Tag Archives: Work

Choosing the Better Part

Christ at the House of Martha and Mary by Diego Velázquez (1618)

My sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Luke 10:38-42

Having people over is very enjoyable, but it can also be a lot of work. The apartment has to be cleaned, and depending how long people are staying, a guest room may have to be prepared, even if it is a make-shift room. food has to be planned and prepared, often more than one typically is used to preparing. Additionally, if you are anything like me, I much like to prepare better fare than I typically have. While I’m fine with rice and beans, I like my guests to have something a bit more exciting, tasty, a bit more intensive. While I am satisfied with spending an evening reading, having guests often means making plans. A lot of work, for sure, but important work, worthwhile work, hospitable work.

We see something similar in our reading today, but first, where are we in the story?

Jesus is traveling again. This passage comes right on the heels of the story that we read last week, when the lawyer asked Jesus exactly who is my neighbor, the one that he needed to love, and when Jesus told him, love even the person you grew up to hate, the person of a different ethnicity and religion, love the foreigner. Immediately after this, we have our story of Jesus visiting these two sisters, Martha and Mary.

We’re not sure if Jesus just showed up at their doorstep or if he told them in advance that he was coming. So Jesus came, and the Middle Eastern codes of hospitality required them to care for Jesus. We typically think that hospitality is offering coffee or tea and cookies or something. We see it as just being nice, but in first century Palestine it was a serious matter, life or death. Remember, this is largely a desert and if you don’t care for people who come to you, chances are they will die. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all put a large emphasis on the importance of hospitality, and this continues today.

So, Martha is busy making preparations for Jesus’ stay. We aren’t told exactly what she was preparing, but we can probably safely assume that it was a meal.

But Martha can’t just prepare any meal. Jesus is a well known and well respected (by some, greatly hated by others, of course) religious leader. In fact, here, Martha calls Jesus “Lord”, so the chance is great that she had an inkling at least that he was more than just that. So she can’t just make any meal. She likely wants to prepare the best meal. So she is working really hard to show the best hospitality to Jesus, but what is going on?  Her sister Mary is just sitting, listening to Jesus. Martha, overworked and underpaid, as the colloquialism goes, gets fed up with having to prepare the food, set the table, and make a nice and welcoming environment and in all her running around, she sees her sister, not helping. One thing leads to another, every time Martha passes the entrance to the room, she sees her sister sitting there while she continues to run around. Finally, she can’t take it anymore.

She slams down her utensils on the counter-top removes her apron and stomps out into the main room where Jesus and Mary sit.

“Lord,” she addresses Jesus respectfully, but we can sense a bit of impatience and frustration under her voice. “Don’t you care that my sister has abandoned all of this work to me alone? Tell her to come and help me!”

With Jesus’ reply, we can put two different inflections to it which give two different nuances to the words. We can see it as a chastisement, a reprimand, a rebuke. Or we can see it as an invitation. The best reading, I think, is to see it as an invitation.

Notice, what we have here with with Martha and Mary is not a contrast between good and bad. Martha didn’t really do anything wrong. She was being hospitable, something that Jesus certainly appreciated, after all, the importance of hospitality is plastered all over the pages of scripture from the very first book to the last.  No, Martha wasn’t doing anything particularly wrong, which is one of the reasons that I don’t think that this was a rebuke. No, she wasn’t doing anything particularly bad, she was doing most things right, she was just missing one piece.

Hospitality is not just about providing things for guests, which is important, but the foundation of hospitality is to care for those whom God brings to you. Therefore, an important piece that Martha was missing was not in her work, but rather in her neglect of paying attention to their guest, to Jesus.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t say anything about her being busy, he said that she was worried and distracted by many things. She was worried and distracted by many things. Jesus was not yelling at Martha, but rather offering an invitation and showing concern for Martha.

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “You are worried and distracted by many things.”

The issue here is not at all that Martha was doing anything wrong by making preparations for Jesus’ visit, it was that in her preparations, she seems to have forgotten what she was actually doing. She became so engrossed in what she was preparing, that she seemed to have forgotten who was sitting right there in her living room.

Some have used this to argue that a contemplative spirituality is superior to a working spirituality, that somehow sitting still at the feet of Jesus is superior to work, to being busy to getting things done. But this is not at all.  Nowhere does scripture ever downplay the importance of doing things. I mean, where would the church be without people who do things…without people who connect with God through service?

No, this is not at all, but it says something important. It says that while we work, regardless of what we are doing we need to do two things, first, we must listen to the voice of God, and second, we cannot lose focus of the fact that God is always here with us, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. Martha lost track of the fact that God was sitting in her living room while she frantically ran to and fro to get things ready, but in the process, she lost sight of who she was with, of the whole point of hospitality.

I wonder if any of you can resonate with this. Do you ever feel like you get so busy with things, that you forget about God? Do you ever get so worried and distracted by many things that you find that you didn’t pray, that you didn’t have a chance to read scripture, that you didn’t have the opportunity to, even for fifteen minutes, listen to what God might be saying to you?  Now, I don’t say this to make you feel bad. People who are busy don’t need lectures about how they need to pray more, or how they need to read the Bible more. While this is often accurate, guilting ourselves or each other into this is not the point.

Rather, see this as an invitation.

Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite brother in France in who lived in in the middle of the 17th century. Brother Lawrence worked in the kitchen. He prepared food for the other brothers and he cleaned up afterwards. Day in and day out. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. Day in and day out. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. What helps us remember Brother Lawrence, however, was not the food that he cooked or his ability to scrub pots until they shined. No, the reason that we remember Brother Lawrence, but throughout all of his mundane work, he developed the discipline to experience the deep and abiding presence of God even in the four walls of his kitchen with stoves burning, pots clanging, and dishwater smelling.

You see, Brother Lawrence grew in the ability to be both Martha and Mary at the same time. He kept his hands busy with important, albeit mundane, repetitive, and tedious work.

Brother Lawrence writes, “We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him… It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”

His work, his unspiritual and tedious work of preparing meals and scrubbing pots, but he always worked to always have a sense of God’s presence. He chose the better part.

It wasn’t easy for Brother Lawrence. It took him years to develop this. It didn’t bring him notoriety within his lifetime, it was his writings that brought him fame long after his death. But fame wasn’t what we was seeking, he simply wanted to be able to pay attention to God while he prepared things for God’s people, while he did his work, he simply wanted to be able to choose the better part in his work.

It wasn’t easy for Brother Lawrence, and it likely won’t be easy for us either. It is not easy, but it is important, it is worthwhile, it is the better part.

Be aware of God’s presence where you are. Listen for God’s voice among the clamour of your daily life. Work is good, and there is nothing wrong with being busy, but remember that God is right with you, and we cannot ignore this fact. Perhaps the story here of Martha and Mary isn’t to present us with an either/or, perhaps it is a both/and.

I want to close with a prayer generally attributed to Brother Lawrence. Whether it was actually written by him, I do not know, and it does not matter, because I think that it describes well what we all strive for:

O Lord of pots and pans and things,
Since I have no time to be
a great saint by doing lovely things,
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight,
or storming Heaven’s gates,
Make me a saint by getting meals,
and washing up the plates.
Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,
and light it with Thy peace;
Forgive me all my worrying,
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food
in room, or by the sea,
Accept the service that I do-
I do it unto Thee.

Gazing out the window

Girl Looking Out the Window

By Jeannie (madlyinlovewithlife) on Flickr

I have this thing…I need my desk, or wherever I work, to be near a window out of which I can easily see.

As I work (read, study, write), I spend a good deal of time gazing out the window.

Right now I am looking out of our front window, and there is nothing particularly beautiful about it, it simply faces the street. I see houses, a tree on which I am daily watching and waiting for buds, the street with cars, and people walking. Nothing particularly special, but it is life.

I have previously felt somewhat ashamed of this, that I spend a good deal of time gazing out the window. I look lazy, distracted. At times I feel lazy. People are not supposed to look out the window and be idle. After all, the way to work is to cram everyone into a sea of cubicles where the light of day can never touch. The best way to work is to block out the outside world and focus on one thing and one thing only: the task at hand.

So I do what I am supposed to do. I go to my office at church and sit at my desk. Because of the way the room is set up, including the fixed furniture, I cannot see out a window. In fact, the windows are colored translucent panes, so one cannot see through the glass anyway. And I work — or try to work. I am there to take phone calls if they come, I am there in case someone needs to see me. I return emails. I try to read. I try to write. I try to help open the biblical texts for my people in ways that speak to their lives in a meaningful way.

But it is those days when I write at home, or even write at my favorite coffee shop — and have access to a window out of which to see — that I am actually able to get words committed to paper, or more accurately, pixels turning from white to black in the form of letters, much more easily. Words flow better. My efficiency increases. Blocks that are otherwise there are gone. It is something about being able to stare out a window that makes me work better.

So I sit here and gaze out the window, and Jesus’ words come to mind, “Consider the lilies ..” (Lk 12:27), “Look at the birds of the air…” (Mt 6:26).

Jesus could have said, “take, for instance, the lilies.” Or, he could have said, “One example, is lilies.” But Jesus said consider. While translation is interpretation, but the original Greek word does carry connotations of contemplation, of looking reflectively upon, of thinking carefully about. Jesus doesn’t simply give an illustration, Jesus tells us to consider, to think on, to contemplate — to gaze.

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Although this conflicts, somewhat, with the work ethic of my small-town Midwestern upbringing, I think that there is something holy and something beneficial to a degree of idleness. Of slowing down, of noticing, of gazing out the window, and of considering.

There is something about seeing the world which enables me to work, even if it is just window-gazing. Perhaps it is something that is better embraced than shied away from. Perhaps it is something which is better acknowledged than be embarrassed about. If Jesus can help his disciples learn something by telling them to contemplate on the lilies, perhaps I can learn something by looking at the world on the other side of the pane.

So, if you see me someday, and I’m looking out a window at a pub, coffee shop, or my flat, I’m not daydreaming, I’m not lazy, I’m just working — which often begins with a healthy dose of window gazing.

Why I Write

I write because words are wonderful and have a life unto their own which I wish to explore and participate. I write because it is they way in which I attempt to make sense of the world around me, and I have a sneaking suspicion that there are others who share this trait. I write because it is a way in which I can have an equal exchange of ideas with others without interruptions on either end.

I write because it forces me to pay attention to the world around me.

I write because writing is the last form of alchemy, when one can take ordinary symbols, combine them in just the right way and create something which is immensely more powerful, significant, lasting, and meaningful than simply the sum of its parts.

I write because God chose to communicate to God’s people through story and writing, and therefore there must be something significant to it.

I write because I have to. Without writing I cannot make sense of the world, and I cannot catch a glimpse of insight into what happens. Often times, writing feels like filling a lake by pulling up water, bucket by bucket, from a deep well. However, when that lake is filled the exercise of bringing up the water was certainly worth it.

I write because it helps me to be a better pastor and it improves my abilities to speak to and with people.

I write because I have more questions than answers.

I write, because I have a pipe dream of making a little bit of money writing, and I don’t want, at the end of my life, to be stuck with the worst question imaginable…what if?

I write because I think, perhaps too narcissistically (much like this post), that I have something to offer a reader, that my experiences are far from original, that in my reflections, others might find a glimpse of clarity, insight, or humor. I write because I want to share things with others, because life is meant for sharing. I write because in this sharing, others share their experiences and responses back to me.

I write to discover the world and myself. I write to remove skeletons from my closet and I write to uncover ghosts that linger around my desk. I write because it offers solitude without loneliness. I write because writing fosters connection.

I write because I find pleasure in spending hours writing and scrapping, writing and scrapping, writing and refining — agonizing to find the right word, many times not finding it, but when it is found, magic seems to happen.

I write because writing is the only way to become better at writing. I write because I love the craft of writing. I write because I hope that people will read and find meaning in my writing.

I write because the pen is mightier than the sword.

I write because in the end, it’s really all I have. I won’t have buildings or furniture that I have built or designed. I won’t have paintings or etchings that I created. I won’t have musical recordings; I won’t be remembered for leading a social movement of any sort.

All I will have for the sum total of my life is what I write: I figure I may as well make it worthwhile.

Hurry as an Enemy of Faith

I’m back!  It has been a busy week, pastorally speaking.  We had a sudden death in our congregation and the pastoral tasks that go along with something of the like are great. My days (and nights) have been so consumed with work that I have not been able to even think about my blog which has been sitting sadly idle.  I, however, am back to regular life, and I am back to writing.  I try not to make too many extended absences, but alas, pastoral life is often unpredictable.

This past week, despite my resolution to slow down this Advent, was not able to slow down. I was logging thirteen to sixteen hour days, my mind was always consumed with the details of the memorial services, details of the upcoming and regular worship service, details with some of the Christmas activities at church. How was I going to get everything done? How was I going to get both sermons done? How were we going to have enough space to hold all of the activities we need to do?  On top of this, we are having guests visit the church, who grew up in the Presbyterian church to which our building formerly belonged, and I don’t want them to think bad things about me, or us, because our building is cluttered and with so much deferred maintenance.

Not only were my early mornings and late nights consumed with these concerns, so were my dreams.

I nearly forgot that it was Advent, I nearly forgot about Advent as a season of preparation, and as a season of repentance, a season of hope and expectation. I nearly forgot to stop and listen to God.

I am eager to blame everything that is going on, I am eager to blame all of the things that I have to do for this. I am eager to point to the fact that I have so much to do, and this is the reason why my own experience and my own formation as a disciple of Christ had been pushed to the back burner.

The culprit, however, was not necessarily busy-ness, but rather hurry.

Hurry is an interesting concept Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, defines “hurry” in many ways, among them: “to carry or cause to go with haste” and “to perform with undue haste.”  Noticeably absent is the mention of outside forces, that the problem of hurry is outside of us.

Hurry is a state of being, it is an outlook, often times, it is an orientation to life.

Hurry is the insidious enemy of delighting in God. I think of Mary and Martha — Martha so busy and frustrated at Mary for not helping, and Mary who simply sat at the feet of Jesus — and it was Martha who was admonished! (Luke 10:38-42). I think of John the Baptizer, an individual who must have seemed crazy at the time (and if we saw him today, we would be certain he had a psychiatric disorder), who preached in the wilderness to prepare the way for Jesus (Luke 3:1-18; Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8).  When asked for particular ways to repent, John told them that if someone had two coats, to give one to someone who did not have one, if someone had food, to share with someone who did not.

It takes an unhurried worldview to listen to God, to travel out into the wilderness to listen to what may seem like rantings of the insane, to share with those who lack because it takes time to notice them.

How many times have I passed someone on the street, sometimes even without noticing, because I was hurried? I dare not even guess a number.

Keri Wyatt Kent uses the image of a jar of river water, all shaken up, to speak about a hurried life. River water contains all sorts of sediment, particles, minerals, and murky, when it settles, the water is able to become clear (Deeply Loved, ch. 25). The problem with Martha is not that she was busy, it was that she was living in a state of hurry, so much so that she was unable to experience and enjoy the gift that she had with Jesus in her home.

Last week, I was busy, that is to be sure. however, the bigger problem is that I was hurried, and this hurry is something we must always work against, because hurry pulls us away from God, away from the experience of God, and distracts us from the fullness of what we are called to: love for God and love and care for others

This Advent, I will begin to remove hurry from my life, even when I am busy, and I invite you to do the same.

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This post is in the Deeply Loved Advent Blog Hop Series hosted by Angie Mabry-Nauta

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The Rev. Lawn Mower

When I was a child, I hated mowing the lawn.  I had to add gasoline to the greasy engine, I had to pull start the mower, and pull again, and again.  Prime it, pull, pull, pull, finally it would start.  I would spend half a day mowing our lawn.  It was hot, grass made my eyes water and made me sneeze, and I would get sweaty and dirty.  It was miserable.

However, I have been spoiled by renting, and all of our landlords have taken care of lawn maintenance.  I have not mowed a lawn in several years, and I was loving it.  However, that came to an end today.  The church lawn has been looking like a jungle after our spring came quite early.  I was putting it off, and putting it off, and today I could not take it anymore, so I mowed the grass.

I didn’t just use any lawn mower, however, I bought a reel lawn mower for the church, you know, the old-timey type with the spinning blades and no engine?  Yep, that type.  So I didn’t have to worry about filling it with gas, nor did I have to worry about pull starting it, or priming it.  I didn’t have any grease, no loud noise, and no grass (or twigs)  being thrown out with immense velocity.  It was just me pushing this simple manual lawn mower and all I could hear was the sound of the blades spinning and the “swish-swish” of the grass being sliced so cleanly and evenly.

At the very beginning I was frustrated.  I was frustrated because I did not go to seminary to mow the lawn.  But as I got into the task, it was blissful.  There are few things that are better than meaningful physical work.

One of the things that is so difficult about being a pastor is the lack of visible progress for my labor.  I write a sermon once a week, and I try to write here most days; however, the rest of my time is planning worship services, talking with people, going to meetings, decorating the sanctuary, and writing letters.  While it is true that I do have something to show for my efforts, I never have a day that I come to the end of the day, and I feel content with the fruit of my labor.  I never have this feeling of, “What a great day, and look at what I’ve accomplished, I can feel good about all that I’ve gotten done today.”

However, that was radically different today when I was mowing the lawn.  I could look over what I had done and see very visible and very tangible fruit of my labor.  It looked much nicer after the grass had been cut so evenly and so uniform.  My arms were a bit sore after pushing the mower over the uneven ground, but that too is the fruit of labor.  At the end of my task which I began reluctantly, I simply wanted to keep going.

I have had this experience several times over the past several weeks.  I’ve replaced shower heads in the showers at church, I’ve fixed a faucet on one of the sinks.  At first I was frustrated that I had to do these tasks which seemed to be meaningless and not fitting for my calling.  However, I have come to view it very differently.  I actually enjoy some of the maintenance tasks around the church.  At times, it can get burdensome when I have a worship service and sermons weighing down on me, but it gives me a welcome break from the day to day of my time here.

After being called to a position that typically does not have many physical labor tasks involved in it, and renting where my landlord takes care of the maintenance, I have been able to understand again, not only in my head but also in my heart, the value of human labor.  The real tragedy of modernity is not that we have to work, but it is that we have to work in ways that dehumanize us and divorces us from our understanding of labor as good for the soul.  Likewise, one of the tragedies of unemployment is not just that people lack a sufficient income, but in many instances, it deprives people of their ability to expend labor in a meaningful way.

Work is something that was given to us by God even before sin entered the world.  “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15, NRSV).  Humans were created from the very beginning to work, not to be exploited, but to work and reap the benefits of that work.  Adam tended the garden so that he could eat from his labors.  However, sin perverted this order and in many instances, we must do meaningless work for someone who treats us poorly so that they can reap the real benefits of it.  However, despite this, work still remains crucial to humanity.

Interestingly enough, even the visions of the arrived Kingdom of God include work, Isaiah 65:21-23 includes labor: building houses and planting vineyards.  However, the difference is that those who build the houses live in them, and those to tend to vineyards eat its fruit.  This is the order that we were created for, and this is why we were created for work, not the twisted version that we have now.

However, twisted as it is, work continues to be important for people, and there must be opportunities for people to work.  Pastoring a church in a low-income neighborhood, I often have people tell me that what poor folks need is a job, not more government money.  I could not agree more.  The folks who are financially or materially poor do not need more assistance, they need smarter assistance.  We need to make our safety net one that honors and respects the value that work has and the dignity that work can provide.

I have also had people tell me that the Bible says that if you don’t work, you don’t eat, which of course, the Bible does not say.  However, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 does read, “…Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (NRSV).  The difference here is that unwilling and unable are two different things.  Someone who is not able to find a job is in a much different situation than someone who does not desire to find a job. Work has a value in it that nothing else can provide.  Work was given to us by God, but was twisted after the fall.  Our hope is not that we will one day be delivered from work, but rather that we will be be able to work in such a way that we can see it as a meaningful expenditure of human energy.

As for me, if I don’t answer my phone at church, perhaps I’m mowing the lawn.  Perhaps I’m fixing a faucet or patching up a wall.  One day I look forward to the new heaven and new earth, when I can simply bask in the ability to mow the lawn with my reel lawn mower.