Upcoming Faith and Work Conferences

Here are three upcoming conferences on faith and work that I’d highly recommend attending if you’re able to make it:

The Gospel at Work BannerThe Gospel at Work

When: January 11-12

Where: Gaithersburg, MD; Covenant Life Church

How much: $79 for early registration (ends Jan 7), otherwise $99

Synopsis from the website: “The Gospel at Work conference was born out of a desire to help Christians think and live differently in the workplace.  It’s designed to help Christians think biblically and theologically about their work.  What is God’s purpose for my work?  How does the gospel change my work? How does applying the truths of the gospel help me manage differently?  How does a Christian strategize and plan their career?”

Keynote Speakers: Os Guinness, author and social critic; Mark Dever, Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church; Michael Lawrence, Senior Pastor, Hinson Baptist Church; Bob Doll, Former Chief Investment Officer, Blackrock; Eric Simmons, Lead Pastor, Redeemer Church

cgrva-logoCommon Good RVA

When: January 18-19

Where: Richmond, VA

How much: $55

Synopsis from the website: “A lot of Christians are confused about how the work they do Monday to Friday connects with who they are on Sundays. Yet the Bible views our work as central to our calling and a way that we can directly connect with the mission of God…Our city needs many more Christians who see their vocations as a way to advance the common good of Richmond. Together as lawyers, doctors, business leaders, electricians, artists, and stay-at-home parents, we will gather to explore what it means to see our everyday work as a meaningful part of our Christian calling.”

Keynote speakers: Andy Crouch, author and editor of Christianity Today; Dr. Amy Sherman, Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good

TGC13-BannerThe Gospel Coalition 2013 Post-Conference on Faith and Work

When: April 10, 1-6pm

Where: Orlando, RL; Rosen Shingle Creek

How Much: $235 (this includes the entire conference, from April 8-10)

Synopsis from the website: “Tim Keller and several other leaders in the church, marketplace, and broader culture will focus on a variety of issues related to the Christian faith and its role in our work and vocation.”

Keynote Speakers: Tim Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, author of Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work

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An Act of Creation

[The following post is an article I submitted to another blog. They rejected the article! How’s that for a way to start 2013? Perhaps my next post will be on overcoming failure. Well, I’d love to hear what you think anyway: the topic is the creativity of God.]

I was supposed to be networking. That’s what normal people do when surrounded by a city’s top leaders, as I was at a recent Q Ideas Conference at the Denver Performing Arts Center. But during the break between sessions, I found myself sipping coffee, standing alone amidst the buzzing conversation, and utterly transfixed by the artwork of Jake Weidmann.Lion - God the Father

Three paintings of a lion sat on easels. The first lion’s mane was ablaze, representing God the Father, a consuming fire (Deut. 4.24). The second lion’s mane was a barbed wire, an allusion to the suffering of God the Son. And the third lion’s mane was a river, the Living Water given by God the Spirit (Jn. 7:38). As I beheld Weidmann’s arresting creativity and Trinitarian imagination, I quietly thought to myself, We are at our best when our daily work reflects the creative work of God himself.”

Made in the Image of the Maker

When looking for a model for work, the best place to start is God’s own work. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Both the Bible and the creeds (“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”) begin with the work of creation. Genesis paints a picture of the Maker of supernovas, seashores and salamanders who spawns new life and new realities through creative, joyful work (Gen. 2:2-3; Ps. 104:24-26,31).  On the sixth day, God declared his creative work was very good – and the angels shouted for joy at what they saw (Gen. 1:31; Job. 38:7).

English playwright and author Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) said that when God made men and women in His image, all he had done until that point was create.  Sayers writes,

“Man is a maker, who makes things because he wants to, because he cannot fulfill his true nature if he is prevented from making things for the love of the job. He is made in the image of the Maker, and he himself must create or become something less than man.”

God made grass seeds, and giraffes, and those in His image make gorilla glue, graham crackers, and grandfather clocks. Work is not only something we do for money, but rather it is the first expression of our spiritual, mental and bodily faculties. At its best, work is a creative act.

The word “creativity” should be broadened past associations with bohemian artists or ad agency professionals. To create is to initiate an object or a project (a definition of the Hebrew word bara). Bringing new products, ideas Lion - God the Sonor organizations into existence is all creative work. For example, Jake Weidmann brought a trinity of lions into existence from a mere thought, which now shapes me, the beholder of his art. A landscaper conceives of a beautiful garden, plants and cultivates the roses, and sees the homeowners enjoy their color and aroma. An engineer designs a more efficient hood for a commercial stove top, and works with technicians to install his new creation. Dorothy Sayers’ masterful The Mind of the Maker argues that all satisfying human work is essentially Trinitarian in that it is creative (bringing something into existence) and follows a three-part process (idea, product, and effect, which mirrors Father, Son and Spirit).  She even wonders if uncreative activities and an uncreative outlook might be “doing violence to the very essence of our being.”

Many puzzle over how to best ground a theology of work. Should it begin with evangelism, ethics, or simply a desire to do a good job? Today several leading voices are looking to creativity to understand work. Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making grounds a theology of work in both our identity as sub-creators and cultivators of God’s world. Tim Keller’s new book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work spends no less than three chapters chewing on the creation narrative.  Marketing Guru Seth Godin believes the most exciting work is found in “art” – doing something unpredictable, brave, and un-chartered. Even the staunchly atheistic Ayn Rand saw the centrality of creativity to human work:

“Whether it’s a symphony of a coal mine, all work is an act of creating, and comes from the same source…the capacity to see, to connect and make what had not been seen, connected and made before.”

I work in an office. On some days, I find myself checking email every other hour, bouncing between websites, and meandering the halls of my school. I come home utterly exhausted, feeling like old Bilbo Baggins: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” Other days I plan my schedule, start and finish significant projects, and come home brimming over with energy for my kids. What is the difference the two days? Sustained, creative work.

Re-centering on God the Creator

Far too many churches see faith and work ministries as an optional add-on. But when viewed through the lens of the doctrine of God the Creator, integrating faith and work becomes central. We are reflections of the God who weaved together atom and galaxy, desert and DNA. Our impulse to create and work comes from bearing the image of the Maker. In a world where most work is seen merely as a means to money or leisure, the mandate to create human culture (Gen. 1:28) as a fulfillment of our very reason for being (Eph. 2:10) becomes ever more pressing. The need for joyful, satisfying work beats in the human heart. This is precisely why unemployment is so distressing. All of us, from the elderly to small children, are made to make. My four-year old daughter declares this truth when I pick her up from preschool: “Daddy, look what I painted for you today.”

A renewed commitment to teaching about God the Creator can also give deep hope to so many who despair over their jobs.  Again Sayers writes,

Far too many people in this country seem to go about only half alive. All their existence is an effort to escape from what they are doing. And the inevitable result of this is a boredom, a lack of purpose, a passivity which eats life away at the heart and a disillusionment which prompts men to ask what life is all about.

When people hate their work, or perceive it as a necessary drudgery that gets them to the weekend, they go about “half alive” and often fall into a trap of boredom and meaninglessness.   But the biblical story is founded in a Creator who works for sheer delight, and is making all things new. When Lion - God the Spiritthis narrative is applied to writing lesson plans or building clinics, a renewed motivation for culture making can bring about a deep happiness to even the most mundane task. It may even bring about the cultural renewal.

As I came out of my trance staring at Jake Weidmann’s three lions during a break at the Q Conference, I took a look outside the window. The rising sun lit up the Rocky Mountains in the distance, and sprinkled its warmth on the flock of cars filing into Denver. As I sat at my table and prepared for the next presenter, I quietly wondered what life would look like if we viewed work not as a job, but as an act of creation.

William Faulkner on Work

William Faulkner once wrote,

“You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day no make love for eight hours a day—all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.”

William FaulknerFaulkner gives two reasons here that illuminate the desperate need for more faith and work initiatives throughout North America. The first is a simple matter of time. Work is how we spend our lives. Eating, drinking, making love – one could add exercising, going to church, or watching football – all make up only a small fraction of our lives in comparison to work. If Christian discipleship doesn’t extend to our working lives, then it simply doesn’t touch the largest part of human life.

The second reason is more grave: work is the reason why we are so “miserable and unhappy.” I’m reminded of a quote by Dorothy Sayers on work:

“Far too many people in this country seem to go about only half alive. All their existence is an effort to escape from what they are doing. And the inevitable result of this is a boredom, a lack of purpose, a passivity which eats life away at the heart and a disillusionment which prompts men to ask what life is all about.”

Although I can’t substantiate this claim with research, I think I’m on safe ground saying that most people see work as something to escape from as soon as possible. For most, their careers or jobs are not their vocations, but simply a means to end, whether that end be money, leisure time, or another job. This desire to escape leads to “boredom, a lack of purpose, and a passivity which eats life away at the heart” – the core ingredients in Faulkner’s recipe for misery and unhappiness.

So the question is this: can we really claim to be shaping believers for Christian maturity if we never mention their work? Can we really claim to be equipping the saints for mission with an array of elaborate ministries if we ignore both where people spend the majority of their days as well as one of the great causes of frustration and unhappiness in human life?

Of course, I think Faulkner was missing a key element of work in his diagnosis, namely, hope. We are hope-shaped creatures, and the Christian faith gives us a supreme hope because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Discussion question: Do you think Faulkner is right, that most people’s jobs are a source of unhappiness? Also, do you know of intentional efforts in your neighborhood that seek to integrate faith and work in practical ways? If so, what are they? What has been helpful?

The Secret to Satisfying Work

Two weeks ago I had coffee with Dr. Gary VanderArk. Brimming with energy and curiosity at nearly 80 years old, he revealed to me the secret of satisfying work.

Dr. Gary VanderArk (left) won the 2012 CEBA Bill Daniels Business Ethics Award.

Dr. Gary VanderArk (left) won the 2012 CEBA Bill Daniels Business Ethics Award.

One person described Dr. VanderArk as “a giant of a man.” He was right. For over 40 years, Dr. VanderArk has been a neurosurgeon, and he still serves as a clinical professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Colorado. Yet his stature in the Colorado health community has grown exponentially because of his tireless efforts on behalf of the medically underserved.

Dr. VanderArk created Doctor’s Care, a system of clinics staffed by doctors donating their time and services to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. The program serves over 1,500/year and has contributed more than $30 million in free care. In 1997 he also started the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved, an organization with the mission of serving patients without health insurance. In addition, he founded the Colorado Neurological Institute (CNI) and almost singlehandedly saved CU Medical School’s Residency in Neurosurgery Program. He also serves on more than a dozen nonprofit boards.

As I sat down for coffee with the slender giant, I was initially a bit intimidated. As someone interested in the topic of faith and work, what do you say to somebody who is the embodiment of integrating faith and work, and has been doing it with unprecedented excellence longer than I’ve been alive?

But as we began to chat at the Denver Seminary (another organization on which he serves on the board) student lounge, my fears were quickly put to rest. He shared with me the story of how he became interested in neuroscience as a child (the movie Magnificent Obsession gave him a desire to be a doctor) and how a mentor deeply influenced his early career.

After chatting like old friends for a half hour (Who am I that he would even meet with me?), I asked him a question that was burning in the back of my mind. “When you were founding Doctor’s Care, how did you convince dozens of doctors to give hundreds of volunteer hours to those without insurance?” To ask busy physicians to give so much seemed like an impossible feat.

He pondered the question for a moment, and responded with a quote from Jesus. “If we really believe, as Jesus said, ‘It is better to give than to receive,’ then that means when we give to others we receive greater blessing than when we receive. So when I ask doctors to give their time or serve on a board, I know that I’m asking for something that will bring them joy. I ask boldly because I know that my asking will bring them satisfaction and happiness when they give to others.”

Dr. Gary VanderArk reversed a paradigm in my mind. When you ask somebody for a donation, either of time, skill, or money, you are “costing” them whatever they ask. Or so I thought. In Dr. VanderArk’s mind, when you ask, you are giving them a great reward, the satisfying joy of giving to another.  Taking Jesus’ words seriously led to a boldness to ask others to serve those in need.

Today Dr. VanderArk is “retired,” yet he still teaches 7 classes of medical students at CU Medical School, and serves on more boards than can be counted. The secret to his brimming energy and fruitful career, is simple: give. Giving, and asking others to give, is how he multiplies his joy – and how he became a “giant of a man” in the state of Colorado.

Discussion question: What opportunities do you see to serve others in your field? Who are you asking to join you?

 

Choosing to do meaningful work

We have to consciously choose to use our freedom well.  I’m aware of few authors who put this more pungently than Annie Dillard.

Meaningful WorkIn her book The Writing Life she reflects on her work as a writer.

“Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence…It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself.”

The freedom to create something new is the heart of exhilarating work, a fact, I would think, not lost on the Creator himself. To dream up a project, bring it to reality, and see its affect on others – this is meaningful work.

Yet there is an ugly opposite to this creative work as well. Dillard writes,

“The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever…Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality.”

This quote struck me like a dull club. When I read this I thought about my relationship to email and to web surfing. There is no lack of triviality in our culture, and in our work there are mounds of tasks we could simply leave undone, and nobody would care.

I’m reminded of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. He advises executives to not make to-do lists, but instead not-to-do lists. Hacking away at the trivial will do more to improve effectiveness than adding to the stack of the important.

I’m also reminded of Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission. At a Willow Creek Leadership Summit Conference several years ago, he pleaded with pastors to call out to God to, “save us from all that is petty.” Where is this plea today, in a world afloat with digital triviality?

One of the great verses used in faith and work circles is in the prayer of Moses: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands – O establish the work of our hands!” (Ps. 90:17).

The context of the verse, however, is an extended reflection on the fleeting nature of human life. “Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered,” (Ps. 90:6-7). In the scope of eternity, the prayer to “establish the work of our hands” is built upon a knowledge of the shocking brevity of life.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” So here’s the question: What makes work worth doing?

Discussion question: Do you intentionally choose which tasks you will and won’t do on any given day? What criteria do you use to make this decision?  How would you define “work worth doing?”

Fezziwig and the Joy of Work

There exists a kind of lightness and unhindered joy that can fill a company and its employees with deep and instantaneous happiness.

Mr. Fezziwig's Ball - Hand colored etching by John Leech (1843)

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball – Hand colored etching by John Leech (1843)

In Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, Mr Fezziwig is a perfect example of this lightness and joy. When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes old Scrooge to see Fezziwig’s ball, even his own heart is kindled with warmth.

Dickens describes the joy of Fezziwig’s house on Christmas Eve. The warehouse was swept and cleared, a fire lit the room, and a fiddler played his song. Mr Fezziwig’s daughters, the housemaid, the baker, the milkman and the cook came to the ball. In came more than twenty couples, dancing, eating a roast, and wishing each other a Merry Christmas. Looking on, Scrooge felt younger, unlike the miser he had become.

And the Ghost comments to Scrooge:

“He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four, perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not latter self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ‘em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

Fezziwig’s joy for life was contagious, and the influence he had over his household was contagious. With a simple smile or glance, he could “render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome.”

Faith at work may mean many things to many people. But this “slight and insignificant” spirit of delight can spread to co-workers like light glimmering off the face of dancers on Christmas eve. It doesn’t cost anything, but joy is a subtle quality that draws the distinction between “just a job” and a vocation.

Discussion question: This Christmas, how will you render the work of others happy or unhappy, light or burdensome? What is the difference between a task being a pleasure or a toil?

Note: Thanks to my friend Brian Gray for pointing out this delightful passage to me over a glass of ale yesterday – and for connecting it to a theology of work.

Between NPR and K-LOVE

I often find myself divided when driving in the car. Should I turn my radio to NPR or to K-LOVE? Most days I find myself compelled to listen to both.

Between NPR and K-LOVE

NPR (National Public Radio) is my daily connection to the world. News, author interviews, Science Friday – to me, the life of the world is beautiful, and immensely important to God. Whether it be education (my own field) or the latest research in brain research (certainly not my field), this is where real human life is found.

But if I listen to NPR exclusively, I become worn out, feeling kind of thin, like old Bilbo Baggins, “like butter scraped over too much bread.” The sad secular monks who fill the airwaves of NPR have knowledge, but most don’t have hope, a reason to dance. Frankly, most days I need a reason to dance.

So, I turn to K-LOVE. The praise and worship songs (most of them, anyway), give me hope. Christ is resurrected from the dead, and the song of the redeemed spurs on the people of God. Yet if I listen only to K-LOVE, I begin to wonder what’s happening in God’s world, the world that he so loves (John 3:16).

And so I flip between NPR and K-LOVE, knowing my home is in another country, yet I’m called to this world at this time and in this place. It’s this tension that leads me to yearn for a way to bring K-LOVE into NPR, that is, to bring the gospel into fields like education, science, politics, and art.

But how might we actually do that?

My favorite author, Lesslie Newbigin, believes this intentional equipping of the saints to serve well in their secular work is a part of the mission of the church.

“The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in light of the Christian faith. This is very difficult…There is need for ‘frontier groups,’ groups of Christians working in the same sectors of public life, meeting to thrash out the controversial issues of their business or profession in light of their faith.”

One way we can intentionally live on the “frontier” between the private world of religion (K-LOVE) and the public world of politics, education, art and business (NPR) is by joining with small groups of Christians who can work out the problems of their field in light of the gospel. In these small groups conversations are hosted that can help to heal the public/private divide, and can help to unify our commitment to the gospel with our commitment to the life of the world.

Discussion questions: Do you prefer NPR or K-LOVE (or something else)? Have you ever met in a “frontier group” that discusses the problems/opportunities of your field in light of the gospel? If so, how did it go?