Up in the Air: Five Questions on the Meaning and Purpose of Work

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Up in the Air: Five questions on the meaning and purpose of work

 The 2009 film Up in Air raises plenty of robust questions on the meaning and purpose of work. Below I have listed five that I noticed upon viewing.

 

  • Dehumanization at Work

The dehumanizing effects of work are often discussed in connection with lower class, factory-oriented, and sweatshop-type work. However, Up in the Air appears to record how Ryan Bingham’s humanity is slowly being drained away through a relatively well-paid and white-collar job. One reviewer notes that through his job, Bingham is “a player so expert at the rules of the game… that he doesn’t notice, until too late, that the game has hollowed him out.” Over years of constant travel and meaningless connections Bingham loses his ability to connect, sympathize, commit, or remain placed.

  1. Bingham certainly bared some responsibility for this process, but how did his working environment contribute to his dehumanized state?
  2. Dehumanization is present in every single line of work. What does it look like in your field? How might people become “undone” or be made sub-human through work in your field?

 

  • Technology and Human Connection

The characters Natalie and Ryan engage in a film-long debate on whether or not workers can be fired over a video chat connection. Valuing speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, the young and ambitious Natalie advocates that the company save millions by firing people remotely over the Internet. Ryan counters by arguing that the act of firing is sensitive, complicated, and requires human presence and grace. Their film-long debate captures a question many of us experience in our own workplaces.

  1. How can technology act as both a gift and a curse to the flourishing of your working environment?

 

  • Work and Human Identity

The director of Up in the Air opted to splice into the film an array of short clips of people reflecting on the experience of being fired. Rather than hire actors, the director used real footage from real people in St. Louis and Detroit who had been fired during the most recent recession. Their reflections revealed how intimately the experience had affected their sense of identity and hope.

  1. If you were to lose your job tomorrow, what sort of impact would that have on your identity?
  2. Why does our work touch our sense of identity so deeply?

 

  • The Good Life

The three main characters (Ryan, Alex, and Natalie) all spend some time in the film discussing their vision of “the good life.”

  1. How would each character answer that question?
  2. Work seems to be a place where questions of ultimate meaning and purpose are not always welcome, yet, paradoxically, these questions seem to come up frequently in the workplace. Why is this?

 

  • Speed and Efficiency

Speed and efficiency are critical to Ryan Bingham. He moves smooth and fast throughout the film. When he is forced to wait or is slowed down in any way he is immediately and visibly annoyed. Efficiency and productivity have become cardinal virtues in many working places- trumping all other values.

1. How do the values of speed and efficiency both positively and negatively affect your workplace and your own quality of life?

George Clooney and The Velveteen Rabbit: Reflections on Being Real

 

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“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” – Augustine, Confessions, 1.1

The 2009 film, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, is a sleek modern tragedy following the life of Ryan Bingham. Ryan, played by Clooney, lives in a constant state of restless motion. While he longs for it, the movie’s viewers never see him arrive at a state of rest.

I’m a fan of George Clooney. That guy knows how to wear a suit. I’m also a fan of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. That lady knows how to write. So, when the magical prose of Williams made a quick five-second cameo in Clooney’s film, I took notice. While most viewers undoubtedly miss the connection, I am convinced the humble children’s book unlocks the key, not only to the entire film, but also to an important truth about life.

Ryan Bingham’s job consists of flying around the United States firing people on behalf of corporations, which are on the decline. Bingham travels often. Bingham travels light. “To know me,” he explains, “is to fly with me.”

Bingham lives by a streamlined philosophy and holds to it fiercely—constant and uninhibited mobility. Always traveling and never at home, Bingham considers airports and hotels his true “home.” This, of course, makes sense. Airports and hotels are constructed spaces where a sense of permanence, place, and relationship is almost completely absent. Everything is designed for speed, impersonality, and impermanence.

As the film proceeds we discover that constant and uninterrupted mobility is not only enjoyable for Mr. Bingham, it is the most important thing in his life. For, according to Bingham, “the slower we move, the faster we die.” Surplus belongings and complicated relationships only slow Bingham down—no excess baggage allowed. If you cannot easily fit in his overhead bin, you are discarded.

Ryan Bingham has little to no relationship with his family. He fires people every day and never sees them again. His liaisons with women last as long as his single serving liquor bottles. His most meaningful daily encounters are with his flight attendant and his hotel concierge. He appreciates that they thank him and even reward him for his “loyalty.”

Bingham moonlights as a motivational speaker in hotel ballrooms. In his stump speech he asks participants to put all of their belongings and relationships into an imaginary backpack. He then asks his audience to feel the weight of these things and these relationships on their shoulders. He asks them, “How much does your life weigh?” Travel light, Bingham warns. Relationships, connections, and commitment, these are the things that weigh you down and wear you out. “Why don’t you set that bag down?” he challenges. He continues on…

 “Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises… Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.”

The New York Times labeled Up in the Air “a laugh-infused stealth tragedy.” This seems an apt description. Witnessing the deep and gnawing emptiness of Ryan Bingham’s life and work, I was often unsure whether or not I was supposed to laugh or cry. Both reactions felt appropriate. Bingham’s ultimate commitment to personal mobility, efficiency, and uninhibited freedom systematically destroyed his potential for real relationship with any one, any thing, or any place.

As the film goes on, viewers follow Bingham as relationships steadily threaten his treasured life of mobility and freedom. His family will not stop hounding him about his sister’s upcoming wedding. He is beginning to desire a lasting relationship with a woman (gasp). He is thrust into a mentoring relationship with a coworker who he abhors. As these relationships come to the forefront, he begins to reflect on the lives of the people he is firing on a daily basis.

This reflection coincides with his boss thinking about ending his travel schedule and ground his work in Omaha. People, place, and permanence are threatening to unravel Ryan Bingham’s life in the skies.

As the film draws to a close the viewer begins to hope that these pressure points will finally come together to force Bingham to realize the error of his ways. The viewer sits in hope that he will ultimately learn to commit and connect.

We find Bingham finally cornered by everything that is antithetical to his philosophy. Returning to his hometown in rural Wisconsin, Bingham is forced to stay in an old hotel – where he holds no membership cards or claims to loyalty programs. He must attend a wedding and is encircled by a family that is blue-collared, provincial, loving, slow, inefficient, and poorly dressed.

Confronted on all sides, Bingham is asked by a minor character what appears to be a throw away question. Holding a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit the character asks, “Have you ever read this?” Bingham blows off the question with a sarcastic comment about “powerful stuff” and moves on. Neither the director nor Bingham linger on the book for more than a couple of seconds, but make no mistake, the moment is critical.

The Velveteen Rabbit, as most of us know, follows the life of a toy rabbit in the process of “becoming real.” How does one become “real?” What is the process like? Margery William’s dialogue between two toys captures the answer.

 

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

 “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

 “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

 “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

 “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

 “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“Free” to Love

I kept my heart from [believing]; frightened of falling headfirst, I was hanging myself instead.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.6

 Fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness, I dragged my chain but was afraid to be free of it.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.21

 

At the end of the film Ryan Bingham is presented with a choice. Will he allow love to make him “real” despite the inconvenience, messiness, wear, and tear? Or, will he redouble his efforts to fortify his jet-setting lifestyle of mobility, efficiency, and disconnected freedom? Being a tragedy Ryan’s restless soul finally chooses the later.

Even so, “choice” does not feel like the right word. While Bingham appears to be a man of limitless freedom, he ultimately appears to be its prisoner. Bingham longs to be loved, most especially by the woman he is currently sleeping with. She, however, assures him in a moment of wrenching honesty that she already has a “real” life and he is not a part of it. He is merely a sexual “escape,” a “parenthesis.”

 

“When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

 

The film ends with the empty sound of the cold wind rushing over the wings of Bingham’s plane.

 

What tortuous paths! 

How fearful a fate for ‘the rash soul’…

 Turned this way and that. On its back, on its side, on its stomach, all positions are uncomfortable.

 You alone are repose.

 Augustine, The Confessions, 6.26

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Workplace Confessions #6- Damned Delightful Descriptions: Describing Evil Like Augustine

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Damned Delightful Descriptions: Describing Evil Like Augustine

Workplace Confessions #6

 

This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and Augustine’s Confessions.

But my wound… was not healed. After inflammation and sharp pain, it festered. The pain made me, as it were, frigid but desperate.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.25

I kept my heart from giving any assent, and in that state of suspended judgment I suffered a worse death.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.6

 

No one describes evil like Augustine—no one. No one today can capture the deep pain, the stupid irrationality, and the frustrating helplessness of the sin-sick soul quite like The Confessions of St. Augustine.

We, today, are not accustomed to dwelling on, let alone poetically describing, our own wicked ways in such painful detail. We like to quickly move on from our so-called “mistakes.” We shift, we cover up, and we pirouette around our problems with an alarming degree of speed and agility. We are the champions of “getting over it.”

Taking the time to identify and poetically describe one’s own evil and brokenness is an exceedingly rare practice. In fact, if Augustine were alive today, we might sincerely consider committing the man to an intense round of psychological help. Fearful that our poor friend Augustine was stuck in a dysfunctional whirlpool of self-immolation, our culture would likely try to cheer him up with a spa-package, some retail therapy, or perhaps a weekend in Vegas.

 So, the question stands before us, what could we possibly learn from Augustine’s odd practice of describing his own wicked ways in such vivid and vicious detail?

 Could such a counter-cultural practice be something we too desperately need?

In book six of his Confessions Augustine describes evil as his own darkness, sickness, weakness, blindness, enslavement, noose, torture, slipperiness, addiction, death, hanging, a frigid feeling, and an inflamed and festering wound. With this truckload of adjectives and descriptive imagery, a modern reader would be forgiven for surmising that Augustine had written these words as a describing exercise for a cruel creative writing teacher.

 

Consider the rich imagery of the following passages:

 Fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness, I dragged my chain, but was afraid to be free of it.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.21

 I was walking through darkness and ‘a slippery place’… I had come into the depth of the sea. I had no confidence, and had lost hope that truth could be found.

Augustine, The Confessions, 6.1

 

Workplace Confessions

What benefit could possibly come from this practice? Why would one engage in this intense and, no doubt, painful process of recounting the “torturous paths” of one’s own heart?

 I can think of at least five reasons why modern Christian professionals should strongly consider Augustine’s odd counter-cultural habit.

  1. Truth-Telling.

Augustine is telling the truth and so should we. Ignoring the reality of evil in our lives, quite simply, does not do us any good. It is certainly easier to cover up our experiences of evil by working harder, making ourselves busier, or filling our leisure time with the distractions of sports, entertainment, and retail therapy. It is easier, that is, in the short run. Sooner or later, as they say, our sins return to haunt us.

  1. Self-Deception

Self-deception is a danger for every sin-sick heart. We convince ourselves that our sinfulness in the workplace is someone else’s fault. We blame a coworker, a boss, or simply “the system.” The root of the problem is never us—always someone else.

The practice of reflecting on and describing our own sin helps us fight our own proclivity towards self-deception. Through this, admittedly painful, practice we can identify destructive patterns and bad habits that have long been painted over.

  1. Empathy

Augustine’s practice of poetic confession can engender within us an abiding humility and powerful empathy for coworkers and clients who, just like us, are fighting difficult battles with the disease that afflicts us all.

  1. Realism

With a deep recognition of how evil breaks, distorts, and twists our own work, Christian professionals can enter their workplaces with a realistic set of expectations for the sorts of transformation they can catalyze.

Those who do not take sin seriously are prone to romantically imagine that they can redeem and perfect their coworkers and their company if they only work hard enough. Such failures to take personal and systemic sin seriously inevitably end up in defeat, bitterness, or self-righteousness.

  1. Rest

A good and painful process of confession can bring us to the only true haven of rest and restoration—the place we have longed for all along.

What tortuous paths! How fearful a fate for ‘the rash soul’… Turned this way and that, on its back, on its side, on its stomach, all positions are uncomfortable. You alone are repose. Augustine, The Confessions, 6.26

Workplace Confessions #5- Evangelism and Drinking in Public: St. Augustine on a Curious Combination

 

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This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and The Confessions of St. Augustine.

 

I am beginning to suspect that Christians have things rather backwards when it comes to the topic of “evangelism in the workplace.” The conversion story of St. Augustine has made this point increasingly clear to me. It seems to me that most Christians are under the impression that “successful evangelism” centers on their firm grasp of things like intellectual truth, philosophical rhetoric, and quick-witted debate. Their questions often seem to surround the questions of “What do I say?” or “How do I say it?”

In the ever-sensitive matter of “workplace evangelism” I would like to argue that Augustine’s story appears to indicate that “conversion” is more a matter of food than philosophy, more a matter of wine than wit.

In book five of his autobiographical Confessions, the young Augustine has transferred his way through three different teaching jobs in Carthage, Rome, and finally Milan. These significant career moves were largely inspired by Augustine’s restless search for a more disciplined and respectful brand of student. Tired of the classroom tomfoolery and general ballyhoo of Carthage and Rome, Augustine moved to Milan longing for students who could sit still and listen.

Book five of Augustine’s Confessions finds the young teacher of philosophy and rhetoric deeply torn on personal matters of religion and truth. Augustine has dabbled in astrology, radical skepticism, and the sect of the “Manicheans.” Augustine’s confidence in each of these philosophies is waning at this point. He is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their leaders, their theories, and their ability to make sense of the world. With great effort Augustine makes contact with a famous philosopher by the name of Faustus. He brings Faustus his religious questions and troubles, only to find the philosopher’s answers thin and empty.

At this point Augustine has displayed an ambivalent interest in the faith of his mother—Christianity. Much to his mother’s disappointment, Augustine is still refusing to convert. He simply cannot make logical sense of certain Christian doctrines like the incarnation, sin, and the interpretation of the Old Testament. Augustine cannot fit the ideas of Christianity together into a coherent and logical philosophy.

Then Augustine meets Ambrose.

Introductions matter in any story, and the introduction of Ambrose into the story of Augustine’s life is unlike any other in The Confessions. Other figures in Augustine’s life are rather thinly described in terms of their philosophical ideas and their oratorical skill. Characters who are unable to intellectually impress Augustine (all of them) are quickly left behind as the protagonist moves on in his pursuit of “truth.” Augustine notes that Ambrose is indeed intellectually gifted and persuasive. That said, what ultimately sets Ambrose apart is not his intelligence.

In his introduction of Ambrose, Augustine shifts rather suddenly and surprisingly from the abstract language of philosophy to the flavorful language of food and drink. He describes Ambrose as a speaker who gives his listeners the “finest wheat” and provides “wine that makes men merry and sober.” In another translation Augustine declares to God that his servant Ambrose provides “the abundance of your sustenance, the gladness of your oil, and the sober intoxication of your wine.”

Why the sudden shift from philosophy to food, from wit to wine?

Historians note a number of possible explanations for this reference to wheat and wine. Some rightly point out that Augustine is making an allusion to several “food Psalms” which discuss the wine, wheat, oil, and nourishment that is found in God. Others explain, rather simply, that since Ambrose was a bishop it was his job to give people bread and wine in the Eucharist. Still others point out that these words are a subtle reference to a hymn that Ambrose had written:

And let Christ be to us food

And faith be to us drink

May we drink the sober drunkenness

Of the joyful Spirit.

These scholarly observations seem to me to be entirely correct. That said, I think they each miss a larger and more expansive point about the conversion of Augustine and the conversion of human beings in general.

Augustine’s conversion through Ambrose, I would argue, had more to do with the bishop’s flavor than his philosophy, more to do with his drunkenness than his didactics.

In his encounter with Ambrose we discover that Augustine is not simply searching for bare spiritual truth; he is searching for spiritual food and flavor, sustenance and sweetness. Throughout his Confessions Augustine continually describes himself as a man of desire, hunger, and thirst. God, likewise, is repeatedly referred to as his “Sweetness.”

What sets Ambrose’s witness apart is that he is not simply able to respond to Augustine’s philosophical questions, he is able to display for Augustine a life of flavor and sweetness, richness and nourishment. Jesus is not simply Ambrose’s “answer;” Jesus is his food and drink. Jesus is not simply an intellectual solution; he is the seasoning that gives flavor to the whole of Ambrose’s life.

In the end the invitation Augustine receives from Ambrose is not simply to “know” Jesus; the invitation is to drink and be drunk on Jesus, to experience him as his Savior and his Sweetness.

 

Salt in the Workplace

Regarding the topic of evangelism in the workplace, Christians will speak often of their desire to “be a light” amongst their coworkers. This usually means “to speak up,” “tell the truth,” and “do the right thing.” This all seems right, however, it seems to lack the flavor and richness Augustine found in the witness of Ambrose.

It is true that Jesus commanded his followers to be a light in the world, but didn’t he also (in the same breath) command us to be salt as well? Didn’t Jesus also want his church to add flavor to the world? Moreover, if the church ever lost its flavor, didn’t Jesus claim that it had lost all value? The apostle Paul seems to back this up as he exhorts the Colossians to

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

This language of flavorful and nourishing witness in the words of Augustine, Paul, and Jesus leads me to ask the following questions: Rather than march into the workplace armed with religious words, answers, and truth, what would happen if Christian professionals sought to be people of flavor, richness, and nourishment in the workplace? How might that impact their interactions in meetings with clients, students, and coworkers? What if Christians yearned to be workers who provided sweetness and sustenance to their workplace? Rather than always seek to provide an answer, might we seek to quench a thirst for a wine not yet tasted?

“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense, if God did not exist.”     -Cardinal Suhard

 

Workplace Confessions #4- “Where is My Career Going? Augustine’s Rebuttal to Modern ‘Career Planning’”

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This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and The Confessions of Augustine.

 

“What is the goal of your journey? The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet. Otherwise it will justly become bitter…” Augustine, Confessions, 4.18

Where is this job taking you?

How are you going to move up?

What’s next for you?

In today’s dynamic and fast-paced marketplace, professionals seem to constantly be skipping from job to job. Strategic career planning for one’s “next move” has become a critical and almost continuous practice. If you are not moving forward, you know where you are going…

In such an environment it’s easy to become wrapped up in one’s own future and the strategic “moves” one has to make.

It is a “free” country and we work in a “free” job market. We are “free” to move from job to job whenever we like. That said, rising national levels of career stress, anxiety, and worry cause many to suspect that the word “free” is little more than a cruel joke.

In light of this reality it is worth reflecting for a few moments on a critical question: What is the relationship between you, your practice of “career planning,” and God?

In book four of his Confessions, the young Augustine is in the prime of his “roaring twenties.” During this time, Augustine is, without a doubt, the consummate autonomous, sovereign, and “free” individual.

He is the captain of his own ship.

The young Augustine has freely chosen his work, his concubine, his city, his astrology, his friends, his students, and his research projects. Neither family, church, or community hold any sway in his life.

Augustine is his own man.

And yet, readers quickly discover that while the young Augustine may appear to be “free,” he is everywhere in chains. Augustine is a slave to his own ambition and his own lust for professional fame and fortune. Gripped by a deep yearning to be academically notable, Augustine goes so far as to dedicate his book on beauty to a famous scholar in Rome whom he hoped to flatter and impress. Augustine had never even met the man.

Augustine’s life of radical “freedom” seems to paradoxically create bondage wherever he goes. His selfishness afflicts both himself and everyone around him. Looking back he confesses that his life was ultimately “one of being seduced and seducing, being deceived and deceiving.”

Augustine was, in the end, a prisoner of his own freedom and power.

My error was my god. If I attempted to find rest there for my soul, it slipped through a void and again came falling back upon me. I had become to myself a place of unhappiness in which I could not bear to be; but I could not escape myself. Where should my heart flee to in escaping from my heart? Where should I go to escape myself? Augustine, Confessions, 4.12

Augustine longed for rest. He longed for peace. When the things he held tightly were taken from him, (be it professional fame, love, or a good friend), he collapsed with dramatic grief and disharmony.

Ultimately the fourth book records the young Augustine’s search for ultimate peace in the creation, instead of in the Creator.

 

Stewardship, Divine Participation, and Career Planning

Stewardship is an old word in the Christian lexicon meant to describe an alternative way of thinking about ownership. According to the dictates of stewardship, the world and everything in it belongs, not to us, but to God.

Hence, strictly speaking, a Christian owns nothing.

A Christian steward does not own, but rather takes care of things that do not belong to her. She knows that between her and every object there is critical a third party—God.

Augustine ultimately concludes throughout book four that his relationship to created objects (money, possessions, fame, and friends) had become one of ownership rather than stewardship.

God was not a part of the equation.

The problem, Augustine concludes, was not that he loved his possessions, friends, career, or books. The problem was that he failed to love these things in God. He failed to recognize the object’s place and participation in something larger than the object itself.

Augustine saw these things as “orbiting” his life rather than the life of God.

Which leaves us with these questions about our contemporary practice of strategic career planning:

1. If we believed ourselves to be stewards rather than owners of our career, how might that transform our practice of strategic career planning?

  1. What would happen to our career planning if we saw our work as participating, not so much in our mission, but God’s mission?
  1. What if we refused to love our careers in and of themselves, and instead used Augustine’s language and learned to love our careers in God?
  1. How might these perspectives on our careers affect the common experience of career stress, anxiety, and worry? Might we be able to remove the quotation marks from the word “freedom” in ways which exhibit God enabling us to work differently than the culture around us?

“If physical objects give you pleasure, praise God for them and return love to their Maker lest, in the things that please you, you displease him… For he did not create and then depart; the things derived from him have their being in him… What is the goal of your journey? The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet. Otherwise it will justly become bitter; for all that comes from him is unjustly loved if he has been abandoned.

With what end in view do you again and again walk along difficult and laborious paths? There is no rest where you seek for it. Seek for what you seek, but it is not where you are looking for it. You seek the happy life in the region of death; it is not there. How can there be happy life, where there is not even life?” Augustine, Confessions, 4.18

 

 

 

 

 

Workplace Confessions #3- Workplace Evangelism: An Alternative Perspective from St. Augustine

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This article is part of a larger series of reflections on faith, work, and The Confessions of Augustine.

 

Interruption. What does it mean for God to interrupt and intercede in our lives at work?

Augustine’s first encounter with God, his “first step” in conversion, did not occur in a church, in scripture, or in a conversation with a Christian. It happened at work.

In book three of his Confessions Augustine is a college student—the consummate college student. He has moved away from home to the cosmopolitan city of Carthage. He is crushing it in his philosophy and rhetoric classes, meeting girls, hanging out with intellectual bullies, and frequenting the city’s theatre for cultural and dramatic titillation. In short, Augustine is “playing” at life and love, philosophy and rhetoric, sex and suffering. A young man easily persuaded by the new and the adventurous, Augustine finally converts to the hip and heretical philosophy of the “Manicheans.”

The picture of a budding cosmopolitan and intellectual snob, Augustine refused to listen to God’s call; neither in the form of his mother or his church. He read some scripture and (in his youthful snobbery) found it too simple and mundane for his taste. “I was not,” he recalls later, “in any state… to bow my head to climb [scripture’s] steps.”

So where would God meet this young philosophy student? How would God make himself known? Ultimately it would be at work. “God meets us where we are,” so they say. It is a tired cliché, for a reason. It keeps happening.

And so we find the young philosopher becoming increasingly frustrated by the vanity, emptiness, and conceit of philosophers around him. In a critical turning point, Augustine picks up Cicero’s Hortensius. While Cicero was by no means a Christian, Augustine notes that God chose to communicate powerfully through his philosophical work.

“The book changed my feelings. It altered my prayers, Lord, to be towards you yourself. It gave me different values and priorities. Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart… This book kindled my love for it [wisdom]. There are some people who use philosophy to lead people astray… the one thing that delighted me in Cicero’s exhortation was the advice to ‘not study one particular sect but to love and seek and pursue and hold fast and strongly embrace wisdom itself, wherever found. Augustine, Confessions, 3.7.8

Every vocation has a deeper origin, meaning, and purpose given to it by the Creator. For philosophers it’s wisdom, for medical workers it’s healing and wholeness, for teachers it’s education, for engineers it’s structural beauty and soundness, for attorneys it’s justice. All people, Christian or not, experience a gnawing awareness of this deeper purpose within their work.

But, these deeper workplace purposes often become twisted and distorted. It was in his career as a philosopher that Augustine experienced exactly that. His work had become mired in vain and empty speech, thin talk, and more than a little “intellectual masturbation.” The sophomoric philosophy students Augustine had surrounded himself with had forgotten the true meaning of their work in philosophy—the love of wisdom.

 

Workplace Evangelism

It is a common occurrence for me to be asked about the topic of “workplace evangelism.” The questioning often begins with “How do I invite my coworkers to church?” “How do I defend the Bible to my coworkers?” “How do I tell my employees about God?” I understand these questions, and I think that they, in many ways are legitimate questions to ask. But we learn something profound in the story of Augustine, as he demonstrates an alternative path for these conversations.

Rather than engaging our coworkers in a discussion primarily about God or the church, what if we engage them in a thoughtful discussion about what they love about their work and why they do it?

Why not honestly ask them: What first got you interested in law? Why do you care so much for your patients? Why do you take pride in a job well done? What do you hope for our company? How might our field improve?

The assumption of these questions is simple. If God gives our work meaning, any thoughtful discussion of the deeper patterns and purposes of our work naturally brings all of us a step closer to the One who made us to work.

The first question, therefore, is not “How do I bring God to them?” but “How do I help them recognize that God is already present in and through their love or work?   How do I help them see the good news that God is already active and speaking in their lives through their love of teaching, building, managing, experimenting, writing, and caring? How do help them see that God cares as much, if not more, about their work than they do?

The same goes for “we Christians” as well.

Where is God in our work?

God is active and is present in our love of planning and strategizing, in our love of building and selling, in our love of creating and innovating. He is there. As the wise pagan Cicero wrote for Augustine, our calling is to “strongly embrace wisdom itself, wherever found.”

What Augustine would discover later on, of course, was that his love and longing of “wisdom” in philosophy was really a hint of his deeper love and longing for the One who IS “Wisdom.”

Workplace Confessions #2- Recalling My Wicked Ways

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“The recalling of my wicked ways is bitter in my memory, but I do it so that you may be sweet to me, a sweetness touched by no deception, a sweetness serene and content.” Augustine’s Confessions 2.1.1

 

“The past is the past,” so we are told. “So you made a ‘mistake,’ “forget about it,” “let it go,” “don’t be so hard on yourself.”

In a fast-paced and complex working environment encounters with sin, selfishness, and evil come at us, and out of us, quicker and more frequently that we can often recognize or process. What we do with these moments of sin and depravity matters a great deal, of course. It often feels like there are a million forces encouraging us to just “move on” and “get over it.” Serious and sustained personal reflection on the evil and brokenness that pervades our working lives is a dangerously rare practice indeed.

As we discover this rather quickly in the second book of his Confessions., Augustine is not the sort to just “let stuff go.” The entire book is filled with the young bishop struggling, at considerable length, to ascertain exactly why he committed a variety of sins in his adolescence. To the modern reader Augustine’s extended fixation on stealing a few pears in his youth borders on the psychologically unhealthy.

But why recall one’s wicked ways? Why dredge up the past? What possible profit could come from such a difficult and ugly exercise? The process, after all, is clearly painful and more than a little confusing for Augustine. How many times does he use words like “muddy,” “fogged,” “confusing,” and “benighted” to describe the shroud of sin and bewilderment that had lowered itself over Augustine’s mind and heart? Confused as ever, Augustine cries out again and again, “why do I do these things?!” Augustine closes the painful discussion fruitlessly asking, “Who can untie this extremely twisted and tangled knot?”

So why then does Augustine engage in these painful acts of recollection and investigation? Why does he refuse to leave his sinful and dark acts in a long forgotten past? Why not just “move on?”

The answer might just be found in Augustine’s opening and closing paragraphs. In those paragraphs he makes generous use of the words of “sweetness,” “lovely,” “splendid,” and “joy” to describe the sort of intimate relationship he desires with God, his “Beloved,” his “Sweetness.” Augustine, you see, is not primarily interested in an intellectual knowledge of God but in a deep, close, and vulnerable relationship with the “Sweetness.”

In the modern workplace our faults and sins are often treated as merely things to either learn from, cover up, ignore, get over, or blame shift. The main concern can often be simply to avoid a lawsuit, an HR violation, or a stain on one’s public image. A worker who is willing to both recall and seriously wrestle with his or her own brokenness is a rare thing indeed. Augustine chooses to observe his own heart’s ugliness dead on, to struggle with it, to lament and finally curse it before his Beloved.

Why?

For the sake of the “Sweetness.” Augustine knows that a deep, honest, and lasting relationship with the “Beloved” demands a vulnerable wrestling with his own sin. Augustine has been unfaithful to his “Beloved” and an accounting of the rupture must be made. God does not desire a cheap, thin, fake, or partial relationship with his beloved. God does not simply want our Sunday morning self, the self that appears clean, humble, and pretty. God wants our whole selves. God wants our working selves.

God’s holistic and jealous demand for our entire lives is both good and bad news for us. It is bad news in the sense that our times of confession need to be uncomfortably deep and pervasive, encompassing the whole of our lives—including our working lives. That said, it is also good news in the sense that God’s grace, when it is finally allowed to pour itself into our whole lives and into our working lives, can begin to fill unseen nooks and crannies with an unforeseen sweetness and delight. We often never realize areas of spiritual “dryness” in our lives until the streams of God’s mercy are allowed to flow.

Augustine clearly demonstrates the deep need we all have to recall, investigate, and confess our brokenness before God and our sisters and brothers in Christ. That said, I would like to advance one additional possibility for your consideration and discussion. It is often said that Christians should be known for moral excellence in the workplace and with that I cannot disagree. However, I wonder, what would happen if Christians in the workplace were known for an uncommon willingness to confess to their colleagues their own mistakes, selfishness, and wrong doing?

You may strongly doubt that we will ever be considered a shining example of moral perfection in the workplace. But maybe, just maybe, you can be known as that strange and curious worker who is quick to say “That was my fault,” “I am sorry, you deserved better than that,” or “I was wrong, will you forgive me?” With appropriate wisdom and prudence, confessions of personal guilt in the workplace can be a truly disruptive force a sign of “sweetness” in a dry and barren land.

 

“The recalling of my wicked ways is bitter in my memory, but I do it so that you may be sweet to me, a sweetness touched by no deception, a sweetness serene and content.” Augustine’s Confessions 2.1.1

God’s Presence at Work: Workplace Confessions from Book #1

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Eight Confessions for the Workplace 

Presence. What does it look like to both know and practice God’s deep presence in our day-to-day working lives?

Identity. Rather than success, fame, or fortune, what does it look like to find our deepest working identity in God and God alone?

1,617 years ago St. Augustine of Hippo penned one of the most famous pieces of literature in the history of the Christian faith, The Confessions. In those hallowed pages, Augustine reflects on the intimate presence and persistent work of God in his life with a raw vulnerability and a unique authenticity. Augustine struggles with universal questions about ambition and competition, gifts and calling, money and power, sex and seduction, and meaning and purpose. He struggles with these questions, all the while experiencing the simultaneous feelings of being both deeply in love with and deeply confused and frustrated by God.

The question for us is this: What do 21st century professionals have to learn from a 4th century African saint? The following is a series of eight short reflections on the relevance of The Confessions to the life of the Christian professional today.

 

God’s Presence at Work: Workplace Confessions from Book #1

“Speak to me so that I may hear. See the ears of my heart are before you, Lord. Open them and ‘say to my soul, I am your salvation.’ After that utterance I will run and lay hold on you. Do not hide your face from me (Psalm 26:9). Lest I die, let me die so that I may see it.”  Confessions, Section 1.5

“Where is God in all of this?”

Christian professionals serving in a fast, secular, and globalizing marketplace commonly struggle with a sense of God’s presence, work, and relevance in their daily lives. God seems distant, Sunday’s worship feels remote on Monday, and work seems to roll on with a machine-like inevitability. The miraculous, the profound, and the “spiritual” feels a long way off.

On the first page of his Confessions Augustine famously declares to God “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Augustine continually argues that human beings are always and everywhere ultimately longing to know and be known by God. It is that critical gap between God and us that is the ultimate cause of our restlessness and angst. We were fundamentally designed for intimacy with God, who is our ultimate “Sweetness,” as Augustine famously calls God.

While Augustine has been declared a “saint” we see in the opening pages of the Confessions that he struggles, like all of us, with the very common fear that God is silent and absent from the mundane daily activities of our work and life. Augustine too felt that God sometimes seemed a long way off. In this (perceived) divine absence, Augustine confesses that he begins to shrivel up.

This perception of divine absence is common. Augustine’s response to it, however, is rather uncommon. He fights back. In the passage above Augustine refuses to accept this perceived silence. Augustine implores God to come near. He pleads with God to make himself known. Augustine acknowledges that God is indeed present and speaking, but that his own ears have closed themselves to his voice. And so he pleas, “Speak to me so that I may hear. See the ears of my heart are before you, Lord. Open them and ‘say to my soul, I am your salvation.”

Through out the first book of his Confessions, Augustine models for us all a life that longs for intimacy with God- intimacy not simply in his private life, but in every aspect of his public life as well. Augustine pleads and demands that God make his voice heard. He confesses that he has grown deaf to God’s voice and that he stands in need of a “divine ear-cleaning.”

These Confessions lead me to ask myself a number of questions about God’s presence and voice in my own working life. First, how do I respond when it feels like God is far off from my day-to-day tasks? Do I just shrug my shoulders and try to move on without God’s presence and guidance? Do I accept that I am my own god? Or, do I engage God in a struggle, in a fight? Do I ask—no—do I demand that God make himself known in my workplace? Do I confess my deep need for His voice? Can I say the following prayer with Augustine? “Do not hide your face from me. Lest I die, let me die so that I may see it.” How, in the end, will I respond to these moments of perceived silence and absence?