Why Work?

This morning I aim to speak about work. Christians often talk about work as vocation,a “calling” from God. Whatever do we mean?

Most Saturdays from April through October, Ellis and I walk our dog Oscar over to the Tower Grove Farmer’s Market. It’s good practice for Oscar. We’re continually working on his manners when greeting new people and other dogs. We also go for the spectacle, the people watching, the coffee, and sometimes we even buy produce from the farmers.

Often one of us waits in line for tomatoes, salad greens, or really whatever is on sale from one particular farm. There are a dozen or so produce vendors at the Tower Grove farmers’ market, but one of the tents almost always has the longest line. Their produce is simply excellent. Orange and yellow heirloom tomatoes bigger than your fist sit next to the purplest of onions. Their cucumbers are crisp and sweet, and the prices are relatively reasonable. It is said that human beings often vote with their feet. If that’s true, then this stand wins every Saturday in a landslide.

Their produce speaks volumes. These farmers, at this place, in this time, I would argue, have found a calling, a vocation. The literal fruits of their labor tell us that the growing process involved both deep care and intrinsic talent. Vocation exists at the harmony between giftedness, dedication, and a real human need. When a human need is met with art, the results can be delicious. Good work, good art, well grown food, can satisfy more than our hunger, it can satisfy our soul. When that happens, we talk about God’s call.

The word of the Lord called to the prophet Jeremiah saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” God puts God’s own words in the young boy’s mouth. Jeremiah called the people to the justice and mercy of God’s laws. Jeremiah prophesied that Babylon would fall, and the people would return from exile to Jerusalem. Jeremiah was made for this moment, for this time, to speak these words of conviction and hope to these people.

The Quaker educator Parker Palmer encouraged those who are looking for their calling to “Let Your Life Speak.” Palmer is one of the foremost writers on vocation. He is an expert. Still, becoming a grandparent caught even the expert by surprise. Palmer wrote:

When my first grandchild was born, I saw something in her that I had missed in my own children some twenty-five years earlier, when I was too young and self-absorbed to see anyone, including myself, very well. What I saw was clear and simple: my granddaughter arrived on earth as this kind of person, rather than that, or that, or that.

We are often so caught up in our own pursuits in life that we fail to really see one another. Sometimes we even fail to see ourselves. But our God is the God who knew us before we were formed in the womb. Human beings are created with an intrinsic dignity, and that dignity is tied to a sense of purpose. Human beings are made for work, and, our tradition teaches us, we are each made uniquely. God makes us so that we might make a unique contribution through our life.

Much of the conflict and suffering in the human community could be alleviated if we found avenues for each person, regardless of gender, race, class, religion, orientation, or geography, to live into their calling. When people find meaning in their work, they are more able to find harmony within themselves and their community. When we are able to pause and see the potential in our fellow human beings, we are more likely to try and work together.

Now I know there’s a bit of a danger in raising questions about work from a pulpit. Work is not an abstract for most of us, it is concrete. I know some of you love your work, and others of you, less so. Some of us here are currently looking for work, and are frustrated just trying to make ends meet. Some of you are retired.

Retirement, as many of you regularly inform me, often does not mean freedom from work. Retired professional or “stay at home” parent, I know people who put in long hours each week providing childcare or taking care of an elderly family member. Somehow many of you formal and informal workers also find time to volunteer with the church, tend a garden, pursue a hobby. Not all work is compensated. Unpaid work can also be a calling. Work is a complicated subject.

I’m wading into these dangerous waters of work and vocation for two reasons. The first is simple. I think the Church has to talk about what we do with the rest of our week. Church should be a place where we come to reflect and find strength week in and week out. What we do here should have an impact beyond Sunday morning. The second reason is simple Jesus had a lot to say about work.

The main argument the Pharisees always made against Jesus was that he was working on the Sabbath. Today the story from the Gospel takes a decidedly misogynistic turn. The leader of this particular synagogue blames the victim. “Don’t come here on the Sabbath for healing” the leader says to the woman who was healed. Surprisingly this Pharisee doesn’t go after Jesus, directly. Usually Jesus gets in trouble for “working” on the Sabbath. Instead this leader scolds the woman. But Jesus still responds. “Should not this woman be set free?” Even on the sabbath?

It is easy to roll our eyes at the Synagogue authorities in the Gospels. But, friends, I’m here to tell you that our modern concepts of work are very similar to those of the Pharisees. We have an unhealthy relationship with our work as a society. The poet and philosopher David Whyte names this well when he advises:

“We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each.”

He’s right. The idea of work-life balance often just makes us feel guilty. In all of my spiritual advising, I’ve never heard someone say: “I think I’ve got my work-life balance right.” But, take heart. Jesus never described a “work-life balance.” Jesus poured himself passionately into his work. He also took intentional time for reflection and refreshment, prayer and retreat. Jesus didn’t worry himself about not having enough time for both.

Whyte describes a different way to think of work as a

“constant conversation…[a] back and forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world. Like the person to whom I am committed in a relationship, it is constantly changing and surprising me by its demands and needs but also by where it leads me, how much it teaches me, and especially, by how much tact, patience and maturity it demands of me.”

What if we saw work as a journey? What if we let go of the need to get it right moment to moment, and focused instead on what we were learning from our work, who are work was shaping us to be? The good news is that more and more people, and more and more businesses are beginning to describe work this way. We are letting go of the idea that work has to be a slog. We are looking for meaning, growth, and even adventure in our work. We are seeing weekends, vacation, and professional development as a time to reflect and change our rhythm so that we can come back to work with fresh eyes.

During the Second World War the novelist and Anglican church-warden Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay entitled “Why Work?” She worries about the “trash and waste” that comes with a consumer economy obsessed with the disposable and the cheap. Using the gendered language of her day Sayers offers that “The greatest insult which a commercial age has offered to the worker has been to rob him of all interest in the end product of the work and to force him to dedicate his life to making badly things which were not worth making.”

In response, she imagines a shareholders meeting at a brewing company. She hopes that investors would ask questions not just about worker’s wages or workplace conditions. She wants them to ask, “What goes into the beer?”

What goes into the beer? The question is salient. More and more, we are answering this question well. Artisan breweries are on the rise all across our country, even here in Anheuser-Busch country. Against the grain of our “cheaper is better” economy, we have learned that people will pay more for a higher quality beer.

And a higher quality product reflects well on the workers. There is a sense of pride and joy in our work when we know that what we produce matters. When we are part of making good beer, even if the part we played was to clean the floor of the brewery, when we know we are part of something artful, there is pride in that work.

The saxophone player John Coltrane once described his work this way:

To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge,my being… When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from it’s hangups.

Work, at its best, is like art. It is a medium of communication of love and of care. A great artist knows that the best art comes not from pandering to the crowd, but from serving the work. And doing the work we are given well can be service to God. It’s theological. To quote Dorothy Sayers again: humanity, “made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.”

Be careful in your attitude toward work. If you find yourself tired, frustrated, worn thin, ask questions of meaning. Why do you work? Are you doing your best, or simply going through the paces? Is your work helping you live into your potential? How would you describe your calling? If you supervise the work of others, and you find your workers frustrated, ask questions of meaning. Do the people I work with feel they are part of something bigger than themselves? Do they feel they are making a meaningful contribution? Is there work demanding their utmost talent?

Tasting those summer tomatoes from the farmers’ market, hearing the passion in voices of the people who grew them, gave me great hope. As a people I believe we are discovering again that work can feed not just our consumer economy. Good honest work, work we are made for, feeds our soul.

Laying Fallow

Letting the ground lay fallow, unplanted, unyielding, is an ancient practice.
Over the millennia we have of agricultural records, farmers have practiced some form of letting land rest, between rotating crops letting the soil just lay there for a time, fallow. In arid zones, this break allows more water to be stored in the earth so that when crops are again planted, the soil will have some reserve water. Even in wet climates, letting the dirt alone allows the nutrients and bio-matter, necessary for healthy crops, multiply in the soil.
1619442_10100793126839496_188004418_nRecently I visited the Community of the Holy Spirit’s Bluestone farm in New York State, where the sisters have decided to let their garden lay fallow for a year. Ten years ago a group of four sisters came up to their property here to experiment with a garden. Now they are entering a time of rest, refreshment, and reflection on the experiment. The sisters, too, need some time to rest, to dream of new possibilities.
I was there to talk with them about interns. They’ve hosted many volunteers over the decade, and I am tasked with helping the Episcopal Church figure out how to build a “gap year” program for young adults aged 18-22. The sisters are in a mode of reflection, and they graciously invited me, through my friend and their resident companion, The Rev. Matthew Wright, to reflect together about the possibilities and challenges they have found with interns in general and specifically 18-22 year olds.
Laying fallow, it seems, is a good metaphor for our servant year programs in the Episcopal Church. This past Sunday night I had dinner with a group of interns from the Episcopal Service Corps at theEpiscopal Campus Ministry at Washington University in St. Louis. We were there to talk with the college students about volunteer programs.
Washington University is what my grandmother would have called a “good school.” Their acceptance rate is low, and their students are among the brightest and most talented in the country. Many WashU students leave college with an offer of a six figure salary and a bright career ahead of them. In effect, the ESC interns and I were asking these students to consider letting their careers lay fallow, to take a break from being “productive” and “fruitful,” at least in the ways the world, and perhaps their parents, expect.
Early in the year I spent in Honduras with the Young Adult Service Corps, the Episcopal Church program that sends 21-30 year olds abroad for a year of missionary service, I remember feeling pretty useless. My Spanish was still pretty bad, and I couldn’t get the little boys at the school I was working to behave, let alone teach them any music or English. I wrote an email home to one of my priests to say I was thinking of coming back. “I’m not useful here,” I wrote. His response was three sentences long:
Thomas Merton had a lot to say about usefulness.
None of it was good.
Stay in Honduras.
I stayed. I’m still glad I did.
Part of what we have to learn from our faith, we have to learn by taking a break from the wisdom of the world, by taking a break from usefulness. Spending some time in our lives, particularly our young lives, laying fallow before we go try and be “fruitful,” can enrich our soil and our soul.
The Church is learning new ways to invite young leaders into a practice of giving themselves away for a year, letting the priorities of career rest, and allowing themselves to be nurtured while also serving the church and the world. Episcopal Service Corps and the Young Adult Service Corps are growing rapidly. The idea seems to be catching, but it is still early.
What other ways of laying fallow could we discover?

Commun(e?) ity

Yesterday evening Jason Evans and I laughed as we attempted to flip buffalo burgers on the grill, each of us holding a beer in one hand and a utensil in the other.  Meals at the Hawthorn House are a happy experiment, bringing together family recipes, sustainable ingredients, curiosity, and a desire to share food with friends.  I’m living here this summer, in a house that embodies the experimental spirit:  9 adults, 2 kids, 2 dogs, a half dozen gardens, a couple of compost bins, and some renegade skunks all sharing one street address.

A meal at Hawthorn House
A meal at Hawthorn House

For me this summer is an experiment.  I spent two happy years after college living in my own apartment, enjoying the solitude having my own space afforded me.  My home became a refuge from the busy life I lived working as the Campus Minister at UCSD, beginning the ordination process, and dealing with life back in America after a year-long stint in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  I loved closing the door at the end of the day and sinking into my couch.  So this summer by intentionally sharing space with others I am actively exploring what it means to hold space in common.

Holding this in common with this group of people so far has been more of a blessing than a hardship.  I stay up too late drinking good beer and talking theology with my fellow nerds Jason and Lars, get hyped up about the politics of Michelle Obama’s organic garden with my housemate Brooke, commiserate about the insanity of the free clinics I’m working in with Bethany, or blow hookah bubbles with the guys upstairs.  I may get labeled a monster, but just by Matty-boy (who is 5) and Paige (who is 7) as we play.  If all else fails Tasha, the family dog, will throw her chew toy at my feet expecting a game of fetch.

The Evans Family
The Evanses

When trying to explain this concept to others I have often been meant with odd stares.  What do you mean you’re going to live with that many people?  Did you join a commune?

Others are familiar with what has been called “new monasticism.”  A number of communities have arisen (and disappeared) over the past decades attempting to pattern their lives toward a shared vision of following Jesus.  Shane Claiborne of “The Simple Way” in Philadelphia made his community famous when he described their life in his book The Irresistible Revolution.  These communities generally understand that their movement to live together and work in economically deprived areas mirrors that of the monks and nuns who came after St. Benedict, St. Francis, and St. Clare.

Hawthorn House avoids the title “new monasticism.”  My guess is that the term indicates  that a community has come to some imagined settled reality.  The Hawthorn House community, like the meals we eat, is an active experiment.  At Hawthorn we bring together the traditions we hold dear, ongoing questions, friendship, and a desire to follow Jesus.  This summer I’m trying not to hold on too tightly to any vision of what my future life with this community could be.  If the experiment continues it will be because this is a community that knows that cultivating tomatoes while cultivating friendships can teach us a great deal about the kingdom of God.