Tag Archives: Vocation

God at Work: There is a Tree

Jesus at the office

So today I’m finishing a blog series that has meant a lot to me. And I’ll do it with one of the best stories I’ve ever heard.

J.R.R. Tolkien had worked on Lord of The Rings for almost a decade when it dawned on him that he was getting old. He had spent the past ten years working on this epic story, and he hadn’t even written a page down. Instead, he had been creating entire worlds and cultures and languages so that the story would have a universe to live in.

But then he realized he had been so obsessed with the details that he had not been writing any of the actual story down. He began to think that he was going to die before he was able to complete his dream of writing these epic novels.

He thought that he was going to die and they would come in and find his body and all the scribblings of Middle Earth, and they would just write him off as a crazy old man. Kind of like he was the worlds first Star Trek fan.

Leaf by Niggle

Now you probably already know that Tolkien did indeed finish his book. But before he sat down and actually wrote it, he wrote a short story called Leaf By Niggle. It’s about a little man named Niggle who’s life mission is to make a painting of a tree.

Niggle is actually an English word meaning someone “obsessed with the details.” And when we meet Niggle, he is living up to his name. While he really wants to paint the tree, he keeps obsessing over the first couple of leaves. He can’t move past them. He just keep paying attention to getting the leaves of the tree just perfectly.

But Niggle is old, and getting older.

And people keep swinging by his house and asking him to help them.

So it begins to dawn on Niggle that he may not be able to finish his life-long dream of painting the tree.

He keeps working hard on it, but sure enough, Niggle winds up being right.

He dies before he finishes his work.

Now it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to know that Tolkien is writing about his own life here. He wrote this short story right after it dawned on him that he might not live to make his own masterpiece. Tolkien, the worlds best modern story teller is telling us about the anxiety of his own work, by telling us a story.

A story about a guy who wants nothing more than to get out this dream in his head, and who ultimately fails to do so.

So back to Niggle, when they find him dead at home, someone notices the partially finished painting. It was just a basic sketch of a tree, with a leaf or two filled out on the canvas. The leaves were exquisite and very intricate, and so they put the painting in the museum, and for a while people came and saw it.

A few people were impressed by the incredible detail of the leaves, but most of them just saw a painting that wasn’t finished. Niggle’s life work blessed a few people, but ultimately was forgotten.


J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t stop his story there.

Because Niggle goes to Heaven, and the first thing he sees, Is the Tree.

I can’t tell you how many times over the past year, I’ve told people that story. I can barely do it without choking up. I tell everyone I know who is frustrated with their work, or the lack of work. I tell it to people who care deeply about making the world different, about making it better.

Because even the best of us, are going to be incredibly frustrated with our lives and our work. We have a picture inside of us a better world, but at best we can only get out a leaf or two.

We will live lives of both incredible frustration and joy, but we will surely not accomplish all we wish we could. We are only human. But that vision, the one that you have for your life, for this world, is not in vain. It is in fact, from God.

Trees Of Life

In Mozambique a few years ago, there was a civil war raging. Eventually both sides called a cease-fire. But it was still a cold war, people held onto their weapons and everyone lived in deep distrust of one another.

And then along came the Christians.treeoflife.jpg

A Group called the Christian relief aid came in and tried to think of a creative way to deal with this problem.So they said to everyone, if you will bring in your weapons we will give you farm equipment in exchange.

And it worked.

But now the Christian group had a problem, they had all these weapons and not a violent bone in their body. So they did something that I think is brilliant.

They took all of the weapons, and made them into a sculpture. Of a tree.

And they called it the Tree of Life.

They literally beat their swords into plowshares. All because some Christians got a vision for the world could be like and acted accordingly.

They saw the future of God, and the lived into it now. They brought a bit of Heaven to earth.

My work is frustrating from time to time, I have so much I want to do with my life, to make the world a better place. And there are days where I feel like I’m just painting the same old leaf.

But in my better days, I know that my work, that all of our work, matters more than we could ever imagine, because there is a new day coming that won’t be like the previous ones. There is a world that is breaking into this one that is full of the glory of God, and in that world there will be no more suffering or pain or cancer. So I’ll paint the leafs of my life as well as possible, because I believe in the best parts of my heart…

There is a Tree.

God At Work: Not In Vain

Jesus at the office

“If you’re a city planner, there is a New Jerusalem, If you’re a lawyer there will be a time of perfect righteousness and justice. The way we view the not yet will inevitably impact the way we respond in the here and now.” -Tim Keller

For the past few months, I’ve written on the importance of vocation and why it matters to reconsider what we do in light of what we believe. I want to conclude this series in the next week, but first I want to point out something that I think many of us familiar with the Scriptures miss.

A few years ago I was hanging out with some quilting ladies at The Hills Church (a much wilder experience than you might think) and they were telling me about what they’ve done over the years. Every week a couple of dozen ladies sit down and make blankets for the under-priviledged. They give their quilts to the mentally handicapped, the orphans, kids in the cancer wards, basically anyone who needs to keep warm. And after hearing their stories this is what I told them.

Work is Meaningless

If you’ve never read the book of Ecclesiastes, I highly recommend it. It’s not a real pick me up book, (in fact Rabbi’s used to ask people to wash their hands after they read it) but it is incredibly honest. One of the more interesting things about Ecclesiasties is how it portrays work.

Because it doesn’t seem to think to highly about anything we do with our lives. One Old Testament Scholar, Tremper Longman believes that Ecclesiasties is written in a literary form of “fictional autobiography.”

Basically what that means is that Ecclesiastes is like a parody (it’s like the Colbert Report of the Old Testament) it’s setting up the most honest way of talking about the world, but just because it’s honest doesn’t mean it tells the whole truth. Because Ecclesiasties has a pretty dark view of work.

It knows that work, no matter how great we think our job is, can never really deliver on it’s promises.

I don’t know about you, but my work keeps me up at night worrying about what I’m missing out on, Jesus seems to be able to sleep through storms. I don’t know about you but my work can easily turn into idolatry.

My ambition can seduce me into thinking that I’m working for my family and friends, when really it’s tricking me into neglecting them. Because no matter what we do, and no matter how well we do it, eventually all work is in vain…no matter how well you build the house eventually entropy sets in, no matter how well you cook or paint or create eventually it will pass…From the perspective of eternity it seems like all labor is meaningless.

Work can be very, very vain.

And anyone who’s ever lived knows that Ecclesiastes is of course right, but it isn’t telling the whole truth.

Ends and Means

It is no accident that Jesus in his first sermon he ever preaches, starts by quoting the prophetic vision of Jubilee and then suggests that this is what he is doing in the world. Jesus is bringing in of the Kingdom, involves work. Jesus sees a Kingdom of God that informs our work. A Christian definition of work will take into account where history is going in God’s hands. So In 1st Corinthians 15, Paul gives us the longest treatise on the resurrection in the whole Bible. It’s one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture. It’s about the world being set right, everything is how it should be, death is no longer a factor. But Paul chooses to end this chapter in a strange way. He says:

“Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

Which is kind of a strange way to end this chapter isn’t it? He ends by talking about our work. If the resurrection is about going to another place in the sky, than this doesn’t make sense. But if it is something else, sometime about this world being renewed, than that changes everything. Because what you do here and now matters.Heaven and Earth

So back to those quilting ladies…this is what I told them. I told them what they did would matter forever. The resurrection means that every quilt they made is going to have echoes into eternity. Look at one of my favorite quotes from N.T. Wright about our work in relation to the resurrection:

“You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that is about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on a fire…You are-strange as it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself-accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness, every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course ever prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world-all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God.”

Did you catch that? The things we do with our life will find their way, through the resurrecting power of God, into forever.

Your work is important, not just because you can contribute to church, but because you get to partner with God! The resurrection of the world means that some of the best ministries, don’t have the word ministry in them!

There’s not some work that is spiritual and some work that is earthly, there is only work that partners with God, and work that refuses to.

So take heart plumbers and musicians, take heart teachers and doctors, take heart electricians and carpenters.

Because your Labor is in the Lord, and your work is not in Vain.

God at Work: All Work and No Play

“Someone’s going to always tell my kids that their dad was a great football player. But no one will be able to tell my kids that their dad was a great dad and a great husband, so I have to be able to show them that. And that’s what the next chapter of my career is going to be.” -NFL player Donald Driver on Retiring last year

Jesus at the office

I’ve talked before about how, growing up, my dad was the assistant manager at Wendy’s. But what I didn’t know until much later in life was that he was given plenty of chances to advance to his career. He was offered positions of store and even regional supervisor several different times. But he always turned them down.

Dad was always a hard worker. He showed up early and left late, and he loved his job. So when I found out that my dad had turned down these promotions I was confused, and asked him why?

His answer changed my view of work forever…But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Did you know that when earlier Christians listed the 7 deadly sins, they’re not re-inventing the wheel. Everyone of those sins were taken from the Greco-Roman list of vices.

Except for one.


Sloth is a uniquely Christian sin, because in the story God is telling, humans are held responsible to God for what they do with their lives. But that means more than we think it does.

Life Matters

There is an interesting tradition in the book of Proverbs that talks a lot about sloth. The Proverbs talks about the sluggard, the person who is just wasting away. Now I grew up hearing a lot about this particular tradition a lot, primarily by my mom trying to get me to do my chores, or get a job or whatever.

The book of Proverbs says things like, “Go to the ant you sluggard, consider it’s ways and be wise.” Sloth I was taught, means to be lazy and to not be working. But that’s a very small view of sloth.

In fact, I think part of the reason Americans have such a poor view of work and play is because we don’t understand what sloth really is. There is a proverb that actually says, “The sluggard says, “There’s a lion outside! I’ll be killed in the public square!” The Sluggard is borrowing trouble where there is none. He’s using excuses of danger and risk to just avoid living life. One of the definition of sloth in the Bible is not just avoiding work, it is anxious apathy.

Sloth is saying no to the endless potential and possibilities that God has given us. Sloth is reaching for any reason to not risk anything. It’s seeing a lion where there isn’t one.

But Sloth is more than just anxiety and it’s more than just laziness. There is another side to sloth that I don’t think we American Christians get. but desperately need.

The word for sloth is the word Acedia. It’s really a word that means melancholy or sadness, it is a word about someone who avoids the pain of actually being fully alive.  There are lot’s of ways to avoid life, and work can be one of those ways.

Gaining the World

So back to my dad.

I asked him why he didn’t take that job, even though it would have meant a lot more money for our family. And my dad said, “I did that for you and the family. I didn’t want to give my best energy to someone or somewhere else.”

How cool is that? Dad knew the difference between providing for a family and neglecting one. And despite the enormous amount of pressure  society puts on men to be a certain definition of successful, my dad chose to do the first, not the latter.

Dorothy Sayers wrote about sloth. And I love her definition:

“Laziness (the way we normally define sloth) is not the real nature of this condition. Really it means a life driven by mere cost-benefit analysis of “What’s in it for me…instead” It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for purpose in nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, find purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and only remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die. We have known it far too well for many years, the only thing perhaps we have not known about it is it is a mortal sin.”

American’s work more than any society in the history of the world. We don’t know how to play, we don’t really know how to party, all we know is how to work…and more often than not, it is not just a good work ethic. It’s sloth.

So we work long hours in the office, to avoid the hard work that needs to be done in the marriage, or the hard work of being a parent. Too often we use work as a way to avoid life, but God intends that we use work as a way to engage it.ray-romano

When Ray Ramona finished filming the last episode of the “Everybody Loves Raymond” show, he told the studio audience there for the live filming why he quit. The show could have gone for more seasons, the network and fans loved it. But Ramona told them that 15 years ago, when he was leaving New York to try his luck in Hollywood, his brother hugged him and then slipped a note into his suitcase.

When he got to LA, he opened it and all the note said was this: “What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?”

Then Ray told the audience over the last 10 years, he had been blessed beyond belief with his career. He felt like he has gained the world, but now it was time to work on his soul.

May we all.

God at Work: Serving the World

“Everybody wants to change the world, nobody wants to do the dishes.” -Shane Claiborne

“It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” -Yogi Berra

Jesus at the office

One of the most notable ways that humans have changed the world in the last hundred years is the way we talk about changing the world. In the 19th century nobody was really talking like this. In the 19th century there were only four books written with a mention of “changing the world.” In the last few decades we’ve written over a million!

Confidence Monitors

Andy Crouch in his book Culture Makers gives a few examples of these books, The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention that Changed the World. Twelve Lesbians Who Changed the World, Five Speeches That Changed the World , or my favorite  Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World.

When did we start letting this get by our editors? Does anybody really think Mauve changed the world?

But under these titles and over-used language is an idea that runs deep in our bones. The world is not right, and we can change it. 

But can we? Really? My generation has a lot of confidence. We grew up on Mr. Roger’s telling us we were special and we believed him. Often we forget that we are just one of seven billion people who are alive today. And that really our lives, at their best, are just a small drop in a ocean of God’s reality.

There are 1.5 Million books that in the Harvard Library that are about Changing the world.

And not one of them was written before 1900.

Andy Crouch has a great word of caution for all us world changers though. He points out that none of us know what we are really doing. We had no idea that inventing the Freeway would create the Fast-food phenomenon and the rise of obesity, or that the invention of the phone would make also lead to children moving away from families.change-the-world

We have not come to terms with the fact that for all our best intentions the world will change us, much more than we will change it. In the words of Andy Crouch:

“Beware of world Changers, they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin.”

In the Palace, Under The Cross

Growing up one of my favorite stories was Esther. It’s a story that can rival any Disney screenplay because it’s got everything: good vs. evil, powerful vs. weak, romance and humor, and a girl who is asked to risk everything to save the people she loves.

If you’ve never heard the story, go back and read it sometime, it is brilliant. But the part I want to emphasize today is when Ester finds out that her husband the King is going to kill the Jews (without knowing she is one of them). Her uncle talks her into telling the King that she is also a Jew. Even though she could die too.

But she does it, she leverages the little bit of influence she has to serve the few people she can. Even though it could cost her her life. In fact, this is what Ester says:

Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

If I perish, I perish.

Did you know that Ester is called Queen 14 times in this book, and 13 of those times come after she lays her life on the line!

Her initial instincts are for self-preservation and safety, but when she risks her own life in service to the greater good, she suddenly becomes known as the queen.

This is the theme of the Bible, it is the undoing of the original sin of pride and hubris. We don’t know the unintended consequences for what we do…and what starts with the greatest intentions can turn into a destructive force. Unless we are willing to change the way we think about changing the world.

Because Sacrificial Service is the way of Jesus, the way God is going to change the world is going to be through this way. It will be by men and women laying down their lives in service and sacrifice for the common good.

I love the way that N.T. Wright says this:

If we are to be kingdom-announceres, modeling the new way of being human, we are also to be cross bearers. This is a strange and dark theme that is also our birthright as followers of Jesus. Shaping our world is never for a Christian a matter of going out arrogantly thinking we can just get on with the job reorganizing the world according to some model we have in mind. It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point…Because as he himself said, following him involves taking up the cross, we should expect, as the New Testament tells us repeatedly, that to build on his foundation will be to find the cross etched into the patter of our life and work over and over again.

So stop trying to change the world, serve it.

God at Work: The Work of the People

“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” -John W. Gardner

Jesus at the office

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a successful business man and Highland Church member. We were talking about shared history and people that we both knew, and then we got on to the topic of vocation. And I asked my friend, does what we do on Sunday in worship connect to what you do in your job at all?

And my friend, being honest, said “No.”

Which is a shame…

In the day that Jesus was born, the wealthy Roman people had certain ideas about the universe. They Believed that the gods had made tiers or levels of people. Some were created to work in the trenches, some where created as peasants and tradespeople, and others were created for more “noble” tasks, like reading and thinking…Particularly thinking about philosophies that make thinking people more important than peasants and workers.

And into that world, Jesus is born. According to the Christian story, God enters the world, not through a school in Athens or a Senator’s tudor in Rome, but through a carpenter.

And Jesus spends 30 years learning how to make with his hands.

Idols and Work

The Jewish Scholar Nahum Sarma points out that the book of Genesis is doing so many things that we are unaware of. For example, in Genesis 4:19-22, Genesis lists off a number of random occupations and inventions. But this is more than just letting us know who invented the harp or camping. Back in the day that Genesis was written it was commonly assumed that the gods were the ones who came up with these ideas.

So the Egyptians thought that the god Thot invented the scales, and Osiris invented agriculture…but here right in the first few chapter of the Bible we read that God has given the gift of creation to people. And it appears that no matter how bad the world gets, God still wants to co-create with them.

The common way of viewing the world was that we were dependent on the gods for everything…but Genesis tacitly rejects this idea. Human history is not something we are passive in. It is something God wants to do with and through us.

One of the interesting things that I’ve learned about Christian culture over my last three decades is how much we fail to get this.

We don’t create culture, we consume it or parody it. And sometimes we say that we should engage it, but typically that just means we should “think about it” from a distance, or have a small group to talk about the movie/book/album and what ways we saw gospel undertones. Which is all well and good, but….

The one thing that I see missing today in most Christian circles is the one thing that the Scriptures are truing to give us.

A passion to create. Sometime new and fresh and innovative and good. Not just coping “American Idol” and calling it “Gifted” (an actual real thing that we did).

But the most toxic thing we did was turn our work from a way to worship to what we worship.  In his book Wisdom Meets Passion, Dan Miller points out:

“The new generations want to change the world. Nothing is more frightening than the prospect of mediocrity. Yes, they may appear narcissistic-self-centered rather than other-focused.But they are looking for redemption, a cause that validates their very existence.’

Now that sounds good, but it’s actually one of the biggest problems we face as humans. Because if your work or cause is what validates your existence, you can be sure that you will only hurt your work or cause. It can’t bear that kind of weight.

Coram Deo

There’s an old Latin saying “Coram Deo” that means before the Face of God. It basically means that everything we do is done in His presence, but it also means that God is working alongside us, and that one day our work will quality control tested by Him.

Not just preachers and bishops and priests, but retailers and artists and teachers. In fact, the word liturgy actually doesn’t mean worship the way you think it does. It really just means “The Work of the People” because you are working along side God, your work is worship.

Home page miracle

And this actually helps to explain history a bit better. Because for thousands of years this is exactly what Jews and Christians have done. We have been a compelling force for good in the world. Ethopians monks created Cappacino’s (the word comes from the Capuchin monks), We created hospitals and medicine, and explored and discovered the universe God made (in fact, now that we are understanding the Mideval ages better, we realize that Christians weren’t anti-science, if anything the reverse was true!)

You know what’s interested about Genesis? It’s that the snake temptation in the garden was to consume, but God’s calling for Adam and Eve was to produce and cultivate. This is the Christian position toward culture, we can co-create with God with the realization that He will one day check our work. (I’ll write more about that next week)

But for now, here’s the thing that I think we must realize. The Scriptures are deeply invested in how and why we work. This is why as long as I live, I will work to help church be a place that helps everyone else re-imagine their own work in light of the Gospel.

Our work is not what we worship, but it very much should be a way we worship. 

Before the Face of God we work. That’s liturgy.

The Work of the People.

God At Work: A Day Off

“I took off 6 days between 1978-1984″ Bill Gates

Jesus at the office


For the past few months I’ve been writing about why work matters more than we think it does. I don’t hear churches or preachers talking very much about the other 6 days of the week, and I think that’s a shame. We’ve got to re-imagine what it looks like for a Christian to work in every sector of society.

But what do you do when work turns bad?

When the President Lyndon B. Johnson was on his deathbed he told his biographer that he had wasted his life.

Which is not what you would expect to hear a former President say.

He told his biographer that he realized that what he had really been searching for was immortality, and now that he was going to die, he watched the American people absorbed in a new President, and he realized that they would eventually forget him entirely. He told her that he wished he would have invested his life in his wife and children. Because he could have depended on them in a way he had just learned he couldn’t depend on the American people.

The Addiction of Work

One counselor who works with high ranking executives recently commented on the increasing burnout she’s seeing. She said that work is the newest addiction of choice.

There’s a guy named George Cloutier who specializes in maximizing productivity, he’s well respected in his circles, and this is what he says.

As far as birthdays and anniversaries. You should absolutely make note of them–but not by taking long visits to the country with your spouse or going off on weekend getaways. That’s what jewelry is for. Or treat everybody to a steak dinner. It takes less time, so you can get on with running your business. If you are not focused–if family, friends and loved ones fill up your busy weekly schedule–you are probably failing to deliver real profits for your company….Love your business more than your family–it’s not an easy or popular attitude to adopt. Often you will feel tremendous pressure to take time away from your business to devote to family matters. But in the end, the best thing you can do for them is to create the legacy of a business that is thriving and financially sound. When you’re retired, wealthy, and able to spend Valentine’s Day and other special occasions with your kids and grandkids at your winter home in Hilton Head, you’ll be glad you devoted so much of your time to your first love: your business.

And this guy is serious.

Do you know when God first mentions the Sabbath?

It’s right after the Israelites are delivered from Egypt. They were slaves for a jerk named Pharaoh, And God knows that embedded in their DNA is that they think they are slaves.

Sabbath was God’s answer to slavery.

It’s God’s way of saying you’re not in Egypt anymore.

Sabbath is God’s way of letting you know you are worth more than what you do.

So God’s command is to carve out a day when all work is done, even if it’s not.

See the truth is that Sabbath isn’t voluntary. You’re going to take a Sabbath one way or another, the only question is do you want it to be a happy Sabbath, or a sad Sabbath. Do we want it to be a Sabbath with you riding in a red car with a siren on top going very fast (that’s a Sad Sabbath), or one that you took voluntarily?

How many of us if we were honest feel like there is this weight that follow us around everywhere?

That we are tied to our Blackberry’s or our Iphones, as if our identities depended on them.

I’ve had times in my life when I’d wake up in a panic during the middle of the night because I missed an email or didn’t return a phone call.

Rabbi’s are fond of saying that more than Israel keeping Sabbath, Sabbath kept Israel.

When they were under siege in Masada, they kept it during famine, and in drought, some of them even kept it in Hitlers concentration camps. Because real Sabbath, comes from the confidence that God is able to take care of things,

That God is big enough to take be in charge of things while you take a nap.

Real rest can only come by recognizing that God is God and I am not.

But real work comes from that too.

Breaks and Bricks Building with bricks

There’s a guy named Nehemiah in the Old Testment, and when we first meet Nehemiah he is in Exile. But he’s got a good job. He’s the cupbearer for the King, which basically it means he drinks the King’s drink before the King does to make sure no one is gunning for his job.

And in the beginning of the book, Nehemiah is asking the King of Persia to let him go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the wall. And the King, who seems like a nice guy (but has way too many x’s in his name) says yes.

So the rest of the book of Nehemiah is about men building a wall. To be honest it’s got some of the more boring chapters in the Bible. Entire chapters are just filled with these random names of guys who were just stacking bricks.

But I’d like to point out something…This job is the same as the Israelites had in Egypt, they were stacking bricks. But this is different isn’t it?

They don’t work as slaves now…instead they work as partners with God.

Look at what the text actually says

So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God. –Nehemiah 6:15-16

They worked with the help of God. They did the same thing they used to do for Pharaoh but now it’s so very different isn’t it?

That’s why it matters so much that we rest! When we turn off the phone, when we stop checking email, we are teaching our soul who we work for and who we don’t.

Because we don’t work for Pharaoh.

We work for God.

And God is at work.

God at Work: A Better Bottom Line

“The priesthood of all believers did not make everyone into church workers; rather it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling.” -Gene Veith

“The first duty of a human being is to assume the right functional relationship to society-more briefly, to find your real job, and do it.” -Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Jesus at the office

I remember looking at retirement portfolio in 2008. I don’t get numbers, and I wouldn’t have even had a retirement plan if my more Excel fluent brother wouldn’t have forced me to. But I understood that there was a huge difference between the number of our current account balance and the balance that was there last month.

The market had crashed, like markets do, but what made this one seem so different is the widespread recognition that this crash was not just because of unforeseen market conditions, but unknown and widespread corruption.

The market crashed because we were selfish.

It’s easy to hate on Bernie Madoff and all of the bank executives with Golden parachutes, but I’ve come to look at them the way I’ve learned to look at Adam and Eve. Yeah they messed up the world for everyone else, but I’m pretty sure if I was them I’d probably have done the same thing.

Because what we are seeing is a glimpse into the human condition. Something that the Bible calls sin. And you don’t need an MBA from Harvard to be capable of that.

In fact, no matter what you do chances are you are a part of the very system that these CEO’s and exectuives were working in.

The Virtue of Vocation

Recently, David Brooks wrote an article about spending time with some Stanford students. He came away noticing that they had a pretty binary view of the world. Either you were going to make money or you were going to serve the world through some kind of non-profit or Peace Corps.

Both of these students were trying to pursue status in some form, they were even wanting to make their mark in the universe, but their imagination was too limited.

Here’s what Brooks said in his article:

“Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options. There’s crass but affluent investment banking. There’s the poor but noble nonprofit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously. But there was little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, government service or the zillion other sectors. Furthermore, few students showed any interest in working for a company that actually makes products…Community service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service….In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence….Furthermore…around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops?…You can devote your life to community service and still be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and by a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.”

Notice what Brooks is saying? Because this is at the heart of what it means to have a vocation or calling.

Remember a calling is only a calling if someone else calls you to do something and you do it for their sake and not for your own.

A calling is a calling if you are doing it as a service and not primarily from selfish motives.

This is the virtue of a vocation.

And intiutitvely we already knew this.

Working to Serve

5 year old Milo who was bullied at a Restaurant
5 year old Milo who was bullied at a Restaurant

Remember how you felt last month when you read the story about the waiter standing up against the bully of the down syndrome boy? Or what about the article about the flight attendants and pilots who held the plane for the man trying to get to his dying mother in time?

This is the virtue of a vocation. It is to see the work of your hands as a way to have more than just to earn status or money for retirement, but as a way of making the world a better place for the people around you.

Just ask Leonard Abess.

Leonard started and built a bank in Miami from the ground up. For decades, owning and operating a bank was how he served the citizens of Florida. He saw his company as a way of providing jobs for the community and a service for people. And after 30 years Abess sold his bank to a larger organization. But it’s what he did next that has everyone talking.

Because this guy, suddenly could be in the same zip code as Warren Buffett, but instead he starts hunting down all the employees who have ever worked for him, past and present, and Leonard Abess started giving them a slice of the buyout.

Some people were receiving checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of them hadn’t worked at the bank in years, but they had helped to build the bank, and so now Abess was set on making sure they got to share the reward.

He didn’t do this for publicity, in fact when the employees got their checks he wasn’t even there, and didn’t want to do any interviews.

But for some reason Abess was the talk of the world for a few short days.

Because in the middle of a cutthroat environment, we finally had a financial story worth celebrating. And yeah, Abess walked away with substantially less than his counterparts at other banks.

But I wonder who is enjoying their retirement more?

That’s the difference between a job and a calling.

That’s a better bottom line.

God at Work: Common Grace

Jesus at the office

In 2001, Perry Falwell (not to be confused with Jerry) flew into the Sudan with members of the Christian Solidarity International to negotiate the release of over 2000 Sudanese slaves. In order to fund their redemption Perry paid for it, through his work. He was the lead singer of Jane’s Addiction, and his band donated the proceeds from one full concert to save the lives of these people.

Meanwhile, my parents did not allow me to listen to their music….and I was in college.

A Thin View of Sin

Now I don’t want to get into what kind of music we should listen to. I say this because one of the chief problems I see facing churches as we move forward is our thin view of sin. This comes out in a thousand ways, but I hear about it most with the way we talk about work.

Ever since I’ve been in ministry, I’ve had people complain about how hard it is to be at work, at the water cooler and hear someone use a foul word, or to have a co-worker talk about something immoral. We say it a hundred different ways but what we are trying to say is, “It’s so hard to work around sinners.”

This comes primarily from a view of sin that has been the most popular for the past several decades. It’s sin as a list of things that you should avoid, and the best way to respond to this is by not being around sinners, or places where these sins happen.

I normally turn around and assure people, that as someone who has worked most of my life in church, it is just as hard.

Because sin is more deceitful that that. As soon as we think that we’ve got our sin problem licked, we discover (at least hopefully) that we have made pride our new sin. If we are honest we realize that our heart is an idol factory and that often we haven’t removed the sin, we’ve just replaced it with a more religious version of it.

This is why some of the worst people that you know are Christians, it doesn’t have to go with the territory, but it does sometimes. If you can get God to agree with your definition of sin, and then just stick within it, it’s very possible to never be confronted with your own selfishness.

If I’m the one that gets to define righteousness than I will certainly be righteous.

I may not be helping to free the slaves in Sudan but at least I don’t watch rated R movies.

The Tim Tebow Problem

One of the most surprising things about the Bible is the kinds of people God works through. If you are a church person you’ve probably heard a hundred sermons about Ruth or Rahab, but on a broader level God works in the Scriptures through pagan kings and armies and rulers and centuries as a way of blessing the world. And he does this often, without “saving” them and making them a part of his people.

I like Tim Tebow…really!  I think he’s a stellar guy a great athlete and a mediocre NFL quarterback. I’m glad that he’s a Jesus follower, and that he gives young men a role model to look up to. But Tebow has revealed a problem with Christianity.

What do you do when there are better quarterbacks out there who don’t believe in Jesus?

We love it in our Christian sub-culture, whenever a star or celebrity makes it to a public forum or becomes a star. But the flip side to this is that God is working through all kinds of people to make the world a better place.

Tim Keller pastors a church in Manhatten, and one of the things he repeatedly pushes his church to do is to partner with the other civic organizations and affirm them and their service in New York. So Keller, a conservative Presbyterian ministry, is constantly affirming the homosexual community for the way that they have renovated so many inner city neighborhoods and helped the crime rate, or his Jewish neighbors who have worked hard to create human flourishing in New York City. And here’s what Keller says that I think is so important:

In The Christian story the antagonist is not non-Christians but the reality of sin, which (as the gospel tells us) lies within us as well as within them. And so we are likely to be on firm footing if we make common ground with non-Christians to do work to serve the world. Christians’ work with others should be marked by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation.”

Did you catch that? The bad guy in the Christian story isn’t someone, it’s the broken reality that Jesus calls sin. And because of common grace we can see God working through people outside of our tribe, our immediate community, or our faith. We can see the image of God in everyone. Keller goes on…

This means, ironically that Christians who understand biblical doctrine ought to be the ones who appreciate the work of non-Christians the most. We know we are saved by grace alone, and therefore we are not better fathers or mothers, better artists and businesspeople, than those who do not believe as we do. Our gospel-trained eyes can see the world ablaze with the glory of God’s work through the people he has created and called.

Tim-Tebow-032112We don’t like working with people who don’t hold the same beliefs and values as we do, which ultimately makes our beliefs and values less influential in the rest of the world. And what’s worst we can’t see the glory of God in the work of the people all around us that he created.

And this matters so much because it comes out in a hundred different ways.

It’s how Donald Miller suggested yesterday that the Christian pro-life movement could do better.

I would rather have a good dentist than a bad Christian dentist. And that’s actually a Christian idea, not to mention a good way to avoid cavities.

It is to recognize that the whole world is filled with the grace of God.  That’s really our problem, not Tim Tebow.

God at Work: The Dirt We Kneel On

Go into all the world and preach the Gospel, If necessary, use words.” -St. Francis

Jesus at the office

One of the more interesting stories in the Old Testament is about a guy named Naaman. He’s the equivalent of a 5 star General for Syria. He’s a big deal who serves at the right hand of the King. He’s successful, feared and respected by many. And then Naaman gets leprosy.

It’s a death sentence, and no amount of power can protect him from it.

But he gets a tip from a servant girl, that he should go to Israel and talk to a Prophet of God. Normally there is no way that he would do something like this. But this is no longer normal life for Naaman. So that’s how he finds himself in Israel, a smaller, insignificant country, that’s how he find himself asking an old man for help from a God he doesn’t know.

And it works. God restores Naaman, he heals him and gives him his life back.

But what is really fascinating to me is what Naaman does when he goes home…

Grace Works

I have a friend who has a successful career in Hollywood. If I was to tell you his name you would probably recognize him. Several times a year he has a national audience. And my friend is a Christian.

One of the struggles my friend has is how to integrate his faith with his job. He doesn’t have the ability to talk about Jesus overtly because that’s not what they pay him for. But he tries to share his faith with his co-workers, he tries to work well and be honest.

But the time he had the most Christian influence he in his job, was when he was being forced out of it. He works in a cut throat environment, where some people will do just about anything to get ahead. And unfortunately for my friend, that includes stabbing people in the back. He was working at his job, doing quite well for himself, when one of his best friends in the company betrayed and slandered him so that he could take his job.

And that’s when my friend was fired.

And now everyone was watching, and everything hinged on how he re-acted. And, in what he said was the most Christlike, evangelistic thing he had did in his time there, my friend forgave them. Everyone was paying attention to how he responded, and he responded with grace. And everyone noticed. Here’s what my friend actually said:

I’d get fired every day if it meant having the chance to forgive.

Which is not something people normally say when they are fired.

Saved by Work(s)

You know, it’s easy to be hard on the ancient monks who thought they could be saved through religious works, but so many of us today are looking for a kind of salvation from our careers. We want to save our self-esteem and self-worth, we want to justify our existence, so we take the high-paying, high-status jobs, and find ourselves worshipping them.

But the gospel frees us from the relentless pressure of having to prove ourselves and secure our identity through work, because we are already proven and secure.

Instead, our work becomes the way in which we partner and serve the God who loves us unconditionally, and a way to love our neighbor.

Which brings me back to Naaman. After he is healed from leprosy, he knows the God of Israel is the true LORD of the earth. But he also knows he is going to have to go back to his old job working with the King. And Namaan knows that the King worships the gods of Syria. The king is old and feeble and so when he kneels down to these gods Naaman knells too, and the King leans on him.

But Namaan doesn’t worship those gods anymore. So here’s what Naaman asks for:

Please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord.

He went back to his old job, walking in and out of the old temples that used to mean something to him. But now it was different. So Naaman takes dirt from Israel with him, to kneel on when he goes to the Temple.

It’s his way of saying, my responsibilities may be the same, but my relationship to them is different. Naaman will serve his nation, but he will no longer worship it.

I’ve noticed, no matter what job we have, there are competing story lines. We have a lot of different people trying to tell us what it means to be successful and what it takes to get there. And if the financial situation from the past few years is any indication, we have a lot of people worshipping gods of greed and money. But there are plenty of idols that hide better than that.

In ministry, I’m constantly tempted to find my identity in what I do and how I’m doing at it. I’m consistently tempted to compare and compete, but the Gospel keeps forcing me to do Gospel work in Gospel ways. It gives me a new story to work with, and new story to work from.

My generation loves to quote St. Francis of Assisi’s famous line, “Preach the Gospel everywhere, if necessary use words.” But remember that this worked for Francis because he was constantly doing Gospel like things. And the only way this approach works for sharing your faith, is if you are living your faith. 

That’s why my friend was able to forgive. He wasn’t playing the same game that his friends were, because he wasn’t kneeling on the same dirt.

But this is where we can learn from Naaman, because the idols of his day are just as real and just as worshipped today. We are just as hungry to justify ourselves by how much we make, or how much status our job gives us, but the Gospel is trying to give us another story to work with.

So go to work.

And bring your own dirt.

God at Work: Faith Works

“The priesthood of all believers did not make everyone into church workers; rather it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling.” -Gene E. Veith

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” -Winston Churchill

Jesus at the office

There’s a fascinating story in the book of Genesis, about a guy named Joseph. It’s the longest story in all of Genesis, and rightfully so. Joseph grows up in a house of brothers, but he’s his dad’s favorite. The brothers get jealous, and sell him into slavery (like you do) he winds up in prison because of false accusations and ultimately gets out because he knows how to interpret dreams.

This story is brilliant, filled with left turns and betrayal and redemption (and there is even a rainbow colored coat thrown in there somewhere…you know, just in case someone ever turned this into a Broadway musical).

But one of the best scenes comes when Joseph is first let out of prison. He’s spent the last several years of his life hanging out with people who actually deserved to be in jail. They’ve got tattoo’s and they smell like crime.

But finally, after a long list of tragic turns, Joseph gets called into see Pharaoh. The most powerful man in the country. Pharaoh has been having dreams lately, and he can’t find anyone who is able to interpret his dream. And here’s where Joseph catches his break. Pharaoh hears about some guy who can interpret dreams and calls him in.

So now he’s gone from wasting his life away in a cell to standing in the halls of power in just a few hours.

Now, before you hear what he does. Think about what you would do here.

Most of us would do or say just about anything to get out of jail. But not Joseph, even after all he’s been through.

Even after all he’s been through Joseph stands in front of Pharaoh and refuses to abuse his situation. When Pharaoh asks Joseph if he can interpret dreams, Joseph tells him no. Which is not the right answer, because that’s the exact reason he’s been called up there.

But more than that, he tells Pharaoh that only God can interpret dreams. And he’s standing in a room where everyone around him thought Pharaoh was god. Just a few verses earlier Pharaoh had beheaded a baker because he didn’t like his bread. And now here’s Joseph, this dirty prisoner is telling Pharaoh that he worships another God.

Here’s why this story matters so much.

The Test of Prosperity

I did jail ministry for years, and everybody finds God in jail. I mean that in a good way. When we suffer, when we hit rock bottom it seems like we are much more attuned to God.

But I’ve also had plenty of opportunity to rub shoulders who are very successful in their life/job. Guess which group is less likely to see God working in their life?

Sometimes the most dangerous place for the people of God is success.

But not Joseph. When Joseph’s moment comes he doesn’t act differently in the Palace than he did in the dungeon. 

So I go to church with a couple named the Dalzell’s. They were some of the first people I met when we got to Highland, and they are some of my favorites. Joyce started and runs a non-profit in town called FaithWorks that serves the unemployed and underemployed of Abilene. It’s a ministry that teaches job skills, resume writing and helps connect people with internships that often leads to jobs.

And Dave, her husband, sells real-estate.

It’s obvious who does the “spiritual” work.

But it’s not obvious to Dave.

The other day I saw an area-wide realtor newsletter, Dave is the president of the West Texas Realtors this year, and so he was asked to write an op-ed piece to his fellow realtors. Dave could have written about anything, the fluctuating housing market, marketing tips, or the rise of social media. But he didn’t write about that.

Dave wrote about Tina.Dave Dalzell

The Extra Mile

Tina was a homeless woman who was struck and killed by a car last year. And Dave knew her, actually Dave knows a lot of people like her. Dave knows lots of people who have no homes, he is consistently introducing me to his homeless friends and trying to help them. Because after all, he is in the business of helping people find homes.

Look at what he says:

“Treat your neighbor as you want to be treated. It is my religion. It is also my business. I am a Realtor, I am in the business of helping others [make] an investment in a home of their own. That’s my business…But everyone of us lives to a higher calling than just the earning of our daily bread. We earn our living while struggling to… ‘do for others as we would want others to do for us.’ We go the extra mile,. We try a little harder for the rights of others.”

The whole article’s incredible. It was appropriate and professional, but also honest about how his faith makes his job more than just a way to make a living.

Dave sees this job as a way of serving the world.

Now here’s what I love about this, Dave is by all standards very successful. He’s made money and owns his own company, by all standards he is living the American Dream, but that’s not enough for Joyce and Dave.

They are some of the most driven passionate people that I know. Because they know that God didn’t give them success and prosperity for their own sake, but for the sake of the world. For them success isn’t a goal to reach, but a platform to serve from. So they go the extra mile.

Because they believe faith works, they take their faith to work.