"Work - been there, done that. Didn't work out for me."
"In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: 'If anyone isn't willing to work, he should not eat.' R)">(R) 11 For we hear that there are some among you who walk irresponsibly, not working at all, but interfering with the work [of others]."
The first quote is from an old friend of mine. He really struggled. He struggled with relationships. He had a hard time holding onto a job for more than a few weeks. Most of the time I knew him, he was completely unemployed, and not all to interested in getting gainful employment. In one of our sessions in which I was encouraging him to fill out some applications, maybe hit all the fast food places and grocery stores, he responded, "Work - been there, done that. Didn't work out for me."
The second quote is from the Apostle Paul, writing in 2nd Thessalonians 3:10-11. "If anyone isn't willing to work, he should not eat." I wonder if Paul would make an exception for my friend who has bipolar personality disorder? I don't know. In recent years, I spent a summer working with someone who had a similar personality disorder, and it didn't slow her down one iota. I never would have guessed her condition because in ministry, she was energetic, dynamic, and extremely effective.
At our church, we have been focusing on compassion ministry - care for people who are disadvantaged, needy, starving, orphaned, exploited. From 2008 until now, with the global economic woes, the unemployed have felt themselves to be among those in need of the compassion of the church. Our church has had an unbelievable run of people calling and asking for aid in paying bills and the monthly rent. My rough estimate is that the calls have tripled from what they were before 2008. Who are the new charity-seekers? People who used to work.
Still, if there is 10% or 15% unemployment in our country, doesn't that mean we have an employment rate of 85% or 90%? Yes, a lot of people are out of work. Still most have jobs, don't they? The practical bottom line is people need enough to pay the rent, eat, stay in acceptable clothing, have transportation, and have insurance and health care. Everyone has to have these things. The materialism of America demands much more - TV, movie and amusement money, the latest fashionable clothes, a car, and vacation money. None of those things are needs, but don't tell advertisers that.
What do we do with Paul's statement about working and eating? Do I tell my friend, the one I mentioned at the beginning, to shove off? Do I tell him I am done helping him? Is that Jesus in speaking, if I say that?
And who am I any way? As I ponder this concept of work, something occurs to me? I don't really produce anything. I can't build a house or a car or a radio or a computer. I suppose I could work in a restaurant if I had to, and if there was a job available, and if the manager would hire me. But, right now, I don't do that. Right now, I produce no food, no product, no measurable service. I don't really fix things. As far as consumer products go, I don't add anything to the market.
My work is recognized by hospitals - they give pastors a picture ID card and free parking. I could be categorized as a teacher of sorts. I could be considered a counselor. I do manage (maybe oversee is a better word) a small, nonprofit organization, and productive people under my leadership do a lot of good in the world. So, I suppose I contribute something. At any rate, a percentage of the monetary gifts working people give to the church go to my salary and benefits, and everyone accepts that. So, I do work.
But, what if my work were cut off?
Along another line of thinking, what work is considered "valuable?" Is the man who fries hamburgers most valuable because he's providing something essential for human existence - food? He's certainly not paid like his work is the most valuable. What about the person whose work requires him or her to gain a master's degree and maybe a doctorate? Is that work more valuable because the skill set is rarer and harder to come by? What could you live without, the verbose preacher's ramblings or the cook's meals? Professional athletes provide something we could certainly do without - entertainment. (Half the time, it's not entertaining but rather infuriating because your team loses!) And they get paid millions, even the mediocre athletes.
I really like something I read by Francis Wilson in the Ecumenical Review. Work lends meaning and fulfillment to life; the purpose of work is not to gain and accumulate property, but to meet the needs of the community. It brings to my mind the preaching of John the Baptist in Luke 3. He addressed the approach to work that should be taken by soldiers and tax collectors (both thought to be professions that were inherently evil and antithetical to the will of God). John did not tell workers in either profession to give up their jobs, but rather to approach them in such a way that they were honest with others and obedient to the ways of God.
What he said there along with Wilson's comments about work and meaning leads me to the conclusion that God can be glorified in just about any job (OK, maybe hit-man, bookie, exotic dancer, pin-up model might be exceptions and you can think of other exceptions as well). But, by any job, I mean a garbage man or a shoe salesman, a plumber or a mortician, a school teacher or an EMT. How can these works glorify God and give meaning?
First, do the job the very best you can. The Christian garbage man should arrive early and be a professional to nth degree. He should makes his rounds with efficiency and a sense of care for the people whose trash he is collecting.
Second, he should treat his coworkers and his employer with great respect and dignity. He should think of Jesus' words "love your neighbor as yourself" each time he interacts with people on the job, even on tough, tough days.
Third, he should be financially responsible with the money he is paid on that job. Even if he's not paid as well as he should be, he should do his very best to be financially wise.
Fourth, he should live with thankfulness. Maybe he wants a better job, one that is less messy, more interesting, with more amenable hours, and better pay. He can pray for that better job. He can send out applications and resumes. If the first 500 he sends out yield nothing, send 500 more. Until God brings that dream job along, he collect waste cheerfully, thanking God that he is doing something meaningful and getting paid to do it.
This approach may take serious spiritual discipline, but I think it is worth the spiritual work. It is worth it to condition our souls so that we can see Jesus in what we do whether it is picking up garbage, fixing cars, teaching university students, or something else. Most of us spend about 40-48 hours a week sleeping and another 40-50 at work. We need to interact with Jesus in our dreams and in our vocation, or else he is only gaining access in less than 30% of our lives. He's supposed to be Lord of all.
Our work has meaning, and the church must love those who have no work but are desperately looking. Furthermore, God calls the church to love people like my friend who look sometimes, but most of the time prefer the life of homelessness to the daily grind of holding a job. Yes, Paul said those who don't work don't eat, and as an institution, we cannot feed everyone. We must make choices and we must seek God's wisdom as we make those choices. But as individual Christ followers, we love people for the same reason we strive for excellence on our jobs. We don't do it for the glory of the job. We work hard for the glory of God. And we don't love (and help) people because of their worthiness. We love people because while were still lost in sin, Jesus loved us enough to die for us.
I don't know if I offered anything revolutionary about work in this blog. I hope my thoughts inspire some thought in you.