone. And for us “in Jesus”, it is always in and through him.

do well in your calling (whatever it is)

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord…since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

Colossians 3:23-24

I remember decades back hearing someone say that if their job was a milkman, then they would want to be the very best milkman around in fulfilling their calling to God. Wasn’t it Martin Luther who suggested that whatever our work may be is at least our current calling from God? I think you can make a case for that in Scripture, of course provided that the work we’re doing is not something that is contrary to God’s will.

The context is actually addressed to slaves. One needs to look at the entire New Testament to understand the nuance provided in the truth and power of the gospel eventually undoing the entire institution of slavery. But in the meantime, Christians found themselves in what probably was less than a desirable life for many of them, not something they would have likely chosen for themselves, at least not over the long haul. But the word for them is to be wholeheartedly faithful since what they were doing was not merely service to their master, but actually service to Christ.

How much more true is that for us who are in jobs and perhaps life circumstances that we find less than agreeable, certainly not what we would aspire to ourselves? And with that comes the temptation to let down, despair, at least struggle since what we’re doing is so far removed from what we would like to do. But that’s when we need to settle ourselves down, and prayerfully look to God to do well in the place and responsibilities we have. Not to despise what might seem mundane, wearisome, or of little consequence to us. But to prayerfully do as well as we can in the grace God gives us.

We remember what Christ did in becoming one of us, and then in the humble life he lived, as well as the death he died. All of that to many would seem a waste, or at least falling short of the ideal for living or blessing others. But that is precisely where God’s blessing came, in the most humble of places. We need to remember that, and do our best even in what seems a secondary task. Trusting God will use that in whatever way God chooses, to his glory and for the benefit of others. In and through Jesus.

 

rolling up one’s sleeves and getting to work

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

It’s easy to exist in kind of a limbo in which one is trying to figure out what’s really going on in the world and why, what the best approach to address perceived problems is, etc., etc. That can go on and on, never ending. There’s no end to different opinions and what one can read on so many subjects.

God gives us work as a blessing. Not to be burdened down by it, but to give oneself to the task at hand. And to receive the pleasures of life as well. I like the balance we find in Scripture, and specifically in the book of Ecclesiastes. Work can be a helpful distraction and a tonic in itself from becoming serious in a way that’s not helpful for oneself or anyone else.

The text suggests that too much reflection is not be healthy for one’s well being. We do the best we can, but we’ll never get it all figured out in this life. We should work hard (Ecclesiastes 9:10), then relax and enjoy. Then do that all over again.

All of this a blessing from God. And especially so in and through Jesus.

 

a benefit of slowing down

Better one handful with tranquillity
than two handfuls with toil
and chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:6

Life is busy, sometimes quite demanding. We have automation nowadays, but that only increases expectations of more efficiency at less cost. And with that comes pressure to make it work. But I think a lot of that pressure we impose on ourselves. And that’s related to all our other expectations to succeed and even excel, to be better than someone else, to uphold our own imagined high view of ourselves or our ability, or the reputation we’ve gained.

When you read the book of Ecclesiastes, that’s all poppycock. Just a waste of time, effort, literally a passing breath. The text above tells us it’s better to have less with tranquility, rest, or quiet (compare NIV with NASB and NRSV from link above). It depends on how one translates it, but the idea is essentially the same. Putting one’s whole heart and life into something doesn’t mean what we’ve thought and maybe been taught: to run ourselves ragged.

This is not at all downplaying the importance of hard work and diligence. But it’s saying that we need to do so out of heart of tranquility, rest and quiet. And I think for most all of us, certainly for me, that means we have to slow down. Part of slowing down is not only physical, but inward. We pause, become more thoughtful. We pull out the stops here and there when need be, but we’re willing to shut the operation down rather than try to do what is barely manageable, if at all.

When we refuse to slow down, expectation builds to maybe do better, or keep up what often amounts to a brutal pace. Or we have other expectations, like being better than someone else at this or that, or persuading others that we’re right and they’re wrong, whatever. The list could probably go on and on.

Instead we will do much better if we learn to slow down, be satisfied with something less than before, which actually will become something more. Our tranquility can help others. Our expectation is always from God, not from ourselves. And it’s God’s work, whatever God considers important. Oftentimes that will be a change of heart in ourselves which comes only in stillness and rest as we look to God.

It’s a learning process, not something we can step into easily overnight, but something indeed that we need to do. The same problems exist, but we can now engage them more prayerfully and thoughtfully in faith. And find the rest meant for us in and through Jesus.

slowing down

If a ruler’s anger rises against you,
do not leave your post;
calmness can lay great offenses to rest.

Ecclesiastes 10:4

One of the changes I’m making and actually getting used to is simply the act of slowing down. I’ve been in work on the floor, on my feet for years, where at least at times I have to pull out the stops, and move it to keep the operation going. What I do now is no exception. But I’m purposefully slowing down, and frankly putting other considerations before the bottom line.

Certain things outside of my control along with my own new inclination are contributing toward the idea of simply slowing down. I still try to stay on top of everything, but it’s more like slow motion. Or probably more accurately, I don’t worry about trying to control or keep the operation going. I will scoot fast when need be. But if I don’t get there on time, or I had to be somewhere else, if the line shuts down, that’s okay with me. Of course we are a team, just a small number, but we work together to keep the two lines going.

I’ve found this helpful not only to me, but I think to others. Slowing down means one can take in more of what’s happening, and especially the human side of it. And be more thoughtful, considerate, and even gracious. When one is honed in on just keeping everything going, and passionate about production, then other things slip to the side, or even get in the way. I found for myself being so intense, I was too tense, and too close to the edge, which with all the fast work is not a good place to be. And tends to isolate us from others.

And a new calmness has come. But that seems to depend on both my new action and attitude that goes along with it. Which reminds me of the wisdom found in the book of Proverbs, which seems to combine actions with attitude, so that you might say either one can contribute and help the other. We tend to see good works flowing from the heart. But sometimes changes in what we do can actually help. Like when we’re told in Scripture to stand still, or cease striving.

For a number of reasons I’ve decided to simplify and slow down. I hope I remain on this course. But frankly, it will take some adjusting. I’ve been hurried and harried for years. But it’s actually a glad change and relief. God will take care of everything. I want to do my part, but hopefully in step with God and God’s will. In and through Jesus.

 

shift down and relax

What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 2:22-26

I think one of the staples of the United States has been hard work. I guess the Protestant work ethic has somehow figured into that. But we work long and hard. And production or how much you get done for the bottom line (profit), is considered critical.

I am trying to dial down, yet be fully engaged at the same time. Just much more relaxed, in fact essentially relaxed. I have been uptight for years, staying on top of everything, and pushing to the max always. But while that might have translated well in terms of output, I don’t think it was either that healthy for myself, or even for others around me who might pick up that spirit. One is more on edge then. Production numbers might be higher, but at what cost?

I’ve decided that for me to carry on day after day, I need once again to dial down. Staying on top of things as best I can, yes, but much more laid back. Our job can be fast paced and have one machine problem after another. And without knowing it, I can easily be living outside of God’s peace in the midst of it all.

My goal now: do one thing at a time, relax, try to keep everything going as much as possible, but not be upset when we don’t, even if I’ve overlooked something in that process.

It seems like that’s something the Lord may have been working in me for some time, to slow down, actually do less, and pay more attention to God and God’s priorities of love to others in Christ’s love, and out of love for God in response to his love. Too often in my life I’ve been quite driven, and while that can contribute to good numbers, it doesn’t necessarily mean the good that God is looking for. God might want something better, at least hinted at from the passage above in Ecclesiastes. In and through Jesus.

glimmers of light in our darkness

What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.

Ecclesiastes 3:9-14

Ecclesiastes is a remarkable book and makes a remarkable contribution in the Book. But much of it is hard to really get hold of, and it’s interesting how Bible scholars interpret it differently. It seems to me to speak much truth in the midst of mystery, in the struggle to understand life. It is a reflective and pessimistic view of life, considering human toil and the actual result: how everything comes and goes over and over again.

The idea of God placing eternity, or a sense of the present and future (NRSV), or even darkness as in ignorance (NETNIV footnote) in the human heart, that humans can’t understand what God is up to. That leaves us hanging a bit, but either way life ends up being a mystery. Either darkness, or with a sense of much more, yet not being able to come up with what that is on our own. Ecclesiastes to me seems to echo that last thought, frustration over the seeming randomness and senselessness, indeed meaninglessness of life. But with glimmers of light here and there, even as seen in the above passage. Even the idea that God has placed darkness as in ignorance in the human heart is itself a revelation, and therefore oddly enough, a light.

We have revelation and a sense of so much more, and yet we walk around in darkness. A part of our lives now. Which should help us reach out all the more, maybe even grope, but push and pull all the harder to look to God to live faithfully in his will in and through Jesus.

 

 

 

faith is found in daily life

It is always good to get some rest from the normal wear and tear. Jesus seemed to practice this regularly with his disciples though at times it seemed hard for them to come by.

Although I’m not altogether fond of the monastic notion since it seems like “laypeople” might be regulated to a secondary status as far as holiness is concerned, I will say that the monastics are far from being inactive. They may especially be punctual at religious activities such as reading scripture and prayers along with chants together. But they are also known for work in productive activities not just for them or the church, but for the community.

Faith is found in daily life, and in all the responsibilities of life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed in a “worldly holiness” by which he meant a holiness derived from God in the midst of being fully engaged in the world. And by that he meant something like in all the responsibilities along with the sense of call from God one has.

In this we have to be careful not to leave our sense of call from God behind, or that what we’re about is something holy. At the same time we need to be careful not to abandon that call, just where we can find holiness from God, because holiness is meant to be lived out in real life, in the common ordinary responsibilities of life, along with what special callings God gives us. In and through Jesus.