Depending how you count it, I work about 14 hours most days. Probably about the same as you.
Of course I don’t get paid for all the work I do, which I suspect is also true for you. In addition to the time I spend in my office writing and designing and talking and emailing and recording and researching and reading and note taking and editing and “other duties as assigned,” I also spend hours each day cooking and cleaning, organizing and ordering, caregiving and calculating, delivering and detailing, feeding and grooming, entertaining and eating, and a whole lot more. Besides sleeping and occasional TV watching—and I could probably even make an argument for those—nearly everything I do is work someone else gets paid for, even if I don’t.
A lot of these chores are actually pleasant, things I like to do most of the time. I enjoy baking bread and pies, for instance, and it’s often enjoyable to do a little gardening on the weekends. I even like writing, which is probably good, all things considered.
But far too often, these tasks feel like work. Jobs like schlepping home groceries or editing a particularly tricky article might offer a little enjoyment if I had more time or better equipment or just less need of things. Instead, when I view the efforts of a day, a variety of paid and unpaid activities that make up my to-do list and fill up my inbox, I feel the toil of the curse, when God told Adam and Eve that the whole enterprise of feeding themselves (and when it comes down to it, isn’t that why most of us work?) would be bathed in pain and perspiration and studded with thorns and thistles.
Even more painful still, no matter how much or hard I work, my efforts are never enough. There’s always more to do tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. In fact, a whole day’s labor is hardly sufficient for this day. By myself, I can’t provide for all my own needs much less those of my family, friends, and community. Despite all I accomplish in a day, no matter how many items I mark off the to-list, my work, then, become a constant reminder of what I lack.
“The very ground is cursed because of you;
getting food from the ground
Will be as painful as having babies is for your wife;
you’ll be working in pain all your life long.
The ground will sprout thorns and weeds,
you’ll get your food the hard way,
Planting and tilling and harvesting,
sweating in the fields from dawn to dusk,
Until you return to that ground yourself, dead and buried;
you started out as dirt, you’ll end up dirt.” (Gen. 3:17-19, The Message)
Because its drudgery inherently links us to Sin and the Fall, work feels like a fitting topic to talk about during Lent. But because so much of our daily lives is spent working and so many of our everyday fears, disappointments, and uncertainties revolve around the ways we rely on work to give us purpose and provide for our needs, work also feels like a fitting topic to talk about as part of the middle level I introduced last week, that space in life where we so often need help “to live and cope as Christians day by day in the face of poverty, enemies, evil forces, nature's uncertainties, and frequent threats from many quarters."
In the compline liturgy that’s the basis for Tish Harrison Warren’s book Prayer in the Night, we pray in the dark hours for those who work or watch or weep. It’s a particular prayer for those whose labors keep them occupied even at nighttime, but in our 24-hour-world that could mean almost any of us. With cellphones and email and social media and productivity apps and more, even when we’re not working we’re working. And particularly during the pandemic, when more people than ever continue to work from home, the stresses of work life eek into every corner of our days.
“Many of us lie awake anxiously, worried about our jobs,” Warren writes. “Still more are up late fretfully putting in a few more hours, trying to safeguard ourselves against our own dispensability.”
But work isn’t only about the toil. Though sin’s curse gave the word “laborious” its meaning, work also existed before the pain and perspiration. Work in the garden before Adam’s and Eve’s fall was generative and wholesome; it was productive without the burden of “productivity.” It was a cooperation with all that God sought to accomplish in the world. And even now, despite the challenges of our labor, when our “human work continues in the midst of very real darkness,” we see glimmers of work’s goodness, too, as “our own labor participates in God’s work of bringing light into darkness.”
So when we “pray for healing or redemption or peace or justice, we are praying for those who work,” writes Warren, “for scientists, doctors, poets, potters, researchers, retail clerks, farmers, politicians, and pilots.” You might even say we are praying for ourselves.
In Prayer in the Night, Warren tells the story of a friend who’s a pediatric surgeon. His work is both exacting and exhausting, and often before surgery and sometimes in the middle of surgery, he’ll slip away to the break room to pray a litany he wrote for himself to remind him that his work and God’s work together make a real difference in the world.
Warren shared the words he prays: “Grant me, O Lord, for your sake, through the work of your Holy Spirit, love for my patient, joy in participating in this work, peace as I follow your lead, patience in the trying times of this case, kindness … to all in the room, goodness in this difficult task, faithfulness to have integrity in the details even when no one else but you sees … and self-control that my own sins of anger, anxiety, and vainglory would not mar my judgment.” Warren says he then prays for his patient by name and scrubs in.
This story makes me think differently about my own work — both the paid and unpaid work. It both acknowledges the drudgery but also gives me a vision for how my labors are accomplishing God’s work in the world and in me. Like other middle level concerns, though, it’s an area I don’t spend enough time praying over. Warren suggests another way, a better way to go about our daily business: to work as one who prays and pray as one who works.
“Praying this way changes how we work. We can take up our daily work knowing that through it we participate in the eternal work of God. We can take up our vocations not simply to find success, get a paycheck, or make a name for ourselves, but from a place of rest in God.”
I wonder … how do prayer and work go together for you? Is one type of work easier for you to commit to in prayer than another? Do you have a regular prayer that you pray before your work? Or like me, is this an area that you could improve in?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
How do you pray for your work?
I was inspired by the pediatric surgeon’s litany that Tish Harrison Warren included in her book, Prayer in the Night. She says it was drawn from The Book of Common Prayer and Scripture, and the fruit of the Spirit definitely play a starring role. I turned that litany into a template that we can use to write prayers for the work we do … whether it’s the job you clock in for from 9 to 5, the unpaid caregiving you spend hours on each day, or even the housework you’d rather forget. Let’s be people who work as one who prays and pray as one who works.
Here’s the challenge: Use this template to write your own prayer. Fill in words about your own work in the blanks, and feel free to swap out any other words as well to create a prayer that is meaningful and memorable for yourself.
A _____________ (writer, surgeon, programmer, housekeeper, teacher)’s Prayer
Grant me, O Lord, for your sake, through the work of your Holy Spirit,
love for my ___________ (client, reader, child, student, patient),
joy in participating in this ___________ (case, surgery, meeting, route, book, project),
peace as I follow your lead,
patience in the trying times of this ___________ (case, surgery, meeting, route, book, project),
kindness to all in the ___________ (room, building, city, meeting, Zoom call),
goodness in this ___________ (difficult, complicated, unwelcome, assigned) task,
faithfulness to have integrity in the details even when no one else but you sees,
gentleness to know when to wait and be quiet,
and self-control that my own sins of ___________(anger, anxiety, and vainglory) would not mar my judgment.
In your name and for your glory, Amen.
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
Email is Making Us Miserable by Cal Newport for The New Yorker. Among the “toils” of much of our modern work are the electronic tethers that keep us constantly fastened to its demands: email being chief among them. I personally have adopted Newport’s philosophy of new technology based on his earlier book: Digital Minimalism. This article is part of a new book he’s written, A World without Email. I’m looking forward to reading this one, too.
From the essay: “Just because it’s possible for us to send and receive messages incessantly through our waking hours doesn’t mean that it is a sustainable way to exist. Technologies serve us best when we deploy their new efficiencies with intention, with an aim to improve the human condition. We shouldn’t banish e-mail, but we can no longer allow it to be used in such a way that guarantees our misery.”
The Surprising Gift of Knowing My Vocation by Ellen F. Davis for The Christian Century. This essay is part of a series by leading thinkers reflecting on their own struggles, disappointments, and hopes as they address the topic, “How my mind has changed.” I found it to be helpful not only in the ways that Davis talks about growing into her vocation (“I had to become the kind of person who wants to do the work to which I am called; my temperament had to change along with my mind.”) but also in the ways her work looks “at how biblical interpretation intersects with conversations about matters within church and society that regularly touch the lives of people of faith yet have not conventionally been treated within biblical studies.” (Sounds a lot like the middle level issues we’ve been talking about, to me.)
From the essay: “Above all, this research persuaded me that sermons are ultimately the most consequential form of biblical interpretation, for good and sometimes for ill (for instance, in the long and tragically consistent tradition of anti-Judaism in Christian preaching). Many people who never read the Bible have opinions about it based upon the sermons they have heard. That sobering fact has prompted me to focus much of my scholarly energy on exegetical preaching, in three different books. Further, I hope that everything I write, regardless of whether it is expressly on preaching, is useful for those who, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, ‘speak where many listen . . . that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous.’”
How to Pray for Workers During Coronavirus by Made to Flourish for Theology at Work. We’ve had a lot of good news about the COVID-19 pandemic recently, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. These prayers for teachers, custodians, social workers, gig workers, and more are just as important now as ever. In fact, many of the prayers could be used even once the pandemic has ended.
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“Jesus Ministered to by Angels” is the final of a four-part series of Jesus’ desert wanderings from French painter James Tissot.
Jesus Ministered to by Angels (Jésus assisté par les anges), by James Tissot - Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2006.
Notes from the Brooklyn Museum: “Following the deprivations in the wilderness, Jesus receives the care of angels who restore his strength. Rejecting art-historical traditions in which Jesus takes material sustenance in the form of dates and pomegranates, Tissot insists on otherworldly agency. Here blue-hued, flame-haired angels extend their fingers to touch the prostrate form of the spent Jesus, who appears to assume a cross-like position.”
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
The work of writing has its own toils and rewards, quite different from the work many others do. One such characteristic that might fit in both categories (both toil and reward) is the solitude necessary to do this work.
In her essay, “I Have Wasted My Life,” author Patricia Hampl talks about this important element of the writing life.
“No wonder that, to a writer—to readers, to all overwhelmed people now—solitude suggests not loneliness but serenity, that kissing cousin of sanity. We speak of being alone to recharge our batteries—even in our reach for solitude, we seem unable to unplug from the metaphor of our connectivity.”
“Yet here’s the greater paradox: writing, though performed alone, is also the only absolutely declarative, meaning-beset art form we have. Its purpose is to communicate. With others. More than a painter, much more than a composer, a writer can never ‘be alone.’”
Hampl isn’t exactly satisfied with this paradox, though. Using a poem by James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” she goes on to say that finding a way to truly be alone, to find at last “the solitude of the mind,” is a gift the writer gives not only to herself but to her readers.
“There he is, the poet suspended in that most ephemeral piece of furniture, the hammock, swinging there in the eternity of the moment, and he is empty of himself at last….But to be alone in this way is not to be insular but to open finally, fully to the in-rushing reality of the world.”
I would encourage you to read the full piece—the analysis of the poem is worth the read all on its own—but I’d also encourage you to consider how you can find ways to be truly alone, if not regularly at least occasionally. “It’s wildly ordinary, this moment of horse dung and cowbells,” Hampl writes. And that sounds exactly like a lot of the work we do.
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report! Thanks again for sharing this journey with me. As always, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
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Until next time,
Beautiful! Thought provoking and so much to explore and read. And the Tissot was absolutely worth the wait!