Charlie Brown and Sally are standing at the bus stop. Cars are rushing past them, and Sally asks: “Who are all those people driving in those cars?” Charlie answers, “Those are people going to work.” Sally: “Work?” Charlie: “They used to wait for the school bus like we’re doing. Now they have to go to work every day for the rest of the lives.” “Good grief,” Sally says, “Whose idea was that?” (Charles Schulz, Peanuts, United Press Syndicate, Washington Post, 2.7.91)
Well, Sally, work was God’s idea, but not work as we often experience it. For some people, work dulls the mind and numbs the heart. Every day, it’s the same thing, over and over again: the same people, the same programs, and the same problems; the same reports for the same silly reasons; the same meetings with the same agenda. The sameness of it all, the drudgery and boredom of it all, drives them crazy.
For some people, work is all-consuming; it fills nearly all their waking hours. Amped-up on caffeine and adrenaline, they hurry through 12-14 hour days crammed full of meetings to attend, problems to solve, and decisions to make. They live in a haze of noise and a fog of information from phone calls, emails, tweets, text messages, Facebook posts, news feeds, inter-office emails, and, sometimes, a real letter that comes by snail mail. Some of these hyper-busy people love what they do; they enjoy the sense that they’re making a contribution and making a difference. Others like the “rush” they feel when they are making connections and making things happen.
Though it’s hard to admit, work is also the way some people escape from the confusion and complexity of their lives beyond work. It’s a respectable way to run from problems at home and a way to hide from questions which won’t go away: Why am I here? Why can’t I be happy? What do I really want? Is this all there is?
Work was God’s idea, but not work which turns us into human doings rather than human beings, which lacks meaning and purpose, and which substitutes metrics and money for love and relationships. Instead, the work God intends for us is a partnership with God in caring for creation, for culture, and for our neighbors.
The creation stories in Genesis tell us that, when God made Adam, God gave Adam work to do: Name the animals (Adam was the original zoologist). Tend the garden (Adam was the first farmer). And, God gave Adam and Eve “dominion” over the earth. As you know, dominion doesn’t mean domination and certainly not exploitation. “Dominion” means something like stewardship. God has entrusted creation into our hands and asks us to care for it wisely and gratefully; to treat it as a gift and not as an entitlement; and to nurture its flourishing for its own sake and the sake of future generations. The work God gives us also includes honoring God’s image in all people, serving them as our neighbors, and developing their potential as God’s children.
Work is a partnership with God, and that partnership is broad and encompassing. Caring for creation, for culture, and for our neighbors requires myriad kinds of work. We need food, clothing, and shelter, so farming, manufacturing, and construction are part of human work. We need to be able to get goods and resources to the places where people live, so engineering and transportation are part of our task. Human beings need justice, peace, and good order, so law and government are part of our work. We need healing, so medicine is our work. We need truth, so science, philosophy and education are our work. We need mercy and compassion, so social work and counseling are part of what we do. We need beauty and meaning, so the arts are part of human labor. We need rest and recreation, so, paradoxically, leisure and entertainment are aspects of human work. And, most of all, we need God, so worship is our first and greatest work. An old and treasured word for worship, one we Baptists don’t use as much as we could, is “liturgy”; it means, simply, “the work of the people.” St. Benedict said: “to pray is to labor and to labor is to pray.”