Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Work in Progress

A “first” is usually a pretty important event.  First tooth, first day of school, first car, first kiss, and—the topic of this post—first job.

My first job couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.  It was my freshman year of high school and it all happened the weekend of my first Homecoming Dance.  Ah, yes—a first I would rather not recall.  What didn’t go wrong at that dance? 

Let’s start with my attire.  No one told me that becoming a ninth grader meant you stopped shopping in the girl’s department and moved to juniors.  I’ll spare you the details of my wardrobe selection.  Next, the boy I had a crush on since seventh grade took that opportunity to tell me—two years later—that he liked me (oh the dreaded words) as a friend.  Oh, and I had to leave the dance early because ten o’clock was too late for my parents to pick me up. 

It wasn’t exactly the best debut into the world of high school. 

But where one door closed, another opened and the day after the dance, the pastor at my parish asked if I would like to work in the Rectory, answering the door and helping serve dinner. 

I was overjoyed and spent the next eleven years working for the parish, in one capacity or another.

Having a job for the first time helped me understand something my Mom would often tell me.  She said, quoting my Grandma, “Work is good for your soul.”

Indeed it is.  So much so, in fact, that we can consider work a virtue.  Thus (apologies for the long introduction) this week’s virtue is none other than work!

There are many ways you can approach the reality of work.  On one extreme, you have the workaholic, putting in ten-hour days, working weekends, driven by a fanatic desire for money, prestige, or to prove him or herself. 

Then, on the opposite extreme, you have the person who shuns work: he or she counts the minutes until the end of the workday, lives for the weekend, and seeks free time at just about any cost.

Most of us fall somewhere between these two bookends.

The reality is that all of us, in some capacity or another, spend the vast majority of our day, and our lives, working.  Even when you are officially “off the clock,” you go home and find yourself working again.  There are bills to pay, a lawn to mow, dishes to wash, kids to bathe.  

This looks like hard work.

If the concept of never-ending work tempts you to despair, try reworking your understanding of “work.” 

This is exactly the way God designed it to be: He created man explicitly to work.  “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).

Now, unfortunately due to something called original sin, our work now is difficult and, at times, very unpleasing to us.  But it need not be that way, if we can change our understanding and opinion toward the idea of work.

Work is good for us; if it weren’t, God wouldn’t have commanded us to work.  How is it good though?  Well, there are a number of reasons.

1)   Work allows us to support ourselves and our families: to provide us food to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof over our heads.

2)   Work allows us to contribute to society.  Whether the policeman keeping order, the teacher instructing students, the doctor taking care of the sick, the chef preparing a meal for hungry customers, work gives us the ability to help others and to promote the common good.

3)   Work develops our personalities and is the training ground of virtue.  If you’ve had the experience of a tyrant boss, you may have used that opportunity to develop the virtue of patience.  A nurse, caring for the elderly and infirm, may use that position to grow in understanding.  Co-workers, who come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities give us many social interactions where we can practice and grow in virtue (or, sadly, in vice if we aren’t careful).

 So, how is one to avoid the two extremities of activism or wasting time?  How can work become “good for your soul?”

In two words: sanctify it.  Take your work and make it holy. 

Sanctifying your work doesn’t necessarily require that you do anything manifestly different.  You might deposit money in someone’s account the same way, conduct the same research, drive the same bus.  No, it’s mostly about changing your mindset and approach.

It’s about having an awareness of God in the midst of your work.  As you enter your office, your classroom, your lab, your store, your hair salon, your child’s bedroom: silently offer your work to God.  Say something like, “Lord, I offer to you my work this day.”  You can even offer it for a particular intention or for someone who needs prayer.

Then, as you go about your work, continue to keep God in mind.  Perhaps keep a small crucifix on your desk, small enough where it won’t attract attention, but will serve the purpose of reminding you that God is indeed present. 

When a problem presents itself, as it inevitably will, offer that to God, too.  Make that holy.

In this way, your ordinary tasks become something of utmost value: they become ways of drawing you closer to God.  Your work actually becomes prayer.

Sanctifying your work is a good way to help remember that you’re not just working to bring home a paycheck at the end of the week.  You’re working to serve others.  What you do has meaning and a purpose.  Keeping this in mind is also a good way to avoid becoming self-seeking or dishonest.

When you are building a career, you bring to the table your education and experience…but also bring your faith.  One’s morals and beliefs should imbue and direct the decisions made at one’s employment.  What a doctor chooses to prescribe, who a lawyer decides to defend, what lessons a teacher presents, what moral an author’s story will give: these are decisions that faith should inform.

Thomas More: Lawyer, Author, Statesman, Martyr, and Saint
For God, there is no job great or small; all jobs are measured by the same criteria: is the work done with love?

So, as you seek to grow in the virtue of work, there are some helpful questions to consider:

·      How well do I work?  Is my work a worthy sacrifice to God?

·      Do I strive to do my best work possible?  Do I sincerely work to develop my competence and skills in my particular profession?

·      Am I punctual in my work?  Do I arrive on time?  Do I complete my tasks on time?  Do I postpone or avoid something unpleasant in lieu of an easier job?

·      Am I honest in my work?  Do I keep my work time strictly for work, or do I use it for my own use and interests, such as checking my personal email? 

·      Do I work in an orderly way, finishing one task before moving onto another? 

·      Do I take proper care of any equipment or tools needed for my work?

·      Do I treat my co-workers and boss with proper respect?  Do I set a good example for others through my words and actions?

In a time when unemployment is so high, we should be grateful for the work that we do have.  But being grateful isn’t adequate.  We must take our work, whatever it is, and make it holy.

If you find yourself working on a railroad, all the live long day, don't work just to "pass the time away."  (Sorry, Mary loves that song and I've been singing it all day...)  Work to sanctify yourself and all those around you!

Those who knew Jesus from his hometown of Nazareth, where He worked as a carpenter, remarked of Him: “He does all things well” (Mark 7:37).  Can our boss, our co-workers, our customers, our family, and—most importantly—our Lord, say the same thing of us and our work?  

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