Today we have blessed and welcomed a child into our community. One of the wonders of a small child is that their whole life lies spread as potential in front of them. They have yet to make any choices that will shape their adult life in one direction or another. Of course, they already have personality and preferences that will develop as they grow. But who and what they will become as adults is still largely an unknown.
One of the questions it's common to ask children in our culture is 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' When we ask that question, we generally mean 'what job do you want to do?' Our language is revealing. We ask what do you want to 'be', not what do you want to 'do'. In our culture we have conflated 'being' with a career, with an activity we do that earns us money. What would we think if a child responded to the question 'what do you want to be when you grow up' with the answer 'kind', or 'happy' or 'a good friend'? We struggle enough when people name their vocational interest with a passion that may not yield an income - such as 'artist', or 'poet', or 'adventurer.' Another of our social questions is also revealing. The second question we're usually asked when we meet someone new is: 'and what do you do?' Again, the questioner doesn't want to hear 'I listen to a lot of music,' or 'I really like bush walks.' The question is about our job, our answer to which allows the questioner to get a fix on where we fit socially, and also to get a sense of some of our interests and skills.
Here at Cityside, we have talked a fair bit about work, and vocation. We have tried to break down the divisions between 'sacred' and 'secular'. We have rightly challenged the compartmentalising of our lives into areas that have to do with God, and areas that are outside God's participation or interest. We have also been rightly concerned to question the religious overtones to the meaning of the word 'vocation' - the unspoken assumption in many churches that only pastors and missionaries are 'called' to their work, while everyone else simply muddles along in a second rate job.
In wanting to redress the balance on these issues we have talked about work as vocation, and tried to see all of our work as God's call on our lives.
But in doing this, I believe we may have made it easier to source our identity in work, and to see our work as the most important thing we do. By naming our jobs, or the thing we spend the most hours doing, as our vocation, we may have set ourselves up for burn-out and exhaustion, and estrangement from what really matters.
At the same time we have claimed these words of Jesus as really important for our life together:
'Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.' (Matthew 11) In other translations Jesus says 'come to me and I will give you rest. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'
However, many of us are experiencing life as chaotic, rather than dwelling in 'unforced rhythms'. Many among us feel as though their work life is a heavy burden. If we believe God has called us to our work, and our work is making it impossible for us to rest, then we have to ask questions about either our perception of the call, or the way we're doing the work. If our work makes it impossible for us to 'get away with Jesus', and to find a rhythm of prayer and awareness in the midst of our ordinary days, then are we really following the call of God by doing it?
As followers of Jesus, who invited us to rest with him, you'd think we would have an angle from which to challenge a culture that says work should consume all our waking energies. You'd think we'd be practising a genuinely restful way of life. But have we, are we? People in 'the world' are finally talking about and acting on the idea of finding 'work/life balance.' As people who prioritise the presence of God in our lives, shouldn't this idea of work/life balance have originated from within the church? However, all too often, as good adherents to the 'work ethic' that is our heritage as Protestant Christians, we are the ones living for our work...and then naming that drivenness as our God-given vocation.
In the spirit of 'thinking aloud', I'm going to suggest that as Christians, our job is not our primary vocation. It may not even be our secondary vocation. The Latin word 'vocatio' literally means a summons, or an invitation. Which suggests to me that any human life may have a number of different vocations. Some may be life long. Some may be for a short time. I think that the main invitation that God places before us as humans is to seek and know God, to respond to God's love for us. The main summons for each of us is to the conversion of our lives - by which I don't mean making a one off pledge to follow Jesus, but to intentionally grow more and more into the image of Christ.
And therefore, if we're so busy that we can't find time for the practices that sustain our relationship with God, something is wrong. If the idea of losing our job feels like some kind of threat to our selfhood, or identity, then something is wrong. The Benedictine motto is 'pray and work.' Like I said last week - we're not monks. But maybe we have something to learn from the monastic values in order to live well in this frantic and crazy world. Probably most of us sacrifice prayer to work, rather than trying to balance the two. I would be very surprised if very many of us had a rhythm of prayer and work that prioritised prayer anything like the way we prioritise our work. I know I don't. It's my job to pray, and yet I still find it very hard to justify and enable time spent in prayer as part of my work hours.
Further, if we prioritise work so strongly, what does that say to the disabled, the incapacitated, or the unemployed among us? What does that mean for the twenty or thirty years of life many of us will have after we retire? Or for those parents who have developed the phrase 'I work in the home' to remind people that the unpaid task of nurturing a child is both important and strenuous? If we consider that the primary task of the human is to find and pursue a career, what are we saying about the value and contribution to the world of those who can't work, or who no longer work, or whose work is unpaid? Surely, our ideas about vocation need to start with us all as image bearers of God, and for work to take its proper place as a good, God-intended, but still secondary outworking of that image in us. Otherwise, we're just joining in with our society valuing people as either productive or unproductive, rather than as children of God, and therefore infinitely valuable regardless of our activity.
Ok, so let's take a moment to pause. I feel the need to qualify what I'm saying by making it clear what I'm not saying.
Here's some things I'm not saying:
I'm not saying that instead of, or on top of, our jobs, we should give more time and energy to the church.
Church is not a synonym for God. Attending to our vocation as a child of God may or may not involve more time at church. Church can be a resource for our spiritual growth and our ongoing conversion. But church can also be an arena for burn out, and mere volunteerism that doesn't in itself nurture our true vocation. There are various tasks that are necessary to make church happen. But doing them isn't always beneficial to our primary call. We each have to work out for ourselves what energy we have to give to these kinds of tasks. And to identify when they have become the 'heavy burdens' that Jesus promised he wouldn't place on our shoulders. That has always been a distinctive feature about Cityside, and it still is. Everyone is invited to participate. Nobody is required to.
I'm not saying that we should compartmentalise 'work' and 'spirituality', or that God has nothing to do with our workplace or our choice of job.
Integration is fundamental to what I hope we are cultivating and aiming for in our faith journey. As Dennis Okholm puts it: 'because Benedictine spirituality wants no sectors of life to be isolated from God's presence, work becomes a means through which we can know and love God more deeply.' He goes on to talk about how Benedict's rule says that the tools used in the abbey 'are to be treated with as much care as the sacred vessels used in Communion.' (Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants.) Work can be the expression of significant dimensions of who we are, and for many of us it's the place where we practice our faith for most of our waking hours. It's an arena in which the self we are becoming in Christ unfolds and interacts with others. Work can be holy, it can release our gifts, it can be the way we co-operate in God's work in the world. Therefore, when we decide what our job will be, God's guidance and influence are important. It's just not the primary call on our lives.
I'm not saying that we should all avoid jobs that have long hours, stress or many demands.
Some of us are gifted and guided towards jobs with responsibility and influence. Those who do these kinds of jobs have a hard road, and need therefore to keep a close watch on the effect the job is having on them, and their families and their life rhythms. Maybe those whose work takes up most of their waking hours could decide to regularly evaluate their decisions about work...considering how long they intend to do it for, and why they feel as though this job is very important for them to do. I would suggest that any job that impinges on our capacity to practice our faith has to be about more than wealth accumulation, and needs to be taken on intentionally and prayerfully. Also, I acknowledge that sometimes we don't have choices. Some workplaces don't allow for any creativity in how we shape our work day, and some people feel under acute financial stress that means they feel particularly beholden to their work environment.
And finally, I'm not saying that jobs have no identity component.
We are clearly drawn more to some things than others, and some of us are fortunate to work in areas that we are passionate about, or that give us a sense of fulfilment. For some of us our work roles are hard to pick up and take off just by going home at the end of the day, because there is a 'being' aspect to the work that we do. If this is you, then give thanks. If you're able to earn your living in a job that's a good fit with your soul, then you are indeed fortunate. Again, if this is our situation, we probably need to remain mindful of not being taken over by our work role. We need to remember that, satisfying as our paid job might be, our primary calling is still to grow in faith and love. And if we suddenly lose our work role, we won't have lost our vocation. Also, it's perhaps useful to remember that not everyone feels this way about their work, and we shouldn't therefore make our experience the benchmark for 'normal.'
So, if I'm not saying any of these things, what am I saying?
I guess I'm saying that on the 'being/doing' axis, it seems as though many of us have been seduced too far along to the 'doing' end by seeing our paid work as the main task in our lives. And we have spiritualised this by re-naming our job as a vocation, thus giving us permission to forget about the rhythms of prayer that should characterise the life of faith. To quote from Okholm again: 'In the end, Benedict reminds us that what you do is not as important as how, for whom, and to what end you do it.'
Who we are as people, our connection with God, the relationships we nurture, the values that are deepening within us, our depth, our soul, our wisdom, our love - these are the priorities. Where our work detracts from these things, rather than furthering them, something has gotten out of whack.
I have some questions it might be helpful to ask...I invite you to reflect on whether they are true for you.
Do the demands of my work make it impossible for me to rest and be still and listen to God?
Do I see my life as a balance between work and prayer?
Am I too preoccupied what's going on with work to listen to and care for others?
How would I feel if I were made redundant, and why?
How often do I react to situations out of stress, rather than out of principle or character?
Am I in the space to notice and act on new work opportunities, even if they seem risky?
If you answered 'yes' to most of those questions, then maybe there's some re-ordering of priorities that needs to happen.
Of course, for many of us, busyness is about our non-work commitments - groups we belong to, the demands of children and family. And I'm not really talking today about generic busyness, so much as how we view our work, and the place of work in our lives as a whole.
We have a high calling. It's the calling to live fully in our identities as children of God. But, given the nature of how we are as people, and how our world is, this calling won't fulfil itself automatically. While on one level it's a gift and a grace, on another level it's something we have to shape and practice with intention. To do this, we all need prayer, and rest, and a life rhythm that allows for us to give attention to our souls. And we need to take care that our primary vocation isn't being daily undermined by the priority we give to the job we're paid to do.