I have an essay about work and meaning in the current issue of The Hedgehog Review. The essay has elicited some good responses from friend and stranger alike; I’m grateful for all. I always have mixed feelings when people write to say my essays about work resonate with their experience. On the one hand, my entire goal is to put words to the experience…
The purpose of the Faith@Work Summit is to gather active participants and leaders in the faith at work movement from every industry sector to learn from each other and work together to extend Christ’s transforming presence in workplaces around the world. The next Summit will be in Chicago on Oct. 11-13, 2018. Go to fwsummit.org to sign up for updates and to learn more about the Summit. Register for the Summit here!
Vocational faithfulness is not only about individual character but also about applying a biblical-theological lens to the work of the institution in which one labors. (“Institution” here refers to the social sector in which the organization where one works is situated.) We are called to image-bearing in our vocational sectors, which involves practices of both personal discipleship (e.g., prayer, functional dependency on the Spirit) and public discipleship (in love, advancing justice and shalom for the common good).
The public expression of vocational image-bearing is at least threefold:
- Cultivating within the vocational sector all its creational intent and possibilities; aligning it with what it “was meant to be” in God’s original design
- Restoring the sector to righteousness (“set-right-ness”) where it has been corrupted
- Imagining the work of this sector in “the age to come” and offering a foretaste of those future Kingdom realities now
REFLECT & RESPOND
1. Most vocational expressions of public discipleship have focused on white-collar professionals. In what ways can/do blue-collar workers bear Christ’s image for the common good?
2. One way of “going deeper” in vocational faithfulness is the progression from individual to institutional thinking. What other shifts or progressions mark a “2.0” understanding of “faithful presence” in various vocational sectors?
Dr. Amy L. Sherman, a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute, was named by Christianity Today in 2012 as one of the 50 evangelical women most influencing the American church and culture. She’s the author of six books and over 80 articles in periodicals including First Things, The Public Interest, The Christian Century, Christianity Today, and Books & Culture. Her most recent book is Kingdom Calling. You can read a reflection on her talk at TGR here.
By Greg Forster; part four of a series. In this final post on MLK’s profound speech at Barratt Junior High, I want to focus on how his famous faith-and-work “street sweeper” image draws together the elements we’ve seen so far in the speech, but also adds something more. So far he has looked back to describe our origins (creation design)…
By Greg Forster; part three of a series. MLK’s famous image of a street sweeper, widely familiar in the faith and work movement, is at the center of an profound talk he gave six months before he was murdered, on discerning “your life’s blueprint.” As we have seen, King’s image is grounded in Christian personalism. Because you are a human…
By Greg Forster; part two of a series.
MLK’s famous image of a street sweeper, widely familiar in the faith and work movement, is at the center of an profound talk he gave six months before he was murdered, on discerning “your life’s blueprint.” In that talk, he enumerates three elements of a sound blueprint for a human life. With this second post in the series, we come to the second element, the one that most clearly connects work to the metaphor of a blueprint.
We have already seen that the first element in the blueprint of a good life is the dignity of the human person, concerning which MLK draws on the tradition of Christian personalism. This element is the foundation of the building – the blueprint. The other elements of life go wrong when they’re not building on human dignity in this way.
Second on his list of three elements for a sound blueprint is to strive for excellence in all you do:
Secondly, in your life’s blueprint you must have as the basic principle the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor. You’re going to be deciding as the days, as the years unfold what you will do in life — what your life’s work will be. Set out to do it well.
In a moment, he is going to connect this issue to questions of justice and particularly to the role of injustice in economic systems. That is a big enough issue, however, that I want to hold off and cover it in full with the following post.
Before we get there, first I want to connect this call to excellence to something that comes earlier in the talk. The way he describes the metaphor of a blueprint for life has always struck me as profound:
Whenever a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint, and that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, and a building is not well erected without a good, solid blueprint.
What has struck me in the past is the role of the “architect.” If there is a blueprint, there is an architect.
And King is not suggesting to the middle-school students in the audience that they design their own blueprints – that they are the architects of their own lives. On the contrary, he is there primarily to speak to them about what the blueprint for their lives contains. The question is whether they will build their lives according to the blueprint; the blueprint itself has already been drawn up!
We are the builders of our lives, but not the architects. This is, of course, the key difference between a religious and a secular view of human life.
What strikes me now, revisiting this passage, is the image of life’s blueprint as an excellent work that guides us into excellent work. The blueprint is our “pattern” and “guide,” so the building can be “well erected” only if the blueprint is “good,” “solid” and (just a bit later) “proper” and “sound.”
We are able to do excellent work because we are ourselves an excellent work.
This is not an arbitrary or coincidental verbal connection. A standard of excellence is inherent in a religious view of human life. God is not simply there to provide rules we must obey; that could be a deistic view of life, but not a religious one. Mere intellectual belief in a deity becomes religion when worship is involved, and if worship is to be more than merely obeisance before power, it must involve reverence for the excellence (truth, beauty, goodness) of the deity. “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”
And because we tend to become what we worship, when we revere the excellence of the creator we also strive for excellence in our own creative work. The image of a blueprint conveys this with precision. God’s excellent work in making us is the guide and pattern for excellence in our own work.
The first element flows naturally into the second because the call to excellence is an essential correlary to the proposition of human dignity. When the concept of human dignity is cut off from its roots in God’s excellence, as it has been in our civilization, it becomes inflated beyond measure. As we noted last time, the faith and work movement today spends a lot of time dealing with narcissism among people who have an inflated sense of their own human dignity; that is what happens when we talk about human dignity without talking about a creator and a vocation to excellence for his creations.
In an unfallen world, we would pass very easily from human dignity to a call to excellence to King’s third element, in which these reach their fruition. However, since the fall we have had to take a lot of complex detours. These include, as we have seen, distorted views of human dignity and, of course, distorted views of what counts as excellence.
King naturally chooses to focus on something else – the failure of economic systems to recognize and reward good work done by the marginalized. We will turn to that in the next post.
I am always on the look out for faith and work content in unexpected places. I got my wish when I watched Hidden Figures, a powerful movie describing the lives and work of three African American females: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. They worked as “computers” (humans doing mathematical calculations…and yes, this is where we get the word for the…