Eat, Drink, and be Merry…

macIt’s all about the food some days: growing, shopping, canning, cooking, plating. Some days, it’s about what’s in the mug, flute, or tumbler: coffee, hot chocolate, sparkling gold, or milk. No one lives long without eating and drinking. It can be a monumental undertaking to get food on the table and the family around it. Offering this necessity is a privilege, a sign of hospitality, and a whole lot of work. With Lent starting tomorrow, it might seem an odd time to focus on eating and drinking. But looked at from a slightly different angle, it’s the perfect time to ask the question: how do eating and drinking reveal my love of God, self, and neighbor?

I won’t be the only one writing about this. So grab a tasty beverage and a seat at the table.

The Service Industry

As Martin Luther emphasized, serving others is THE reason we work. God calls us to love and serve our neighbor, and it is through our work that we respond to that call.

[Ray, Darby Kathleen, Working, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, p. 123]

Work isn’t just to gain the necessities of life: it’s a way to serve the world through our actions. Taken to its end, all professions are meant to be helping professions, designed to give something back as much as to pull money in. What is valuable is what serves others in love, what is a response to God and neighbor. It is its own reward – pro bono with a salary or without. What a thought!

The measuring of professional success cannot be outrunning the other rats in the race. Getting the biggest slice of the pie isn’t the goal; making sure everyone gets dessert, perhaps even baking the pie, start to count. But such things can’t be definitively measured. They are seeds planted and potential fostered. Why consider things beyond the paycheck and the goods that come with it? Why not win the working game by the usual rules: material gain equals success? Ray notes this:

Jesus spent a whole lot of time doing nonheroic work: walking beside those who were heavy-laden; caring for the sick, the infirmed, the outcast, and the prisoner; telling stories rooted in everyday experiences; sharing simple meals with friends and strangers. [ibid., p. 127]

Could he have done otherwise? Sure. But he didn’t. He didn’t rule the land or preside over the temple. His work involved walking around everywhere and nowhere, talking with everyone who happened his way. He didn’t measure a person’s worth by the coins in a pocket. Job titles didn’t seem to matter much to him, but generosity and compassion did. The first and the last jumbled together, equally loved and often equally lost.

I have the luxury of meaningful work. I can write, teach, and serve on a municipal board pro bono. I can tend a garden, clean floors, and drive the carpool to school. No titles or measuring sticks necessary. All this work is a privilege, not just some of it. I sometimes forget this.

Lord, help me, lest I become arrogant in my forgetfulness.

Among the Vines

The laborers whom the owner of the vineyard hires at increasingly late hours of the day are waiting around in the marketplace because no one has hired them. In other words, they are ready to work, hoping to work…

If some are ready and willing to work but cannot get hired, then should they go hungry, or be viewed as moral or social failures?

[Ray, Darby Kathleen, Working, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, pp. 53-54]

Looking at how work shapes our lives as individuals, family members, and part of the larger world, Ray explores Jesus’ parable about the workers in a vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Rather than going with the usual focal point (the same pay for everyone, regardless of how much work they did), she looks at the story in light of employment and unemployment. All the workers wanted to work, hoped that their sweat and toil would put food on their tables and a sense of accomplishment in their hearts. Ray points out that work is a gift here, not an inconvenience or an entitlement. To be able to work, to provide for needs of self and others, isn’t a curse or a necessary evil. It is a way to give something to the world through our own efforts.

Then she asks the hard question: if willingness to work is no guarantee of getting work, is it fair to consider the employed as somehow morally ahead of the unemployed? In times when work that provides a living wage is anything but guaranteed, it’s a good question.

I can’t say I’ve thought much about it. I haven’t really considered employment a measuring stick of morality or worth. But I know how hard it is on people who can’t find enough work, who feel more like burdens than blessings. The unemployed are a diverse bunch: the middle-aged, middle management exec downsized, the mother of toddlers not hired because it might cause “reliability” issues, the teen with no work history trying to get into any position for any number of hours.  They just need someone to give them a break, to give them a chance.

In the parable, the workers get that chance. The late comers and the ones who worked the whole day long receive a living wage. Going home, each worker brings enough coin to buy that daily loaf of bread. Perhaps that’s the point Ray is making: everyone deserves that daily loaf of bread. Everyone deserves the chance to earn a living. No one should take for granted the blessing of work, and no one should begrudge others their bread.

Would you if you didn’t have to?

Would you work if you didn’t have to? Seriously. If you didn’t need the money, would you still work?

(Darby Kathleen Ray, Working, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, p.7)

It’s the opening of Ray’s book, kicking off a thoughtful exploration of how work affects us all. Beyond survival and acquiring enough to live a decent life, Darby believes that work is about having something to do. She continues:

Paid or unpaid, work endows our daily lives with structure, routine, and purpose. Through work, we act on the world around us. (ibid, p7)

I agree. Whether it’s the school schedule, paid or volunteer work, ongoing housework, or an occasional special project, work gives shape to my days in a way that other things do not (I’ve yet to check my play schedule to pencil in a work day, but I’ve certainly done the opposite). I’ve often heard discussions about the work ethic, but have yet to hear one about the relaxation ethic. How about you?

Is it a good thing that work provides the structure, routine, and purpose to my life? It’s not a bad thing. It’s how things are in the adult world. But sometimes the structures that define my daily living are the very ones I don’t notice – too big to be seen, perhaps. The problem is I might mistake something so basic for my life’s foundation. There needs to be something bigger and holier to this life, something that isn’t caught up in my abilities and my production. At some point, those things are going to diminish, perhaps disappear altogether.

Is there a bigger structure, an alternate routine, an eternal purpose that puts my work into perspective? Of course. It’s quite simple, but not particularly glamorous or easy to spot. It’s mentioned in church every so often, and quite a few Bible passages point me to it: Love God, and love neighbor as I do my own self. The God/self/neighbor lens brings my work into a much larger, sacred world. It can help me figure out how to work for something beyond a few material goods, a professional title, and a place to spend my time. It’s a way to offer who I am through my work, and a way to avoid mistaking my work for who I am.

Dear God, bless the work of my hands, that I might honor you and serve my neighbor as I work. Amen.

All Work and No Play

…makes Johnna a dull girl. Doing a good day’s work isn’t the same as cramming two day’s worth of work into a single marathon workday. I want to be a hard worker, not a workaholic…

…and I’ve been busy for days – leading classes, working on library projects and programs, hosting a dinner for twenty last night with my husband. With a blizzard keeping me home today, I could have gotten a jump on several writing projects, summer garden plans, and packed away all the dishes from last night’s party. But my husband and son are also home, so we did some computer work and filled the bird feeder. We got the most of the post-party work done, putting furniture and dishes back in their usual places. But we also played a couple of games, took a daily news quiz, and went outside to feel the snow and wind. For the first time in my life, I saw lightning and heard thunder while walking in a blizzard – amazing and scary and unforgettable. 

Had I done more work today, I’d have lived a lesser life. Sometimes the blessing is in the work I’ve left undone.

Back to Basics: Working

Popping the Question

I’m not talking about a marriage proposal. It’s a question that’s asked so often, by so many, in so many circumstances. After the usual Hi/How are you/Nice to meet you, it’s almost inevitable in any situation where people first meet:

What do you do?

Unless you are a child, you know that the words for a job/career are implied. The question isn’t really about what you and I do; it’s about what we do to earn money, and the answers we give to this question have immense social weight and interpersonal consequences. Wonderful conversations or awkward silence and quick departures? For better or for worse, it’s all too often about our answers to this question. Our working life defines who we are, sometimes just as much for ourselves as for others.

How do we answer such a question? How do we react to the answers we get when we ask it? For many of us, working keeps us busy for so many hours, days, months, years, and decades. How could it not be important?

For all the times we ask and answer this working question, we don’t seem to meditate on its importance very often, especially in light of our spiritual lives. So let’s explore this daily activity, this life basic. To begin, pick a time when asking or answering this question affected you in an unexpected way. If you are feeling bold, share it with me or someone else. Who knows where such a sharing could lead…

Here is mine:

I must have been asked this question a dozen times the day I arrived on campus to begin my theological studies: people playing Frisbee on the quad, the housing assistant who gave me my dorm keys, a few people who lived on my floor, several seminarians who stopped me while I was unpacking my car (none offered to help me with my boxes, either before or after asking what I did). Since I had two different work situations at the time, I had two answers: teacher/site director for a test prep company and bartender. The teacher answer usually got a positive if disinterested reaction; the bartending answer sent many scurrying away quickly, left others without a clue how to respond, and brought an appreciative smile to the face of a few adventurous souls.

Lord, bless the work of my hands.