Saturday, May 18, 2013

Good Work, Good Sabbath--and a Good Book

Two weeks ago, I started reading Timothy Keller's latest, Every Good Endeavor:  Connecting Your Work to God's Work.  At first, I thought, I need to buy this wonderful book!  I'll stop reading right now and wait until I have my copy so that I can mark it up.

But I'm trying to buy less books.  I decided that since I had my library copy and time to read, I'd keep going.  And I turned down pages as I went. 

In the end, I decided not to buy the book--not because it's not good, but because I'm not likely to read it again.  If the book was on my shelf, I would go back through and read the marked passages--which made me decide to write some of those quotes here.

But first, a bit of a review.  Timothy Keller takes a different view of work than much of our current culture.  He decries the idea that some work is worthwhile, while much of work is not.  He encourages us to remember that we're made for work and have been from the very beginning:  6 days of work in the garden, one day of rest.

More important, he encourages us to move away from our idea that some work is God's work while most of work is done in a non-sacred realm--and thus, a very small amount of workplaces are doing God's work.  He reminds us again and again that any workplace has sacred work that needs to be done.  We can be about God's work of Kingdom building even if we're not pastors or youth directors or music leaders.  He encourages us not just to do our work, but to be very competent, as competent as we know how to be.

He uses a story by Tolkien as a grounding metaphor.  He tells us the story of the painter, Niggle, in "Leaf by Niggle."  Niggle has a vision of a leaf and then the larger tree, and he spends his whole life working on this painting, while being distracted by the needs of others--hence, he never finished his painting.  He has also been desperately putting off a journey. In the end, he must go on the journey and leave the painting unfinished.  But then he discovers that in the new country, his painting exists, not as a painting, but as a real tree.  It's part of the True Reality that would live forever.

Keller sees this story as a parable about work and Heaven.  He reminds us of the meaning of Niggle for our workplaces, especially when we get frustrated or tired:   "Whatever your work, you need to know this: There really is a tree. Whatever you are seeking in your work—the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing—it is there. There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring about, and your work is showing it (in part) to others. Your work will be only partially successful, on your best days, in bringing that world about. But inevitably the whole tree that you seek—the beauty, harmony, justice, comfort, joy, and community—will come to fruition. If you know all this, you won’t be despondent because you can get only a leaf or two out in this life. You will work with satisfaction and joy. You will not be puffed up by success or devastated by setbacks" (page 30).

You can find links to parts of the book, including the Introduction with his discussion of Niggle as metaphor, here.  Here are some additional quotes that I found inspirational.

"The current economic era has given us fresh impulses and new ways to stigmatize work such as farming and caring for children--jobs that supposedly are not 'knowledge' jobs and therefore do not pay very well.  But in Genesis we see God as a gardener, and in the New Testament we see him as a carpenter.  No task is too small a vessel to hold the immense dignity of work given by God.  Simple physical labor is God's work no less than the formulation of theological truth" (page 49).

"In Ephesians 6, Paul sets forth a simple but profound principle that both ennobles work (for those in danger of viewing it as drudgery) ad demythologizes work (for those in danger of making it their identity). He says all work should be done 'as if you were serving the Lord'" (page 213). He also gives a great explanation of slavery during Paul's time and how it is different from more recent experiences of slavery.

A book about a Christian approach to work would not be complete if it did not also discuss the idea of Sabbath, and this one has a great discussion. Keller explains why the idea of stopping work is so radical, both in ancient times and in our own. He encourages us to adopt a true Sabbath mindset:

"Anyone who cannot obey God's command to observe the Sabbath is a slave, even a self-imposed one. Your own heart, or our materialistic culture, or an exploitative organization, or all of the above, will be abusing you if you don't have the ability to be disciplined in your practice of Sabbath. Sabbath is therefore a declaration of our freedom [emphasis Keller's]. It means you are not a slave--not to your culture's expectations, your family's hopes, your medical school's demands, not even to your own insecurities. It is important that you learn to speak this truth to yourself with a note of triumph--otherwise you will feel guilty for taking time off, or you will be unable to truly unplug" (236).

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