Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: alternativity

How do Christians work? Is that even a thing anymore?

This blog post was co-written by Ben White and Jonny Rashid after our church hosted a meeting for theological thinkers and seminarians on developing a theology of work.

The problem of work in the 21st Century United States

France has a law that prohibits an employer from Emailing her employees after hours. They are enforcing “work/life” balance. Amazon warehouse workers are timed for how long they are in the bathroom. Speaking of Amazon, U.S. postal workers are being pushed to-the-max in order to keep up with the market driven by the supercompany. Meanwhile, our politicians keep promising us jobs and telling us how much they value the American worker. Amazingly, despite the flack they get from their parent’s generation, millennials are the hardest working generation—bordering on workaholism.

The meaning of work, it seems, has changed. In the United States, with many manufacturing jobs gone, we have an increasingly “knowledge-based” economy. It requires an education to enter, hence all the hullabaloo about free college and student debt cancellation from the rotating cast of presidential nominees. Work has taken up more of our interior lives by nature of this shift. “What is work?” is more of an internal question, and less of material one. The lessening of the physical materiality of work gives us a new problem. Work isn’t just about labor, it’s not just a means to an end, it’s something more—like religion.

Among our generation, people are trying to find existential fulfillment from their jobs. It’s only natural considering the above mentioned trend. But seeking fulfillment through such a limited medium isn’t working. Not for our friends, anyway. The pull, however, toward such patterns of thought, is present in us too. Our jobs aren’t meant to offer us the sort of vocational fulfillment we seek from them. But convincing serfs that their work for their lords is their ultimate calling is a great way to get good work out of earnest people. This is both true of folks who want to rise fast in their company, and those who serve in a helping profession.

Don’t let the existential dread set in

When thinking is work, it’s hard to think about work

That pursuit, despite being fundamentally flawed, isn’t too far from what Christian vocation may look like. Jordan Burdge recently offered us a reflection on vocation drawn from the inspiration of the Middle Ages in Europe. Check out the whole video here. He summarized vocations for Europeans as the choice between being a priest, nun, monk, or being married. Those where the basic options they had. Today we have so, so many more options. It’s really hard to sort through them all. So when our endless appetites meet the myriad options it’s pretty easy to make unhealthy choices.

Vocation is a popular idea in the United States and the Christian church that lives here. Not only are we sold the lie that we can become anyone we want to be or do anything we want to do, we’re often told we have to figure out that one perfect thing we are meant to do. And Christians are as complicit in this behavior as Americanists are. Our calling from God is much more universal than specific. You aren’t necessarily destined to do the work you do for money. Your satisfaction does not have to be dependent on the perfect fit in your employment. Paul was called to be a missionary, for example, not to be the tent-maker that sustained him. Same with Jesus as a carpenter, and the fisherman who left their family business to have a New Family business. Again, we are working on understanding work in a difficult era for such thinking.

The culture of work in the United States is so messed up, that it may be tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Work may have been so corrupted by our economic forms that developing a theology of Christian work might be too much to consider. But Miroslav Volf took a shot at a Christian theology of work  and we would like to endorse and propose his core ideas as basis for our Christian understanding.

Volf highlights the challenge to think of these things because work is now by-and-large “knowledge-based,” and so “thinking” is working (as we said above). Space for contemplation, which may be seen as unshackling our minds from thoughts, in order to truly experience God, is taken up by “thinking as work.” There is rarely a moment in the day in which our minds are not fully engaged with work. We have to snatch every moment of mind to rest while our computer loads a file or we’re standing in the grocery line or we get no rest at all. It’s not all or nothing, but it seems like it is⁠—like the only way to get any rest is to unplug and go to Bermuda, and who can afford that with all these student loans, right? Somewhere along the line the only people who could live a life of contemplation became those who left the world and lived as a hermit or something. It was the Ancient Greeks who drew all these lines between things, but it was us who agreed not to cross them. An active life and a contemplative life are not polar opposites. They actually harmonize quite nicely. Though varying in degrees of importance in different times and circumstances, they actually work together to complete the other.

Volf focuses on eschatology and pneumatology as his sources of understanding work. The work of the Christian is known in doing whatever it is that helps to bring about the Kingdom of God or New Creation which will be fully revealed at the eschaton or last day (that’s the eschatology). The work of the Christian is also known through the spiritual gifts, or charisma, we have been given (that’s the pneumatology). Christians, then, need to work to find their gifting in order to cooperate with God’s plan of bringing the Kingdom of God into its fullness. Volf says, “When people work exhibiting the values of the new creation (as expressed in what Paul calls the ‘fruit of the spirit’) then the Spirit works in them and through them.”

Seeing Christian vocation through a glass darkly

We think our work is neither “sacred” or “secular,” but that our cooperation with God is something that happens across our lives and not just in the confines of our “spiritual life.” In fact, we reject the notion of “work/life balance” because it distinguishes work and life, as if you aren’t alive when you are working, nor are you working when you are living the part of your life for which you don’t get paid. These incessant dichotomies belittle our full personhood. We are called to cooperate with God in the ways that the Spirit has gifted us.

Of course, this is hard too. Especially in the United States. The guiding philosophy we described above is imposed on us with strident force. Work is imposed upon us as a source of meaning, whether we like it or not. If we are not actively examining our lives it will almost certainly happen automatically without our consent. But we believe that we cannot find meaning in our work apart from the Holy Spirit and cooperation with God. This isn’t just a problem in our neoliberal political economy. It’s a problem in any competing economic form. The Kingdom of God, as demonstrated by the church of Jerusalem in Acts, and all over the Bible, really, is showing us another way to live and to work no matter where or when in world history we seek some understanding.

It is hard to remember who we are and what we believe unless we are living it out in some kind of new environment. Our attempt in Circle of Hope has been to create an environment where people can discern their own spiritual gifts and apply them in service to the church, and use them in every arena of their life. Your spiritual gifts are not just for the church, and your education is not just for your job. Your natural talents and proclivities are good signposts for what God has for you to do, but there are many ways to express our gifts, and one might be your ability to not get exactly what you want. You might give more from your understanding of what the community needs. Keep discerning what is best in community and hold your opportunities for service lightly, and you will be fine.

Paul is plain about how important the different parts of the body are. Unfortunately, our stratified society has made a sort of preference for certain roles and not others. Our job is to honor everyone in the body so that they are rewarded with gratitude and love for their service, no matter what they are bringing. Monetizing work may be a necessity, and sometimes may be a good incentive to work, but we admit it’s not the ideal way to honor work. Instead, love, respect, and appreciation are more in line with our kingdom aspirations.

You can see the environment we are creating best by being in our community. Sunday meetings and cells are our primary places to do this work. Serving and worshiping in these meetings is the best chance we have to offer for you to exhibit the values of the new creation and experience the Spirit working in you and through you. They might be the invitation to a life of cooperation with God. Check one out on our website. But if you’re far away, get connected somewhere where the demands of your life don’t end at your own, and the people you love have space to earn your trust and help you see your gifts.

Epiphany Means Christmas Ain’t Over Yet

My Parents Invented an Alternative Ritual

When I was in first grade my parents dropped a major bomb: No gifts on Christmas! I don’t remember it being too devastating because they made the alternative so fun. Instead of getting gifts form Mom and Dad on December 25th, stacked under the Christmas Tree in a perfect morning ritual of wrapping ripping and childhood joy, we would receive gifts on January 1st, our self-styled celebration of Epiphany. The Feast of Epiphany is actually January 6th (this Sunday in 2019) but my mom says that she did not want us to go back to school, usually on January 2, without our presents. They wanted the family to do something different but they didn’t want us to be left out. I did not keep our alternativity a secret. I told all of my first grade classmates how on January 1st, my parents hid presents all over the house for us to find, each one unwrapped with a little love note from them on it. As I write this, a weird memory of a drawing my friend Josh made flashes through my mind. He had written and illustrated a story about a family of fuzzy monsters who celebrated Christmas and Epiphany like my family. I can still see the crayon drawn blue horned monster on the roof of his house finding a present from his monster parents. I guess I’ve always been an evangelist.

My parents wanted to escape the commercialism of Christmas. They wanted to avoid the unavoidable association of Jesus’ birthday and getting stuff. They did not succeed but they did jam a wedge of separation between the actual day we celebrate the incarnation of God and my often greedy little desires.

Unhitch Christmas from Getting Stuff

I’m probably painting myself and all children a little too  darkly. The ritual of Christmas morning is beautiful. We give and receive gifts to celebrate the love of God expressed to us so perfectly in Jesus. And the simple joy a child so easily expresses is something worth instigating and treasuring whenever we find ourselves in its presence.  But it’s hard for any story, even Jesus’ nativity, to outshine getting stuff. My parents’ invention of a new ritual succeeded in unhitching the demand for stuff and the potential joy the extravaganza might create from the celebration of Christmas. Gift giving is not the center of my Christmas celebration. I don’t have any sense of demand about creating a perfect memory for my kids by what I buy them. I want them to receive the story more than anything else. I’m glad my parents helped me feel this way. i think their alternative ritual had something to do with it.

I have not kept up the family tradition with my own children. My wife, Gwyneth, and I give our kids gifts on Christmas Day, but with a nod to the origins of Epiphany — three gifts for each of our sons a la the three gifts the Magi brought for Jesus.

Wait, What is Epiphany?

Friend: “What did you get for Christmas?”
First Grade Me: “Nothing, I got presents for Epiphany.”
Friend: “Wait, what is Epiphany?”

Matthew 2:9-11 “They went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

These strange characters from far away enter Jesus’ birth narrative in Matthew 2. They are led by stars and dreams and they are wealthy, so wealthy they might have been kings. Matthew calls them Magi — wise men (or wizards?). This episode is called Epiphany because it was the revelation of the Christ child to the whole world in these strange foreigners. They recognized him for who he was and worshiped him.  Epiphany comes directly from Greek ἐπιφάνεια (epipháneia). More on our Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body Blog this Sunday (or search for Epiphany there later).

Christmas Ain’t Over

The Christmas Tree in my living room is still up (On January 3rd when I’m writing this) and the lights on my house are still shining (including our very apropos star) because Christmas ain’t over yet. Even if it’s already past my family’s January 1st  Epiphany celebration, I’m holding out for January 6th to take it all down. Remember that song, “The 12 Days of Christmas”? Epiphany is the 12th Day!

I already started my New Year’s diet but the feast of Christmas is still going. Our culture spreads the celebration forward through all of December and most of November, too. We love the most wonderful time of the year so we spread it all out as much as possible. You may have heard me say a million times already, but this is mostly because the marketers and manufacturers love the most wonderful time of the year for money making, and that is the main reason for the Christmas Creep. But we also love feasting and we need a good reason to celebrate. I think we moved the celebration in the wrong direction. I’m trying to hold on to the 12 Days of Christmas as another alternative. There was too much drama in Advent leading up to this celebration for it to be over in one day.

In the Catholic church, the observation of Advent was at one point a fast. Some churches still prohibit any “alleluias” being spoken in the liturgy during the season before Christmas (I love the intensity of that drama!). Our alternative of Advent leaves us with different needs. If you really take Advent seriously you need at least 12 days of Christmas. If you spent December waiting and watching and laboring with new spiritual birth instead of “jolly-christmas-time-november-december”, you need an extended Christmas.

I’m Going For All Twelve Days of Christmas

I did “jolly-christmas-time-november-december” in a lot of ways. We can take what is good from the culture without being spoiled by it. But I also did some real spiritual laboring in Advent. I withheld some of the celebration. I leaned hard into my longing and tried not to ignore the darkness into which the light of the world was coming. I’m not the last one in my neighborhood with lights still up, but I was struck by how quickly so many of my neighbors stripped it all down on the third or fourth day of Christmas. I’m going all the way to twelve! And Epiphany is a Sunday this year so I’m looking forward to a couple more Christmas parties with Circle of Hope at our meetings.

I’m overjoyed I have an alternative community to keep living the story with. Join us if you’re close by.