Jeff Haanen

Category

Work

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TheologyWork

Volunteering for Justice or Working for Justice?

 

Homelessness, immigration, poverty, access to health care, pollution, sex trafficking, educational reform, mass incarceration – the justice issues of our day are seemingly endless. The good news is that many evangelical churches are not only addressing these issues, but are encouraging their congregations to get involved. But as a whole, churches have adopted very limiting strategies for living out Amos’ (and Martin Luther King’s) cry to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” This is what I mean:

Typically churches will address a topic like poverty in a sermon series or at a conference, and afterward they will encourage participants to do one of two things: (1) donate to a local ministry, or (2) volunteer. If pastors can manage to convict hearts of the unacceptable injustices of our world, and that’s a big if, the “ask” is to give money or to go and volunteer once a month cleaning graffiti or packing food boxes.

Now, volunteering through a nonprofit to serve the poor is good. And so is giving money.  However, it leaves the other 45 hours of a parishioners work week untouched. On the church level, we’ve largely overlooked the centrality of work for bringing about justice.

Let me illustrate. A classic justice text is found in Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah, and most of the minor prophets, issue thundering critiques of injustice. But what kind of situations were the prophets addressing? Here are a few examples from Micah:

(1) “Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate together what they desire – the all conspire together” (Micah 7:3). Political rules were corrupt, accepting bribes and using power to advance their own interests. What’s the implied call to action? Volunteer through a local organization? Or is it a call for those working in government to maintain the highest ethical standards, never forgetting the weak whom the LORD cares for?

(2) “Am I to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house, and the short ephah, which is accursed? Shall I acquit a person with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?” (Micah 6:10-11). The critique here is of a business culture that has a single bottom line: maximize profit. Dishonest scales and false weights cheat consumers out of a fair price. Again, what’s the action point? For those who work in business, turn from dishonesty, set fair prices, make quality products, and let justice before the LORD drive business practices.

(3) A final example from Micah: “They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they defraud them of their inheritance” (Micah 2:2). Here the powerful take the fields and homes of the powerless. Again, I’d ask, how should we best address issues of predatory lending, affordable housing and even homelessness? Should we not first talk to Christians in finance, mortgage, and lending and see if we can’t build practices that get and keep the poor in affordable homes and restrain the temptation to “covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them?”

The point is simply this: pastors need to shift how they tell their congregations to get involved in justice issues to include both volunteerism and work. Volunteerism is good – America’s civic culture has always been strengthened by volunteers. But at work is where Christians (1) have far more time to address justice issues and (2) are in positions of influence to actually change structural realities.

For example, after a sermon series on immigration, why not encourage small business owners to hire immigrants as a practical way to show concern for the foreigner (Ex. 22:21)? In education reform, can we encourage teachers to spend extra time with students who struggle to read because God wants all young people to be able to read and hear his word? Could we encourage city officials to adopt environmentally friendly policies to care for God’s creation? Couldn’t we even encourage employees at gas stations or fast food restaurants (those without ‘power’) to serve customers as they would serve Christ himself, or be courageous and name the idols that drive unethical practices?

On a practical level, for pastors this means different sermon illustrations. It means different tables in the foyer that, for instance, gather Christian engineers to talk about building a beautiful, environmentally friendly, and community-building neighborhoods. It means publicly praying over your “royal priesthood” and commissioning them to be salt and light in the workplace. It means seeing your congregation not as a crowd of potential volunteers, but as teachers, nurses, construction workers, hotel employees, and marketers who have been called by God to bring about truth, beauty and justice through their vocation.

It means deeply believing James Davison Hunter’s words: “Fidelity to the highest practices of vocation before God is consecrated and in itself transformation in its effects.”

Discussion question: For pastors and ministry leaders, how might “working for justice” versus “volunteering for justice” change your calls to action?

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Work

Meaningless jobs?

 

What might Christianity say to those who are “stuck” in entry-level, hourly jobs? What can we say to those organizing clothes at The Gap, steaming espressos at Starbucks, or selling laptops at Best Buy?    High ideals are perhaps not hard to find in medicine, law or social work. But what about the rest of us who deliver juice, sit at the front desk, or just find ourselves trying to get by? Are these jobs just “meaningless” ways to earn money, or can there be ways to apply the Christian faith here too?

Two conversations I recently had shine light on this very question. Jim is an architect. Today he designs homes and hospitals with one other partner in Denver. As we grilled out and watched our families play by their apartment pool a week ago, I asked him about his work.

He explained to me that his firm was built on biblical principles. “What do you mean ‘biblical principles?’” I had to ask. He explained that it primarily meant an attitude of genuine service toward their clients. Because they’re driven not only by the bottom line, he’s free to design what his customers genuinely need. He also said it influences how he does his work; buildings are spiritually formative. To that end, he regularly asks, “How will this design influence my client’s day-to-day life?”  Besides service and the spiritual dimensions of design, he also accepts projects for nonprofit clients like Colorado Coalition of the Homeless.

“Jim,” I asked, “But what would you say to an entry-level architect that has no influence, and must simply serve the bottom-line in a larger corporation?” Jim replied, “Yes, that was me for several years. I would say find ways to create value. When I was an intern just trying to get my license, I worked in a huge corporation. But when a task was given to me, I found ways to do it with distinction and create value for both my boss and my clients.” The projects given to him turned out better than his boss expected. It was that attitude that gave Jim the reputation and relationships that set the foundation for his firm today.

Jim didn’t change the corporation, but he decided where he did have influence, and started there. His influence had a leavening effect on his small circle of clients and co-workers his first years after college. Jim created value through doing excellent work and serving the needs of others – and eventually his influence grew.

Dave is a bus driver. A dear friend from church and a wise follower of Christ, Dave told me he was laid off from his job of testing car emissions a few years ago. When he left his shop, he took a job driving a bus for special needs children. His new job was highly interpersonal in nature – a vast difference from his previous work. Although it was an unforeseen career move, Dave applied his Christian faith in bold ways.

Over burgers at a recent cookout, he recounted to me, “One day, I spoke to other bus drivers about our jobs. So many people just see this job as a paycheck. But I said to them, ‘When a kid walks onto your bus, each and every one of them is important. They’re not just a paycheck – each of them has a unique story and life. We have a responsibility to greet them with a smile and take care of them.”

“What was their response?” I asked. His jaw dropped, visually showing me the dumfounded responses of the other bus drivers. “They had never thought about that before.”

Dave had influence over the students he saw daily and on the network of other bus drivers he knew. In a job where it was just about getting the route done, he insisted that all people, including children with special needs, are made in the image of God – and through his words and example spoke a shocking gospel to his co-workers. Like Jim, Dave knew he actually did  have influence, and he used his influence to speak truth and serve.

So, how should we counsel those who are in “meaningless” jobs? First, decide where you do have influence. Then, give both clients and customers the benefit of work well-done, an ennobling experience fitting for image-bearers, and, most importantly, words of hope.

Discussion question: In what ways have you seen others bring meaning to a “meaningless job?” In what ways have you shared the gospel through your work?

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Work

Work as Witness

 

Often our first ideas are the most clear. Writing a book, drafting the design for a new cell phone case, mapping out a family vacation – often the foundational work comes in a short flurry. Last fall, this is what happened to me as I imagined the reason for a new faith and work nonprofit. I quickly wrote down five goals that would address the six tragedies of modern public life.

Five Goals For Our Work 

  1. Our work should be a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. I’m not sure work can “transform” the world, nor do I think we can “redeem” culture. But as Christians live in God’s reign now, so each element of the Christian’s life can be a sweet foretaste of the world-to-come. Writing a book, designing a shopping mall, or teaching a lesson can all point to God’s kingdom when Christians can articulate the reality of God’s reign, and connect theologically how the work of their hands points to the authority and majesty of King Jesus.
  2. Because most of us work in “public,” work should be the place where we make public witness to the Gospel.  Our work can and should be a witness to the gospel when we connect revelation with our daily deeds. Question whether that ad accurately portrays the product you’re selling – and do so with the knowledge that our work bears our image, and we reflect the image of the God of all truth. Construct buildings that draw the heart to beauty, and are not only focused on the bottom line, for God himself is the author of all beauty. Work is the place where we can potentially have the greatest influence for the gospel, both by our words and our deeds.
  3. We need a new framework for our fields based on God’s revelation in Jesus Christ as elements of the Enlightenment project deteriorate our shared public life. The West, and nearly all global cities that call themselves modern, share a very similar culture, which is based on thought that comes out of 18th century Europe.  Today, the underlying Christian roots of modernity have been increasingly pushed out of public life, and what’s left is an ever-critical, individualism that doubts nearly all authority and people who live, as Maslow has said, increasingly for “self-actualization.” The way to give public life a rejuvenated moral fabric and sense of purpose is by re-imaging our respective fields in light of the gospel, a story that both challenges other gods and casts down idols, and lifts up all that is good, true and beautiful in the world, whether it comes from the hands of Christians or non-believers (for it all comes from the hand of God). The task before us is to create spaces for Christians to ask how the gospel influences their work in community, and do it with the desire not to conquer, but to speak truth in humility and to serve the needs of our neighbor.
  4. We need the vocational resources of the Christian community to be unleashed for serving the common good of our cities. A city well-served and deeply loved; this is the task of nearly every urban church, but far too few see the inherent power of equipping the saints not just for volunteer opportunities once a month, but for using their God-given skills to advance the common good 40-50 hours a week.
  5. We should strive for creative, joyful work. God worked with joy, and he created simply because it was good. So should Christians be known for craftsmanship, doing a thing well simply for its own sake. Become lost in your task, adorning society with your art. Be filled with wonder and use your mind and hands to bring a smile to the face of another. It is in this self-forgetfulness that we unwittingly sow the seeds of cultural renewal.

Photo: Urban Architecture

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Work

How to Change Your Company’s Culture

 

I recently wrote a dual book review for Christianity Today. One book, Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture and the Church, was cogent, clear and helpful; the other, Christ + City: Why the Greatest Need of the City is the Greatest News of All was chatty, poorly argued, and at times misleading. In my review, I argued there was a key difference that separated the two volumes: “one book is merely in the city; the other is engaged with the city.”

One book brought Bible stories “into” an urban context (the author was from Chicago), yet showed very little understanding of  the city nor engagement with its culture. The other book, Why Cities Matter, combined social analysis and ministry application to produce a useful tool that helps ministry leaders not just move into the city, but to winsomely engage its culture.

“In” a city versus “engaged with” a city is a helpful distinction that can shed tremendous light on the faith and work conversation. Many Christians are simply “in” a company or organization, and even are very “Christian” there (personal evangelism, ethical decision-making), but are not in any meaningful way influencing their organizational culture or the culture of their industry. I would venture to say that the majority of faith and work ministries unknowingly encourage versions of this kind of isolation by promoting a “protect and defend” mentality. Christians gather, circle around the Bible, and defend their personal morality against the pressures of cut-throat competition, secular humanism, or unsavory influences.

Of course, other Christians are not just “in” an organization, but are actively engaged with its culture, and do so winsomely. Some strands of faith and work ministries do this extremely effectively, and though the means for influence is indeed work, the outcome is actually cultural influence. So how do you move from simply being a Christian “in” an organization to actually engaging its culture with the gospel?

Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard offer five clear questions for determining the “storyline” (culture) of a city, which also works well for a company or organization. There are five key questions to determining your organization’s culture.

1.       What is your organization’s history? When was it founded and by whom? Where did it start and when? What was the original mission statement and how has it changed over time? Answering these questions is foundational to understanding your organization’s unique culture.

2.      What are your organization’s values? Entrepreneurship, faithfulness, long hours, creativity, success at any cost, the bottom line? What does your organization reward at the end of the year? 

3.      What are your organization’s dreams? Global influence, millions of dollars, brilliant scholars, Broadway? Perhaps a better way to ask the question: if your organization found $10 million in a treasure chest, what would be done with it?

4.      What are your organization’s fears? Past non-existence, what is the worst case scenario? Generally, flip its dreams upside down, and you get its fears. 

5.      What are your organization’s ethos? An organization’s ethos is shaped by its unique geography, history and climate. It’s no accident that REI thrives in Colorado, and even that the tech executives of sunny Silicon Valley wear t-shirts and sandals. The climate affects their casual culture.

If you can find time to hammer out these questions with your co-workers, you can begin to define your organizationally culture. When Um and Buzzard applied this framework to cities, they labeled (accurately, I believe) key urban centers with their corresponding idols: Boston: Knowledge; Paris: Romance; London: Influence; Boulder: Adventure; San Diego: Health; Singapore: Order; Oklahoma City: Family. If you can understand your organization’s culture, which is always ruled by a god, you can begin to engage it’s culture with the gospel. 

Engagement is twofold: (1) Challenge your organization’s storyline, and (2) Re-tell it with the hope of the gospel. The Scriptures frequently command direct confrontation of idols. Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, Josiah crushed the Asherah poles, and Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city [Athens] was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Taking the step to say your firm, school, or guild’s focus of ultimate significance is not ultimate is no easy task. In my personal experience, one of two things will happen: (1) People will think you’re crazy and say there are no such gods in this place, or (2) Try to drive you out (he’s really not our kind of person after all). Nonetheless, challenging the idols is a necessary part of ministry within your industry.

Second, and perhaps this is the way to not get fired, retell your organization’s storyline with a renewed hope inspired by the gospel. A friends of mine works at a public relations firm in Denver. In the world of PR, there’s a tendency to “bend” the truth for your clients, as there is across the world of marketing. The Christian story points to a person who is himself the way, the truth, and the life, and calls his children to live in the truth. The gospel also points to the day when light will expose all darkness, and the truth of Jesus’ kingly authority will be made known to all.

Truth, as it turns out, is good for marketing and PR. In a culture of “noise”, people are skeptical about advertising and marketing campaigns, expecting to be bamboozled, if even subtly. Seth Godin recently advised marketers to lead with the unattractive parts about your product or service. This kind of “leading with truth” can actually surprise people enough to cut through the noise and potentially win more clients. Perhaps not. But the reward of telling the truth is reward enough for the Christian who values integrity over pandering for more business.

This is just one example. Other industries will have other idols to confront, and Christians will have other (better) stories to tell. But I believe this is where cultural influence begins, first on the micro level and then at the macro level.

(1)   Understand your organization’s culture.

(2)  Challenge your organization’s storyline.

(3)  Re-tell your organization’s story with the hope of the gospel.

Of course, all this talking by itself is insufficient to change the culture of your company. Ideas must be incarnated; they must put on flesh. Re-telling must culminate in creation, in new kinds of work. We must take a better hope and make new processes, policies, programs, or products. Here is where we can plant the seeds of renewing the face of the earth – and the office.

Photo: Denver Panorama

Discussion Questions: What is your organization’s culture? What are its idols? And how would you re-tell your organization’s (or even your industry’s) story with the hope of the gospel?

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Work

Peace in Your Work

The last two weeks have been overwhelming. In addition to my normal job (admissions director), I’ve taken on the task of planning a major 2-day conference. I didn’t fully know what I was getting into. Setting schedules, contacting speakers, arranging technology, coordinating volunteers, planning facilities, writing web content, arranging a live stream, and promotion. Promotion. We’ve contacted, it seems, everybody. And yet, my heart has been restless.

When I fall asleep, I think about the details. When I wake up, I worry if we’ll have a good turnout. My mind has nearly been ruled by this work. When I come home, I feel ashamed that I’m only able to give partial attention to my beautiful wife…and my beautiful family.

This morning, I sat next to my wife (and my one-week old daughter), and said, “You’re going to have to help me with this. I enjoy this work, but I have no Sabbath. Not just on Sunday, but this conference is taking me over. I need boundaries. I need peace.”

She sent me a text message this morning:

My love. You know it’s never really about how hard your work, or how much you get done; it’s about how God chooses to work. ‘Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to him be the glory’ Eph. 3:20.

God has given you good work to do, but work with freedom and peace because he has already won!

This is exactly what I needed to hear. Praise God for godly wives! When the frantic worry creeps in, the worry that I haven’t done enough, or that things won’t turn out – that worry comes from not understanding the gospel. This is what I had missed:

(1) God has already accomplished the great work of salvation on the cross. Peace comes when I realize that the most important work has already been done. I’m free.

(2) God is at work today, in and through my work. The “work under the work”, as Tim Keller calls it, arises when I erroneously believe that it’s only me at work here – me against the world! This is not true. God himself is working in not only planning this conference, but in gathering people and using it to bring about change in hearts. And he is able to do WAY more than I can ask or think or imagine. He is mighty. And He is working today in ways I can’t even imagine.

Christians must plan God into their strategic plans. That is, they must fully trust that He will show up, and that if he doesn’t things won’t work out. No contingency plans, but a deep trust that God is a person who is alive in this world, in human history, and in our lives. “Waiting on the Lord” is a strategy. Perhaps the best strategy.

Jesus himself said we can do nothing apart from him (John 15:5). Surely, we can (and the world does) accomplish all kinds of work without Christ. But nothing of eternal value, nothing that will survive the refiner’s fire (1 Cor. 3:13) will survive if it’s not done with Jesus.

Today, I go back to work. The resurrected Son of Man works alongside me. I have nothing to worry about. I still work hard – and long hours. But I work with a deep peace.

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Work

Blessing the Status Quo

 

In an article  Gene Edward Veith wrote for The Gospel Coalition this past Fall, he concluded:

“Our very work becomes transformed not in its substance—Christian workers mostly perform the same tasks as non-Christian workers—but in its meaning and in its value.”

I’m generally a fan of Veith’s work, but this claim is truly astounding. Veith is claiming that when we truly understand the gospel’s influence on work, we will do the same tasks (and work) as non-Christians, but just feel better about it. That is, if we properly understand the idea vocation, our motivation and attitude will change, but the work itself will be no different. Astounding.

With all due respect for my brother in Christ, let me ask some honest questions: Is this not a high priestly blessing of the status quo? Is this perspective not simply baptizing the ways of the world with thinly veiled language of “calling” and “all work is spiritual work?” Should Christians really not be engaged in different kinds of work, and not just in become more emotionally psyched up to do the same job but with a rosier outlook? Here’s my real question: How on earth did we end up here?

Mr. Veith outlines in his article just how we got here: Luther’s doctrine of vocation. Luther lived in an age where “calling” (vocatio) meant to enter the priesthood or to become a monk. Thus, his response was to say that God calls people to all sorts of work – farmers, magistrates, bakers, mothers and pastors. No need to make one kind of work (ministry) holier than others (business, art, etc.).

Luther based his doctrine of vocation in the doctrine of divine providence. It’s through work that God provides for the needs of the world. He uses the farmer to feed us, the tailor to cloth us, and the carpenter to house us. Luther’s classic quote is, “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.” That is, God is using the milkmaid to provide milk for the needs of others. The logical conclusion: stay where you’re at in life, and acknowledge that God is using your vocation to serve your neighbor’s needs.

One of Luther’s favorite Scriptures to prove this point is 1 Corinthians 7:17, “Each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.” Luther’s conclusion: “calling” is connected with staying in your current job, because God has providentially put you there. Essentially, Veith follows Luther’s line of thought here: change your attitude and motivation for your work, but don’t change the work itself. Work harder (a la the Puritans), work happier, but stay put. If you’re suffering in your work, acknowledge that Christ suffered too – and keep working.

Now, 1 Corinthians 7 doesn’t have anything to do with work. It’s about men, women and marriage. But that’s beside the point. Luther’s view of work doesn’t take into account several critical factors. First, Luther assumed a static social sphere (as did most medieval people), and that one’s current work was one’s calling. But this just isn’t the case. Indeed for some, their current job is their calling for God, but not for most. The call to remain, be satisfied, and just recognize that your job is a “calling” is comforting to some – but to many it is suffocating. As Miroslav Volf has pointed out in Work in the Spirit, this view led to an eventual merger of the idea of “vocation” and “occupation.” Your job iss your vocation – you just don’t realize it yet.

However, second, and most importantly, Luther’s view focuses on the individual’s attitude, not on the work itself. Reflection on work for nearly 500 years, under Luther’s influence, has tended to focus on how a person feels about his or her work, and not on whether some kinds of work are essentially good and humanizing or bad and dehumanizing. Thus, the recent revival in interest in vocation has parroted the phrase “all work is spiritual” or “all work is God’s work,” without even a second thought to what types of work we might be baptizing.

For Luther, the only kind of work that shouldn’t be done was directly immortal – prostitution, etc. But the question remains: are there some kinds of work that make us more human, and some that make us less human? Or, to pick up on our initial question, should Christians do different kinds of work, or just bless “all work” equally?

I’ve been too theoretical. Let me give you an example. Mike Lefevre is a steel worker. Studs Terkel interviews him in Working:

“I put on my hard hat, change into my safety shoes, put on my safety glasses, get to the bonderizer. It’s the thing I work on. They rake the metal, they wash it off, they dip it in a paint solution, and we take it off. Put it on, take it off, put it on, take it off, put it on, take it off…

“I say hello to everybody but my boss. At seven it starts. My arms get tired about the first half-hour. After that, they don’t get tired any more until maybe the last half-hour at the end of the day. I work from seven to three thirty. My arms are tied at seven thirty and they’re tired at three o’clock. I hope to God I never get broke in…Cause that’s when I know there’s an end. That I’m not brainwashed. In between, I don’t even try to think.”

Mr. Lefevre does back breaking work day in and day out. But that’s not the problem. His work is so repetitive he feels like he’s getting brainwashed – tired arms are the only things that make him snap back into reality. For most of the day, he tries not to think at all.

A simple question: how many jobs today, whether white collar or blue collar (however we define them) partition doing from thinking? How many jobs have been reduced to the simplest possible task, and have left tired arms (or lower backs and wrists for the computer age) and empty minds? Can any job that does this regularly to God’s image bearers be a vocation with simply a right attitude change? What about the work itself?

Peter Drucker once said,

“Machines work best if they do only one task, if they do it repetitively, and if they do the simplest possible task…[But] the human being…is a very poorly designed machine tool. The human being excels in coordination. He excels in relating perception to action. He works best if the entire human being, muscles, senses and mind is engaged in the work.”

Another question: do some types of work better facilitate coordination of the entire human being – muscles, senses, and mind – than others? We would all have to say yes. Then why has so much Christian theology focused on the individual’s attitude toward work (Luther, and recently Mr. Veith), and not on actual hard reflection about the different kinds of work itself, and what different kinds of work do to people themselves?

I have a theory. There is a trinity to good work. Thought, activity, and interaction with others, akin to the Father, Son and Spirit (clearly the topic for another article). The last 500 years focused on the theme of calling for a framework for human work; perhaps the next 500 years will focus on the work of the Triune God himself.

Even if they don’t, let’s not say that the only difference between Christians and non-Christians at work is that Christians see meaning and value where others don’t. Indeed, there is too much suffering, too much hardship, and too much of human life bent out of shape like a warped steel rod to settle for such a capitulation to the status quo.

Photo: Steel Works

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Work

Just For White Guys?

 

Is the faith and work movement just for white guys? This question has been a mystery to me for some time. Just a cursory glance around the faith and work landscape, and you’ll find a bunch of middle class white men (with the occasional woman or Asian). So what’s going on here? Does integrating your faith and work only matter for white professionals and not African-Americans or Latinos? (For the sake of this post, you’ll have to excuse some generalizations.)

I think Maslow might be able to help explain this quandary.

Anybody who’s taken an introduction to psychology course will have heard of Abraham Maslow (b. 1908). He’s famous for proposing a hierarchy of needs that explains human motivation, organized into a neat little pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are the most basic physiological needs: food, water, oxygen, sex. One layer higher is the need for safety from, for example, illness or danger. Above that came needs for self-esteem, love, intellectual stimulation, and beauty. At Maslow’s apex is “self-actualization” – the need to engage your skills and talents to reach your highest potential.

After World War II, Americans became the wealthiest people in human history. In the 1950s and 60s, satisfying the needs for food and shelter became almost universal.  The expectation of comfort became the norm. In the late 20th century, millions were “liberated” to pursue self-actualization. And work was where self-actualization was primarily sought. As early as 1962, Maslow said,

“All human beings prefer meaningful work to meaningless work. If work is meaningless, then life comes close to being meaningless.”

As we approached the 21st century, more people rejected being “Organization Man monoliths,” as Daniel Pink has pointed out in his book Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live. They sought to venture out for themselves in record numbers, starting new businesses and organizations, hoping to find that their “true self” through meaningful work.

For the time being, let’s bracket the inherently idolatrous nature of looking to work to find your sense of purpose (perhaps the topic of another blog post). Instead, let’ s bring the issue of race into the picture. Twentieth century America did not bless all ethnic groups evenly with wealth and comfort. African Americans lived under the thumb of institutionalized racism even years after the civil rights movement, and struggled for years to acquire the kind of jobs, and thus material comfort, that their white counterparts did. Today, it’s mostly Latinos who occupy the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder; they make even less than blacks per capita across age groups.

All that to say this: while white guys were wondering about their purpose in life, blacks and Latinos were just trying to survive. When I was a pastor of a Latino congregation, it wasn’t terribly surprising that questions of existential despair or vocational fit never arose. Dignity and providing for the family trumped “fulfilling the cultural mandate.” Getting a job and paying rent was a bit higher on the hierarchy of needs.

To be fair, faith and work ministry exists globally in the form of business as mission (BAM). The reason business is so important is because buying and selling provides human needs like food and shelter. The Lausanne Movement has a thriving BAM arm and is comprised of people from every race under the sun.

Historically speaking, it’s no wonder that faith and work ministry looks like a project that’s “just for white guys.” It’s not tough to see how history produced different motivations for work among different ethnic groups. It would be wise to remember Maslow when teaching about faith and work to those from different cultural or social backgrounds.

But I believe the “just for white guys” stereotype will soon be a thing of the past. The middle class in Latin America has been growing for decades, and China now has a thriving, middle and upper middle class workforce. There are even signs of hope for Africa’s economic prospects. In a world that becomes wealthier yet more isolated from a sense overarching public purpose, the question of meaning will continue to bubble to the surface – for Latinos, Asians, Blacks , and even white guys.

Photo by kay ef

Discussion question: So, am I right or not? Is the faith and work movement just for white guys?

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Work

When work stops

 

The Bible sets a pattern of work and rest. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work,” (Exodus 20:9-10). Six days are for work. Produce, create, and make. Yet one day there is to be no work whatsoever. It is a day of rest, a day of worship. Work is good – but God limits our cultural production, lest it become our driving force and make us slaves once again, as we were in Egypt.

Two weeks ago I received a phone call from my step mother. There had been an accident. She and my dad were at a grocery store, weary from a long trip back to Minneapolis from the lake. My step mom went to the deli to get a small dinner, and my dad needed to use the bathroom. While in the bathroom, his gun (he regularly conceals and carries) slipped out of his hands, fell to the ground, and fired a round. It pierced a hole in his shin. My step mother had left her cell phone in her car; my dad called and received no answer. He cried for help, and finally she returned to see him reeling with pain, soaked in blood, on the bathroom floor.

My dad is okay. He needed immediate surgery, and now has an titanium tibia. Yet I was jarred by the news. The bullet could have strayed – and been deadly. In a moment, I might have lost my father. After I found out, I booked a flight on Southwest for that same evening to visit my dad at North Memorial Hospital.  I had several things planned for the next two days. But in a time like this, work stops.

It’s not quite right to say, as many do, “At the end of your days, will you really care whether you spent another day in the office?” Those who say this mean well, but it means work is ultimately meaningless. I would say to that person, “Perhaps you should have done different work.”

Yet we must say that work is not ultimate. God is ultimate. And we immortal creatures dance on the edge of eternity each day. There must come a time, ideally one day out of every seven, when we step back and consider the great expanse of lives, and what (and who) deserves our greatest attention. On January 24, that object of my attention was my father.

Discussion question: Do you practice Sabbath? If not, why? If so, how do you use your time of rest well?

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Work

What we’ve forgotten about vocation

 

There is a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo Baggins meets Lady Galadriel, an elf queen. She leads him to look in small bowl of water, called the mirror of Galadriel, that tells the future. After seeing the demise of the Shire in the mirror, the Lady says about his great task of destroying the Ring, “For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the enemy…For the fate of Lothlórien you are not answerable, but only for doing your own task.” The movie version of this scene adds her saying, “Frodo, if you do not do this, it will not happen.”

Frodo was called. He had an appointed task that was heavy with importance, and if he, the Ring Bearer, did not do it, it would never happen.

The idea that people are called by God to do a task is deeply biblical. Some examples:

  • Moses was called by God to bring the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery (Ex. 3:7-10)
  • David was pulled from tending sheep and anointed king of Israel by God’s special choosing (1 Samuel 16:8-30)
  • Jeremiah, even though only a boy, was called to be a prophet to the nations (Jer. 1:4-10)
  • Isaiah, despite being a “man of unclean lips,” was sent to be a stern rebuke to Israel’s corrupt kings (Is. 6)
  • Jesus called his first disciples to leave their fishing nets and instead “fish for people” (Lk. 5:10)
  • Paul was called to “proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15)

Even though the concept of a divine calling is so pervasive in Scripture, today we have largely lost some of its key tenets. I think we’ve lost at least three things.

(1) We’ve lost the sense of having a singular life task that is given to us, and us alone. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was sitting in a Nazi prison in WWII, he worked tirelessly on what he believed to be his great life’s work: his book Ethics. This task kept him exercising, eating, and working when many other prisoners lost all hope. He felt his death was coming soon, but continued to study and write, feeling deeply that he had to complete this work before his days were done. While in prison, he wrote to his friend Eberhard that this idea of being called to a life’s work had been all but lost in his day. He would not be among those who lost such an expansive perspective on their life’s work.

(2) We’ve lost the role of weaknesses in fulfilling our calling. A pastor, who I greatly admire, recently advised his congregants on how to find their calling. He gave a three-fold test for discerning a calling: affinity, ability and opportunity. That is, (1) Do you want to do it?, (2) Are you good at it, and (3) Do you have the opportunity? This is generally good advice – if you’re missing any of these, you’re not likely to be happy in your career.

Yet I believe he’s missing the role of weakness. Frodo was the least likely person to carry the Ring to Mordor, but he was ultimately selected. Bonhoeffer was in a freezing, bare Nazi prison, yet his writings endure to this day – including his unfinished Ethics. David was the youngest son, not the oldest, Moses stuttered (and was an ex-con), and Paul was a Christian-killer before conversion. Yet each was chosen by God. This is how God works. He chooses “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). Calling is just as often aligned with weaknesses submitted to God than finding your strengths.

(3) We’ve forgotten that most careers aren’t vocations. On the one hand, we often confuse our calling with being successful in our careers. Leah Labresco has written a great article in First Things that blasts the destruction of intimacy and relationship in a culture that prizes success at any cost. She writes:

“Most careers aren’t vocations, so we need space outside them to grow and love. It’s possible to make a short-term decision to put life and relationships on hold, in order to make a high-intensity commitment to a cause (this is the model for the oft-touted national service draft), but it’s unhealthy to let these crisis-mode jobs give shape to your life.”

Our vocation may be to stay at home for a season, or to take a demotion for more meaningful work. To say you’re “called” to do something is not the same as saying “I will succeed at any cost. A calling is always from God, who may send us into a desert for 40 years before sending us to Pharaoh (or, like the desert fathers, he may just keep us there).

Yet, on the other hand, some completely lose touch of their vocation because of the pressures and challenges of a career. It’s one thing to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed coming out of college, ready to conquer the world. It’s another to have experienced years of having your career not turn out as you thought, and being weighed down with a mortgage – and still to continually live out a calling.  This often takes courage – and a deep faith that this is indeed where God has called you (despite the world telling you otherwise).

We need to see our “work” as larger than our careers ( and our success in them) and yet still a central way in which we live out a commitment to Christ.

Paul writes, “For you are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which were prepared in advance for you to do, (Eph. 2:10). God has prepared tasks for all Christians to do. We are saved for a purpose. Like Frodo, we all have a Ring to bear – and a mission to fulfill.

Discussion question: What is your calling?

(Photo: “Sortie,” Keoki Seo)

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Work

Working, Pt. 1: Sharon Atkins, Receptionist

 

For the next several posts, I’m going to highlight individual stories of people talking about their work. The interviews are from Studs Terkel’s masterful book Working, a compendium of first-hand accounts of people at work: steel workers, cab drivers, farmers, policemen. As I’ve read their stories, I’ve been moved to hushed silence. The cry for dignity, the frustration, the crafting of meaning through work – this is one of the most human books I’ve ever read.

What I will do in each post is introduce the individual and his/her work, and then share a lengthy direct quotation from the interviewee. From there, I will offer some brief theological reflections on their experience.

Sharon Atkins, 24, works as a receptionist for a large company in the Midwest. As an English major, she originally looked for copy writing jobs, but employers wanted a journalism major instead. So she took a job answering phones.

“I changed my opinion of receptionists because now I’m one. It wasn’t the dumb broad at the front desk who took telephone messages. She had to be something else because I thought I was something else.  I was fine until there was a press party. We were having a fairly intelligent conversation. Then they asked what I did. When I told them they turned around to find other people with name tags. I wasn’t worth bothering with. I wasn’t being rejected because of what I said or the way I talked, but simply because of my function

“I don’t think they’d ever hire a male receptionist. They’d have to pay him more, for one thing. You can’t pay someone who does what I do very much. It isn’t economically feasible. (Laughs.) You’re there just to filter people and filter telephone calls. You’re there just to handle the equipment. You’re treated like a piece of equipment, like the telephone.

“You come in at nine, you open the door, you look at the piece of machinery, you plug in the headpiece. That’s how my day begins. You tremble when you hear the first ring. After that, it’s sort of downhill – unless there’s somebody on the phone who is either kind or nasty. The rest of the people are just non, they don’t exist. They’re just voices. You answer calls, you connect them to others, and that’s it…

“I don’t have much contact with people…You don’t know if they’re laughing, if they’re being satirical or being kind. So your conversations become very abrupt. I notice that in talking to people. My conversations would be very short and clipped, in short sentences, the way I talk to people all day on the telephone…When I talk to someone at work, the telephone rings, and the conversation is interrupted. So I never bother finishing sentences or thoughts. I always have this feeling of interruption…

“You try to fill up your time with trying to think about other things: what you’re going to do on the weekend or about your family. You have to use your imagination. If you don’t have a very good one and you bore easily, you’re in trouble. Just to fill in time, I write real bad poetry or letters to myself and to other people and never mail them. The letters are fantasies, sort of rambling, how I fell, how depressed I am…I always dream I’m alone and things are quiet. I call it the land of no-phone, where there isn’t any machine telling me where I have to be every minute…

“Until recently I’d cry in the morning. I didn’t want to get up. I’d dread Fridays because Monday was always looming over me. Another five days ahead of me. There never seemed to be any end to it. Why am I doing this? Yet I dread looking for other jobs…I don’t know what I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit the job. I really don’t know what talents I may have. And I don’t know where to go to find out…

“My father’s in watch repair. That’s always interested me, working with my hands, and independent. I don’t think I’d mind going back and learning something, taking a piece of furniture and refinishing it. The type of thing where you know what you’re doing and you can create and you can fix something to make it function. At the switchboard, you don’t do much of anything.”

On  being “networked”: Sharon had the experience of being “networked” as a press party; as soon as somebody found out her job, they deemed her unimportant. The Christians teach that all people have value not because of their work or social status, but simply because they’re made in the image of God. How often do we “network” people to advance ourselves, or simply treat people as tools to be used? Do we really talk “to” the clerk at the grocery store or the insurance representative on the phone, or do we talk “through” them, to simply get what we need and then be on our way?

On interruptions: Sharon observed that her job was affecting her ability to think. Her thoughts and her sentences became truncated because her work forced her to say something quickly and then move on to the next caller. A recent book has noted that the internet is also affecting our brains. How do the rhythms of your job – whether serving customers or replying to mountains of email – affect you ability to have a full thought?  Sharon’s mind was altered by her work, and she experienced a deep boredom through automated repetition.

On fear: Sharon was afraid to leave her job because she wasn’t even sure of what she was good at anymore. She dreaded Monday (even Fridays too), and her dreams were melting away. It’s clear that her work was the locus of a deep sadness, and she yearned for an even deeper hope.

On satisfying work: Sharon longed for another kind of work, one “type of thing where you know what you’re doing and you can create and you can fix something to make it function.” I’ll have more to say about this in future posts, but Sharon is expressing a deeply embedded desire to reflect the image of the Creator. She was born to create, to leave a physical imprint on the world as one who is herself the physical imprint of Another.

Discussion question: If you were to meet Sharon tomorrow, what hope would you offer her? What advice would you give?

(Photo: Telephone Switchboard, Robert Niles)

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