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Every time I return to Colorado, I find myself moving more slowly. I become content with a more gradual pace of life, sleeping more deeply at night and noticing more when awake. The wide sky and high mountains remind me how small I am, how fleeting any achievements really are in a world where all turns back to dust.  

I’m returning to Pittsburgh today from one such trip to Colorado, a Thanksgiving vacation to visit family. The time to rest from work, to be with loved ones, and to read some exquisite poetry has been both restorative and humbling.

I wrote this poem yesterday in an attempt to capture the contrast between the humbling grandeur of creation and the hectic and forgetful pace of life at which I usually live. We spent a lot of time on the road during this trip, and the imagery comes from the less pleasant hours on Interstate 25. The title comes from an essay by the recently deceased Colorado novelist Kent Haruf on how he was formed as a writer.

 

not to live too small

. . . I want to believe I have tried not to live too small, either. – Kent Haruf –

midday sunlight, golden fields, and halcyon blue sky
expand on all sides around us, reaching
eastward to the plains, westward to the foothills

a contrast to the crowded highway where we speed,
the distracted competition of jittery motorists
encased in bell and whistle contraptions.

a disconnect: we have been brought out into the broad place
but choose to stampede ourselves into the narrow
confines of frenzy, hurry, rush.

my great aunt died this morning at the age of one hundred and one,
“now the winner,” her daughter says, “of a long battle.”

at first the thought of such longevity tires me

a sign, perhaps, of living too small –
that decades longer on this expressway
would be the depth of dissipation,
spinning wheels in a race toward what is soon gone

while above geese migrate in formation,
the ordered yet unhurried rhythm of nature
majestic in simplicity, glacial in patience.

a height: narrow is way that leads to flight;
consider the birds of the air,
aloft and free in this shimmering expanse.

Sundays_Off[1]This picture is from the schedule book at the 61C Café. Keith, our manager (who is a greater saint than many churchgoers I know), wrote the note in the center a few years ago in response to other notes requesting time off. It says, “God is the only reason to take off Sunday, and even then it’s only in the morning.”

It’s been three months since I left the café and began my work at the seminary. In that transition I’ve been surprised by both how much I miss the café and how much I love my job at PTS. I’ve also been surprised at just how difficult it is to balance my work at the seminary with my work at The Upper Room and with my life as a husband and father. All these factors are making me think it’s time to begin writing that series of posts on the theology of work that I promised, beginning today with Keith’s note: “God is the only reason . . .”

In Keith’s note, God is the only valid reason to rest. In Scripture, God is actually the only valid reason to work. Let me elaborate:

The epistle reading from the daily lectionary today includes these words about work from Colossians 3: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for masters.” Ephesians 6 contains a similar command to, “Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women.” These verses fall in passages discussing how servants and masters relate to each other. Notice what Paul’s commands imply about our earthly working relationships: No matter who our bosses are, Christians are really “slaves of Christ” (Eph. 6:6).

To be a slave of Christ is not drudgery. It is to receive a gift of freedom and joy and meaning in one’s work. If Christ is our only master, we can be freed from the other gods that drive us in our work: money, people-pleasing, pride, etc. And if we offer our work, however “ordinary,” to Christ as a way of seeking to please and obey him, we can discover the deep joy of communion with Christ throughout our daily labors.

What does this look like in practice? Fr. Walter Ciszek’s book He Leadeth Me provides a stunning example. As a missionary in Poland during World War II, Ciszek was captured by the Russian military. After a season of solitary confinement and interrogation in Moscow, Ciszek was sent to work in the slave-labor camps of Siberia. There, he continued to embrace his missionary lifestyle by serving as a priest to his fellow slaves. And one of the most beautiful ways he fulfilled his priestly responsibility was through the attitude he adopted toward his work.

While other prisoners would show their rebellion against their captors by intentionally doing shoddy work, Ciszek chose to put into practice the verses quoted above from Colossians and Ephesians. He did his work well because he was offering it to God, rather than to earthly masters. By counter-culturally embracing the value of his work, Ciszek participated in God’s transfiguration of that work into a holy act.

Ciszek was able to do this because he believed that through the Incarnation, Jesus gives even deeper validity to our day-to-day labors. As Ciszek puts it,

There is a tremendous truth contained in the realization that when God became man he became a workingman. . . . For the rest of the time of his life on earth, God was a village carpenter and the son of a carpenter. He did not fashion benches or tables or bed or roof beams or plowbeams by means of miracles, but by hammer and saw, by ax and adz. (pp. 102-103)

By becoming human and working this way, the Son of God “restored to man’s work its original dignity, its essential function as a share in God’s creative act.” The fact that Jesus did this as an ordinary carpenter – work that is not obviously spiritual – means that any job which is not obviously spiritual can still be offered to God as work done for God and not for man. Any job. As Ciszek says, “God has not asked of us anything more tedious, more tiring, more routine and humdrum, more unspectacular, than God himself has done” (p. 103)

To approach our work in the holy way that Ciszek did, we need to be converted to see work as inherently good. In Genesis, God gave Adam and Even the job of tending the Garden before the Fall. Sabbath rest was also given before the Fall, and the ideal human life is meant to consist of work and rest, in the proper proportions, done in harmonious fellowship with both God and all of creation. This should mean that  any human job, even laying bricks in a Siberian labor camp, can be done in a way that glorifies God. I say this requires conversion because we’re much more used to looking at work through the lens of the Fall and the curse God spoke to Adam:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:17-19)

Because we live in a broken world and are broken people, our work is tainted by sin. Work is not always pleasant, not always successful, not always satisfying. We sinfully overindulge in our work working constantly without boundaries or rest because of pride or greed or escapism – or we become lazy – denying the goodness of work and over-indulging in leisure. Whether we overwork or underwork, the begrudging or resentful attitude many of us take to our work is itself a manifestation of the curse. This seems to be the state where a lot of us are tempted to dwell.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we offer to Christ our work – whether we’re consturction workers, IT people, nurses, teachers, baristas, garbage collectors, parents, or pastors – we can labor with greater joy and freedom. Working in such a way then also translates into better rest, as well, because we’re free both to experience satisfaction in our work and to reject the voices that falsely seek to enslave us. And any job done with the intention of glorifying God can lead naturally to a Sabbath of basking in God’s presence. As Wendell Berry puts it in one of his Sabbath poems, “When we work well, a Sabbath mood/ Rests on our day, and finds it good.”

What joy might we discover, what freedom might we find, if we believed that God truly is the only reason for working?

I was tempted to complain yesterday that there aren’t enough hours in the day. I’ve made this complaint before, and I’ve heard others make it. We say this as though we’re the victims of some grand cosmic scheme to suck up all our free time. It’s a complaint we’re more likely to make when we don’t enjoy everything we’re doing, when we feel like the time we really want to do something more important – spend time with family, exercise, rest, read, etc. – has been stolen from us.

Yesterday was no worse than any typical Monday for me. But as I looked at my half-completed to-do list late that afternoon, I found myself wishing I simply had more time. But then it hit me: what an insult such a complaint must be to God, who appointed the lengths of days and seasons.  As Psalm 104 says, it was God who “made the moon for the seasons.” In other words, the lunar cycles bear witness to the fact that certain rhythms are embedded in the structure of creation. The daily rhythm of light and dark is another example. And God put these rhythms in place for a reason.

The Psalmist continues:

The sun knows the place of its setting. You appoint darkness and it becomes night, in which all the beasts of the forest prowl about. The young lions roar after their prey and seek their food from God. When the sun rises they withdraw and lie down in their dens. Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until evening (Psalm 104:19-23 NASB).

As Psalm 104 suggests, all of creation is meant to live according to certain rhythms. Sleep. Sabbath. The poet writing Psalm 104 sees these rhythms as gifts.  But I think today we’re more likely to perceive these rhythms as limits, instead of gifts. And this is dangerous thinking, because as soon as we think we’ve become limitless, we’ve made ourselves into gods.

This is one more place where I think the spiritual discipline of dedication to the truth can be liberating.  Dedication to the truth means accepting the limits that define our existence as creatures, including the number of hours in a day, but that liberates us from unrealistic demands, whether self-imposed or thrust upon us by others. The truth that we are creatures liberates us from our pride that expects to be able to accomplish more than is humanly possible. The truth that rhythms of work and rest are built into creation liberates us to work well when we should, and to stop when it’s time to stop. Thank God that there are 24 hours in a day.