by Todd Bouldin
March - April, 2003
In the recent movie, About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson plays a retiring insurance actuary named Warren Schmidt. On his retirement day, Warren is left with nothing but time on his empty hands. He has spent his entire life working at a job that could have been done by almost anybody, and nothing meaningful has occurred since his first day and his last day on the job. Schmidt works until the clock strikes 5, and he goes home to a marriage that is just as dull and routine. “The mass of men,” Thoreau famously observed, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” Schmidt is such a man. For Warren Schmidt, work simply was a means of bringing home the bacon, and it was passionless and boring because his work failed to connect his life with any larger purpose in the world.
Warren Schmidt’s experience of work is not that different from the experience of most Christians who struggle to find any meaning in the work they do. However, Scripture
contains truths that can help us avoid the sad and dull work life of Warren Schmidt. The theological themes of Creation and Incarnation are starting points for finding some intrinsic meaning in our work, meaning given by the God who created work and the Christ who comes to be present in it.
In the Beginning God Began To Create
The first image of God presented to us in Scripture is that of an industrious Creator whose Spirit moves with creativity upon the faces of the deep to bring about order and beauty wherever he speaks it into being. God is inextricably bound up with his creation, and he moves toward it with compassion, care and creative perfection. As God brings forth every imaginable kind of creature, even “the great sea monster,” one senses that the work of creating brings God a profligate kind of enjoyment. Where there was once primordial darkness and disorder, there is now light and order and diverse, lavish beauty. When God looks at his Creation, he says, “It is good.”
This creative work of God was right and good, but not complete. The Hebrew verb “create” in Genesis 1:1 can be translated here, “God began to create the heavens and the earth.” The creative work of God in the universe continues throughout time, and in Genesis 1:26-28 God called all humanity to be co-creators with him in perfecting and managing the creative order. Regardless of the work to which we are called or find ourselves doing, all human beings have the same job description: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen. 1:28). Like God, we are to have “dominion” over the creation, and “cultivate the garden and care for it” (Gen. 2:15).
In other words, we human beings are to take possession of our humanity and our work by completing God’s purposes for the creation in what we create, work on, and produce. Work carried out as God’s co-creators should bring us a sense of purpose and enjoyment that is then shared in peaceful community.
Work as God intended it can even become the source of fun and social community in the workplace. The best-selling management book, Fish!, uses the example of the Seattle fish market as an example of a workplace where a nasty mundane job like serving as a seafood butcher can become enjoyable when employees are freed to incorporate fun into an otherwise smelly task. At the Pike Place Market, seafood butchers throw and catch fish across the heads of patrons who come in droves to watch the spectacle. The book suggests that where diversity and creative approaches are celebrated, workers will find new meaning in their work as it becomes filled with joyful purpose.
The “dominion work” God has assigned to us is to act as stewards of the creation. The steward’s responsibility is not to return something merely the way she finds it, but to make a profit for the Lord, making the creation better than before. In his commentary on Genesis, the Reformer John Calvin wrote that our creative responsibility as stewards is not just to leave the field for the next generation, but to leave the field better cultivated than when we found it. When we improve the world with the resources God has given us in creation, we are participating in the ongoing creative work of God as we properly exercise the kind of dominion that allows creation to become all God meant for it to be.
And The Word Became Flesh
Creation and incarnation are intrinsically linked as theological themes in Scripture, and together they serve as starting points for understanding our work more as a vocation. Paul says that God created the world through Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16). John repeats this same affirmation of the Word of God in the beginning verses of John 1, verses which linguistically connect the incarnation with the creation work of God in Genesis 1:1. Jesus left heaven to take on all the complexities, burdens and dilemmas involved in being human, and in doing so, he demonstrated God’s intentions to redeem the material world that God had made.
As my late friend and mentor, Stanley Shipp, once told me, “Incarnation is fuzzy.” In other words, incarnation involved divinity choosing to engage the world’s imperfections, confusion, and compromises.
Christians who wish to become Christ incarnate in our world find the same fuzziness involved in becoming the agent of Christ in the midst of less than perfect workplaces. If Christ is irresistibly drawn to the places where sin is most present, so must Christians be drawn to engage such places incarnationally with Kingdom light and salt. This means that Christians will not hesitate to follow callings into “fuzzy” areas such as law, medicine, business, the entertainment industry, politics or other spheres of cultural influence where sin may be entrenched, but also where the possibilities of redemption for God’s purposes can transform these sectors into pockets of the Kingdom of God on earth. As I once heard a friend in politics say, “You don’t clean up a cesspool by standing outside of it. You have to get in it and get dirty.”
Incarnational ministry may require that we “get dirty,” not by furthering evil or engaging in sinful behaviors, but by entering places where prudent and discerning compromises of the ideal must be made in order to accomplish some greater Kingdom purpose. If we are to become ministers of reconciliation, Christians will have to live and work with discernment in what is sometimes a morally “fuzzy” environment so as to preserve the opportunity to speak or act when it really counts for the Kingdom of God. We can engage those places without fear, knowing that God wants to redeem those spheres, and every sphere, for his created purpose.
Finding Jesus at Work
Jesus transforms our occupations into vocations, linking God’s purposes in the world with our daily work. Whatever the task, God is present in our work to give purpose today and destiny for the future. Before entering ministry on a church staff, I served as a political aid to the vice president of the United States and two members of Congress. While this work is fraught with temptation toward ambition and the thirst for power, it also holds possibilities for affecting concrete and noble change for millions of citizens. I realized early on that I could become consumed with my own status in a place like Washington, D.C. if my work became disconnected to the intentions of God who placed me there. As I walked into the White House or entered the House office building where I worked, I prayed the Lord’s Prayer each morning and asked that God’s kingdom come that day “on earth, as it is in heaven” through my work.
Even in politics, most days can seem fairly trivial and monotonous. The same talking points are hashed over again and again, and partisanship prevents the real change that everyone agrees is necessary. Even in the midst of these realities, it is possible to bring Kingdom light and to be God’s co-creator of atmospheres where civility, honesty and peace are valued. When the work of politics is devoted to God, Kingdom values like compassion, justice, and peace are considered and upheld, though in sometimes less than ideal ways. They are small gains, but gains nonetheless.
Compromise of the ideal is part of any work atmosphere, political or non-political. However, there are those days where God’s purpose for our work seems to come to full bloom in a moment of real impact. In 1997, I served a member of Congress who had a seat on the House International Relations Committee. Shortly after I was put into a management position, I hired a woman who worked exclusively for our office on issues of international Christian religious persecution. My boss and his staff were able to intervene with foreign governments on behalf of numerous missionaries and Christians who were imprisoned, beaten, or sentenced to die. In early 1997, I learned that the Russian Dumas had passed a bill that would make it illegal for any foreign missionary to reside in Russia unless they were of the Orthodox faith. Boris Yeltin was due to sign the bill the next day. With less than 24 hours to act, my fellow staffer and I drafted a letter in which we obtained the signature of almost every member of the House and Senate before day’s end. The letter was passed on to the Russian Embassy that evening. The next morning, we breathed a huge sigh of relief when we heard that President Yeltsin had received the letter, and he would not sign the bill. Hundreds of Protestant missionaries could remain in Russia. I do not take credit for the moment of opportunity—but it was at that moment that I knew God had placed me in the position for “such a time as this.”
The message of Scripture is that God wants all of us to become incarnational agents who change the world through continuing and managing his work of creation. Some of us will do that as church staff ministers, or in other places of influence like journalism, politics, or business, and some of us in jobs that seem as routine and menial as netting and throwing fish. Jesus makes one of his first post-resurrection appearances to people who are at work fishing. Work is where the disciples first met Jesus, and it is at work where Jesus greets them again after his rising. Jesus instructs the disciples to lower their nets into the water in his presence, and when they do, they are filled to overflowing. Upon seeing the miracle, John shouts out, “It is the Lord” (John 21:7). The disciples return to the shore to feast upon a meal that Jesus already is cooking for them, but though all the fish of the sea are his, he asks for some of the fish they had caught because God always works with our work to create and renew.
What had been a futile fishing expedition became a banquet of community, and what had been mundane that morning became a miracle. What had been unredeemed was redeemed. It was not that the work changed or became more meaningful itself. It was that the disciples found the resurrected presence of Jesus at their work, and his presence made all the difference. It was only Jesus who could take a morning filled with work’s frustrations and transform it into a celebration of work where all could feast on its produce. Where Jesus is present, the abyss of futility and alienation at work can become a Kingdom foothold where people are freed to discover their full potential as the image of God and God’s co-creators in the world.
The promise of Scripture is that whatever the work you are given to do, even if you are in a boring job like Warren Schmidt, work can become a sacrament where God is present to accomplish more through us than the work itself. When work is directed to God with purpose, we leave the work we have done better than when we found it, and God ultimately looks down on our work and says, “I love what you have done to the place.”