On Work and Charlie


Let me tell you about Charlie.

I work in one of the busiest parts of the city of Boston. From tourists with money to spend to homeless without money, this area sees it all. There are the wealthy and the poor, the able and the lame, the seeing and the blind, the casual dresser and the sophisticated business woman.

And there is Charlie.

Charlie is completely wheelchair bound with a body that won’t do what he wants. He is dependent on people for all activities of daily living. His motorized wheelchair allows him to push some buttons and go short distances, but otherwise his chair and his body are prisons. A black bag across the back of the wheelchair holds his supplies for the day – water, a thermos of coffee, a small radio – he is in his own words a “purveyor of un-cool music.” Charlie is difficult to understand, but if you really listen he’s got a great sense of humor and a strong personality.

I first saw Charlie in a church we used to attend downtown. There he was, every Sunday at the end of the aisle. It was a later on that I realized he must live in the area because beginning with the first warm days of spring through the fall, in rain or shine, Charlie is outside. He is the eyes and ears of the area, taking in far more than anyone imagines.

The Charlies of our world make us uncomfortable. We don’t know how to interact or what to say. We feel guilty that we can’t do more and it is so easy to walk by. And Charlie can’t work. There is nothing he can do to be what our society deems as “productive.” Absolutely nothing. But he shows up, he is not despairing, he communicates as he is able and when people will listen.

So when I think about work, value, productivity, and cultural beliefs about work I can’t help but think about Charlie. When I think about a theology of work, Charlie looms ever-important.

Because if work is what gives us our only value than Charlie has no value. If work and salaries are what a society has held up as the only standard, than we must discard many in our world. More so, if this is all we have than we’ve nowhere to go but down hill.

In a sermon on work Tim Keller, a pastor at a large church in New York City says (and I paraphrase) this: When you understand the gospel, a gospel of grace you can rest from the need to find yourself in your work, rest from the need to have your sole identity and your soul’s identity be in your work. If you don’t, he warns, you will work yourself to death or become cynical. Our work is to be for God, for others, for our community. It is an expression of the energy and creativity of our Creator.

And it hit me yesterday as I saw Charlie – my work is for Charlie. Not directly, but indirectly. Being faithful to what God has given me, to where God has gifted me, honors the Charlies of our world; those who would give much to be whole, who would give anything to have Jesus come by their side and say “Pick up your mat and walk – go to work – go and do what you’ve never been able to do.” My work is part of the bigger story in our world – and that is God’s story. Not my story, not Charlie’s story, not your story.

Not only that, Charlie unknowingly serves as my teacher; a guide to what is really valuable in life and a representative of something bigger than I can really understand. And that is our personhood, the fact that we have value because we exist and are made by God. There is nothing else that truly gives us value. 

So today I work for God and for Charlie, and I’ll learn from God and from Charlie. Tomorrow I’ll struggle again – I know that. And in writing tomorrow I’ll work through some of the third culture kid struggle with 9-5 jobs and fitting into a western societal mold. But for today I pray I will honor the Charlies of our world by working where God has placed me.

I loved the comments from yesterday’s post – both on the blog and on the Facebook page. There was so much wisdom in them. Here are a few excerpts but head over to the post to read the full comments:

From Sharon: “I have always believed there is a dignity to work. As we seek to reflect God in all ways, we can’t ignore that our God is a creative, active God. Work is only “one” of the ways we are active. It can be drudgery or delight less by what the actual work is but more so what we bring to it.”

From Maureen: “We are told in Genesis essentially to work our garden, in spite of the weeds which will we will have to constantly remove—a highly repetetive and discouraging but necessary task. For most of us, working is in itself a pleasure, as long as we can imagine the final product coming: the fruit of our labor. When our work flows, when we see the light in a studen’ts eye, when a sick person recovers, we feel content and everything seems right with the world. When we hit snags, peope are unresponsive or deliberately obstructive, schedules stress or patients worsen, the weeds are winning, and work chokes our spirits.”

What about you? What are your thoughts on your work being part of a bigger story? On your work being partly for the Charlies of our world? 

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/disability-rehabilitation-wheelchair-224130/

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On Work – What it Means, Why it Matters


“We live within two worlds, the covenantal cosmos of God and the pluralizing, secularizing, globalizing world of the 21st-century. How do we hold them together with any kind of coherence? All of us live within both worlds; we are called to live between these worlds. And in that there is a tension for all of us. Sometimes it seems that we are stretched beyond what we can bear– and sometimes, sometimes we find ways to hold onto our integrity and still live, with faith and hope and love?” from Dr. Steve Garber at Commencement Address – Covenant Seminary St. Louis

It’s Monday and though I want to be a world changer, I find myself once again in a place where I have to fight to keep my spirit alive, where I have to continually remind myself that there is more to life than this. When a war in Gaza is raging and Syria is put on the back burner I struggle to find lasting value where I sit, a window to my back that faces a grim city parking lot. I am cocooned in this space, while a bigger world is in pain. But I’m not growing into a butterfly in this cocoon – I’m smothering.

If you have followed Communicating Across Boundaries for a while this will not surprise you. It’s no secret that I find Mondays difficult. If you track my Monday posts, as one reader did, you see this struggle emerge through my writing. A “bench to bedside” struggle to translate my Sunday rest into my Monday work. What does it mean to live in my world as a person of faith? What does, or should work mean in this context?

Others have written well about a ‘theology of work.’ and I’m wrestling with this myself. What does it mean to have a theology of work? What does it mean to covenant with God around work? How can I see my work, but also the work of others as valuable, no matter what it is? Dorothy Sayers has written a 12-page essay called “Why Work?” I haven’t read all of it. Maybe it’s too long, maybe it’s too convicting. I don’t know but I haven’t read it. But I do know that when she wrote this essay she believed strongly that people were “dying because they don’t have the Biblical doctrine of work.” Tim Keller paraphrases Dorothy Sayers in a sermon on work by saying “Work is the gracious expression of creative energy in the service of others.”

In the movie Chariots of Fire Eric Liddell is challenged by his sister to stop running, to pursue a higher goal, better things. Eric on the other hand believes that he’s been given a gift and that to not use this gift would dishonor God.

In a response made famous through this Oscar-winning movie, Eric looks at his sister Jenny and says“I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” 

I envy this response and I struggle as I think about this. Do I feel God’s pleasure when I work? Because I am struggling with this today I plan to focus on it in the next couple days in my writing. But for now – I want to ask you: What is work to you? Is it something you do so the rest of your life can happen? Do you have a vocation or is work drudgery? Do you count the seconds until the weekend or do you make the seconds at your job count? None of this is to cause guilt – I really want a discussion here because I struggle with this. Do you believe that work should be “the gracious expression of creative energy in service of others?” 

Do you, like Eric Liddell, feel “God’s pleasure” when you work? 

I look forward to today’s conversation!

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/office-keyboard-job-work-381228/

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How Do I Live out Sunday Rest in my Monday Chaos?

With the sweet taste of communion bread still on my tongue I curse Monday morning. How can this be? How can I so quickly forget Sunday’s rest and grace as I step into the day after?

There is always a Monday after. It might not be the literal day, but there is always a Monday after. Whether it be a big event, a transformative experience, a high from a retreat – reality comes after with its sharp teeth and caustic tongue.

What use is Sunday if it doesn’t translate to Monday morning? 

If my calling ignores Mondays then it is of little use. If the clarity of Sunday cannot be applied to the muddy waters of Monday then how can I live effectively?

In a book called Finding Calcutta, the author Mary Poplin, takes a journey to Calcutta to work with Mother Theresa for two months. Through service she discovers a Christianity that she had never experienced before and her heart is changed. But her struggle comes with finding her own Calcutta once she is back in the United States. How can this experience be translated into her work? Her life? She is at a university, not in the slums; surrounded by grey cells and academics, not by nuns; committed to students and learning, not the poor and starving. Yet she was called to apply the same principles to her work that Mother Theresa applied in her calling by God to the poor. Mary was called to translate her Sunday moments into her Monday work.

Memorial plaque dedicated to Mother Teresa by ...

“Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are. . . . You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see.” –Mother Teresa

I don’t know much today – but I know I am called to translate Sunday into Monday – I am called to remember the sweet taste of communion bread, the body and the blood, as I move forward into the work of today. I am called to seek God in the details, to understand that nothing is beyond the redemptive work of God, to ‘find the sick, suffering, and lonely’ hidden behind grey government cubicles, to live out Sunday in this Monday.

How do you live out Sunday rest in your Monday chaos?

Happily Non-essential!

Hurricane Sandy has taken the news captive. Judging by the amount of attention and panic this hurricane has caused I’m waiting for it to be called either a right or a left wing conspiracy, designed specifically to take the focus away from the looming election onto the weather.

This storm has again reminded me that Americans know more about the weather than they do their neighbors. It’s a sad commentary as it is weather crises that often bring neighbors together.

As for me – while the hurricane is raging blowing leaves outside, I am happily sipping a homemade pumpkin latte on my couch and waiting for pumpkin, cranberry scones to finish baking. I am not in my usual Monday morning cubicle going through emails and arranging and rearranging my week.

I got the text saying I would not have work yesterday afternoon. “Did you hear the Governor called a State of Emergency? All non-essential workers are to stay home” I knew immediately that it meant me! I’m not essential.

In a world that fights to be known, to be valued, to be essential, I get to be non!

I’ve never been so happy to be non-essential. Because of a storm, I am non-essential.

It struck me as ironic. It is a human trait to want to be known, needed, useful. We seek out affirmation in a myriad of ways. Yet on a Monday morning in the middle of a rushed world, to be called non-essential was a gift.

Being non-essential means I get to bake scones and write blogs; make soup and read; talk to my mom and catch up with my kids. Being non-essential means I can do the things that are so much more gratifying and long-term important than what I do on a regular schedule.

Being non-essential means I get to leave the necessary and catch up with the important — the stuff that lasts.

For if I’m honest what I do in my job will probably not last to the next decade, let alone the next century. But all this other stuff? That’s what really feels important to me.

I’ve never felt more essential then when deemed non…..

How about you? Have you had a time when you’ve been able to leave the necessary and focus on the important? Would love to hear through the comments.

Control+Alt+Delete and God Loveth Adverbs

I sit down at my desk and my fingers automatically reach for the keyboard. I know the keys by heart. In less than a second a screen comes to life. Control+Alt+Delete has done it again. Those three keys have started my day.

It’s my first task and today it gets me. Today I feel I will suffocate in the mundane.The dishes that pile up; clean, full of food, empty, dirty. The laundry that was just done the other day; now dirty and beginning to smell. The emails that seem so trivial; check on this,analyze that, don’t forget the other. The mundane crowds my world.

And I who long to do the sacred, to reflect the heavenly, feel madness in the mundane. I feel grumpy and irreverent. On my short commute I called two people idiots (under my breath, but idiots all the same). I gave someone the Boston stink eye“She gave it to me first!” I silently rationalized. I chose a different way to walk to work, just because I saw a mundane someone I knew and didn’t want a mundane conversation; a “Hi how are you doesn’t Monday suck?” conversation.

The dictionary confirms that I am caught in the mundane. The “Relating to, characteristic of, or concerned with commonplaces; ordinary.” 

Can I have faith that the mundane matters? 

Faith that the mundane matters in this building made of concrete, steel and glass? Faith that control+alt+delete is more than turning on my computer; that the mere act is faithful? That getting up and showering, moving forward when I don’t want to can somehow be turned around, redeemed?

Truth is most of life is lived in the ordinary. I have heard that the Puritans had a saying “God Loveth Adverbs”. In a chapter title by the same name, Philip Yancey in his book Rumors, explores the meaning of this saying. He says it implies “that God cares more about the spirit in which we live than the concrete results”  He goes on to say:

“whether cleaning house or preaching sermons, shoeing horses or translating the Bible….any human activity may constitute an offering to God.”

It is a profound chapter and I’m reminded of it this morning. If God loveth adverbs, then surely control+alt+delete is not out of the bounds of his redemptive power. All these tasks are part of the whole.

Through control+alt+delete I am connected to a breast cancer survivor who is passionate about serving her community by bringing awareness of the disease and availability of early screening; through control+alt+delete I learn of a colleague who isn’t well; through control+alt+delete I am connected to the world both inside and beyond my building, a world that is loved so deeply by God.

And how much of this is God molding me daily to show His character even in the mundane? To learn that the person I just called an idiot is a man, made in the image of God; to understand more of what can come about through ordinary conversations with the woman I avoided.

Surely if God loveth the adverb than he loveth control+alt+delete. As the screen flickers, as if nodding an inanimate head in agreement, I sigh a silent prayer – that the God who delights in showing how the ordinary can connect to the extraordinary will delight in redeeming my Monday mundane. 

The Lunch Table: Where Food,People & Opinion Meet Google

My physical place of work has few redeeming qualities. It is an institutional building much in need of repair. Cubicles line the walls in Soviet style rigidity, indistinguishable apart from the occasional family photo or obsession with stuffed beanie babies that carries over from home into the work place.

The faces of those who work in the building often reflect the atmosphere of the physical space. Many seem to be biding their time until they are eligible for a state pension, while some purchase lottery tickets with one hope in millions of seeing their fortunes change. The lay offs of recent weeks add to the overall morale and the air often feels heavy with uncertainty and frustration.

There is one exception and it is one of the reasons why I have enjoyed my job immensely. We call it the Lunch Table. Around 12:15 daily, at a small round table designed for meetings of four or five, anywhere from seven to nine of us gather. Everyone brings their lunch, sometimes purchased from the plethora of eating establishments in the area, but often brought from home, and we talk. It is food, people and opinion meeting together,  forgetting about time as we delve into subjects that are usually so filled with politically correct verbiage that you never get to the heart of what people think or feel. Not so at the lunch table. Our talk goes from politics to religion to front page news to personal events. Few subjects are off-limits.

Our ideologies along with our political alliances are vastly different. Our religious beliefs differ just as profoundly and our personalities could not be more divergent but all that is put aside at the lively and energetic connection I call “The Lunch Table.”

We talk politics “Will Mitt Romney have a chance in the 2012 election” We talk religion “Why go to church?” We talk business and we talk scandal “I’m telling you, all this unfaithfulness and scandal is a result of Viagra!” claims one person emphatically. We talk family, we talk faith, and we question.

Almost daily we go to Google to aid us in both big and little questions. “How do we use the word ad hominem correctly”. “Are green, yellow, and red peppers all from the same plant?” (they are) “Where is the country of Zanzibar?” and the conversations go on. Each of us brings passions and ideas based on our backgrounds and life experience.  Our passions and dislikes can rarely be hidden and there are some things we would defend with every ounce of our bodies, but we still abide by the important rule of listening as well as talking.

Each person has a unique spot at the lunch table. There’s Rick, a data guy whose mind I would like to travel through on a Magic School Bus with Ms. Frizzle. There’s Gail – pure class and Talbots, she is well-read and has a variety of interests. Gail is the one who makes sure everyone knows they are welcome to this informal gathering. There’s Heather who defended her thesis last year and now has the hard-earned initials of PhD after her name. Beautiful with a wacky sense of humor, she knows the best places in Boston for Old Man Drinks and High Tea. There’s Anita, who is our rock and stability, doing it all while giving us healthy doses of chocolate. There’s Liz – mom of toddler twins and a 5 year-old, who is always thinking and questioning and could subsist on ham, cheese, and chocolate. There’s Mary Lou, fearless leader and entrepreneur par excellence, who has had vision to make sure amazing programs are created and sustained. There are others who come and go, some consultants, some employees who hear the laughter and wander in from other parts of the building.

The mantra is an unspoken commitment to healthy dialogue and a lot of laughter. It is a perfect recipe for opinionated people to survive and thrive.

As I write this, I am acutely aware that our lunch table is about to face deep losses. Gail is retiring after significant state service. Mary Lou is leaving for an excellent opportunity elsewhere and Liz has been moved to a different department through restructuring. It’s like good friends leaving for a distant state or country and there is a sadness that I feel as I think about the discussions and laughter that have defined the lunch table. Discussions that would not have been as rich without the difference in people and opinion.

As we move forward my hope is that the spirit of this table will live on and that food, people and opinion can continue to meet Google.

The World According to the Pink Slip

My place of employment has just been hit with a tornado of sorts, leaving behind a new world that is governed by the “pink slip”.

There is little decor in this building other than the occasional employee that goes overboard to create a “home-like” atmosphere of a cubicle that will always be ugly, beanie babies and photos of children, grandchildren and dogs all assembled together without symmetry. The atmosphere fits the decor and now resembles a morgue as people walk with shoulders slumped, not making eye contact, lost in a world of uncertainty. The only sounds are whispers heard behind file cabinets and cubicles as employees exchange information on who is losing their jobs and what that means for the rest of us.  Tempers are short and small talk is non-existent in our world, dictated only by pink slips and pink slip repercussions.

Pink slips – a term that has been about since the early 1900’s and they used to, quite literally, be pink. Arriving unexpectedly with the cash from final wages they announced to the unlucky employee that they were done. Terminated. Fired. Though news of termination is no longer on pink paper, the metaphor remains and people across my agency are living in the world according to the pink slip.  It’s a bleak world for it exposes a societal weakness in recognizing people, not for who they are, but for what they do. Our identity has become significantly wrapped up in what we do so pink slips, illness, change in a child’s needs – anything at all that disrupts employment also disrupts identity. If I receive a pink slip I will no longer be able to claim an identity.

When you introduce yourself in Pakistan or Egypt you rarely introduce yourself by what you do, rather who you are or whose you are – meaning who are your grandparents, parents and other members in your community. While living in Arizona and working with Navajo and Hopi tribes I found that Native Americans introduced themselves through their tribe and mesa. In the West we are introduced by what we do. You cannot escape a social gathering without being asked what you do and where you work. Who you are is far less critical to the conversation.

I’m not sure when our society adopted this as a cultural value and I will not rail on the “good old days” because “good old days” are never as good as they are assumed to be and our current reality is not as terrible as it is made out to be. But I will say that I wish to not live my life according to the character that has been carved for me in the temporary world of employment. There is a bigger picture that creates a more purposeful place for me as a person than my employment will ever be able to offer. While I recognize and am grateful for work as a gift, I reject the idea of work being an identity.

As I ponder this while walking through the halls of this world, I realize I may quickly have to put my post  into action as none of us are immune from being affected by the world of pink slips – it’s a reality.

But I still write these words so I will remember that who I am is far bigger than what I do.