"Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!" - Psalm 90:17
"Be not simply good; be good for something." -Henry David Thoreau
In college, some of my Christian classmates tried to teach me that God had a detailed blueprint for my life but the lesson never stuck. As a Lutheran, I doubted such a thing existed, but I believed God cared about my life choices and sought to offer guidance. That's as far as I got.
Once in seminary, I still wasn't sure where all my education was going until I put on a clergy shirt for a required church assignment and looked in the mirror. I looked all of 15 but began to see a pastor staring back and kind of liked it. More than that, I liked the work. I preached, taught, visited the sick, and went to meetings. A calling emerged and I began to sense a divine purpose.
Later I would learn from Luther that that sense of divine purpose went way beyond the lives of the ordained. Luther, the priest and monk, became convinced that no work was dearer to the heart of God than others. Indeed changing the diaper was just as dear to God as polishing the church candlesticks. So Luther left the monastery and proclaimed Saint Paul's teaching of the priesthood of all believers. Whatever our work might be, Luther said, our common vocation is to love God and neighbor.
I take Luther's teaching to heart when I think of you in the congregation and the ministries you do in daily life--from changing those diapers as a parent, to preparing a classroom as a teacher, to doing research for a new drug as a scientist, to sending a card to a friend as a friend. It's all work with a holy purpose, but I fear you might not often sense that. I wish we could find a way to hold up this wonderful sense of calling. It might change the way we do our work and transform our sense of who we are as the church. Most of the good that the church does is not when a few of us meet in committees to do "church work," it is the work we do as the gifted people of God sent out to serve our neighbor in a million different ways.
Luther's teaching on vocation is great but the reality is more complicated. It seems to me that so many people are missing a sense of purpose in their work. They might be too focused on money or recognition or power. Or the work could be deadly dull and the boss a jerk. There is much work that meets human need but whose purposes are too small for most human beings. I truly believe that most people really want to be good for something that is meaningful. Sometimes the more purposeful stuff comes from some place other than our job, like the family or coaching a team or supporting a noble cause as a volunteer. Meaningful work is not always easy to come by, but it is an integral part of our spirituality and our common faith.
Last week I met for the first time the man in my town who writes parking tickets. I've noticed him over the years and even though he moves among the cars with a Zen-like bearing, I have avoided him as if he were the town ogre. He greeted me after I parked (legally) to chuckle at my license plate (LIC PLT). “How do you like your job?” I wondered. “It gets a little monotonous,” he said, “but I actually like it!” I could tell he does his work carefully, fairly, and with more of a cheerful attitude than I would think is possible. He been reading plates and writing tickets full time for eight years since graduating high school. He keeps parking order on the streets and makes the town a lot of money, which the town needs. “Do you take a lot of crap?” I asked him. “I sure do,” he said with another chuckle, “The sense of entitlement is off the charts, but I’ve gotten used to it and I’ve learned to stay very, very calm.” Now there is an invaluable life lesson. He told me he’s moving on to become a school janitor and was quite pleased with his “promotion.” I was inspired by his devotion, calm kindness, and his sense of purpose. Indeed no job is too small to play a part in the ongoing work of creation and maintaining the common good. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if no parking laws were enforced. Bonus: He got me thinking about my own sense of entitlement! He said a very few number of people thank him for their ticket, appreciating his role in the community and imagining how challenging his job must be at times.
This Labor Day weekend consider your callings and try to be fully present to all the holiness of the work you do, knowing that our great common calling is to love God and neighbor, and that every human interaction offers you the chance to make things better or worse.
Thank you, God, for work to do; for useful tasks that need study and strength; for the companionship of labor; and for exchanges of good humor and encouragement. Lord, hear our prayers, we ask, for those who don't have a job, who may have about given up hope. Sustain and uphold them and guide us in creating a society where everyone has a chance to contribute. Amen.