Forty years ago, there lived in England a remarkable priest called Reginald Somerset Ward. He was enormously gifted as a spiritual director, so gifted that he left his parish and took up a sort of peripatetic ministry going around the country and meeting with bishops, clergy and laity who wanted his guidance and direction. He always had one main thing that he always said to people from the very beginning if they wanted his spiritual direction. “If you want me to direct you, you will have to abide by these 3 priorities. I will always expect you to give your first priority to God, your second priority to your family, friends, leisure, recreation. And then your third priority to work. In that order. And he never changed it.
And there’s a story of a young priest who came to see him and said “Can you be my spiritual director?” Somerset Ward laid out his 3 priorities, and the priest said, “I couldn’t possibly do that: I’m far too busy.” And Somerset Ward replied, “Well, I can’t direct you, because I don’t direct mad men!” (I wonder if he’d have taken you on?)
During this series of Tuesdays in Lent, we have been reflecting on time. How we use time, abuse time, how we might reorder and redeem God’s holy gift of time in our lives. And it is I believe, so often in our work, that we are most prone to developing a disordered relationship with time. And we do not only suffer as individuals, but we damage our families and the communities to which we belong. Robert Putnam in his book, “Bowling Alone” writes, “For many today, work has supplanted community life, and has had an adverse effect on happiness.”
So, how shall we understand work, as Christians? I think the first thing to say about work is that work is a good thing! Work is a gift, a gift from God. In the story of Creation in Genesis, the crowning achievement of God’s work was the creation of human beings to share in his work of ordering and managing the world. Man was settled in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it. The first human beings were not made to be idle but to work. The obligation to work was imposed on humanity in its original state as, as it were, part of the original blessing. Work is good. It belongs to the essential rhythm of fully human life. It is natural for human beings to want to work, to enjoy working, and to experience the natural satisfaction of a job well done. And we know how terrible it can be for somebody who is out of work and wants to work. It has something profoundly to do with our essential human nature and dignity.
But the Book of Genesis, whilst clear that work is essentially a blessing, goes on to describe in chapter 3 the story of the Fall, the terrible, existential rupture between God and God’s creation. As a result of this rupture, this wound, everything becomes disordered, including work itself; work can become experienced not as a gift, but as something disordered, dehumanizing, compulsive, alienating. Work now becomes toil. “In toil you shall eat of the earth all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it will bring forth for you. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”
But as Christians, we believe that all of life has been redeemed and transformed by Christ, and that includes work. So as Christians, our task, I think, is to see how our work is intimately linked to our relationship with Christ, so that Christ can redeem the place of work in our own lives. And that has everything to do with grace.
The German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote that the 20th century in the western world had been dominated by what he called the Performance Principle. The principle says that we measure our worth as human beings in proportion to how well we perform. The more we work, the more we produce, the better we perform, the better we feel about ourselves. But the principle never allows us to rest, because we can never perform perfectly. There’s always more to be done, something not yet achieved – so we never feel right about ourselves. Our deepest sense of value as a human being is determined by our level of performance – and it’s never good enough!
Well this Performance Principle, described by Marcuse is remarkably similar to the life which St. Paul described. He called it life lived under the Law. Paul himself was remarkably successful. He performed incredibly well, and yet he still felt that he fell short. However hard he worked, it was never good enough. But it was his encounter with Jesus Christ which freed him, “rescued him from the body of death. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 7:24-25) For in Christ St. Paul encountered grace. In Christ he came to know that he was loved and accepted by God, though grace, not through his performance, how hard he worked, not through the Law, but through grace. He was free. Living by grace is acknowledging the lordship of Christ over every part of life including work. It’s seeing work as it was at the beginning of Genesis, and as it is, redeemed by Christ, a wonderful gift from a loving God to share with God in the work of creation.
So how might we keep this Gospel truth alive in our own relationship to work? The story I shared about Somerset Ward suggests that we need certain disciplines in place, to stop work taking over and making us forget the Gospel of grace. Our Rule warns us “If we find ourselves filling leisure time with tasks, we can be sure that we have begun to imagine that our worth consists in what we accomplish.”
So what are some of these disciplines? I’d like to suggest three. I think the first really important discipline is the word rhythm. Finding a godly rhythm to your life, within which work plays a part but only a part. Many guests who stay in the monastery say how wonderful it is to share in the rhythm of our life, and how this has inspired them to re-order their own lives. In the monastery we have bells, which order the day – give it rhythm and balance. But it can be hard to stop working! The bell reminds us that we’re not just here to work / accomplish / perform. The bell which makes us stop calls us back to our truest identity – to glorify God!
The second discipline which I think is vital in redeeming our relationship to work is the word boundaries. Work requires discipline, and stopping work does as well. As much as we work because we have a responsibility to others, we also have a responsibility to those people – our family, spouse, friends, community, to stop working, in order to stop work becoming a monster that devours everything.
Having an ordered relationship to work means, very concretely, setting limits and boundaries, and holding ourselves accountable to stopping when those limits are met. Decide: what time are you going to start working each day? When will you stop? And what days will you take as Sabbath days, away from work entirely? Then hold yourself responsible, accountable to truly stopping.
Another huge challenge in this area is the growing relationship with what I call, “technologies of distraction.” How do we use computers and other technological devices so that they do not become compulsive? Sometimes we may carry on working simply because something within us doesn’t want to leave the lure of the screen. But we have to turn it off! The amazing technology we have now means that we take our office home with us, every moment. We need to make very clear decisions about, for example, when we will unplug the internet, or put the cell phone in the drawer.
This kind of deliberate self-discipline around work and technology allows us to give our full attention to what we are doing. When you’re at work, be completely present to the work you are engaged in at that moment. When you are at home, or at leisure, be fully present to those relationships and activities.
To reorder our relationship to work we need discipline, as Somerset Ward urged on his directees. I would suggest we need a clear rhythm to our lives. Secondly, we need clear boundaries. And then thirdly we need frames. What do I mean? We need to learn to put frames around our work. Just as a painting needs a frame around it to give it meaning, so our pieces of work need to be framed to give them meaning and give us satisfaction. So often our day can be just one long series of work, with one thing bleeding into the next, until we drop exhausted at the end of the day.
I was talking some time ago with an academic, who was saying how relentless his life was. It was just one thing after another. One activity was followed by the next, all day long. I suggested he start “framing” each piece of work. At the end of a lecture, come into your office, close the door, spend a moment with God in prayer. Light a candle, or look at an icon or a cross, and offer the lecture to God, and give thanks for having completed that piece of work. A moment of rest, reflection and thanksgiving, to frame the work is really what God did when he created the world. After each piece of creation he paused, “and God saw that it was good.” “God saw everything that he had made and it was very good.” “On the 7th day God finished the work he had done, and rested from all the work he had done!”
So can I challenge you all today to ask some honest questions about your relationship to work?
1 – Where do you lack freedom? Where has work become compulsive?
2 – What is your relationship to technologies of distraction?
3 – How might you build rhythm, boundaries and frames into your life?
I’d like to end with a lovely prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book for Compline. This is a great way to close every day. A way of re-acknowledging the Lordship of Christ over our lives. A way of handing over to him all the work we have done this day, even if it wasn’t perfect. Trust that tomorrow will allow you to tackle what you couldn’t finish today. It’s OK. Let it be.
Let us pray:
Lord it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God. It is night after a long day. What has been done, has been done; what has not been done has not been done. Let it be.
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