Worked to Death

I never had a father-in-law. My wife’s father passed away a few months before we got engaged. Her uncle walked her down the aisle. Listening to my wife’s stories, I wish I’d had the time to get to know him better. He was a blue collar worker in a manufacturing plant in Youngstown. He retired early on disability. In many ways, work took a severe toll on his body, and he died within a few years of retirement. It didn’t happen to everyone, but it is the story of many men in his generation, subject to physically demanding work and exposed to numerous chemical toxins before we knew the effects they could have.

Rich’s sermon this past Sunday explored the ways that work and death have been intertwined since the “crash”, as Rich put it. Adam and Eve refused to work God’s way by working to be like gods through partaking of the tree instead of working in trusting dependence upon God to sustain their lives. Instead of work being a kind of joyful and playful tending of God’s delightful world, it becomes hard and toilsome. Work itself wasn’t “the curse” but work came under the curse of a fallen existence running down toward death.

Work was a good thing that got messed up. Down inside us we still have this drive to use skill and intelligence to do something really well, whether it is to repair an automobile or mobilize a community service project, to write elegant computer code or to intelligently manage an organization. Yet even our noblest efforts seem fraught with difficulty. I work in a collegiate ministry I love with a wonderful team of students and colleagues. Yet death in various forms intrudes: a colleague or their spouse faces a serious illness, we subject ourselves to destructive anxiety in juggling competing demands, miscommunications and misunderstandings arise that gnaw at the pit of your stomach, or a piece of office hardware dies just before an important conference.

I was also challenged by the thought that our work may be part of a system that contributes to the death of others. As Ben noted, the computer I am writing this post on may have been made under terrible working conditions, as is much of the computer and communications technology we use. In some cases, the factory conditions have been so bad and the constraints on workers so great that some have concluded the only way out is to take one’s own life. It’s complicated sometimes–maybe the major thing we can do is communicate our concerns with vendors we most work with. I have known faculty who chose lines of research not funded by defense budgets or that had applications that could contribute, as far as they could tell, to killing.

Yet I also think we need to exercise care and humility as we talk about this with thoughtful Christians in the military, defense-related work or who serve as peace officers. For many, their work is focused on preventing war or guarding the law-abiding so far as that’s humanly possible in a fallen world and protecting the innocent when it is not. One of the things I wonder about for those of us in the ‘peace church’ tradition is how we might engage with thoughtful Christians who believe they are fulfilling their calling in Christ in defense or police work, even if we believe we may not join them. How do we deal with the fact that we may benefit from efforts we cannot in good conscience engage? It seems that we cannot help but be implicated in these systems that arise in a fallen world. Sadly, the tragedy of the intertwined nature of work and death is that even our best attempts often end badly and technology designed for good may nevertheless by used to kill. We might cut our losses (and should), but we can’t fix this thing. We need salvation in the ultimate sense!

Rich pointed out that we live between the world that is and the world that is to come. He concluded with some thoughts about working in light of the world to come. I wonder if one of the things this means is the recovery of the joyful, playful, and creative aspects of our work wherever possible in ways that bring the blessing of God to others. It can be joyful and fun to leave a generous tip at a restaurant, as Rich mentioned. It can be creative and life-giving to find ways in the company we work for to ensure that all our workers get a living wage. I wonder sometimes for those of us who seek to address the problems of the world whether an over-seriousness betrays inordinate and death-dealing anxiety. Where is the place for joyfulness and playfulness in these efforts? Isn’t there joy in any work done that saves or brings life? A simple example for me is the joy and laughter I’ve often experienced at our food pantry as we’ve sorted food we haven’t worked for and help people cart box loads of that food to their cars. Hunger and poverty are serious yet our joy and laughter point to the generosity of a God who meets us at our place of need and brokenness. And don’t we mimic the Creator when we pause after a work-day, or a performance, or when we’ve completed a piece of work that has gone well, and just savor the goodness?

By this we say that death doesn’t have the last word in our work, but the life of the world to come.

This post also appears on our church’s Going Deeper Blog

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