Being a Christian at Work
A week ago Michelle and I were in Charlottesville, Virginia, about two hours south of Washington. We had met there as students, and it was her 25th Law School reunion. The weather was beautiful, and we caught up with friends and fellow classmates who we hadn’t seen in decades. It was relaxed and informal, and other than the usual swapping of notes on the rigours of having both teenage children and elderly parents at the same time, very light-hearted. At the most informal of these events, the classic lunchtime barbecue by the softball pitch, an old friend who I hadn’t seen in years came by, sat down and, with no preliminaries, said: “So, how can you square being a priest with being a tax lawyer?” And that, as they say, in capital letters, is THE QUESTION.
I won’t tell you that the sky darkened, or that the barbecue turned sour in my mouth. It didn’t. Partly because I’m used to getting that question. But more than that, because it’s a fair one – because what the question really comes down to is this: can we as Christians live a “good life” (in inverted commas) in an imperfect world? It’s a big question to with no easy answers. To relieve the suspense, I’ll say that at the end of trying to work it through, my answer is always “yes”. Yes, we can lead an authentically Christian life in an imperfect world, including in an ambiguous workplace. But getting to that point is not always straightforward.
So to help us think through this, I am going to ask you four questions. First, is it all right if you’re a bad person at work, so long as you’re a good person on a Sunday morning? Second, does God really care about the workplace anyway? Third, even if he does, is there a role for you in that? And, fourth, even if you believe today that work is important, that God cares, and that you have role, how do you make sure you still believe it tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that?
So to that first question – the answer has to be an emphatic no. You can’t cleanse one part of your life by being good in another. Both theologically, and practically, it’s the wrong answer. Theologically, we cannot compartmentalise our lives. We are called upon to live a single, integrated life. I must be a priest, more or less, wherever I am. But I must also bring my knowledge and experience of work into the church. One life lived well; not good in one part, and bad in another, and just scraping through overall on an aggregate passing grade. That’s not what God wants us to do, or what Jesus tells us to do. And, practically, it’s important, too, for our physical and mental well-being that we’re aware of that. If we compartmentalise, keeping what we’re less proud of in one box, and other areas that we feel better about in another, then that comes at a cost. At a cost of living lives which don’t fully compute, which don’t quite add up, which leave us feeling smaller than we know we should be. It’s tough not to compartmentalise, don’t get me wrong, but we only have one life – and God calls us to live it as a whole, not separate disconnected parts. One life which integrates and balances faith, work, home, family, and calls on us to be the best that we can be in each and all of them.
So the second question: is God really present in the workplace, does he really care about it? Or does he, as some think, actually have a rather sniffy attitude to work? Well, I think God does cares – and from the very beginning. Whether you read the opening chapters of Genesis as a literal roadmap of the process of creation, as an allegorical poem, or as something in between, it speaks a powerful truth. We live in a created world. At the beginning was a God who works, who creates, and who loves what he has created. “And God saw that it was good,” we are told. It’s repeated after each day of creation. “And God saw that it was good.” Now, time and again this basic truth about the worker God has to be rescued from the hands of the church which values the work of the mind over the work of hands; contemplation over activity. But Genesis reminds us that God created the whole world, not just buildings like this, or even just schools and hospitals; but offices, factories, supermarkets, too. We may have messed things up, there may be problems with capitalism, but that doesn’t alter the fact that God cared, and continues to care, about the role and place of work.
The third question is: even if work and the workplace are important to God do you have any role in that? Well, again, I believe the answer is yes. In Genesis 2, in the second creation story, we hear that God tells Adam, humanity, to be stewards of the earth, to till it and keep it. To help it bring forth its fruitfulness. And even if this is complicated by imperfection, by sin, by the fall, which now means that life becomes a struggle so that we only eat bread by the sweat of our brow, the godly potentiality remains. We are still called to be co-workers with God, now to help heal the wounded creation that he will perfect at the end of time. This work is partly physical (the things we make, or the services we provide), but also the opportunity to improve the lives of our fellow workers, and all of those with whom the business interacts. That is God’s on-going work in creation, in the workplace. We are not passive objects in that workplace; we are called to work with him there, to be his hands and feet on earth.
And so all of this leads to the last, and perhaps most difficult question. How, every single day, do you live your life as a Christian, holding the idea that your life has to be an integrated whole, not a series of compartmentalised boxes; holding the idea that work is important because God cares about it; and holding the idea that you have not just the opportunity, but the calling to be a co-worker with God? Because you have to recognise that the issue is not: will you make the right choice when the big decision to be good or bad comes along once a decade? And the issue is not: if only I accept these three things today then everything will be all right for ever. The issue is how do you live by these three, in the small decisions and the minor interactions that confront you every day – the things which day in, day out make you the person you are. And the answer is at once both simple and incredibly hard. It’s by remembering and living out those three things every day. It’s by constantly asking yourself: what am I doing? Why am I doing it? And where is God in this? Some of you will have heard me talk about Richard Rohr and his idea of “living on the edge of the inside”. In a business setting that’s about being part of the business, but close enough to the edge not to be blinded by total loyalty, or seduced by its power, or disfigured by its money. It’s about being respectful but questioning. It’s about candidly looking at yourself in the mirror every evening and saying “have I kidded myself today – and will I tomorrow?”
At the barbecue last weekend, I could have laughed, or joked, or looked offended to get around the question. But I didn’t, because the question is too important for me – and too important for you. It goes to heart of who I am, who you are. So, amidst the iced tea and burgers and crumpled paper plates, I tried to formulate an answer about how, in my imperfect way, in an ambiguous place, I tried as hard as I could to be one person who was both priest and tax lawyer. Someone fortunate enough to be, if only in the most minor way, the co-worker in the healing of creation that God calls, and wants me – and you – to be. Amen