It’s Time to Work – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey TristramForty 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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  1. Lynn on April 9, 2015 at 21:20

    Thank you. I am struggling at work. This is very helpful.

  2. Steve Abdow on March 21, 2015 at 13:25

    Amen! I’ve often said that in my family the ethic was that one could not possibly work enough. I am relieved to hear this is a modern myth in the larger society, but I am not surprised. I know my work will actually improve if I make it a lower priority, frame it, create boundaries around it, and stop it regularly. Thank you for preaching this message which sounds heretical in our performance obsessed culture.

  3. Carol Muir on March 20, 2015 at 11:56

    Excellent thoughts on work from Br. Geoffrey and from those who have sent in comments. Cheryll’s comments really seem to speak to me. Just this morning I sat quietly
    practicing “just being.” I do find it hard to put parameters around my days and am trying to follow many of the suggestions from this Lenten series. I am thankful to
    have tapped into the valuable meditations of SSJE.

  4. Maureen on March 19, 2015 at 16:43

    As I read this, I thought of my daughter and son-in-law. They have two children under the age of three. The parents both work. When my daughter called earlier in the week, I noted that she was calm. When asked, she explained that the baby slept through three nights in a row.
    They seem to be unable to prioritize their lives. When the girls aren’t needy, work demands time.
    I try now to better prioritize. I’m disabled at home. How can they begin to prioritize when their day rotates around the baby’ sleeping habits.

  5. Al on March 15, 2015 at 09:56

    Just a useful series of thought provoking and bitesize challenges to myself and many others about work and what it is, what we get from it and what we give to it.

    Really want to say thank you

  6. george on March 13, 2015 at 13:30

    excellent work!

  7. Margot Dunnachie on March 13, 2015 at 06:58

    Thanks Br. Geoffrey, a lot to reflect on and try and put into practice. As I read the example given of the academic “framing” his work, for some reason I remembered a quote from the 20thC calligrapher and artist, Ben Shahn; he said that “the space between the letters is as important as the letters themselves”. I think a time of rest, reflection and thankfulness is to be as valued just as much as the work itself because it contributes equally to the overall beauty of the “work of art” – another sermon I found inspiring. (Sermon archive – January 19, 2011 “God’s Work Of Art” – Br Geoffrey Tristram)

  8. Jane on March 13, 2015 at 00:28

    I must be honest and say I tend to try to complete so much in one day. Today I helped at a service,visited two seniors, saw a lady illustrating my book and went home to correct and rearrange text and send her apicture. I can’t find one and now I’m giving up technology helps but sometimes hinders by keeping me up. I will still take time for pry and I love the NZ night prayer. Thanks for the good godly advice.
    I believe I’ve heard of Somerset Ward. I grew up near Canterbury where I went to school.

  9. gwedhen nicholas on March 12, 2015 at 18:11

    I am very fortunate because for me work is freedom, and restoration, and satisfaction. It is part of the flow of my day. When I do my work it doesn’t feel like I am working even though I need a rest when I am done.
    I love the idea, Br Geoffrey, of putting a frame around work. Thinking about it and saying a word of thanks to God; thanks that it has been so refreshing and giving me a deep down good feeling. I love to work, but I also love to rest. I like to listen to my body telling me that it is time to be quiet, time to reflect and time to let go. I am so thankful for my life. God has given my the most perfect of lives. I thank Him everyday.

    • Ruth West on March 13, 2015 at 00:20

      Thanks to you, Br. Geoffrey, for a very meaningful sermon that speaks to where we live.
      I especially liked Gwendhen’s post. I can say “ditto” to her experiences.Thank you, too, Gwendhen.

  10. Carole Trickett on March 12, 2015 at 17:18

    I found your entire reflection to be useful. I especially like the Compline prayer.It is a service I would so love to attend; and it is a rarity in rural Maine.

  11. Janice Schuyler on March 12, 2015 at 16:19

    I am going to make a copy of what Geoffrey wrote so that I may reread it when I forget… I have been retired now since 2007, but the challenges of how to be and live do not end when official work life stops. Recently I took an online course on Time Management, and it was slow going because the instructor had us look at what we say we value and at how we spend our time which is telling us what we are actually giving priority of place. It was an eye and heart) opener as is the whole Lenten series on Time. Thanks to all members of SSJE.

  12. Cheryll on March 12, 2015 at 15:15

    To begin with, we are retired.
    My kind of work is more about chores around the house but also about learning and doing those things I want to know about. That can surely become a form of work especially when talking about COMPLETION.
    To address your 3 areas of question,
    1. I believe in productivity but also believe in the need to make time for just being & nowadays, time with God.
    My struggle is in my anxiety to complete projects…
    2. I don’t consider myself to be a captive of electronics although it is a part of my life.
    3. I do try to frame my activities already. Some days it works better than others. But by framing & “scheduling ,” it does help me take a step at a time.
    But these days I find myself treasuring my times for devotional reading, praying, giving thanks & contemplation.
    I love the Let it Be prayer…a great way to end each day & free a busy mind.
    By the way, I am 71.

  13. Adele on March 12, 2015 at 14:34

    I discipline I try very hard to hold fast to is respecting the personal time of those with whom I work. I do not call, contact, email, etc. a co-worker during their personal time unless it is a dire emergency. Time away from one’s work is too precious to pollute with such contacts. Conversly, I do not engage in personal business during work time.
    Unfortunately, my husband does not have such a condition on his work. He works for a global company in a position where he is expected to be available 24 hours a day. He has even had to go into work during his off time to conference with co-workers on the other side of the world. It gets very daunting for us and exhausting for him. Thankfully, he will retire in a year and a half!

  14. martha tucker on March 12, 2015 at 14:30

    This speaks to me, a newly ordained priest, as I try to find that balance. And knowing that all has been redeemed in Christ allows me the freedom to let go and surrender more often than I might in order to discern God’s balance in my life. Loving what I do this much makes work joyful but potentially addictive! Spiritual discipline and direction as outlined are most helpful to return to. And resting and returning to God even in work or especially in work is a good thing. Thank you.

  15. Pat Trosclair on March 12, 2015 at 14:25

    I love the idea of framing each activity! Not only starting with prayer, ending with prayer! Thank you!

  16. Lori on March 12, 2015 at 14:08

    I have no problems with boundaries around my work as an elementary music teacher – when I leave at the end of the day, I’m generally done until the next day.
    What I DO have trouble with is all of the “extra” things I take on, which seem to all happen at the same time! I can say no to things I don’t want to do…but not to the things I know I’ll enjoy.
    I will try to keep this sermon in mind.

  17. Enid Shields on March 12, 2015 at 13:52

    Perhaps it was this performance compulsion and the discontent that arises from it that were aspects of the thorn in Paul’s flesh. I will contemplate this today along with how toil and distraction become a living death in my own life, and ultimately how the Great Commission should shape my work.

  18. Ed W on March 12, 2015 at 13:32

    This message certainly hits home for me. I work a lot on my computer, often spending much more time than I anticipated because of difficulties encountered. I have Parkinson’s disease, and it happens that with the disease I am much more likely to suffer stress and anxiety, much more likely to suffer the ill-effects of the Parkinson’s, when I encounter stress. Paying more attention to this message is especially important to me, and I need to do that.

  19. Harold Pound on March 12, 2015 at 13:16

    a wonderful sermon filled with wisdom and love.

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