For the love of work

This week I began work again after a time of sabbatical.  And it is good to be working again.  The structure for the week, the purposefulness of a place to go where your skills are engaged, the craft of it, the mind/body engagement.  It’s good.

I missed my work; I was itching to get back at it.  This is a basic human impulse I’m feeling.  The gospel has a very high view of work, understanding it as intrinsic to a created, material world, to our nature as image-bearers of God.

And yet there’s been a long apartheid of faith and work at play in Christian circles.  More times than I can recall, I hear people concluding – mostly unwittingly – that only effort with ecclesiastical or pious connections is holy.  If that is the case, then the 88,000 hours an average person gives at work, from first day of work to retirement, is out of the range of the gospel, which makes for a very small, inconsequential faith.

Here’s a more beautiful truth the gospel opens up for us – your work is holy.  When you give your self to craft a table, feed a child, plan a meeting, repair a wall, compose a poem, heal a hurt, or design a product, that is something very good and sacred.  When you work, you are like God (throughout the Bible, God’s reality is unpacked through a variety images from the world of human work; he is a gardener, shepherd, tentmaker, builder, architect, farmer, composer, winemaker, potter, clothes designer/garment maker).  Our work – whether it draws in a huge salary or is freely offered, whether it is recognized and celebrated or unnoticed and undervalued by others – is a response of love to a deep call, to a created identity fashioned in you by the Maker of all things.

Labor Day is a good time to remind ourselves of the good, holy thing work is.  I recently read an old essay by Dorothy Sayers called “Why Work?”  It is a really fine piece that unpacks the radical and transforming nature of a Christian perspective on work.

Let her words remind you of the holiness of your work:

Christian people, and particularly perhaps the Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work. The Church must concern Herself not only with such questions as the just price and proper working conditions: She must concern Herself with seeing that work itself is such as a human being can perform without degradation – that no one is required by economic or any other considerations to devote himself to work that is contemptible, soul destroying, or harmful. It is not right for Her to acquiesce in the notion that a man’s life is divided into the time he spends on his work and the time he spends in serving God. He must be able to serve God in his work, and the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation.

In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.

But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? 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.

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