work beyond toil

WORK.

Punch the clock. Make that money. TGIF. Stress. Adrenaline. Email. Late to work. Work/life balance. Off work. Manual labor. Housework. Get to work. Work together. Call in sick. Creativity. Computers. Meetings. Boss. Performance review. Paycheck. Taxes. Job security. Workin’ for the weekend.

In a class on “Vocation, Work, and Faith,” I’ve been struck by the difficulty of defining work. On the surface, it seems easy to say what work is: what springs to mind is whatever activity occupies most of our time – our career – probably something we do in order to survive. But then again, I regularly do all kinds of things I consider “work”. I spend about forty hours a week on schoolwork (something people pay TO do); I put on a uniform and go to a job catering parties; I do chores at my house; I run a tiny creative business. In the past, I have volunteered at church or in my community, and completed blogging assignments from myself and others. Perhaps the common thread between all these is a sense of obligation, and yet there are things I do out of obligation which I would hesitate to call “work” – including keeping a Sabbath. They all also seek to accomplish something specific, and yet when I make art or bake cookies for the sheer joy of it, I experience these hobbies as more play than work. Then again, work does not necessarily exclude the possibility of play…

wpid-img_20150113_130038472.jpgWork means vastly different things to different people, and usually within people. Work is never all good, and it is rarely all bad – even in the exhausting, sometimes demeaning catering business, I can find joy in the achievement of working with a team to pull off a great event.

I especially find joy in receiving a paycheck. It is impossible to talk about the activity of work itself to the exclusion of economic considerations, even if the work isn’t paid. Most of us who aren’t workaholics would not spend so many of our waking hours at our jobs if it weren’t for the money, no matter how great we profess our jobs to be. We guard the rest of our hours carefully, so that doling them out to yardwork or volunteer work can be a major chore.

If some of what I’ve said seems a little bit obvious, it’s because in the end work is everything mundane. It’s providing for a family, it’s getting something done, it’s all the tasks of making and sustaining and repairing the incredible world humans have created on this planet. Some of us love it and we all hate it at times, but we need it; even the independently wealthy make sacrifices for those activities which give their lives purpose. But, maybe because it’s so worldly, often repetitive, often crassly materialistic, often a place we want to escape, often a temptation to just get by, and for many a major strain detracting from our quality of life – we don’t quite get around to talking about it in church. We might mention something along the lines of “evangelizing a coworker” or, closer to the subject, making time for our families. But I have the feeling a congregation met with the question “How does God think about work?” would be mostly a roomful of blank stares. Even if a church doesn’t aim to be just a spiritual refuge from the mess and grit of daily material life, it may skip over “the boring parts” of work to tend to life’s relational, justice-oriented, or overtly spiritual aspects.

When the weekend can be such a relief from the workweek, it may be hard to see this as a disservice, but it is. Churches are not contributing to the flourishing of their members by ignoring the activities that bring them purpose and identity, their obligations for financial sustenance, the thing that takes up as much time as sleep and usually structures all their other time. In doing so, we abandon people to the assumptions of a confused culture and a ruthlessly objectifying economy. We allow the ideas to rule that time is money, people are commodities, and work is life.

In a series for the week, I’ll be looking at some of these assumptions and asking if there are any theological counter-ideas to guide a Christian approach to work (answer: yes). Consider adding your work experiences to the conversation, or passing it along to someone else who might be particularly interested.

How do you define work?

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