Experiencing God at Work (Audio)
Executive Editor of the Theology of Work Project, William Messenger preached this sermon at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Greater Boston in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is the sixth sermon in a series, "God in All Things." Click here to view and download the sermon notes in PDF format.
Special thanks to Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Greater Boston.
A talk at the Greater Boston Vineyard, May 10, 2015. Number 6 in the series “God in All Things”
This is the last talk in a series about experiencing God that’s been going on here at the Greater Boston Vineyard the past 6 weeks. This one is about experiencing God in your work. I am deeply honored by being asked to talk.
I have to say I’ve been nervous about this talk because I’m not sure that my experience of experiencing God is good enough for this. In a church like the Vineyard, a lot of people seem to have very exuberant experiences of God. But my experiences tend to be kind of subtle.
I think of Dave Schmelzer, our founding pastor, someone I admire and look up to. I remember he’d often say something like, “As I was thinking about this I asked God, and I felt God was saying something like….” And then Dave would say what God told him. Sort of like Harry Potter and Prof. Dumbledore talking in the train station —except Dumbledore is not God! Dave would tell us about his conversations with God, where he gets a good sense of God’s words to him. Not like spooky voices in your head or anything, but a verbal sense of God’s presence. And I remember thinking, “I wish God would talk to me like that too.”
But the fact is that doesn’t really happen to me. Let me tell you about the first time I was really longing to experience God’s presence. It was the summer I turned 15. I was at a work camp called Appalachia Service Project with my youth group. I was wrestling with whether I wanted to accept Jesus for myself. One evening I went on a long walk in the woods by myself to try to figure things out. I really wanted God to talk to me, to tell me what to do, or just to say “Hi, I’m here.” But I didn’t hear any words from God at all. I didn’t feel God’s presence. I do remember that the next morning I realized, “I am a believer.” But I definitely don’t remember having a talk with God on that walk.
Anyway, the main reason we were there was to fix up people’s houses. My team was working on Mr. Saylor’s house, way up in a holler past Pineville, Kentucky. I was replacing the floor on the front porch. Mr. Saylor was in a wheel chair due to black lung from working in the coal mines. The house was sort of slung on the side of a mountain, and Mr. Saylor couldn’t get down from the house without being carried. So the porch was his only outdoor space.
My job was to pull up the nails in the rotting floor boards, then bang out the bad joists, then cut new joists, nail them in place, and nail the new floorboards down. It looked like a two day job, but at the end of day 2, all I had accomplished was messing up the old porch without getting anything actually fixed. Plus every night after dinner my shoulder muscles were so sore they would sometimes shake. I wouldn’t say I was taking pleasure in my work just then.
But wouldn’t you know it, those sore muscles were the one place I did feel God’s presence. The work, the work I was doing seemed real to me. I felt like I was doing it for God, mostly because my youth pastor told us we were doing it for God. And because I could feel the work in my bones, it did feel real. It did feel like God was there. My faith was something I was doing, and I experienced God in the actions of hammering and sawing.
To this day, when I hear the passage from Matthew 25:21, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” I see it—or feel it—in the context of nailing wood, like that’s the work that God is praising. Jesus was a carpenter, maybe it’s not that far-fetched.
Years later someone finally explained what was happening to me. You can think of two dimensions of experience God’s presence. One is mental vs. physical. Another is words vs. no words. When you put them on a matrix, like this, you get 4 quadrants. Conversational prayer, like Dave often talked about is mental with words. Talking with God with your mind. Watching a sunset and feeling God’s presence is mental with no words. Dancing, singing, jumping, leaping—like we do in worship sometimes—is physical with words. And now we get to my home base of experiencing God, physical without words, like hammering nails. By the way, the “no words” doesn’t mean you can’t talk during the experience, like “pass the nails.” It means that the experience of God isn’t doesn’t have anything to do with the words. It turns out that lots of people experience God the way I did—the way I still do. I just didn't know it was a valid way of experiencing God’s presence.
This is important for understanding God at work because work is often physical, and it doesn’t usually include words related to God. But it’s still a way of experiencing God. You could repair a porch. You could climb a mountain. You could drive someone to the doctor’s office. You could brush your mother’s hair. You could enter data. You could ring up a sale. You could cook dinner. You could clean the house. You could write a progress review. You could experience God in all these ways, even though they don’t have any words about God. God isn’t “talking” to you when you do these things. But you could experience God’s presence without words.
This brings us to the first fill-in the-blanks line in your program. There are many ways of experiencing God’s presence. Some are focused on words, while some others are focused on actions. Different people tend to lean towards different ways of experiencing God.
What I’d like to do for the rest of the talk is give some examples of experiencing God through work, relate them to three categories about work that I’ve found in the Bible, and give some ideas about how you can develop your ability to experience God in those ways.
OK, the first category of experiencing God’s presence in your work is through your gifts and abilities, or skills. That’s then next line on your program.
An example of this is Eric Liddell, from the movie Chariots of Fire. The characters in that movie were real people, and during the events of the film, Eric is preparing to go to China as a missionary with his sister. But he’s also training to run in the 1924 Olympics. His sister, Jenny, complains that’s he’s insulting God by postponing going to China. In other words, her experience of God is mentally through words, and she wants to go to China and share God’s words with people who would never hear it any other way. That’s great, it’s not the only way of experiencing God. Eric tells her, “God also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt.”
To understand what Eric means, you have to remember that all our skill and abilities are gifts from God. That’s what the second scripture in your handout is about. “In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well….” Then it goes on to list some examples. Running isn’t one of the examples in this Bible passage, but Eric knows that all our abilities come from God. So taking pleasure in your abilities is a way of experiencing God’s presence.
This brings us to the next fill-in-the-blank on your program. An example of this in the Bible is when Jesus’ disciples fed 5000 people.
It’s the next passage in your program, Mark 6:35-37. Jesus has been teaching a crowd of 5000 people out in the wilderness. It’s getting late in the afternoon, and his disciples come to him and point out that there’s no place for the people to get dinner nearby. They think Jesus should send the crowd away to fend for themselves however they can. But Jesus says no, “You feed them.”
Remember, most of Jesus’ disciples were food service professionals. They were fishermen and fish sellers. Telling a food service professional to feed people is not a random miracle, it’s a miracle that intensifies the skills the people already have from God. They use their experience to rustle up a couple fish and some loaves of bread, then they start passing it around, and the everybody gets fed. It was a miracle, and it came about as the disciples’ were using their everyday skills and abilities while experiencing God’s presence.
I think this is a great passage in the Bible because the feeding of the 5000 is a pre-cursor of the last supper, where Jesus had his food service professional disciples prepare one more meal together. And this very day, you and I can still experience God’s presence in the Lord’s supper, and it all goes back to the disciples skills and abilities with food, while recognizing God’s presence in their work.
I’ve experienced God’s presence in using my gifts and skills, too, although I don’t always notice or pay attention to it. My job now is basically to organize writing by committee. I’m the editor of the Theology of Work Project, which consists of a group of 15 people from around the world who are writing materials about how the Christian faith applies to ordinary work.
So I’ve got these smart, accomplished, strong-willed scholars and they all have opinions, and their opinions disagree! My job is to help them find ways to fit their expertise together. And it turns out to be a good match with my abilities. Over the years I’ve discovered that God keeps giving me the skill of gathering people who think they disagree with one another to produce something new and innovative. In this particular example, by the way, my skills are mental, with words. I’m not sure I can really describe what I do, but I can tell you I enjoy it. When things come together, when we agree on how to say something, when a book or article is completed and published, it feels great!
The only thing I can compare it to is a jigsaw puzzle, when you finally find the right piece. That feeling of “aaahhh”. You know what I mean. It’s fun. It’s a pleasure. It’s an actual feeling, a good feeling.
What if the feeling of putting a jigsaw together is actually an experience of God’s pleasure in your work? What if you could recognize God’s presence, God’s pleasure every time you feel your pleasure of using your skills and abilities? When dinner comes out delicious. When you make the sale to someone who can really use your product. When the student you’re teaching makes the connection. When you complete the project on time. What if that were experiencing God’s presence?
This kind of pleasure in my work happens every day in small ways, every couple of weeks in significant ways, and once or twice a year in really satisfying ways, like publishing a book, or holding a successful conference. Yet I seldom recognize that what I’m experiencing is actually God’s presence, God’s pleasure.
So how can you get better at recognizing God this way?
You can develop this way of experiencing God by thanking God when you are making use of the skills God gives you. Something about giving thanks makes the experience stick better. It reminds you that God is the source of your abilities. Thanking God invites opens the door in your soul to experience God’s presence in your skills. Thanking God develops your ability to experience God’s presence—to feel his pleasure when you run.
So let’s move on to the second category. Another way of experiencing God’s presence at work is to meet real needs. An example of this in the Bible is Moses. This is the next passage in your program. "[The Lord said to Moses,] ‘The cry of the people of Israel has reached me, and I have seen how harshly the Egyptians abuse them. Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out of Egypt’…. But Moses again pleaded, ‘Lord, please! Send anyone else.’ Then the Lord became angry with Moses. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he speaks well. And look! He is on his way to meet you now. He will be delighted to see you.’ (Exodus 3:7-10; 4:13–14).
Like Moses, for some people this is especially powerful when it is done physically. This scene happens when Moses is at work as a shepherd. He’s leading his flock over a mountainside and suddenly he sees a burning bush and he hears God speaking to him from the bush. Very physical—the exertion of climbing the mountain with the flock, the heat of the flame, the feel of the ground beneath Moses’ feet after God later tells him to take off his shoes. Moses definitely feels God’s presence.
And God’s presence is there to get Moses to meet a real need—the need to get God’s people out of slavery in Israel. Moses resists. He points out that he’s a lousy public speaker, so God should send someone else. But this need is so important to God, that God won’t let Moses off the hook. You need public speaking skills, I’ll get you some help with that, like your brother Aaron. The important thing is that whenever you are meeting the needs I’m calling you to, I’ll be present with you. So Moses winds up with a new job, ambassador to Egypt, and God stays present with him in this job is some spectacular ways.
In fact, according to the Bible, Moses experienced God’s presence more fully than anyone else up to the time of Jesus. "There has never been another prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face." (Deuteronomy 34:10).
My story about working on Mr. Saylor’s porch fits into this category. I was helping meet a real need—Mr. Saylor’s need to have a flat surface to go outdoors on. I was meeting that need through my work. It wasn’t a paid job, but it was work, and all kinds of work counts to God. And I felt God’s presence in my body, my aching muscles. One of the best things anyone ever said to me came that week. My youth pastor said, “You’re making a difference in people’s lives.”
Now let me tell you about a time I failed to experience God’s presence in this category. When I was an IBM computer salesman, one of my biggest customers was a wholesale distributor in the pharmacy industry. They supplied drugs, health and beauty aids and all the other products you’d find on the shelves of a pharmacy or drug store. Their customers were independent, mom-and-pop kinds of drugstores. I was sold my customer, the wholesale company, an inventory control system that the drugstores could use to better manage the inventory on their shelves. In other words, their customers were having inventory problems like being out of stock of some things customers wanted to buy, but on the other hand having too much of other things. And if you have too much of a drug on the shelves, then you end up throwing a lot of it away because it expires before it gets sold. That was driving up prices for consumers and/or driving small drugstores towards bankruptcy. So this inventory control system I sold them was meeting a real need. And it was successful, and some of that success was due to my work in organizing the whole sales and implementation process.
But I have to say I never felt God’s presence in any of it. I should say, I never let myself feel God’s presence in it. I had it in my mind that business was business, and faith was faith, and the two didn’t really meet. So, while I was proud of my work in the inventory control system, I missed the opportunity to feel God’s presence in it. And who wants to miss the opportunity for a spiritual experience on company time! My loss.
What could I have done to open myself up to experiencing God’s presence in that work? Looking back, I see that you can develop this way of experiencing God’s presence by envisioning yourself in the face of the people your work serves. Putting yourself in their place. If I could just have connected with the difference my work would make in someone’s life, maybe I could have recognized God’s presence. Maybe I should have visited some of the drug stores and talked to the owners or clerks or customers. Seen what human values my work was helping achieve.
Let’s move on to the third category. You can also experience God through your desires around your work. Doing what you truly desire can be a way of experiencing God’s presence.
The next two verses on your handout talk about this. "Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires." (Psalm 37:4). "He grants the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cries for help and rescues them." (Psalm 145:19).
Now we all have lots of twisted desires, or false expectations, or selfish motives. But if you can get down to your true desires—the desires God implanted in you—then acting on them can be an experience of God’s presence. Let me show you a 2 minute video clip from someone who had this experience.
For me fashion is neither a skill nor a deep desire, as you can see. But God gave Megan a desire to do good fashion and to serve the people around her. And she feels God’s presence when she follows that desire. Awesome.
My deepest desire comes into my work as a dad. I’ve had a bunch of jobs in my life, and I love the job I have now. But the one job I most deeply desire to do, and to do well, is the job of parenting. One of the two strongest times in my life I experienced God’s presence was when my first daughter was born. This miracle of new life felt like the most important thing I had ever seen, and all I wanted was to be this child’s dad. The same with my other daughter too, though it didn’t come a such a surprise. If I could do one thing well in life, it would be parenting my children and being a good husband to my wife.
When I do the work of being a dad, I feel God’s presence. Throwing a ball, riding bikes together, getting a hug, correcting bad behavior, listening to the day’s events, taking a fear seriously, cleaning up dinner together, even changing a dirty diaper are all experiences of God’s presence. Not every time, I’m not that spiritually in-tune. But enough that I really do experience God’s presence in the activities of parenting.
An example of this in the Bible is Mary. God gave her the desire to be a mother, and the courage to say yes to being the mother of God’s son, even though she was warned, “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Did I say Moses experienced God’s presence more strongly than anyone before Jesus? That’s not quite right. Nine months before Jesus was born the spirit of God “came upon” Mary and “overshadowed” her and in her womb the Son of God was conceived. Imagine what it felt like to experience God’s presence that way.
About 10 years ago I realized that lots of mothers don’t feel like their work as mothers is valued as work by society, or even by the church. What a shame because the single most important calling in the Bible, the single most important work other that God’s, is Mary’s work in bearing and raising our Savior. Without Mary giving birth, changing diapers, making dinner, washing clothes, teaching and forming character, and everything else it takes to raise a child, where would we be?
Today is Mother’s Day, and it’s great that we get to celebrate the work of mothers. One of the few things that unites all of humanity is that we each have someone who gave us birth. That might or might not be the person we consider our mother, and we might have more than one person who mothered us, who raised us, who guided us who cared for us. The more mothering the better! for mothering is very godly work.
Now, if the quality of work is revealed by its outcome, then modesty prevents me from detailing how good my mother is. So let me must say thank you, Mother. I love you.
We’re talking about experiencing God through your desires around work, and there are lots of examples besides mother, father, and fashion designer. Artists and musicians come to mind—they’re famous for being passionate about their work. Or you may express your desires through hobbies or interests outside of paid work. And even in the most mundane job, you can fulfill your desires through your work. You might desire order and organization, and that’s a gift you can bring to your workplace, as long as it doesn’t tip into obsession. You might desire friendship and real connections with people. Every workplace needs more of that. You might take pleasure in clear communication, or a clean workplace, or welcoming new people, or closing a sale. I hope God is giving all of us a desire to do our work with excellence.
Now there’s a danger in all human desires, the danger of taking them too far of becoming obsessed. So following your desires requires spiritual maturity. Nonetheless our truest desire—the desires implanted in us by God—can become ways of experiencing God’s presence in our work.
You can develop this by expressing yourself in your work, perhaps to a co-worker or friend. Sometimes you can express your desire through the work itself, like creating art or the other examples I just gave. But it can also be helpful to talk about your desires at work, to share what delights you. Telling someone else, like a co-worker or a friend can help you recognize it better yourself.
I’ve come to the end. I’ve said that you can experience God mentally or physically, with words or without words, and that that experience can happen powerfully at work. I’ve given examples of experiencing God at work in the three categories of using you gifts and abilities, meeting real needs, and fulfilling your truest desires. And I hope you’ve found something in the examples that is helpful for your experience of God’s presence in your life and work.