Marked By Ashes: An Ash Wednesday Prayer for Work

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Marked by Ashes  By Walter Brueggemann

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.

We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.

We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), pp. 27-28.

In Augustine’s Confessions, Book #2, Augustine finds that ‘recalling (his) wicked ways’ to God actually brings freedom and hope. As we lament as Christian workers the ways in which we have failed, the things we have left undone, the ways we wronged our co-workers, and the sin we are implicated into as people of the fall, we too may find the God of great grace who took on our sin, so as to embrace us. We need to ‘taste the ashes in our mouth,’ as Brueggemann states above, in order to be ‘Easter-ed into joy and energy and freedom and courage.’

In light of this, how could Ash Wednesday’s lament and confession change the ways you work? What might you confess and lament about your work to God? How might God want to meet you in this?

A Workplace Prayer- Take the Long View

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A Future Not Our Own

Bishop Ken Untener

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s
grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

 

Taking this long view of work, reminds us the end of our work is not ourselves. Our work is ultimately not about us, but is rather our offering of worship back to God. Our work is ultimately about building the Kingdom, and working towards the flourishing of God’s world. This view frees us to do just as Bishop Ken Untener encourages us to do, plant the seeds, start small, begin where we are. As workers we are free to do what is right in front of us, trusting the Master Builder is at work using our small endeavors for the building of something much greater than our lives and our work.

What small thing is God calling you to do today to plant seeds? What work will you do today, with a long view of eternity in mind, as you do it? How are you viewing your work today- as about you or as an offering back to God in worship?

 

 

 

The Question of Calling

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What is God “calling” you to do?

I don’t know about you, but when I hear someone ask this question to me, I get a big lump in my throat and immediately go into panic mode.

 

“I don’t know what God wants me to do.”

“What exactly are you asking me to ‘discern’?”

“What if I get it wrong?

“What if I miss the ‘calling’?”

“What if I am not equipped?”

“What if He expects me to do something, I don’t want to do….like go overseas?”

“What if__________________ (you fill in the blank)?”

 

When we are honest with ourselves, many of us can resonate with these questions.

So how do we find our callings? Do we ignore the calling and it comes to us out of blue? Is calling something we seek out? Or does calling come to us, somehow, someway?

To be honest…I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.

I mean, where are the 5 steps to follow to discern your calling in life? (long pause…)

I wish I knew…really, and I am still on the journey to figure it out.

I woke up the other morning and decided to read a devotional called Jesus Calling. Each devotional of the day is written as if Jesus was talking directly to you on each page. Something that was said in the devotional that morning really struck me, and got me thinking about the whole idea “calling.” The devotional stated (as if Jesus were saying this to me) “Heaviness is not of my Kingdom.”

Interesting.

I always thought of my calling in life as something that I had to work hard to achieve and seek out and reach. I’d say to myself, “Ok, time to get your act together, clean yourself up and get going to what you were really called to do.”

Ugh, it weighed heavy upon me; my calling…what it is?

Then fear and doubt immediately entered my mind. But, in his great grace, God met me in my place of fear and anxiety, he calmed the storm within me. In those moments, God had me consider the idea of my calling as something close and not far away. It was not a heavy burden I had to search for, in hopes that one day I would bump into it and just ‘know.’

What if my calling is what I am doing now, what if He is at work right in front of me? I don’t believe God says, “Hurry up and get it figured out by tomorrow.”

I believe God asks us to love Him first with all our heart, soul and mind, and out of this love for Him we draw closer into relationship with Him. By living this way we find ourselves living into our calling. Our particular vocation today may not be our vocation tomorrow or 5 years from now. That is why our first call is always the call to love Jesus and embody that love in the places we’re living in today. It is also in this love that we can learn to discern our particular vocations.

Sometimes we think that what we’re doing right now is not what we’re called to, and someday we will find the magical combination to finally know what we’re called to do. But, in loving God first, we find that we may just be in the right place…now.

When I experience hardship in my life or have bad days, I immediately look at myself and ask, “what am I doing wrong and how can I fix this? But, what if we looked at our frustrations and struggles differently? Maybe it is through these bumps in the road or hardships, that we find our calling. In fact, it’s often through struggle that we get to place where we can hear God in a new way, illuminating where we are called.

Maybe it is through our weakness that God is calling us.

So the question awaits: Do we have the courage to show ourselves to Him and come to Him just as we are, bringing an honest assessment of the questions we have surrounding our calling?

God’s commands and his callings are not heavy, Jesus reminds us that his burden (to love him and love others) are light. It’s in this love that we can discern and hear in clearer way.

So, may we have the faith to come to Him just as we are and know that through loving Him first we will be able to hear His voice and know his peace in our lives.

God bless you all as you grow in Him and His calling for you in your life. Praise be to God!

Lord, I am scared. I want to do your will and follow your calling in my life. But I am not sure what that looks like. What if I miss it? Help me to know that in your love, when I’m listening for your call, I won’t miss what you have for me. Lord, wherever I go, either near or far, please hold onto me and show me the way.   When I am in the place you want me to be, give me a peace, that surpasses my understanding, that I will know I’m living out the vocations you have called me to. I trust you to show me my calling. Help me to follow you.

-Amen

Matter Matters

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A friend of mine at Regent College is regularly quoted as saying, “Matter matters to God.”

Is that really true? If so, what might that mean for our work?

I have to admit, most of my spiritual journey would suggest otherwise. What seems to be important to God are matters of the Spirit, not physical matter. The soul’s development and destiny are God’s focus- not the external, physical world.

Yes, God cares about human beings. After all, we are created in the image of God. We are creatures of infinite value. But, the physical creation? Not really. Not much, anyway.

So, how does that affect how we think about our work? Noted theologian, Miroslav Volf, says this: “The significance of secular work depends on the value of creation, and the value of creation depends on its final destiny,” (p.93, Work in the Spirit).

Much of my evangelical upbringing suggested that God will consign the physical creation to the ash heap of gospel history. Those who trust in Jesus will be saved. But, not much else. At least, that’s how I heard it. If that’s so, how do we take seriously work that ultimately will be tossed away? Why should anyone care about work that has no lasting consequence?

Not surprisingly, this vision had consequences of its own. People prioritize spiritual development – Bible studies, prayer meetings, personal evangelism – over their secular work. Nothing is wrong with spiritual development, of course. But, this vision of creation’s destiny can easily result in the abandonment of the physical world of work. Or, it can generate the opposite reaction. As the writer, Dorothy Sayers, put it: “How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of (their) life?” (from Why Work?)

Disillusionment with a spirituality that is divorced from ordinary life causes many of us to wonder if something is wrong. Is what we believe misguided, when so much of life is excluded from meaning? The good news of the gospel is this. God became a physical, flesh and blood, human being in Jesus. Not only that, Jesus was raised physically from the dead and is, forever, a transformed, embodied human being. That means God is interested in our physical – as well as our spiritual – life. All of it. God creates, loves and has a good destiny for the physical world.

So, what does that mean practically for us?

The most obvious implication is to take our work seriously as the “theater of God’s glory”, to borrow John Calvin’s phrase about the creation.

God takes our work seriously and that work will have consequences – forever. That last part is hard to believe and even harder to imagine. Still, that is the profound implication of the gospel of Jesus. To quote Miroslav Volf again, “The noble products of human ingenuity, ‘whatever is beautiful, true and good in human cultures,’ will be cleansed from impurity, perfected, and transfigured to become a part of God’s new creation. They will form the ‘building materials’ from which (after they are transfigured) ‘the glorified world’ will be made,” (p.91, Work in the Spirit).

What an astonishing claim, and one that should invigorate all of our work, even the most mundane.

A second and less obvious implication for us is to work at living a fully integrated spiritual and physical life.

Just as the spiritual life should not dominate the physical, neither should our concerns for the merely physical dominate the spiritual. We must take the discipline of developing the spiritual and physical dimensions of our life and work with equal seriousness. And, we must think of our life as an integrated whole, rather than as two separate and distinct spheres. In an age where both the secular world around us and some of our own religious traditions lead to a bifurcated life, this takes intentionality and perseverance.

Our whole human life is destined for transformation, including “whatever is beautiful, true and good” of our work. If that is true, then our work is worth doing well. To quote the Apostle Paul, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain,” (1 Corinthians 15:58 NRSV).

 

A Vision for the New Heaven and New Earth: At Work

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***This is the third in our series of Psalms written on the Winter Retreat. Like the others, this has been posted anonymously.

I saw a vision of the new created heaven and earth. And the large and successful company, that I spent my day hours of work, was led by Jesus. He reminded us daily of His values, and how he built convictions and purpose into our existence. He prompted us with His Holy Spirit daily, hourly, immediately. We ached inside to honor our leader in all that we did.

We measured our success by the warmth and joy that He poured into us. We petitioned for new projects based on parts of the observable creation that we had been gifted to improve. We pooled the resources around us and honestly and openly committed to building things that were our mission to build.

Jesus made sure that our personal and corporate drive wasn’t motivated by capitalistic competition and the possibility of failure; but rather, it was motivated by a perfect fit to our gifts.  The needs we met were honorable by God’s economy. There was no fear of unfairness, of litigation, or of operational inefficiency.

In God’s economy, God’s character shined and His greatness was our reward. We had no fear of second-to-market or lack of creative interpretation.  Everyone’s skills and talents contributed to the success of our work. Differences could be experimented on without fear of “losing” and without fear of scarce resources being completely spent to discover success.

Instead, Jesus redefined success to what we’ve always known in our hearts and have always longed for – a world driven by God’s perfect justice, His abundant provision, and our corporate enjoyment of all His gifts. No divisive or selfish distribution of God’s wonderful resources drove us, but rather a wholesome appreciation and use of his limitless creation. God was the final voice for all decisions, and we humbly, gladly and praisefully submitted to His ultimate wisdom. His perfect leadership and perfect love embraced us all in endless worship and endless joy. In timeless eternity, we all worked together and enjoyed, like children, the bounty of our family, together.

A Psalm of Lament: For Work

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***This is a part of our series of Psalms written by the Fellows on the Winter Retreat. Like the others in the series, it has been posted anonymously. 

Oh Lord, God of my salvation.

How long must I labor in vain?

How long before You make the path clear?

I run like a cheetah on a circular path.

Round and round while my enemies taunt my progress.

When will I see the end?

 

A great shadow has come upon me.

And I know not which way to turn.

Where is my light? Where is my God?

Why have You forsaken me to struggle endlessly with broken systems?

Why is there no one to guide me through the labyrinth of tax preparations?

 

The mountains are growing, Lord.

And I have not the time to traverse them.

I struggle in the thistles while my coworkers pass by.

Why must I stay full of ignorance and doubt?

Fear guides my days, while restlessness haunts the night.

 

Come my Comforter, my Shelter.

Come hear Your servant’s plea.

Light Your way before me and give me strength to journey on.

Be not far from Your servant, for it is You whom I serve.

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.”