On Work

In the United States nearly one third, 100 million people, receive government benefits: 50 plus million on food stamps, 83 million on Medicaid, and when you add in Medicare and Social Security it becomes almost half. We are becoming a nation of entitled consumers rather than producers, and as Christians we should pause to reflect on the meaning of work.

Work is not something we do in order to pass the time or a necessary evil that we do as little of as possible. Work has dignity. In Genesis 1, before the God makes man, he works, creating and shaping, and then makes man in his image, made to imitate him. In 1:28 he tells Adam and Eve, the human race, to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over it. That is, get to work.

God works and man imitates him before the fall, before sin enters into the picture. Work gets harder after Adam’s rebellion as the ground is cursed and would now produce thorns. But God still blesses our work. The sleep of the laboring man, Proverbs tells us, is sweet. Even our redemption is couched in terms of harvest, 30, 60 and 100-fold.

Work is central to the life of a Christian. Jesus told his disciples the workman is worthy of his hire (Lk. 10:7), and Paul quotes him telling Timothy that a man who wouldn’t work to support his family is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:18).

Much of the church today has fallen back into thinking that certain people are called into ministry while everyone works a job. But this was addressed wonderfully by the Reformers and Martin Luther in particular who taught that each believer has a calling before God. Vocation extends beyond ministry. The Latin word for calling is vocare from which we get vocation. Luther said every single believer has a vocation, a calling, to which he or she was fitted by God and to which every believer should endeavor with faithfulness in order to be obedient to God and display his glory in a fallen world.

God made us to work and to find joy and fulfillment in our work. Resist the temptation to complain about work. Get to work early and be productive throughout your day. Care about those you work with and work in such a way that reveals your gratitude to God for your job and for the opportunity to work with them. Don’t make an idol of your work, but don’t work lazily, bearing the name of Jesus in vain.

You kids heading back to school, be thankful for the sacrifices of your parents and teachers, for the opportunity to learn and prepare to work faithfully and fruitfully your whole life. You get to learn all sorts of things; be interested in those things.

God blessed Adam to work, and in Jesus, the second Adam, he blesses us to work.

Continuing Honor, Continuing Promise

Mark Twain reportedly said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.” He was a wise twenty-one year old.

It’s a mistake to assume the 5th Commandment has a twenty-year shelf life: Honor your parents by doing (mostly) what they say while at home, and then you’re out on your own so don’t worry about it.

Like the other nine, the obligation is ongoing, though the way it is kept changes with seasons of life. This isn’t unique. The 7th Commandment requires chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage. So honoring your parents primarily means obedience when you live in their house, but respect and gratitude once you are out. Of course respect and gratitude are always important, but the emphasis changes. Interestingly, Paul quotes the 5th in writing to a New Testament church and alters the setting of the promise:

Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long on the earth. –Ephesians 6:2-3

The promised land has become the promised world, including Ephesus. If they want it to go well there, they would have to honor their parents, and that doesn’t change after going around the 18 times. The 5th Commandment is mostly kept (or not) in adulthood, because for the average person, most of life is lived as an adult. Put another way, God wants to bless His people living in the world through the end of their long lives. Here are five ways to honor parents in adulthood. Continue reading

Keeping the Fast

Happy, or, maybe sad, Ash Wednesday! Here is a good article over at Mere Orthodoxy on why you should keep eating sausages during Lent. Maybe you should buy an extra sausage since they’re always better with a friend. And here’s another article over there consisting mainly of quotes from wise people who reject common pitfalls that come with observing Lent.

I have no doubt that Lent can be observed wisely and helpfully by the kind of people who recognize the wisdom and cautions in the above articles. Jesus went to Jerusalem to conquer death, so this is cause for celebration and a wonderful reminder to take up our crosses. This is why Lent provokes discussion, because it makes us ask the question: What does it mean to take up our crosses? That is a huge question, but here I only want to briefly address the topic of fasting which is central to the way Lent is typically observed. Continue reading

You Can Only Give What You Have

“No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got. You may frame the syllabus as you please. But when you have planned and reported ad nauseam, if we are sceptical we shall teach only scepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism. Education is only the most fully conscious of the channels whereby each generation influences the next. It is not a closed system. Nothing which was not in the in the teachers can flow from them into the pupils. We shall all admit that man who knows no Greek himself cannot teach Greek to his form: but it is equally certain that a man whose mind was formed in a period of cynicism and disillusion, cannot teach hope or fortitude.”

C.S. Lewis, from “On the Transmission of Christianity” in God in the Dock


Thick & Clear

C.S. Lewis gave an address titled Christian Apologetics (found in God in the Dock)  to Anglican priests and youth leaders at a church in Wales where he made a distinction between Thick and Clear religions:

By Thick I mean those which have orgies and ecstasies and mysteries and local attachments: Africa is full of Thick religions. By Clear I mean those which are philosophical, ethical and universalizing: Stoicism, Buddhism, and the Ethical Church are Clear religions. Now if there is a true religion it must be both Thick and Clear: for the true God must have made both the child and the man, both the savage and the citizen, both the head and the the belly.

Thick religion accounts for the goodness of our “parts and passions”, as previous writers called them. It’s important to say the goodness of the passions, because most belief systems do something with them, and at least since Plato the West has tended to consider the body something to ultimately escape. To be in heaven, tragically even in many Christian churches, is to be airily disembodied. So ethereal has come to mean “heavenly” and “light, thin, airy.” Thick religion embraces the goodness of beer and baseball, of bed and board.

Clear religion utilizes what the West has identified as fundamental to our species, homo sapiens, thinking man. Man may love bread, but he doesn’t live by it alone. He thinks, studies, compares, classifies, and writes poems about it. Someone said no pleasure is complete until it is remembered. So Thick and Clear go together. Lewis argues that only two religions really combine these, Hinduism and Christianity.

But Hinduism fulfills it imperfectly. The Clear religion of the Brahmin hermit in the jungle and the Thick religion of the neighboring temple go on side by side. The Brahmin hermit doesn’t bother about the temple prostitution nor the worshipper in the temple about the hermit’s metaphysics. but Christianity really breaks down the middle wall of the partition. It takes a convert from central Africa and tells him to obey an enlightened universalistic ethic: it takes a twentieth-century academic prig like me and tells me to go fasting to a Mystery, to drink the blood of the Lord. The savage has to be Clear: I have to be Thick. That is how one knows one has come to the real religion.

The Son of man came eating and drinking. The Word of God took on flesh, and after his bodily resurrection Jesus ate fish and honey. In Him we see a continual adventure, truth and wonder for the mind, and exultant joy in the body; we find the way, the truth, and the life seamlessly woven together.

Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves in Three Generations

In his new book David and Goliath about the advantages of disadvantages, Malcolm Gladwell describes the rough upbringing of a kid in Minneapolis who would become a wealthy Hollywood producer. His father taught him the value of money by making him split the cost of things like new shoes or a bicycle. 

If he left the lights on, his father would show him the electric bill. “He’d say, ‘Look, this is what we pay for electricity. You’re just being lazy, not turning the lights off. We’re paying for you being lazy. But if need the lights for working–twenty-four hours a day–no problem.” (pp. 45-6)

His father told him how much things cost and made him adjust because times were tight. He worked in the family’s scrap metal business, lived in a bad neighborhood in business and law school to save money, and worked hard to rise to where he is now–living in a colossus in Beverly Hills with a gate “that looks like it was shipped over from some medieval castle in Europe.”

He worked hard to succeed and now wants to provide opportunities for his children, including the opportunity to learn the same lessons that brought him so much success. But now with millions of dollars, he lacks the incentive his father had to show his kids the electric bill. He’s never going to have trouble paying it which means what he learned by necessity growing up where he did, his children can only learn by artificial imposition.  Continue reading

Ending Spiritual Hokey Pokey

This article from The Atlantic (6/13) describes the testimonies of students who left the church and ended up members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). The Fixed Point Foundation conducted interviews with students all over the nation, and their findings are fascinating, showing the rise of atheism resulting from the dumbing down of discipleship in the church. 

Bonhoeffer famously said “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And many do. But if you bid someone come and find the answers to all his problems and have his best life now, or bid him come and have an awesome time playing twister and listening to the band, well, he comes but then he goes. If we make the message of the gospel, the person and work of Jesus, and the call to repentance vague or shallow, it should follow that people put a right foot in and a right foot out, and do the spiritual hokey pokey in and out of the church.

Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again. Continue reading

More About Formation than Information

The kids are back to school and the bustle begins: schedule, curriculum, books, assignments, all the fantastic accoutrements of learning. As this process picks up speed and the details of life in a classroom come flying at students and parents, it’s important to remember what is actually happening in this thing we call education.

What did you learn in eleventh grade? What classes did you take? If you can remember half the classes you took that year, you would be better off than most. If you can remember and put into practice particular skills you may have acquired or facts you memorized–equations from physics or calculus–it’s almost certainly because you use them today in your vocation or you happen to have a photographic memory. Or you cheated and just looked them up on Wikipedia.

I think it was Dorothy Sayers who pointed out in her essay The Lost Tools of Learning that a student is expected to forget most of what he learned in school by the time he is an adult. I feel better already. Of course she wasn’t talking about the ability to read or do basic math, but rather the vast minutiae of information we acquired and dutifully divulged on tests. Three years of college French left alone for ten years will be as forgotten as a campaign promise, n’est ce pas? Okay, at least the French can be recovered with review. But the point is that more is going on in education than a transfer of data. More is being learned than information.  Continue reading

The Danger of Divine Familiarities

“We are frequently told, indeed, that the great danger of the theological student lies precisely in his constant contact with divine things. They may come to seem common to him because they are customary. As the average man breathes the air and basks in the sunshine without ever  thought that it is God in his goodness who makes his sun to rise on him, though he is evil, and sends rain to him though he is unjust; so you may come to handle even the furniture of the sanctuary with never a thought above the gross earthly materials of which it is made. . . . The very atmosphere of your life is these thing; you breathe them in at every pore: they surround you, encompass you, press in upon you from every side,. It is all in danger of becoming common to you! God forgiven you, you are in danger of becoming weary of God!”

-B.B. Warfield from “The Religious Life of Theological Students”