Advent And The Unrighteousness of Work

Advent And The Unrighteousness of Work December 13, 2021

I love my work. But sometimes I hate my job. Many friends are used to hearing me say this. I admit there is something disingenuous about the comparison. That problem is very clear during Advent. There is so much work to be done during this season. A clergy friend remarked last night after the Cantata at his church, “One more thing done for Advent.” I understand. Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas. But instead of preparation it is a season of production for church staff members and volunteers. A lot of people love doing these things. A major reason they love it is it is temporary. They are glad when it is over. Again, I understand. Yet, spiritual exercise is not meant to produce spiritual exhaustion.

Discipleship and Work

Have we done enough? A new Advent study I am leading discusses “the blessing of enough.” It is about having enough. Discussions surrounding discipleship discourages focus on material items. The early church model of discipleship shows people selling goods they did not need to be distributed to other people for what they needed. (Acts 4:32-35) The “work ethic” holds a prominent place in American culture. Unfortunately, the work ethic wiggles its’ way into our definition of discipleship.

One way to understand how this ethic corrupts the meaning of discipleship is to know it is insidious. We often fail to recognize it. Christian leaders in our culture define discipleship as doing. Progressive Christians and evangelicals share this fault. We emphasize the opening sentence of Acts, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all Jesus did and taught.” (emphasis added) How often have I pointed out to congregations that doing came first? Did I mean to imply Jesus’ teaching was somehow secondary? No. I did not mean anything of the sort. I meant that our deeds had to match our words. It turns out, though, that such teaching is unrighteous.

Spirit-Killing Endeavors

The last action anyone should take is one that kills the spirit of another person. George Orwell makes this point in the character of Boxer in Animal Farm. The post-revolution farm run now by the animals feels obligated to demonstrate that it can be as prosperous as any human run farm. Boxer, the draft horse, believes this “prosperity gospel.” Every time a new project begins he declares, “I will work harder!” Boxer begins working harder than he ever did for Farmer Jones (no relation). He works himself into exhaustion. When he can no longer work, the pigs sell him.

Church leaders are in danger of doing this sort of thing for the same reason. We want the church to grow. The congregation would like for more people to join. So, we find ways to get more people. If we work hard enough on the correct projects, we believe the church will grow. “We will work harder,” becomes our motto and vision. It is acknowledged that only a few will make the “necessary” commitment. And that is how spirit-killing begins. We call it church burnout. Or we say the people who finally walk away are “dones.”

The Work of Advent

Several years ago, I began making a distinction between the seasons of Advent and Christmas. The members of most of my churches automatically considered the “Christmas season” as the time after Thanksgiving. Each December the 26th, they said, “Christmas is over.” I wanted to overcome this and set days and seasons in their proper order. It did not work as I hoped.

The churches are used to doing all the Christmas activities during Advent. We could link Advent to the busy-ness. But, then, what was Christmas? Many of us had grown up with schools having semester breaks in December. We often called it “Christmas vacation.” But, Christmas “celebrations” had stopped. What really made the celebration of Christmas different from any other break?

The problem is simple. We know how to work and then indulge. We do not know how to rest and feast. If an individual person is measured by what that person does, then a church is only measured by what it does. This is why I say there is an unrighteousness in our approach to work. The pressure is for church activities to be seen and lauded by people outside the congregation. We work for people to buy our product. In this sense, we are prosperity preaching, teaching, and doing. The church fails the world in this way.

Advent As Devotion

I try to get my congregations to add something to their devotional practices for Advent. The intent is to make a new habit that develops an appreciation for rest and feasting at Christmas. It helps me. I hope to get the church away from the insidious “work ethic” to a righteous vision of living where work has a proper place. My first task is to continue this realignment for myself.

There are two more weeks. Already we have been too busy, haggard, and worried. We are allowed devote our spirits to peace. There is a blessing in “doing enough.”

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