Monday, July 26, 2010

Faith-work connections need a more important room

While in seminary, anyone discussing the connection between faith and work usually referenced the role of works in Christian faith. Understanding the relationship to what we do in life and the grace of God is a tenet of great theological significance.

Unlike Martin Luther, this relationship between faith and works does not keep me awake at night. What keeps me awake at night I whether my work provides a space in their lives for people to connect with the grace of God. Congregational life relegates the presence of God in our lives to places that receive relatively little attention understood in amount of time spent. Congregational life and our relationship with God is like a house. Much to our detriment, congregational life looks like we place God in small spaces like closets or storage areas in a house--places where we spend few waking hours. When I reflect upon the energies of congregational life, we place emphasis on volunteer time, whether at church or in completing a service project. We place emphasis on families. We place emphasis on worship time. All of these aspects of life are important and valuable. However if we total the time spent on these activities as a percentage of our total time in a week, the percentage is low. Most of our waking hours are spent at work.What would our homes look like if we placed all of our energy on the closets?

At a recent stewardship conference I attended through Luther Seminary, Philip (Dubuque Seminary) and Janet Jamison (University of Dubuque) persuaded me to be more intentional about the connection between faith and work on many levels. Though I don't have the data in front of me (I was told it would be published soon) when polled, well over 90% of church attenders responded that their congregations did not help them make a connection between faith and work. We're not talking about the classic Reformation-era faith-works relationship, but a space where a computer programmer communicates the grace of God in their work. A space where a grocery clerk sees an opportunity through hospitality to share God's love. A space where a custodian provides a clean and safe place for others to use their God-given gifts in work.

God, have mercy on the church for thinking that everything we do is about making our congregations better places for our own sake and pride rather than equipping people to live a grace-filled life during every waking hour. I began learning this lesson of time stewardship as I saw people enthusiastically, yet humbly come toward the altar for a blessing during our Celebrating Faces service. Those working on our Celebrating Faces service, where we once a month offer a specific word of grace for particular lines of work (teachers, health care workers, first responders, for example). We originally designed the service as an outreach, a way to connect with people in the community. Toward the end of the service, people come forward for a blessing. How I begin the blessing involves asking each individual who comes forward to tell me in a sentence what they do for a living. From that sentence, I craft a blessing tailored to that person's work. I remember a junior high school teacher. Remembering the intense social and hormonal challenges of junior high, I spoke a blessing on someone who teaches and connects with the turbulent times of adolescence and that the teacher may have peace in the midst of frustration and a reminder that God is faithfully present with them in the classroom.

We fail to speak God's grace to many situations in the life of the church; yet the connection between faith and work is something we can do. For Lutheran Christians, the connection should be easier (Luther wrote on this topic on numerous occasions), but I suppose not, because we're not doing it. If we think we're doing it, we're not, because the faith work connection fails to register with people today. The house of our lives can be filled with God's grace, but we relegate it to place where we only spend a few hours on any given day. So much of life is spent at work, and without being intentional about the faith-work connection, we will be evicted from our houses of faith.


  1. Glad you're back! Good post.

    I think that we may have come to see our work as mundane, merely a job, even meaningless. Work for many of us is little more than a means to an end, to put food on the table, clothes on our back, a roof over our heads. Or worse, to accumulate the things that are supposed, we are told, to make us happy, or loved, or loving. Others see their work as their very identity, and if that work is lost they may fall into despair. We do indeed need a theology of work to help us realize that work is as valid a space as worship or fellowship-group or Bible study in which to LIVE out our faith with those around us. Even the very act of work itself can be an expression of faith.

    All of that is by way of agreement with the gist of your post. But I do have a question! :-) Do you think that there are some kinds of work that CANNOT provide a space in which faith can be lived and strengthened and shared? Yes, I know, God and Christ and Spirit are ALWAYS faithfully present with us in all we do, this I believe. But what about the work of say, Weapons Dealer? Or say Oil Company CEO? I'm sure you can think of more!

    How can we reconcile - or can we? - some of the kinds of work we do with the "faith-work connection?" Are there some kinds of work that are simply not compatible with the new life in Christ that Christians strive for? Just wondering . . .

    Again, very glad to see you blogging again! PEACE!

  2. Thanks for the questions, Tracy. I've been thinking about your questions for a week now (sometimes it takes at least that long). Good questions. Regardless of the culture, there will always be some kind of work that will be attached to a social stigma. It's hard to de-tangle social stigma and vocation. Petroleum has some positive utility--for oil companies, its more about stewardship than an occupation related to an oil company that is inherently evil.

    As for weapons dealer, that role is a little more ethically challenging. I suppose there's some relativity attached to weapons: the value of the work of a weapons dealer would depend on one's view of pacifism and/or just war theory. If war is ever acceptable, then there is a need for someone to be responsible and ethical in the procurement of weapons. All of these factors are intertwined with the presence of evil in the world and belief attached to the presence of evil. There are plenty of texts that could be addressed on that front.

    Today I wrote about Zaccheus. During my study of Zaccheus I became aware of the power of stigma in relation to work. Though a theology of vocation cannot address all of the problems related to the presence of God and work (at least I haven't completely worked it out), I will continue being compelled by naming the presence of God in work and vocation in general.