Why Work? Part 3: A Challenge and an Encouragement

[Part 3 of an adaptation of the “We are at Work” sermon at The District Church on May 17, 2015. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.]

In their book Every Great Endeavor, Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf list some common ways of understanding our Christian responsibility as those who work. You may know—or hold to—some of these:

  • to further social justice in the world;
  • to be personally honest and evangelize your colleagues;
  • just to do skillful, excellent work;
  • to create beauty;
  • to work from a Christian motivation to glorify God, seeking to engage and influence culture to that end;
  • to work with a grateful, joyful, gospel-changed heart through all the ups and downs;
  • to do whatever gives you the greatest joy and passion;
  • to make as much money as you can, so that you can be as generous as you can.

The thing is, while some people will pick one or two of these and argue that this is what we’re all supposed to do, none of these is the only—or even the main—way; in fact, they’re intended—like the four chapters of the gospel story—to go together. They’re supposed to fill out a larger picture and understanding of our work. We’re supposed to try to do all of these things, and this vision of work is supposed to be bigger than anything you can manage on your own, because it’s God’s vision and that means it’s a God-sized vision. Don’t let our individualistic culture or American Christianity’s over-emphasis on your personal relationship with God fool you; knowing God personally is absolutely vital but God intended us to be a part of his family, part of his body, part of his church, to need each other and each other’s contribution and each other’s support, to depend on and value the other parts of the body of Christ even as we play our part. Why church? Because that’s what God made us for. 

Let me close with a challenge and an encouragement. My challenge to you all is this—and it may seem frustratingly simple and vastly inadequate to answer all of your questions and issues about work, and that may be intentional: seek God. Wherever you are—whether you are in a job you (by-and-large) enjoy or in a job you don’t; whether you feel like you’re utilizing your gifts or not; whether you feel fulfilled or not, seek God. If your faith has nothing to do with your work, seek God. If you don’t even have a faith, seek God.

Seeking God may look like recognizing that you can’t do your job without God and allowing that to drive you deeper into dependence on God. Seeking God may look like realizing that God might be calling you out of the work you’re doing and into something new or it may look like staying where you are right now because God is trying to teach you patience and perseverance and graciousness toward others. Seeking God may be as seemingly-insignificant as just saying a prayer when you’re having a rough moment or a long day, or as seemingly-life-changing as switching careers even though you went to school or worked for many years to get where you are now. Seeking God is actually never insignificant.

Seeking God might mean getting your personal walk with God in order—in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the Apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Seeking God might mean getting more connected with the church community, who can support you in prayer, who can check in on you and see how you’re doing, who can take you out for a drink when you need it, who can remind you of the promises of God, or just be there, embodying the presence and love of God. “Seek God” is intended to be a simple challenge: simple in order that it might be applicable to all people in all situations and a challenge because it requires you to make an effort.

And here’s the encouragement—again, it may seem frustratingly simple and vastly inadequate to bring you much comfort, but again, that may be intentional: you’re not alone. This is where the church is unique—we are the body of Christ, we are dedicated to the work of God, and we are indwelled by the Most High. You’re not alone because God is with you. One of Jesus’ names was Emmanuel—it means “God with us.” I believe God says to us the same thing he said to Joshua in the Old Testament:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

God sent his Son to walk among us and he sent his Spirit to live within us. God is with you—and actually that’s why it’s important to seek God, because in seeking God, you may realize that God is with you far more than you’ve ever been aware.

You’re also not alone because we are with you. We the church, we the body of Christ, we the children of God, we your brothers and sisters in the Lord. Throughout the church, there are others who could listen to your story, to your struggles, to your joys, and say, “Me too.” We stand with one another, we laugh with one another, we pray with one another, we care for one another, we share one another’s burdens, we work with one another and are with one another as we work (and as we look for work). And all for the glory of God.

Why Work? Part 2: The Story

[Part 2 of an adaptation of the “We are at Work” sermon at The District Church on May 17, 2015. Read Part 1 here.]

The story I want to talk about is one you may have heard before—it’s the story of God; it’s the gospel. This story—this gospel—as we understand it here at The District Church has four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Renewal—and we need to understand all of them to understand the fullness of the story of God. Each chapter has something to say to our understanding of God, of life, of faith, of sin and evil, of suffering, of Jesus; and each chapter also has something to say to our understanding of work.

CreationLet’s start with Creation, where we learn this: we were made to work. You may not want that to be true, but there’s a reason why we feel more fulfilled when we’re working—and I don’t just mean the hours you spend at your job; I mean whatever you do with your time that fulfills the purpose for which God made you. We were made to work, and that’s why those of us who are unemployed and those of us who are underemployed—we feel the pain, the lack, the longing, the feeling of something missing, the feeling that we’re not doing everything we were created to do. In Genesis 1:26, God said:

Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

The Hebrew word for “rule” here is radah; it can also be translated “have dominion.” It’s not an idle word, where you rule by being handed a title and sitting passively on a throne. It’s an active word; it requires effort. When God gives human beings their commission in Genesis 1:28, he uses the same word: “Rule.”

See, in the ancient world, kings and emperors used to construct statues of themselves in whatever region they ruled—statues in their image, in their likeness—as signs to whoever saw them that this king or that emperor was in charge. This is what it means when the Bible says we are made in God’s image, in God’s likeness. The purpose for which God created human beings was “so that they may rule,” so that we might be living testaments to the Maker and Ruler of all things.

Here’s another thing we learn from Creation. In Genesis 2:2-3, it says:

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

The word that’s used here for God’s work—melaka—is the same word that is used in Exodus 20:9, where God is laying out the Ten Commandments and he says to the people of Israel, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work (melaka).” The same word is used for the work that God does and the work that we do. We work because God works. We’re created in the image of God; we’re created in the image of the God who works. Therefore, we’re also created to work; therefore, when we work, we show what God is like.

Pastor and author Tim Keller wrote a great book about faith and work; it’s called Every Good Endeavor, and he writes, “Work has dignity because it is something that God does and because we do it in God’s place, as his representatives.”[1] And the great English novelist Dorothy Sayers wrote, in the 1940s:

[Work is] a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. [It is] not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.

We were made to work.

FallBut the second chapter of the gospel story is the Fall, when humanity chose to disobey God, to turn away from God, to distrust God’s word and his promises, and sin entered the world. In the Genesis account, Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God told them not to; but in our lives, we do that in our own ways—we act like we know it all, we choose to believe that we can do things on our own, we elevate ourselves to the place in our lives that only our Creator should be in. In Genesis 3:17-19, God says to Adam:

[Because you disobeyed me …]

Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are and to dust you will return.

Sin is why the world is broken. Sin is why our relationships are fractured. And sin is why work is a struggle. We were made to work but sin makes what was intended to be a joy and a fulfillment of all of who we were created to be a “painful toil.” Sin is why everyone—at some point or other, and some more frequently than others—experiences the sense that our work is fruitless and maybe even pointless, even if we’re doing a job we feel called to.

Folks work with and teach students who don’t always respond with gratitude or in educational systems that seem to magnify the bad things instead of amplifying the good things. Others work with patients who don’t always appreciate the treatment they’re getting or who may continue abusing their bodies or who may be coming from or going back into very broken families. Part of the reason for this is that sin doesn’t just affect individuals; it affects systems, it lingers over generations, it multiplies as time goes on—and so we have underserved communities, we have disparities in income and inequalities in educational opportunities, we have people working multiple jobs and still not keeping their heads above water while a few have enough resources to not work at all, we have a city—the capital city of our nation—where almost a third of the children (29,000 kids) live below the federal poverty threshold.[2]

None of us is exempt from the effects of sin and, this side of Christ’s return, what we will always experience in our work is that not all is as it should be; and even if you were to find the perfect job that perfectly utilized your gifts and you got to work with the most awesome people, you would still come up against the realities of sin. Sin is why work is a struggle.

RedemptionFortunately for us, sin is not the end. The third chapter is Redemption, which tells us that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to set the captives free, to break the chains of oppression, to defeat sin and death once and for all. Jesus was the most human of us all, and by that I mean he was—and is—the truest representation of God, the fullest embodiment of God-in-charge, the most authentic image-bearer of God, in the way he showed grace and love, in the way he called out injustice and oppression, in the way he stood up for those the world had tossed aside. He did it in the way that he lived, in the example he set; and he did it most decisively in the way that he died on a cross for our sins and was raised from the dead to give us new life.

See, the most significant way that Christ’s redemption impacts our work is that it restores our relationship with God—and therefore it reorders our relationship with our work. Because of the amazing grace of God, we no longer have to work our way back into his favor. We were made to work but sin made work and money and status and power and privilege idols for us, to be valued over God; and yet “through Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). Jesus came to bring redemption so that we might be restored to God, so that we might have hope and joy and peace, and so that our relationship with our work might be reordered and realigned the way it was supposed to be.

Oh, by the way, Jesus worked too. Scripture tells us that until he was about thirty years old, he worked as what was called a tekton, what’s normally translated as ‘carpenter.’ We also know that he was poor; and we know that when he first preached in Nazareth, the question that was asked was “Is not this the carpenter?”, which might be taken as, “Isn’t this just the carpenter?” See, the job Jesus did for most of his life didn’t seem to garner him much regard in the eyes of the world. Remember that, especially if and when you’re doing something that the world doesn’t seem to hold in great esteem. Jesus, our Teacher, our Master, our Lord, our Savior, our King, worked. And he sees you.

RenewalAnd so we come to the fourth chapter of the story: Renewal. Jesus coming to earth and winning us back for God wasn’t the end of the story either; no, God the Father and Jesus the Son sent the third person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit—to empower his church—that’s us—to continue the work they had been doing, to continue the mission they had begun, to play a part in this story. The Father worked, the Son worked, and the Spirit is at work in and through us as we live and work. And so renewal teaches us that we are recruited to work (again), to work with a reordered understanding of creation and of sin and of redemption and of our place in the whole story, and to partner with God in the work that he is doing through the church—remember, that’s us—setting the world right, setting our eyes on the vision of heaven coming to earth, of God’s kingdom and God’s government being fully established here on earth, and doing whatever it takes, doing whatever the Spirit asks us, to make that a reality. It is this broader calling that we are all entrusted with as followers of Christ; it is within this broader calling that we then figure out what our individual callings may be. If you spend all your life trying to figure out your own individual calling without responding to God’s broader call to the work of renewal, you’ll probably miss out on all of it; but if you spend all your life responding to God’s broader call to the work of renewal—wherever you find yourself—you’ll be fulfilling the purpose for which you were made, whether you find one thing to do for the rest of your life or not. It’s in working together in this grander work of renewal that we truly embody our identity individually as image bearers of God and corporately as the church, as the body of Christ.

Read Part 3 tomorrow.

[1] Keller, Every Good Endeavor, 49.

[2] http://www.nccp.org/profiles/DC_profile_7.html

Why Work? Part 1: The Problem

[Part 1 of an adaption of the “We are at Work” sermon at The District Church on May 17, 2015.]

A new report says that more than half of Americans are unhappy at their jobs. That’s a problem.

Another problem is that when we think about faith and work, I think there’s a lack of understanding and integration. All of us experience these things to a greater or lesser degree, for a variety of reasons: because we’re finite people and we don’t know what we need to know, because we’re fallen people and we don’t always do what we were made to do, because we inhabit a broken world and things are not as they should be.

The reason why this lack of understanding and integration is a problem is that work is probably where most of us spend most of our time. There are 168 hours in a week. If we spend 40, 60, 80 hours a week at work—and I’m not saying all of that is healthy, but that’s what we do—that’s anywhere from a quarter to a half of all of our hours, and as a proportion of the hours we’re awake, those figures only go up.

Work is probably where we spend most of our time, which means it’s the place where we have the most influence and opportunity as Christians—as follower of Christ who help others follow Christ.

And so here’s the problem: if we don’t allow God to work through us in the places where we work, the places where we spend most of our time, whether because of a lack of understanding or integration, we miss out on not only what God has for us in those places but also what God has for those around us in those places.

Some people experience a lack of understanding; they don’t understand what faith has to do with their work. Functionally, this can lead to two extremes: either feeling the need to mention Jesus in everything you do for fear that if you don’t, it doesn’t count as acceptable to God; or siloing your spirituality into a couple hours every Sunday—and then going into the week as if God wasn’t even real.

Maybe work—rather than God—is the center of your life; maybe work—rather than God—forms the core of your identity. But God says that who you are—and who you are becoming—is far more important than what you do. We’ve been pounding this point home over the last few months for the very reason that it’s the opposite of what you hear in our culture, so let me say it again: who you are—and who you are becoming—is far more important than what you do.

Then there’s the struggle of integration: we may know that if Jesus is the Lord of all of our life, he should be Lord in all of our life, including our work; but we may struggle with how to integrate our spirituality into our work or our work into our spirituality, maybe because we find ourselves in a job whose purpose we’re not quite sure of or we’re working for an organization or company or government that doesn’t explicitly have God at the center—or even in the picture.

Fifteen years ago, I started a law degree—partly because it seemed like a practical thing to do, and partly because—to be really honest and vulnerable with you—the 90s TV show Ally McBeal made the lawyer’s life seem really fun … yeah, that was part of my discernment process. At the time, I was also drifting from my faith, not really rejecting God but definitely not diving into anything God had for me. I didn’t really have the will or desire to bring faith into my life, let alone into what I would end up doing. And as I pursued my law degree, I realized that I didn’t want to work 80 hours a week for anything; see, I had no overarching framework or structure for my life, no understanding of the importance of God in my life nor really any sense of what God might be calling me to.

My problem was that I didn’t know the story of God.

Read Part 2 here.

What I learned from praying at the White House

Easter Prayer BreakfastI got the call on the morning of Maundy Thursday: Would you be interested in giving the closing prayer at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast?

Uh. Yes. Wow. Absolutely. I actually don’t even remember what my response was, but it was probably something like that.

My feeling upon hanging up the phone–and the underlying sense all through the emotion and significance and spiritual intensity of our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at The District Church (more on this later)–was, Who, me? I felt the same way walking into the White House with a bunch of leaders whose names and faces I’d seen before on social media or the news but never yet in person.

The other presenters that day were Rev. Amy Butler from Riverside Church in New York City, Sister Donna Markham of Catholic Charities USA, Fr. Anthony Messeh of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church, and Pastor Ann Lightner-Fuller of Mt. Calvary A.M.E. Church, and as we met and chatted in the Blue Room while we waited for the President and Vice-President to greet us before the breakfast, we shared this common feeling. Who were we to be doing this? At one point, Fr. Anthony said, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they made a mistake!”

Easter Prayer Breakfast table pic

Eight years ago, 25-year-old, grad-school-student, fanboy-and-campaigner-in-chief Justin would have been unreservedly and unabashedly over-the-moon about an opportunity like this, and–please don’t get me wrong–I was excited. (That may also be an understatement.) There were a lot of things I thought about saying to the President–“Big fan, sir!” or “We’re praying for you!” or “Come visit The District Church; we’re just a couple miles up the road!” or “How about that Championship game last night?” But all that came out was a “Great to meet you, Mr. President!” And then I had nothing.

President Obama at Easter Prayer BreakfastThe breakfast itself was a fun thing to be a part of too. From Vice-President Biden’s opening remarks to President Obama’s reflections–and jokes, the man’s got a great sense of humor!–to the song by Amy Grant (a childhood musical hero of mine) to the scriptures read from 1 Corinthians and Mark’s Gospel to the homily on having the courage to hope and keep moving forward, the event was a thoroughly Jesus-saturated. It felt like an extension of Easter Sunday–just as The District Church community had come together on Sunday as family to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus with joy and hope, this was the same kind of thing with an equally diverse family–from different traditions and backgrounds and ethnicities and political affiliations–only with people who were in the news a little more.

And I guess that’s what God has impressed upon my heart this weekend and through the prayer breakfast: we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. Before the breakfast, I met Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and we both commented on how even famous people need Jesus, how even nice suits and dresses can’t hide the things that we all have to deal with.

Every one of us has sin in our lives that separates us from God–addictions, hidden failings, anger problems; and every one of us needs the saving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to redeem and restore us.

Every one of us faces struggles that threaten to derail our faith–despair, doubt, disappointment; and every one of us needs to be reminded of the hope that we have in Christ in the midst of those trials.

Every one of us is a walking paradox, to whom we may say both, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return” (as we did seven weeks ago today on Ash Wednesday), and also, “You are a child of God, an image-bearer of the Most High, a friend of Jesus, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and the Almighty’s chosen vessel–together with his church–to bring restoration and renewal to a hurting world.”

Young or old, rich or poor, black, white, Hispanic, Asian or mixed, Republican, Democrat or independent, pastor or president–we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. 

I think that’s part of the wonder and the mystery of the gospel: none of us has reason to boast, and all of us have reason to rejoice. In the kingdom of God, degrees, titles, connections, and positions are not what define us; it is the grace of God alone. In the kingdom of God, all of us have cause to say both “Who me?” and also to joyfully and courageously step into the opportunities God places before us.

One last anecdote: I had to write a draft of the prayer last week so that the White House could get a copy and make sure I wasn’t praying anything way out there. And for the first half hour or so, I just couldn’t get anything out–I was worried about what to say and how to say it and what the President might think. I remember thinking, This is weird; I pray all the time!

And then God reminded me it wasn’t about the people I was praying in front of; it was about the One to whom I was praying. After that, the words came easy.

Here’s the video and text (below) of the prayer.

Heavenly Father, gracious God, Almighty Maker of heaven and earth,

We thank you for this morning, for the words that were shared, for the truths that we were reminded of, for the fellowship we enjoyed.

And thank you for that day, that first Easter Sunday, two thousand years ago. Thank you for the resurrection miracle—the event that changed the world, that changed history, that changed everything.

Thank you for the abundant love you demonstrated by going to the cross, a love that is stronger than the grave, a love that is more powerful than sin and death.

Thank you for the amazing grace you showed us, forgiving our sins, making us new, welcoming us back into right relationship with you.

Thank you for the mercies you shower anew upon us every morning, the breath and the life you give us to sing out and shout out and live out the good news, the gospel.

Thank you for President Obama, for his hospitality in having us here. We continue to pray strength and wisdom and protection for him and for his family and for his administration.

And as we go from here, to the people and to the places you have called us, to those you have called us to serve and to love, may we all be bold and courageous bearers of the good news of Easter, of the gospel of grace and life and joy and peace and justice and reconciliation and love through Jesus Christ—in everything we say and in everything we do. And may you accomplish in us and through us more than we could ever ask or imagine, for your glory and for the sake of your kingdom. 

We pray this all in Jesus’ name … amen.

Your invitation to Easter Weekend

In case you’re looking for a place to celebrate Easter in DC this weekend, know that there’s a standing offer to join us at The District Church.

Tomorrow, April 3rd, we’ll commemorate Good Friday:

  • in Columbia Heights at Next Step Public Charter School (3047 15th St NW) at 6pm and 7:30pm;
  • on the East Side together with The Table Church and Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church at Douglas (800 11th St NE) at 7pm.

And then on Easter Sunday, April 5th, we invite you to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection with us:

  • in Columbia Heights at CHEC (3101 16th St NW) at 9:30am and 11am;
  • on the East Side at Miner Elementary (601 15th St NE) at 10:30am.

Easter 2015