Work can be worship: a request for stories

The new year always bring new laws, regulations and taxes to both provinces and states in Canada and the U.S. Employers and employees have already seen new minimum wage laws, smoking regulations and laws related to building accessibility in 2015. But even though labour and employment are regulated, there are still hundreds of decisions that business owners make according to their own values and worldviews.

I’ve been thinking about this in the aftermath of seeing Sting’s new play The Last Ship in New York last month. In the story, the employees build ships but the owner is closing the shipyard. The owner also has a scrap yard and he encourages the workers to join him there for much lower pay. Sting’s music and lyrics illuminate the pain and betrayal the employees feel and I have their phrases running through my head. “We build ships!” “The only life we’ve known is in the shipyard.” And “What have we got? We’ve got nawt else!”

About midway through the show a priest, an Irishman who guides the community even as they all drink too much and suffer together, advances a plan. He tells the workers that shipbuilding as they know it is ending, but they can still build that one last ship. He gives them church coffer money and tells them to break into the shipyard and build a ship out of their own pride in their work. He says that the work is their offering to God. In my head I heard, “The work can be worship!”

Work as worship probably doesn’t justify breaking and entering, but the priest’s suggestion reminded me of a phrase that was used all the time when I was a student at Dordt College: all of life is religion. I don’t hear that phrase very often anymore and I think it bears more consideration. All of life is religion; all of life can be worship.

Even in a broken world
Thirty years ago when I was interviewing with law firms for my first job out of law school I had one of those “real world” moments that still makes me laugh. One very expensive lunch demonstrated to me (and to the firm) that corporate law was not in my future.

At this lunch one of the associate lawyers fussed with his tie, brushed the crumbs off the table and said to me, “So, Julie, how would you sum up the relationship between an attorney and a corporate client?” I told him the truth. I said that I thought a lawyer had an obligation to the law, to doing justice in the world and to encouraging a client to think about the duty he or she had for the community. I also said I believed wealth should be shared. They didn’t hire me.

I had gone to law school straight from Dordt and I was certain that as a lawyer I was going to be able to figure out what it meant to worship God with the work that I did. But it was hard because there was so little practical guidance. I wish I had had advice from people like J.D. Greear.

Greear, a pastor in North Carolina, suggests that there are several things to keep in mind when we think about faith and work. Our work must be Creation-fulfilling. This means that we work to fulfill the purpose of the created world in all areas of life – law, medicine, business, administrative tasks, physical labour and so forth. We should pursue excellence and holiness, which means acting with the highest integrity even when this costs us a great deal. Our work must display God’s redemption of Creation, meaning that we use what we have to bless those in need and to heal brokenness. We stand against abuse of power and we face our own temptation toward greed. Finally, work should advance God’s mission in the world, sharing the Gospel.

This is a tall task and not everyone will agree with all elements, but the list gets us focused. So what does an employer owe to employees? What do employees owe an employer?

I’m in the process of writing a book about the way that employers and employees do their work through the eyes of faith even when it is terribly difficult. I’d be interested in any stories that CC readers have that share some perspective on the topic. Work can be worship, even in a broken world. If you have any examples of someone who exhibits their faith in their work, please send them to me at ude.htrowtihw@sknortsj.

  • Julia Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair at Whitworth University, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She lives in Spokane, Wash.

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