Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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“Work is not redemptive – God’s work – but it is or it can be devoted.” Poet Donald Hall provides this important distinction in his essay, Life Work, a prose reflection on the nature of work and vocation published in 1993. When we believe our work will redeem us, we become slaves to it, anxious that we are not working long or hard or well enough. When we know that redemption is God’s work, then we can allow ourselves to be “absorbed” in our work – another of Hall’s terms – devoted but not burdened.
Sadly, work is most often associated with wages. We work to get money in order to live rather than working because it is an important part of living. Sometimes our need for money, whether real or imagined, makes us work so long and hard that we scarcely live. This is a tragedy, imposed on some by the injustices of our world, self-imposed on many others by skewed understandings of what confers worth or dignity. Equally tragic are those who are unable to find work, impoverished into want and anxiety and cut off from the opportunity to engage in devoted work that is life work.
It is said that original sin is the one doctrine we can empirically document. The ancients certainly understood much about us in our 21st century enslavement to work – “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground. . . .” The distortion of work, its remaking from devotion to debasement, is intimately tied to our own hubris and greed, the desire to create our own redemption at the expense of others and ultimately of ourselves.
Devoted work is altogether different. It wells up from reservoirs of generosity rather than lurking in prison cells of need. It is about giving rather than getting, an offering rather than an obligation. It is paid equally by satisfaction as by a pay check. Its reward is in the doing. My parents did devoted work. My mother raised children, cared for her household, loved her husband, volunteered at the church and the Stamford Home for the Aged. She was paid for none of this. The women’s movement sometimes made her wonder whether her devoted work was really worthy. In the end, thankfully, she knew it was. My father was a research chemist, at the cutting edge of polymer chemistry as a young man and still curious as grew older. As they aged the nature of their work changed. They worked less; their work was harder to describe and was not demarked by hours or weekends. It sometimes involved grandchildren, sometimes neighbors living far from home, always each other. It was devoted work.
I turned sixty two last month, old enough to officially retire though Social Security and pension plans encourage otherwise. Friends are crossing that “great divide” and I find more and more conversations revolving around “what will you do?” I like my work, but am getting better at letting go of my illusions of its redemptive quality. I need it less and perhaps as a result enjoy it more. I think of it less as a paycheck or a status and more as a modest contribution. In fact, as I get older I am beginning to imagine my life work without any attachment to paycheck or status, but merely as pure devotion. I wish I had learned these lessons earlier in life. I enjoyed my work, often immensely, and have few regrets. But the dream of work as redemption does damage, leaving wreckage to self and others that heals only slowly.
At the Seminary I find myself surrounded by younger people these days preparing for their life work. I take great pleasure in their sense of anticipation, their eagerness to begin. Together we imagine a future I will not share. There is a part of me that wants to warn them. Work gives life. But it never redeems. Yet I doubt they will listen to me. I can only hope they don’t learn the wrong lessons from me, from my big job in the church and the grandiose title and the career that sounds so exciting in the telling of it. No, they will learn it themselves, sooner I hope that I learned it. Meanwhile, may the work that wells up from generous places give them life. May it absorb them in grace, the ironic God rewarding us with work rather than for work. Thus may they make a contribution, be it large or small, and know that it is enough.
John H. Thomas