Finding Meaning in Work…

Having spent last week in at a conference in San Diego, I was struck by how cool it was to come to my room each afternoon and find that someone had made my bed.  This someone (I met her) was hard working, knew more languages than me, and was terribly polite – possibly even more polite than some of the conference speakers and attendees.  I appreciated her acts of service, and wondered if she could live on what she was getting paid.

He works "hard" for the money? This morning I woke up and remembered that I’d need to make my own bed.  Then, on the stairmaster, I heard about Ryan Howard’s five year contract extension to the tune of 25 million per year.  He’s not providing a cure for cancer, or world hunger.  He’s not healing people or playing an integral or even peripheral role in creating a more peaceful world.  He gets all these dollars for playing baseball.  Meanwhile, I recently met a rural Montana school teacher whose salary is less than 18 thousand a year, and know pastors who barely get by, while Goldman Sachs brokers and execs bet on the housing bubble and walk away with millions.  It all feels so wrong somehow, don’t you agree?

These blatant examples of misguided values and ethics have me pondering how we navigate the culture pressures regarding money and employment so that we can live whole and meaningful lives, and as I ponder this I realize that we have very few conversation about what God says regarding work.  Here are some thoughts:

1. Work is part of the reality of creation, not a result of the fall.  From the very beginning, we see that God worked, and that we, created in his image, were given work as a gift.  Trying to live a life void of work is foolish, and I perhaps think this includes the goal of amassing great wealth, whether by playing baseball or trading derivatives, in hopes of saying, “I have need of nothing….”   Let’s make peace with the notion of work as a gift.

2. The best work is creative work.  This doesn’t necessarily mean artistic work though that surely counts.  It means that good work contributes to bringing order out of chaos.  This could mean healing a body or mind (health care workers), keeping a city clean (waste management), creating beautiful and tasteful meals (food service), better ways to communicate (IT), helping children reach their potential (education), or cleaning diapers (moms, dads, at home) — there’s a great deal to do in this world that adds value by bringing order.

3. The dichotomy between blue and white collars isn’t God’s idea.  It stems more from Greek narratives and the dualism of Plato, which roughly said:  “soil bad”, “soul good”, and thus elevated philosophy over farming.  The back lash to this, of course, came with Marx, and his elevation of the “worker”, but his ideas were reactionary, and always ended up with a reverse of Plato’s dualism, which is why when communism spreads, it’s the educated people that are imprisoned and executed.  God’s way is to say that all this labor has value, and we should dignify one another by affirming and encouraging all gifts – house cleaners, maids, cooks, doctors, teachers, farmers, garbage collectors, soldiers, even pastors.

4. We enjoy our work best when we’ve discovered how we’re wired, and are operating in accordance with that wiring.  This is what we mean by “calling”, and the good news is that everyone’s wired for something.  I’d suggest that making millions, thousands, or hundreds, needs to be way at the back of the line among considerations when we’re making decision about where to invest the best hours of our day and the best days of our lives – instead the question should be:  have I found my calling?

Please share some thoughts about calling and work:  Are our cultural values skewed?  How can we realign them?  What has helped or hindered you as you seek to find your calling?

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • http://kristoffer.k@mac.com Kris K

    wow, such a timely post Richard, as I’m struggling with this a lot. For years I struggled with feeling like i didn’t have a strong work ethic. i always blamed it on the job. The job wasn’t stimulating enough, it didn’t challenge me enough, it wasn’t fulfilling. This job doesn’t produce enough fruit. So i switch jobs. and then again. And then finally found a job, and said “this is IT! I’ve ‘made’ it, look no further, this is what I went to college for, this is what I’m going to do the rest of my life! I’m going to make a difference in kids lives!”

    But what happens? Two and half years into this job I’m bored, I lay in bed everyday struggling to get up, struggling to go in. My dream job has lost it’s charm. I have to do weekly reports, make deadlines, watch payroll, labor costs, manage a staff, stay organized, deal with parents, promote promote promote, enroll more students, make more money!! It can be overwhelming. So have I found my ‘calling?’ maybe, but I’m not convinced that the job itself, or to say the results of what the job obtains is the answer as much as the way we do it. maybe the process of doing matters far more than the fruit?

    my favorite woody allen quote is “80% of success is just showing up.” I’ve been gardening a lot lately. Up in Edmonds at Rosewood Manor we’re starting a community garden. We just removed about an acre of blackberry bushes that we’re beginning to cultivate. it’s such a massive project that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the task at hand. especially with the reality that some of this land, though we work it this year, still won’t produce anything until next year, or maybe even the year after. But we have to start somewhere, so we show up. every week. and we work. one. bed. at. a. time. But it’s the process. conversations happen. we learn about soil. we meet neighbors that have years worth of compost in their backyard they’re happy to let us have, we make them banana bread to thank them, we can’t wait to bring them a giant squash this Fall, relationships that have never existed, now exist. and little by little the work gets done. Maybe thinking about this will help me get out of bed tomorrow…maybe.

  • http://kristoffer.k@mac.com Kris K

    wow, such a timely post Richard, as I’m struggling with this a lot. For years I struggled with feeling like i didn’t have a strong work ethic. i always blamed it on the job. The job wasn’t stimulating enough, it didn’t challenge me enough, it wasn’t fulfilling. This job doesn’t produce enough fruit. So i switch jobs. and then again. And then finally found a job, and said “this is IT! I’ve ‘made’ it, look no further, this is what I went to college for, this is what I’m going to do the rest of my life! I’m going to make a difference in kids lives!”

    But what happens? Two and half years into this job I’m bored, I lay in bed everyday struggling to get up, struggling to go in. My dream job has lost it’s charm. I have to do weekly reports, make deadlines, watch payroll, labor costs, manage a staff, stay organized, deal with parents, promote promote promote, enroll more students, make more money!! It can be overwhelming. So have I found my ‘calling?’ maybe, but I’m not convinced that the job itself, or to say the results of what the job obtains is the answer as much as the way we do it. maybe the process of doing matters far more than the fruit?

    my favorite woody allen quote is “80% of success is just showing up.” I’ve been gardening a lot lately. Up in Edmonds at Rosewood Manor we’re starting a community garden. We just removed about an acre of blackberry bushes that we’re beginning to cultivate. it’s such a massive project that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the task at hand. especially with the reality that some of this land, though we work it this year, still won’t produce anything until next year, or maybe even the year after. But we have to start somewhere, so we show up. every week. and we work. one. bed. at. a. time. But it’s the process. conversations happen. we learn about soil. we meet neighbors that have years worth of compost in their backyard they’re happy to let us have, we make them banana bread to thank them, we can’t wait to bring them a giant squash this Fall, relationships that have never existed, now exist. and little by little the work gets done. Maybe thinking about this will help me get out of bed tomorrow…maybe.

  • http://www.meettheblochers.blogspot.com Chrissie

    I have found a real freedom since understanding more how calling isn’t just about the thing we do but more who we are. My calling is to be a ‘mother’, I have known this and had this spoken over me for many years even though I have no children of my own yet. When I worked as a preschool teacher this calling was easy to understand, but later as I worked in YWAM with 18-30 yr olds, it was less obvious. However, as I discipled our students I once again saw the ‘mother’ calling come to be in my daily life. Now I am a new wife, home maker and am looking to go back to school – I am not sure how this calling will be worked out in all these this new roles and environments, but I know it will.

  • http://www.meettheblochers.blogspot.com Chrissie

    I have found a real freedom since understanding more how calling isn’t just about the thing we do but more who we are. My calling is to be a ‘mother’, I have known this and had this spoken over me for many years even though I have no children of my own yet. When I worked as a preschool teacher this calling was easy to understand, but later as I worked in YWAM with 18-30 yr olds, it was less obvious. However, as I discipled our students I once again saw the ‘mother’ calling come to be in my daily life. Now I am a new wife, home maker and am looking to go back to school – I am not sure how this calling will be worked out in all these this new roles and environments, but I know it will.

  • ptr

    I really appreciate this topic Richard. Like my friend Kris K (hey K), I constantly struggle with this issue. What is the purpose of work? Of calling? Are the two one and the same? Are they separate? After chasing what I had felt was my calling for most of my life (music/education), I have become disenchanted. In particular there is a sadness/dissapoinent that God didn’t meet me there. Let me unpack that a bit.

    I think I had such a strong interior confidence that I was pursuing “God’s calling” for my life that there was a sense that things would work out in the end…that all the loose ends (ie finding a job, making enough to support my 3 kids, etc) would come together if I just kept plugging away. But no matter how much I plugged away, all I met was silence on the other side of the wall. Silence upon silence actually.

    This has really caused me to re-evaluate what I thought I “heard” within my heart all those years. I now tend to attribute my sense of calling to growing up in an era of Disney Christianity: if you only believe something enough- especially if it has an air of spirituality- God will make it happen. As countless disenchanted Christian dreamers can attest to, this just isn’t true. You may have to clean toilets to get by. You may never find a job in your field after years of schooling and thousands in expenses. You may get outsourced. You may lose job after job because of the economic climate. It’s a complex issue, this vocation/calling thing.

  • ptr

    I really appreciate this topic Richard. Like my friend Kris K (hey K), I constantly struggle with this issue. What is the purpose of work? Of calling? Are the two one and the same? Are they separate? After chasing what I had felt was my calling for most of my life (music/education), I have become disenchanted. In particular there is a sadness/dissapoinent that God didn’t meet me there. Let me unpack that a bit.

    I think I had such a strong interior confidence that I was pursuing “God’s calling” for my life that there was a sense that things would work out in the end…that all the loose ends (ie finding a job, making enough to support my 3 kids, etc) would come together if I just kept plugging away. But no matter how much I plugged away, all I met was silence on the other side of the wall. Silence upon silence actually.

    This has really caused me to re-evaluate what I thought I “heard” within my heart all those years. I now tend to attribute my sense of calling to growing up in an era of Disney Christianity: if you only believe something enough- especially if it has an air of spirituality- God will make it happen. As countless disenchanted Christian dreamers can attest to, this just isn’t true. You may have to clean toilets to get by. You may never find a job in your field after years of schooling and thousands in expenses. You may get outsourced. You may lose job after job because of the economic climate. It’s a complex issue, this vocation/calling thing.

  • http://comcast Kris Porter

    I am learning that there can be different stages in life
    of His callings in ministry and the use of His gifts given
    to me many years ago that have been developed
    along the way.

    In my twenties I knew God called me to use His gifts
    of exhortation and evangelism at my job & for children ministries.
    I then had three children of my own and I can see
    how His gifts were used in ministering to both my
    husband and children, neighborhood kids Bible clubs & women clubs, for encouragement to wives married to unsaved spouses, and spiritual conversations with repairmen who came to fix something that seemed to always go wrong with the house. I stand amazed at the Lord’s creativity in His call.

    During the time of doctors and sugeries, His call was
    finely orchestrated with contacts and friendships
    of nurses, doctors, and therapists.

    When I experienced an almost empty nest syndrome,
    His call came with a burden to conduct a discipleship
    one on one of young college women; five years later
    hearing from two of these women that one wanted more and decided to attend Multnomah School of the Bible where she met her pastor husband; the other gal
    divinely coming across her in Leavenworth shop and
    met her new husband, a growing Christian man
    (she dumped her old flame back five years earlier
    whom I personally had been praying about).

    Now I’m 63 and have encountered friends who well
    meaningly have implied and suggested that I return
    back to doing exactly what I started out doing, as if
    I have been shelved and not heeding His call.
    He hasn’t stopped calling – His gifts are still there
    and it’s up to my Lord how he choses to use me in
    this new stage of my life.
    I refuse to have the enemy steal me of my joy, I have
    three daughters who are all serving the Lord and know
    that they can count on mom’s prayers and encouragement; three grandchildren who also know
    this, a wonderful husband and son-in-law—and I will
    answer as He faithfully continues to call by providing open doors and devine appointments along the way—regardless of age.
    “We have not because we ask not.” He has an abundance of appointments and is not slack in
    calling when we delight in Him and ask. I get excited
    as I anticipate each adventure in this journey.
    To God be the Glory! AMEN

  • http://comcast Kris Porter

    I am learning that there can be different stages in life
    of His callings in ministry and the use of His gifts given
    to me many years ago that have been developed
    along the way.

    In my twenties I knew God called me to use His gifts
    of exhortation and evangelism at my job & for children ministries.
    I then had three children of my own and I can see
    how His gifts were used in ministering to both my
    husband and children, neighborhood kids Bible clubs & women clubs, for encouragement to wives married to unsaved spouses, and spiritual conversations with repairmen who came to fix something that seemed to always go wrong with the house. I stand amazed at the Lord’s creativity in His call.

    During the time of doctors and sugeries, His call was
    finely orchestrated with contacts and friendships
    of nurses, doctors, and therapists.

    When I experienced an almost empty nest syndrome,
    His call came with a burden to conduct a discipleship
    one on one of young college women; five years later
    hearing from two of these women that one wanted more and decided to attend Multnomah School of the Bible where she met her pastor husband; the other gal
    divinely coming across her in Leavenworth shop and
    met her new husband, a growing Christian man
    (she dumped her old flame back five years earlier
    whom I personally had been praying about).

    Now I’m 63 and have encountered friends who well
    meaningly have implied and suggested that I return
    back to doing exactly what I started out doing, as if
    I have been shelved and not heeding His call.
    He hasn’t stopped calling – His gifts are still there
    and it’s up to my Lord how he choses to use me in
    this new stage of my life.
    I refuse to have the enemy steal me of my joy, I have
    three daughters who are all serving the Lord and know
    that they can count on mom’s prayers and encouragement; three grandchildren who also know
    this, a wonderful husband and son-in-law—and I will
    answer as He faithfully continues to call by providing open doors and devine appointments along the way—regardless of age.
    “We have not because we ask not.” He has an abundance of appointments and is not slack in
    calling when we delight in Him and ask. I get excited
    as I anticipate each adventure in this journey.
    To God be the Glory! AMEN

  • Linda

    Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.[a] 6You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
    Patience in Suffering
    7Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. 8You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.

  • Linda

    Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.[a] 6You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
    Patience in Suffering
    7Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. 8You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.

  • Graham C.

    Ricardo,
    My question is does your calling have to be your job (i.e. does your vocation have to be your occupation)? What about all the tent-makers out there? I struggle with this a lot, the idea of “calling” to my employment…

  • Graham C.

    Ricardo,
    My question is does your calling have to be your job (i.e. does your vocation have to be your occupation)? What about all the tent-makers out there? I struggle with this a lot, the idea of “calling” to my employment…


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