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Worship and work must be one

Review of Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy by Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace

That was the chorus of my conversion. When I began my life of following Jesus in 1969 we sang that hymn over and over again. The piety rang (mostly) true to me. There was indeed something about the Jesus who I had given my life to that made the things of earth grow strangely dim. Certainly the allure of a life of increasing affluence working within the systems of capitalism had lost its appeal to me. You see, this song gave voice to a piety that had a profound vocational significance in my life. And yet the song never quite sat well with me. You see, my conversion to the way of Jesus was a profoundly eye-opening experience. Rather than the things of the earth growing strangely dim, I was more inclined to sing that “the things of earth grow crystal clear/in the light of his glory and grace.” Clarity in life. The gospel as a light that illumines life. That was my conversion experience. And the earliest spiritual crisis on my discipleship path was that I found the worship practices of the church to be more about dimming the world, rather than the shedding of light on all of life. When it came to work life, there seemed to be a chasm between the sanctuary and the marketplace. What you did during the week seemed totally disconnected from worship on Sunday, unless you could tell stories of witnessing to your colleagues at work. Not surprisingly, ten years later I was singing a different song. Co-leading a summer program for university students focusing on faith and work, we chose Fred Kahn’s wonderful hymn “Worship the Lord” as our theme song.

Called to be partners with God in creation
Honouring Christ as the Lord of the nation
We must be ready for risk and for sacrifice
Worship and work must be one

Helping our students to shape a Christian worldview in which work is a priestly calling was at the heart of our program. But, beyond that song, I’m not so sure how unified work and worship was for those students then, or throughout their lives over the intervening four decades. Yes, we’ve seen a growing library of books addressing Christian faith in relation to a wide array of occupations and disciplines, all valiantly trying to help shape a “Christian perspective” for our work lives, but what happens on a Sunday morning in Christian worship remains as disconnected to everyday work life as it ever was. This is the burden of Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson’s new book, Work and Worship: Reconnecting our Labor and Liturgy. In the face of the vocational vacuousness of an institutional worship that is hyper-spiritualized, privatized and often saccharine sweet, Kaemingk and Willson offer a vision and practices that can profoundly reshape the liturgies of our lives so that worship and work could be truly one. There are all kinds of debates going on in this book, but we get to the crux of the matter when the authors are commenting on Amos’s critique of sanctuary worship that legitimates unjust work practices in the market place. “Work without integrity leads to worship without integrity,” they write. It is not simply a matter of worship needing to shape our work lives, but that it goes the other way as well. Our work lives shape our worship.


Then the authors offer this profound observation: “Here is the fundamental mistake of liturgical fundamentalists: while they can see the formative liturgical power of the sanctuary, they can’t see the formative liturgical power of the marketplace, nor can they recognize the ways in which marketplace liturgies undermine the formative power of the sanctuary.” Human life is shaped by the practiced rituals of liturgy. All of human life. Following on the insights of James K.A. Smith, Kaemingk and Willson recognize that rituals are not limited to explicitly Christian worship. All of life is shaped by ritual, and there are ritualized practices of the marketplace that are deeply formative of who we are, shaping our character, hopes and longings. If you spend five days a week – all day – in marketplace activities that engender a certain kind of bottom line competitiveness and anxious acquisition, then one hour on a Sunday morning engaging in Christian liturgy simply can’t compete.

With profound biblical depth – and I very much appreciate the long biblical citations throughout the book – Kaemingk and Willson demonstrate over and over again how worship and work are always integral – for good or ill – throughout the biblical witness and the traditions of the early church. Delightfully rich exposition of the Pentateuch, psalms and prophets demonstrate how the scriptures repeatedly address the relation of the holiness of worship and work and the inseparable connection between marketplace justice and worship worthy of our God.


There is a breadth of catholicity to this wonderful book. From a boy’s song of lament in the Philippines, to Korean and Singaporean hymns about Jesus as the worker’s Lord, to African American Catholic dancing offertories, to rural harvest hymns, contemporary hymnody from the incredibly creative Porter’s Gate Worship Project, to liturgies of lament, thanks and petitions for workers, together with blessings and benedictions directed to our work lives, Kaemingk and Willson lay out for us a feast of resources for transforming our worship lives in ways that just might bring healing and redirection to our work lives.


Let me give one example from the book. Imagine a Labour Day service which began with everyone processing to the Eucharist Table and laying down offerings that symbolize their work lives. A carpenter brings a hammer. An IT technician lays down a laptop. There is a shawl knitted by an elderly lady. Some children bring up their art work, or maybe their school work. Someone puts a poem on the table. A young parent brings up the diapers. Is that a fresh rump roast that the butcher just put on the communion table? How about those croissants from the local bakery? Or that pair of running shoes from the person in retail? A violin is brought forward, a circular saw, a bottle of wine, a coffee pot.

All symbols of the daily lives of the community. All offered in worship. All brought forward for blessing. With these concrete symbols of daily life before the community, the work lives of everyone in the room is raised up before the Lord, and the community is commissioned anew to be a holy priesthood in every walk of life – from the baby’s nursery to the nursing home, from school to sanctuary, from factory floor to financial institutions, from the construction site to the conservatory.

Work and Worship: Reconnecting our Labor and Worship is a wonderfully written, deeply engaging, creatively rich and profoundly hopeful book. It would be a great choice for a book club or a study group. If taken seriously, this book just might transform our lives in such a way that we could sing with integrity that “worship and work must be one.”

Attention readers!

We typically think of disruption as negative, but the past year has also given us the chance to try things differently. Has something good come out of the pandemic for you? Send your COVID disruption story to ac.reiruocnaitsirhc@rotide by April 30 and your name will be entered into a draw to win a copy of Work and Worship: Reconnecting our Labor and Liturgy!


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