Saturday, March 12, 2011

On the Job

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Colossians 3.23-24)

Higher Standards

As a freelancer who works from home, I’ll occasionally rifle through daytime TV programs during breaks. The simulated courtroom shows especially interest me. Since their purview is limited to small claims, the suits usually amount to tempests in teacups: unpaid loans, overdue rent, minor property damage, etc. The plaintiffs and defendants intrigue me, though. In stating their cases, a great deal about their lives and values comes to light. I’m often amazed—as well as distressed—by how little worth many of them place on virtues like honesty, fidelity, and honor. Indeed, most of the dust-ups could be settled without adjudication if it weren’t for the parties’ mutual disrespect and distrust.

The worst of the worst—instances that vex my spirit no end—involve self-proclaimed “Christians.” Case in point: I recently saw a pastor, frocked in collar and crucifix, who boasted of leading her neighbor to Christ, only to sue the lady’s elderly mother when the $75 purchase of used appliances went sour! After the minister’s third or fourth mention of her clerical integrity, I shouted, “Madame, read your Bible! Saints don’t sue!” Having heard me say this before, Walt asked, “Why don’t saints sue?” I told him Scripture emphatically forbids it, citing Jesus’s instruction to settle disputes out of court (Matthew 5.25-26) and Paul’s outrage at lawsuits within the Church (1 Corinthians 6). That didn’t answer his question. “But why?” he asked. I explained, “With God as our Judge, we believe justice supersedes redress and penalty. Forgiveness, given or received, is also needed for true justice to prevail. So we avoid court, as human reparations fall short of pleasing God. We hold higher standards.” All Walt said to that was, “Huh.”

The Believer’s Work Ethic

Today, opening Day 4 of the 40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer—which my local church has taken as its Lenten study guide—I too said, “Huh.” The editor, Rick Klug, mines the great theologian and martyr’s writing for the basics of practical Christian living. Day 1 is discipleship, Day 2 Bible-reading, and Day 3 morning prayer. But I wasn’t prepared for today’s topic: the believer’s work ethic. Bonhoeffer’s preface to the day’s scripture concludes:

Every day [but Sunday] should be marked for the Christian both by prayer and work. Prayer also requires its own time. But the longest part of the day belongs to work. The inseparable unity of both will become clear when work and prayer each receives its own undivided due.

I confess amusement at reading this. How Germanic of Bonhoeffer to remind us Christians should be industrious and responsible on the job! Then, as I followed on to read Colossians 3.23-24, I realized this is simply another case of higher standards. Paul writes, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” It takes a while to get our heads around this, I think. Particularly in these days of economic uncertainty and workplace turmoil, we tend to divorce practicing our faith from professional obligations. Yet this text says they’re inextricably linked. While our “human masters” reward our productivity, Paul teaches God will ultimately reward our performance. Everything we do—from the most menial tasks to the most ambitious assignments—we approach as godly work. “It is the Lord Christ you are serving,” Paul insists.

This principle resounds through Jesus’s teaching and Paul’s epistles. In numerous lessons, Jesus talks about wise servants and faithful laborers. Paul repeatedly discusses the importance of personal and professional ethics that eliminate potential for shame to besmirch our witness. How we are on the job speaks volumes about our commitment to Christ. When we’re industrious and responsible in our earthly pursuits, we favorably reflect the fervor and faithfulness of our discipleship. In contrast, if we do the minimum of what’s expected of us and render anything less than exemplary results, we evidence a lack of discipline that discredits our faith. It yields the kind of incredulity I feel when—quote-unquote—Christians take petty grievances to the airwaves.

The Lent Connection

Authentic discipleship sets higher standards in every area of our lives. And that’s where Bonhoeffer’s canny reminder of the believer’s work ethic intersects with Lent. This season is provided for us to confirm anew our desire and determination to follow Christ. We pledge ourselves to disciplined fasts and times of prayer, meditation, and study with the intention of overcoming selfish impulses and desires. We accept Lent’s higher calling and embrace its sacrificial demands. Yet these requirements aren’t supposed to be diminished or abandoned once our journey ends. They’re meant to transform us in enduring ways that witness the power of resurrection in all we do. Lent is godly work that teaches us every obligation and opportunity is Christian service. Prior to stressing an exemplary work ethic, Paul says, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3.17)

Furthermore, we who fall into the category of “unorthodox Christians”—as LGBT, progressive, or disenfranchised believers—are all the more compelled to maintain higher standards. We must view every thought and behavior as an either/or decision. Our attitudes and actions either validate our faith in God’s love and acceptance or call it into question. Either we witness the mind and nature of Christ or we deny it. Paul challenges us about careless behavior in Romans 6.1-2: “Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” And Hebrews 6.7 dramatizes the implications of inconsistent witness, saying those who don’t subscribe to God’s higher standards “are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” Who we are on our knees should be who we are on the job. That’s the Lent connection, plain and simple.

Our work ethic speaks volumes about our discipleship.

Postscript: “Take My Life”

I can’t locate the name of the artist who performs this sublime arrangement of the classic hymn. But her sterling vocals and the visuals fit perfectly with today’s post. A consecrated life is witnessed all day long.


Sherry said...

To one who tends to compartmentalize my life into work, pleasure, spiritual, etc, I realize just how wrong this is. I do fit it hard to see Jesus in my cleaning of the toilets, but I see what is being asked--I agree, the attention you pay to one, informs the real attention you are paying to the other. This is a challenge, and one I shall pray about today, and work on this Lenten time. Tim this is just the best of my practices this Lent--YOU!
Blessings, Sherry

Word in the Hand said...

As Paul says - 'whatever you do' - we should not have a 'Sunday' head - who we are is who we are - as Paul says again 'clothed in Christ' - then we have integrity, then we are whole.

Tim said...

Sherry, I too tend to categorize my life and this chance to rethink the practice via Bonhoeffer is proving very illuminating. When I'm involved with tasks that involve others, I'm much more conscious about honoring Christ's principles and my witness. But you're ever so right; the grace and humility really evidence themselves in the lowly, solitary tasks I so often procrastinate about. Not long ago I caught a post at Claire's place that talked about turning these tasks in prayer time, to subvert their mindlessness with thinking of others. That sort of "socializes" the endeavors and turns them into blessings of opportunity for me.

You are too kind in your compliments, dear sister!--though I would say the same of you and what you're offering at your place during this season. We are all laborers together with Christ.


Tim said...

Word, yes, "Sunday heads"--I like that! Our integrity lives or dies on our consistency of witness, not just our spiritual practices. To be "clothed in Christ" is to be like Christ at all times, a daunting challenge, but one that raises us as we draw nearer to its realization.

Thank you for this. It's always so lovely to hear from you, and I look forward to learning more as you contribute to future discussions!