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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Kingdom@Work – Who is the Builder?

“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Ps 127:1)

What does it mean to our daily work that we are called to be workers in God’s Kingdom? We’ve thought about the call for strong ethics, love and compassion toward our co-workers, and so on. These are all good things. But how does what we do in our daily occupations have anything to do with God’s Kingdom? The Faith at Work movement has talked increasingly about the fact that we are laborers in God’s Kingdom, but it can be hard to make that connection, particularly for those of us working in service industries where the end result is hard to see even in worldly terms.

It strikes me that in some sense or other, we are all builders. Even a demolition team is building an open, reusable and valuable space. As a banking consultant, I build high-level solutions for banking products. Others then come along and build detailed specifications for the technology, operations, and other ancillary functions that go with them. Then still others come along and build the software and operations procedures that will make them work. Others build sales and marketing literature, and relationships with potential customers.

Yes, we’re all builders, but how do we know that what we are building is of value? Paul says that he has built a foundation for the church and that others will come along behind him to build out the new Temple. “If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light … and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. “ (1 Cor 3:12-13) That’s pretty scary when I think about my daily work.
Our key verse from Psalm 127 makes a very bold claim. If it is not the Lord who is building whatever we are building, then we’re wasting our time. Ouch! If I’m just working for my own fulfillment, enjoyment, enrichment, survival – whatever it is – then I’m wasting my time. Even if I can clearly see the value to the bank’s commercial customers, and their ability to serve the community with their products and services, it may all be a waste of time. Actually it isn’t my time at all that I’m wasting, it is God’s time, because He is the one to whom everything we are and have belongs.

These verses tell me that everything I do must arise from my relationship with Him. I find it hard to commit every aspect of my job to Him in prayer, but surely I must. I need to be seeking wisdom and guidance from Him – not just when I’m stuck but at all times (James 1:5). Most of all, perhaps, I must continually strive to understand God’s mission for the world, and especially the part that I can impact. I must continue to grow in my ability to play the part He has planned for me. All of this requires daily – or even hourly – infilling with the Holy Spirit. Only in the Spirit can I be the builder God created me to be.

It has been quite a while (years) since I posted to this blog. Hopefully I will be able to work through this huge topic from time to time coming up. I would value feedback and help! (GSS)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Time @ Work – Not Enough or Too Much?

Time – it seems like either we’re desperate for more of it, or it drags beyond bearing. Our work piles up on us and there aren’t remotely enough hours in the day, or we’re bored out of our minds and the hour hand on the clock seems to have some demonic brake holding it back.  
Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity talks about time being variable (in ways I don’t remotely understand). That’s as may be, but for sure on a subjective level time goes faster or slower depending on what is going on in our lives, and in our workplaces. Since we had to lay off almost half our staff at the end of last year, I’ve been trying to work through year-end accounting and reporting, taxes, regular monthly reporting, tracking of a whole slew of things that used to be done by other people, on top of what I was already doing. (Writing this blog somehow didn’t make it the top of the priorities!) There simply aren’t enough hours to get it done. I don’t get bored at least, except ironically when it all gets to be too much and then the days drag unbelievably. But time just gets frittered away so quickly!
Interestingly, the Bible seems to approach time completely differently from modern Western culture, particularly Anglo culture. (Hispanic culture seems to be less obsessed with time. I understand that while in English a clock runs, in Spanish a clock walks. That explains a lot!) It is a given that we have a limited span of time in which to realize God’s dream for us. But the sense of hurry, frustration, and time wasted on the one hand, and of boredom on the other, don’t really appear much if at all. Jesus had a massive workload, but never seemed in a hurry (think of his reaction when the disciples tried to stop the blind man from calling out, or when they tried to shoo away children). He understood the need for rest and refreshment, even though in short supply. He gave absolute priority to times of prayer. There was a rhythm to his life that was healthy and right.
How can we be unhurried in the midst of panic and chaos? How can we use time not as a limited resource that we must hold on to for dear life, but as a gift from God like any other that is to be spent wisely and generously in the service of God and His creation, especially other people? I guess it comes largely back to peace. When we are at peace, the world’s turmoil will affect us in compassion and concern, but will not interrupt our daily, weekly and yearly rhythms of life. Conversely it is when we observe these rhythms that we can live in peace. By rhythms, I mean lives that honor our commitments to work and family and community without neglecting daily time with God to set up our moment-by-moment walk with him, weekly times with God’s people and corporate worship, and annual vacations - times away from the daily routine for refreshment and renewal in ourselves and our relationships.
For me, in the midst of responsibilities that I find overwhelming, and workload that is quite simply impossible to stay up with, peace would be impossible without these rhythms. I started this article last week, but am finishing it during a break – Oakland A’s Spring Training in Phoenix. I can’t take a complete break – I have worked quite a bit while I’ve been here – and yet it has been possible to spend chunks of time with my wife, renewing our relationship, and with God, putting things into perspective. We’ve had quite a bit of bad news related to work in the past couple of days, but while I am focused on God’s plan, I can be relatively in peace (even while thinking through contingency plans such as what to do if/when my salary stops coming in for a while).
Time – we don’t have enough or we have too much. At least that’s how it seems. But from God’s perspective we have just enough. Our span of life is in His hands. Our purposes are His to plan. It is for us to use time wisely and well – not manically, seeing how much we can DO, but with a sense of dedication to God, as we grow into what He wants us to BE. Time is a gift, like everything we else we have – a gift entrusted to us for His purpose, and in His great love for us. Time is a thing of beauty.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Armed @ Work – Shield of Faith

Besieged. That’s how I feel sometimes at work. Everyone wants a piece of me. Lawsuits, demands for information, angry phone calls, impatient emails.

That’s the obvious surface form of the siege. But under the surface, there’s another kind of attack – the “flaming arrows of the evil one” described by Paul in Ephesians 6:16. These are in particular temptations to lose hope, fear the future, compromise ethics, withdraw into our own problems, stop loving.

Paul’s solution is “the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one”. How does this help with what Paul had in mind, and in particular how does it help at work?

For the soldier of Paul’s time, a special concern was an attack that involved opponents soaking arrows in pitch, setting fire to them, and then firing them high over the opposing army so that hundreds of them at a time would come down upon the heads of the soldiers. The shields would (in theory) be interlocked over their heads so that the arrows would fall harmlessly and could be extinguished. For us, it seems these burning arrows can fall from any angle, and at any time. That means, the shield must be constantly up and protecting us. Often, it is when our guard is down the most that we are most vulnerable.

Faith is powerful indeed. It will extinguish arrows of doubt, replacing them with the certainty of God’s love and mercy. Faith will snuff out our sense of guilt, replacing it with gratitude for God’s assured forgiveness. And it is by faith that we will defeat fear, through reminders of God’s faithfulness and His perfect plans – fear is thus replaced by hope.

And now to the workplace. When I feel besieged, when it seems that things are all going downhill, I have a tendency to express my frustration, my doubts about the future, and my temptations to just quit and do something more “rewarding” (whether financially or personally, what I mean by this is usually self-centered, not God-centered). What impact does this have on the rest of the staff? Or on my boss, the owner of the company? Let’s be careful here – I’m not talking about the need for us to have faith in the company, or our business model, or our boss, or our future. These are, in fact, all just as uncertain as they feel. What I can bring to our staff is a faith in God that gives perspective, puts priorities in order, shows what is really valuable, and offers hope that God is in fact in control of His creation, and that His plans transcend any short-term financial crisis. This faith isn’t something for me to be proud of – it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, offered to all.

It is faith, ultimately, that helps me see that what I do here is truly worth doing, even if every plan fails, every negotiation falls apart, and even if in the end we collapse financially. Because I am called to this place, by a God who knows what He is doing! I am called to these people with whom I work, because God loves them beyond imagination. I am called to live a life of the Spirit, so that God will show the world His majestic glory, His righteousness, His mercy, His love, and His sovereignty.

Without faith, our lives lose meaning, and our jobs lose meaning too. For a while we may seem to be accomplishing something, but it is a house of cards, and will sooner or later fall flat. Only God’s work, performed through us, is truly enduring. That’s what we’re called to do in our daily work. If only we lived our entire lives in this faith, the burning arrows would be no more than warm pin-pricks on our shields.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Armed @ Work – Gospel of Peace

Conflict in the workplace is commonplace. How do we fight it? With harsh words? Fight fire with fire? Too often we do. But the greatest weapon of all is the good news of peace.

Paul says in Ephesians 6:15 that we should stand firm “with [our] feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace”. Going to work with military boots on isn’t necessarily going to help with conflict resolution. So what does this verse have to do with the workplace?

A Roman soldier’s boots were designed to ensure stability in combat – protective without slowing him down, and spiked for a good purchase in difficult terrain. It is that stability that we gain when we’re armed with the gospel, the good news, of God’s peace (the “peace that passes all understanding” of Philippians 4:7, which was promised by Jesus in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”) This peace is the shalom of the Old Testament (eirene in the New), which speaks of rightness, reconciliation, completeness and security, not just absence of conflict.

When we walk into a difficult meeting, or are confronted by an angry investor, customer or employee, our natural tendency is to be defensive or combative (at least mine is). If our ego is being challenged, or our security, we will lash out and try to use aggression (or passive aggression) to defend ourselves. However, if we are at peace, knowing we are loved and valued by God, knowing that we are in the place He wants us, this reaction becomes unnecessary. When we are at fault, we can acknowledge it and seek to make reparation. When we are being falsely accused, we can calmly seek to set the record straight, and can accept the consequences, no matter how unfair, if this isn’t sufficient for our accuser.

A key element of this piece of armor is “readiness”. It is no good going into a meeting, discovering we’re under attack, and then trying to throw out an arrow prayer requesting peace. In my experience it just doesn’t work like that. The preparation comes from our daily walk with God, our routines of worship, prayer and Bible study, our fellowship with other believes who challenge and encourage us, and who accept us as people beloved by God. By such things, our feet become fitted with this readiness, the readiness that comes from knowing for sure the best of all possible news, that we are at peace with God, the creator and supreme ruler of the universe. How could anyone else possibly threaten us?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mercy @ Work – Eviction

Is there a place for mercy at work? In particular, can a property owner afford to put off evicting a non-paying tenant, when investors and lenders have to be kept happy? Surely mercy in business is quite impractical?

Mercy takes a number of forms, some of which may not be the most obvious. We have an interesting example just about to close. We had foreclosed on two pieces of land. One had on it a run-down ranch-house, quite uninhabitable and clearly a drain on the property’s value. The other, smaller, piece had on it a mobile home, with a family of six, paying no rent. The owner was a surveyor with the local county, but was laid off when the recession started, and has pretty much given up. When we received an offer to buy the smaller piece of land, one condition was that we evict this tenant. Instead, working with the tenant and our broker, we worked out an arrangement in which he would prepare the house on the other piece of land for him and his family to live in, and would continue to improve it, in lieu of rent. We provided the raw materials and he has provided countless hours of labor (as has the broker, as an act of service). He and his family now have a home for at least a few months, and breathing room to refocus on job-hunting and rehabilitation. We have a house also in process of rehabilitation – the broker estimates that our $5,000 of materials outlay has already likely increased the value of that property by $100,000.

This was a refreshing opportunity that worked out much better for everyone than we imagined, but they are few and far between. There have been other times when we have had no alternative, and have had to proceed with eviction in order to be able to prepare a property for sale. If we don’t do this, we fail in our financial responsibility to our investors.

If we have a tenant (or a borrower) who has a viable plan to resolve the problem (e.g. buying the property, or starting to pay rent, or paying off a loan), then we can and must work with them within reason. There are many lenders and property managers who will see the other party’s problem as an opportunity to seize property or get increased income. We try very hard not to benefit on the backs of others. Determining when the alternative of waiting or working with them is very hard sometimes though – only too often we’ve been spun stories that have no foundation in either practicality or even intention.

Sadly, more often than not, even after we’ve worked with people, we end up having to go through with the foreclosure or the eviction. We wish it were not true. Often we will then get sued by them. I don’t think we’ve ever lost one of these cases, but of course they take up time and legal expense. We understand though – they’re often desperate. There are opportunities to show mercy here too, though we don’t always feel inclined to, given the nature of the invective poured out on us.

Mercy is hard in business. But then I have to ask “how much harder must it be for God to show mercy to us?” How much more have we offended Him, disobeyed, rebelled, cursed and angered Him? He evicted Adam and Eve from Eden because of their disobedience – do we deserve any less? And yet He welcomes us into His Kingdom. Amazing mercy and love!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Armed @ Work – Breastplate of Righteousness

Don’t you just hate “righteous” people? Don’t you sometimes want to take a pot-shot at them, or uncover some dastardly deed from the past?

And yet, in the armor Paul says we need to wear on a daily basis, the second “with the breastplate of righteousness in place” (Eph 6:14b). The question is what do we mean by righteousness? Is it the same as “self-righteousness”? Actually no, in many ways it’s the exact opposite. I’m struck by the words “in place” in the Ephesians verse – not that this is what Paul means, but there is a place for righteousness of the right kind.

In the Bible, righteousness and justice are almost interchangeable. And both of them essentially speak of doing the right thing for the right reasons or, even more fundamentally, acting as God would. For a Christian, right can only be absolutely defined in terms of God’s character – what is right is what is good and pleasing to Him – His will (see Romans 12:2 – “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” It is no coincidence that the precondition to knowing this will of God – the right way to act – is to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, rather than conforming (moulding) ourselves to this world’s patterns.

The self-righteous person is in fact conforming to this world’s ways – I am right, I have rights, I am entitled to seek self-justification. The truly righteous person is seeking to be transformed back into the image of God, following Christ’s example. This means seeking justice (even at personal cost), making the right ethical and compassionate decisions, and in all ways modeling the humility, love and grace of Jesus.

How does this act as a breastplate in the workplace? This piece of armor is, of course, designed to protect the heart and other vital internal organs. For the Romans and Greeks, as well as for us, the seat of the will and emotions was in this area and Paul surely had this metaphorical meaning in mind. Our heart needs to be protected against temptations to play safe, or to take the easy path, or even the path that will maximize benefit for ourselves. The only antidote is the protection of seeking God’s righteousness in every aspect of our lives.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Romans 12:2 (and am preaching on it on Sunday) – it is truly something of a life verse for me. The change in me – the metamorphosis (which is what the Greek word for transformation is here) – must be radical. The change from self-righteousness to God-righteousness is one I can’t afford to continue without. After all, what soldier in his right mind goes to war with no breastplate (aka bullet-proof vest)?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Armed @ Work – Belt of Truth

“Does this dress make me look fat?” Every man knows how dangerous this question is from our spouse or girlfriend, but what about from a colleague? Should we always tell the truth at work?

In the armor recommended by Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, the very first item is the belt of truth: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist” (Eph 6:14a). How does truth protect us from attack in the workplace (whether spiritual or any other kind)? There are times it seems as though the truth is the enemy.

“Did you finish that report I told you must be done today?”
“Well no – actually I was watching the basketball on”

This hardly seems calculated to win us any battles. Obviously there is a different solution to this one. The truth will not be our friend if we are not living lives of integrity.

But actually I don’t think this kind of truth is really what Paul is talking about. I’m not saying we shouldn’t tell the truth in this sense – lying is certainly not going to protect us in the long run, regardless of the situation. But truth in the Bible is for the most part not about factual accuracy, but goes much deeper. It is about the ways things really are – and more specifically the way God has laid things out. It is about His sovereignty, His grace and mercy, His love, His justice, His compassion. To put it another way, truth is what we find in the Word of God (Jesus himself said, during his great “high priestly prayer”: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” (John 17:17)

A belt surrounds us, protects our vulnerable (and for some of us rather outsized) middles, and provides a sense of security (not least that our pants won’t fall down!) Truth is the same way – it is always safe, can always be depended upon to guide us to the right decisions, the right attitudes, to integrity. “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” (Psalm 119:105).

So what does it mean to wear the belt of truth at work? It means being familiar with God’s Word, and with His idea of what is good and right. It means being so familiar that God’s precepts are a vital part of who we are, that we have absorbed them so fully that they shape our every action, thought, motive and attitude. We need to be quite simply so immersed in the truth, the Bible, that we find ourselves meditating on it at unexpected moments, repeating verses to ourselves in times of need and of joy, turning to it for comfort, wisdom, and hope. God’s words to Joshua sum it up: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8)

Next time you go to work, don’t forget your belt – it could be embarrassing!