What is work? If you head south out of Manchester you’re guided on to the M56. You then take a short link road between that motorway and the M6 before heading south. It’s a heavily used road of two lanes each way without central reservation. There’s been talk of upgrading it for 30 years. In two weeks’ time the earthmovers start to cut through the countryside for its replacement. Many times I’ve been on that road wishing for such an obvious need. Yesterday I looked into the sad and fearful eyes of a farmer in his 50’s, whose cottage we rented for a week, and through whose land the road will cut his farm in half. With what result? He’s quitting his farm and the house in which he was born over 50 years ago. The road’s broken his heart and not just the land he’s worked with his family for generations. His work is about to change – and forever. He’s been a tenant farmer and he’s off to a small holding a few miles away and a future of contracting himself out as farm labourer. Strange how all of a sudden your minor irritations at an inefficient road are thrown into a new light. I was humbled. What is work for him? For us? For anyone? Let’s ask that question of the Bible.

1.    Work as vocation  Genesis 2:15-16
The Bible’s first reflection on work focuses in on the later human story, when hunter-gatherers gave way to settled farmers. God calls Adam, the clay-creature he’s formed from the earth, to till and keep the garden where he placed man. And in that call, the Bible starts to define what work is. It is first and foremost what we do with our lives on the basis of a conversation with our Maker. We are ‘called’ (Latin vocare to call) to express our own uniqueness. David Whyte who’s reflected on work says:  ‘We need, at every stage in our journey through work, to be in conversation with our desire for something suited to us and our individual nature.’ (Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a pilgrimage of identity)   In this understanding, work is not how we define it in our culture: ‘what we do and are paid for doing’. It includes that – but it’s much bigger and more personal than ‘paid work.’ It’s how we add our own personal imprint to the world God created and we have inherited. It’s our own little contribution to the immense inheritance we have received from previous generations; the accumulation of what the millennia have bequeathed to us – us ‘fortunates’ who don’t have to face the grinding vulnerability and cruel uncertainties of life. Go round any Victorian cemetery and the headstones shout out about the countless souls whose lives were short and brutish. We are the inheritors of all their work and the capital it accrued to us. Now how will we add to that so future generation can build on what we bequeath.

My own work is the relationship between people and God. It’s priestly work. It’s not ‘running’ a church or organising a charity, although these things are part of my job description. But it’s been my immense privilege of knowing this was my work pilgrimage from when I was 17. Be attentive to your nature. You are immensely privileged if your paid work is an expression of your nature and character. I am one such privileged person. Since my youth I’ve known my calling was to be ‘God and people’, the priestly calling to bring together the human and the divine. It was under a great, spreading pear tree in our garden that I sat and felt a weight of love for God’s people settling on me. And over the last 40 years I’ve worked that out in the churches in which I’ve been called to minister. But I’m probably a part of a minority blessed with this experience.

For all too often work for many is merely what pays the mortgage or rent. Wages are necessary but they are not necessarily your true calling. As a pastor I listen to those who struggle with their work because it ill-fits their temperaments – those for whom work is a crushing ordeal that threatens their very soul. So I want us to understand our true work is not just be about what you do when you go out to the office or factory. It is where you express your true self, and your nature is given freedom to bring what you alone can offer. So work for you may be during your ‘leisure’ time, a hobby or a volunteering role. Yes, even if our paid work seems alien to our true self, there will be something we can do to bring more humanity, compassion and service to our work places. It may be by listening and taking seriously the immense hidden swell of emotional currents every work person brings into their work place. Such problems and emotions have to be put to one side to get on with the task at hand. But those things are there, they’re real and they irrupt to trouble our work from time to time – personal troubles crash into our public world. To be that person at work, to whom others turn in times of need, grows from a life of quiet but steady awareness of and prayer for colleagues. So our words can be compassionate and seasoned with salt as Paul encouraged the Colossians (4:6). This is much more powerful than a witness by slogans like ‘Jesus loves you’ or questions like, ‘Are you saved?’ So pay attention to your nature, your temperament and character for in that is the secret of your unique contribution to till and keep your soil.

2.    Work as frustration  Genesis 3:17-19
The Bible’s second reflection is that work will involve thorns and thistles, and back-breaking effort. There’s frustration in every kind of work, even where you can fully express your nature in what you do. It is a well-known story of the pious vicar eulogizing the wonders of God to a gardener working his plot into abundant fruitfulness. He looks up at the vicar and says curtly: ‘Aye, but you should have seen it when he had it to himself.’ My work this week has had its frustration. I’ve been bringing our cottage up to scratch prior to selling it next year. Rather than immediately getting on with painting as I had hoped, the first morning was spent hacking back a wisteria that hadn’t been pruned for three years. Work always involves effort which means that life is not for lazy.  Proverbs 19:24 captures this with amusing accuracy: ‘The lazy person buries a hand in the dish, and will not even bring it back to the mouth.’ Work usually involves pushing against inertia. And there is always failure and imperfection written into every project we undertake. Muslim culture has an insightful habit amongst its rug-makers. Every rug they weave they deliberately make a mistake! It mustn’t be perfect. They want to remind themselves that perfection is only to be found in God. Imperfection belongs to humanity. Contrast this with the stupidity of the mighty, proud and presumptuous Tesco. We were reliably told by someone who worked there that they teach their staff never to say ‘Sorry.’ Why? The official reason: they don’t want shoppers to feel they shop at a store that fails at times. And that culture is so deep it can’t cope with failure at the most senior level – they have to exaggerate their sales figures and it lead this once stellar company into the present slide of its share price. All because it detached itself from the reality which the Bible looks at quite honestly. Such honesty leads surprisingly to compassionate cultures as they face the reality we all fail and we have to learn to bear with one another. We should not expect perfection in our work because it has its thorns & thistles.

3.    Work as ambition  Colossians 3:22-24
I was 17 or 18 years old. It was some months after that call under our pear tree. And I was on a panel of the equivalent to Question Time  – in those days it was called, Brains Trust. I was the young person on the panel. At the time there was a high profile strike taking place. There was a question quoting this passage from Paul. ‘Should we ever strike if we are told to obey our masters?’ I can remember my own answer quite distinctly. Even if I expressed it differently I said in effect, this passage was about slavery and we are not slaves. Therefore it was not appropriate to lift this text from this context and to use it as mallet to hammer in the status quo and forbid people to withdraw their labour. So how is this passage relevant? Paul transcends the human social structures of ‘master’ and ‘slave’. He says that while we should not try to fight against the structure of authority we find in our workplaces, we do this in such a way as not to take that authority too seriously, because all of them are relativized by the one true Lord we serve. Therefore all we set our hands to do is to be ‘done for the Lord.’(v.23) I have been asked on a number of occasions: ‘Is it right for a person to be ambitious in their career?’ I always answer in this way. Of course, we are creatures of ambition because we’re creatures of desire (old Latin de-sidere  ‘by the star’). We navigate ourselves by the star of our desires and ambitions. So this is how we just are. But while this leads to achievement, the problem is the stars by which you navigate ourselves become too small and so they confine and trap us. So we need our ambitions to be shaped by the Ambition beyond all our little ambitions. Do you see what this does for us? It releases us from the prisons of petty ambition, to express the creativity of the greater ambition God has for us. And in this way, through our work, we become more rounded and mature as we learn to step over our small ambitions, that we may give our utmost for His highest.  Or in the words of Jesus: ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be given you as well.’

For reflection
1.    Spend some time sharing about your work – paid or otherwise – and what you find satisfying and frustrating.
2.    What if your work doesn’t express your character and nature? When do you resign yourself to being in a job that doesn’t fulfil you, and when should you make a break for it, to find something more fulfilling?
3.    People often lose their sense of identity and worth when they retire from paid work. What does this tell us about the importance of work for us and our sense of who we are? What is the worth of those who can’t work?
4.    Reflect on how you are supported in your working life – at home, at the place of work, with friends and in the church.
5.    How does accepting there will be frustration (‘thorns and thistles’) in our work, change the experience of work and how we treat one another?
6.    Paul gave churches a rule: ‘If a person will not work, they shall not eat.’ (1 Thessalonians 3:10 and context)  What do you make of this? Especially in a society unable to provide guaranteed work for everyone?
7.    ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for people.’ (Colossians 3:23)  How does human ambition go astray and talk about what results from this?
8.   What kind of witness makes an impact at work? (see Colossians 4:5-6)

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