Modern Readings about Work
These Modern Readings about Work are part of "Work in Worship," a collection of material for work-themed services compiled by David Welbourn. For more prayers, songs, readings and sermons, click on the table of contents to the right.
We know, when we stop to think, that we are dependent on industry, and yet we are unable to affirm industrial life as being of real worth. This is a basic sickness at the heart of our society, a failure in our fundamental attitudes. Put in religious terms, we are unable to relate our belief in the creative power and purpose of God to the existence of factories and mills and power stations and office blocks. In an agricultural society, praise is given to God for his power in the rhythm of seed-time and harvest, for his mercy in the fresh growth each year of grain and crops. Even today harvest festivals exercise an attraction even in the most urban of parishes surrounded by brick for miles and without a field or a farm within its boundaries.
Where is the corresponding affirmation of God at work within the industrial process? A piece of coal amidst the apples in the sanctuary, or a cog wheel among the chrysanthemums is nothing more than a reluctant admission that our lives today depend upon coal and cogs, upon oil and computers as much as upon crops and cattle. We need a joyful celebration of the worth of the industrial undertaking, a celebration which must have its religious aspect. When a Festival of Industry touches our hearts as deeply as does harvest festival, then we shall have overcome our sickness. Just as individuals cannot live in a healthy way if they deny part of themselve as evil, so societies cannot live in a healthy way if they believe that a significant part of their social life is somehow evil; or even if they feel that it is dubious. There is nothing dubious about converting the wealth of resources with which God has endowed this world into means by which human beings may live and realise the purposes for which God has created them.
(The Bishop of Ripon, 1978)
It is easy but wrong to glamorise the Bible's view of work. Human beings, "in the image of God", and given dominion over the earth, are made to fulfil themselves in creative activity. This belongs to their high destiny. But there is no sentimentality here. Human work is tainted through the Fall. The consequences are reflected in working conditions. Some find their work stressful; others are concerned about the value or morality of what they are doing. Some find their work dull, or exhausting - not healthily so but just debilitating. There are many whose problem is that of no work and their number is increasing.
Human work belongs in the realm of God's redemption. The Church must take more seriously its place within the divine purpose; clergy and laity together must share in uplifting all who labour, seeking to renew the economic order and holding before all the promise of a brighter future. One contemporary work is of special import: the word "technology". For some it raises fears of unemployment as machines take over from people. For others it spells excitement and the chance to overcome our many problems. Could it be that the scientists and technologists of our age have been raised up by God for the redemption of his people, even if many of them know him not? Used according to the divine will, the new instruments they have produced may liberate from drudgery, end dehumanisation and save our threatened environment. Under God, technology could play a significant part in enabling us to be a real community, freed for the creative work of caring for each other and the planet.
(Adapted from sermon notes produced by the Industrial Society, 1978)
Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath - a great Cry - which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leapt up within it and violently shook its roots: "Away, let go of the earth, walk!" Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, "I don't want to. What are you urging me to do? You are demanding the impossible!" But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, "Away, let go of the earth, walk!"
It shouted this way for thousands of eons; and lo! as a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.
Animals appeared - worms - making themselves at home in water and mud. "We're just fine", they said.
"We have peace and security; we're not budging!"
But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. "Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!"
"We don't want to! We can't!"
"You can't, but I can. Stand up!"
And lo! after thousands of eons, human beings emerged, trembling on their still unsolid legs.
Human beings are centaurs; their equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but their bodies from breast to head are worked on and tormented by the merciless Cry. They have been fighting, again for thousands of eons, to drag themselves, like a sword, out of their animalistic scabbard. They are also fighting - this is their new struggle - to draw themselves out of their human scabbard. The human being calls in despair, "Where can I go: I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss". And the Cry answers, "I am beyond. Stand up!"
(Nikos Kazantzakis, 'Report to Greco' - slightly adapted)
Faced with ethical dilemmas, conflict, stress and other problems, those who exercise their ministry at the front line may be tempted to give up and get out. Sometimes people may mistake their inability to reconcile Christian values with secular values as a divine call to resign and seek ordination! This may sometimes be the right thing to do. God may indeed be calling more lay people into the ordained ministry.
However, more often than not, God's call to lay people is to 'stay put'. That is what 'incarnation' is all about... staying in the thick of it! Although it may not always be easy to reconcile Christian values and secular values, some degree of responsible compromise is frequently necessary. Compromise is not always a dirty word. It may, for example, be more responsible for a Christian who is a director or a trade union official to stay at his or her post when beset by alien values and attempt to influence affairs from within, than to resign and opt out. The Christian in public life can never do more than push public affairs slowly in a Christian direction. The speed with which Christians can do this may depend upon their realism about public affairs. It is not easy to head straight for the desired goal. A zig-zag approach may be the only feasible way forward. Sometimes we are in the 'zig' and sometimes we are in the 'zag' but we press towards the goal. This can produce a great deal of stress. Hence the importance of relevant support through prayer, worship and sensitive groups of people. In the end God himself supports people at the front line but his presence is not always easy to discern. We have the assurance of the risen Jesus that "he goes ahead of his disciples into Galilee". Our Galilee is our secular activity. Wherever we go, wherever we work, whatever responsibility we have in public life, Jesus is with us, supporting us and ministering alongside us at the front line.
(Denis Claringbull 'Front Line Mission')
Christians have a crucial role to play in influencing companies, organisations and society for good. The odds against them doing so are, in worldly terms, formidable. Christians often feel desperately outnumbered at their place of work. The distinctive contribution which they bring to bear on events may seem negligible. As they look back on their actions at the end of a day, or even at the end of a career, they may well be inclined to ask themselves: 'Do not even pagans do that?' [Matthew 5:47]. The New Testament does not encourage a spirit of naive triumphalism. The forces of evil are powerful, and they are still alive and kicking. But the rise of the early Christian church, allied to the teaching of Jesus, gives grounds for hope that great things can develop from distinctly modest beginnings. Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven as a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds which grows into the greatest of shrubs. He also uses the image of leaven: "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened" [Matthew 13:33]. Christians who are truly worth their salt (which was another metaphor Jesus used about them) are infiltrators of the world in which they operate, permeating and purifying and penetrating for the forces of good and of God.
(c. Richard Higginson 'Called to Account')
Blessed are the poor...
not the penniless
but whose whose heart is free.
Blessed are those who mourn...
not those who whimper
but those who raise their voices.
Blessed are the meek...
not the soft
but those who are patient and tolerant.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst
not those who whine
but those who struggle.
Blessed are the merciful...
not those who forget
but those who forgive.
Blessed are the pure in heart...
not those who act like angels
but those whose life is transparent.
Blessed are the peacemakers...
not those who shun conflict
but those who face it squarely.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice...
not because they suffer
but because they love.
The development of economic activity and growth in production are meant to provide for the needs of human beings. Economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole person, and of the entire human community. Economic activity, conducted according to its own proper methods, is to be exercised within the limits of the moral order, in keeping with social justice so as to correspond to God's plan for human beings.
Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: 'If any one will not work, let him not eat'. Work honours the Creator's gifts and the talents received from him. It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, human beings collaborate in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. They show themselves to be disciples of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work they are called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ. In work, persons exercise and fulfil in part the potential inscribed in their nature. The primordial value of labour stems from people themselves, who are its authors and its beneficiaries. Work is for people not people for work.
All of us should be able to draw from work the means of providing for our lives and that of our families, and of serving the human community.
All of us have the right of economic initiative; all of us should make legitimate use of our talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all, and to harvest the just fruits of labour. We should seek to observe regulations issued by legitimate authority for the sake of the common good.
Economic life brings into play different interests, often opposed to one another. This explains why the conflicts that characterize it arise. Efforts should be made to reduce these conflicts by negotiation that respects the rights and duties of each social partner: those responsible for business enterprises, representatives of wage earners - for example, trade unions - and public authorities when appropriate. The responsibility of the state. Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical or political vacuum. On the contrary, it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principal task of the state is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labours and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly...
Another task of the state is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the state but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society. Those responsible for business enterprises are responsible to society for the economic and ecological
effects of their operations. They have an obligation to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits. Profits are necessary, however. They make possible the investments that ensure the future of a business and they guarantee employment.
Access to employment and to professions must be open to all without unjust discrimination: men and women, healthy and disabled, natives and immigrants. For its part society should, according to circumstances, help citizens find work and employment.
A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. Remuneration for work should guarantee people the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for themselves and their families on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level, taking into account the role and productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good. Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.
Recourse to a strike is morally legitimate when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit. It becomes morally unacceptable when accompanied by violence, or when objectives are included that are not directly linked to working conditions or are contrary to the common good.
It is unjust not to pay the social security contributions required by legitimate authority.
Unemployment almost always wounds its victim's dignity and threatens the equilibrium of his life. Besides the harm done to him personally, it entails many risks for his family.
(From the Roman Catholic Catechism - adapted [c.] )
Probably for the first time in human history there is a widespread awareness of the inter-locking character of human social organisation across the face of the globe. The organisation of the human race in national states continues to be one of the most prominent and necessary ways in which our race organises itself for many common purposes. Yet the existence of trans-national organisations and the ever growing means of communication and transportation has brought about the need for true international types of social organisation to regulate human affairs. We are clearly members of one race and what touches a human being in one part of the world will have consequences for all other human beings.
The Church, in her formal teaching, has never officially taught that one specific form of social or political organisation is necessarity more in accord with gospel values than another. The Church's teaching magisterium has taken care to point out the offences to human dignity which some political systems seem to present but there has been no canonisation of any particular system. Where then are we to find a new vision of society which will be adequate to respond to the challenge presented by new technologies and horizons?
A new vision of society has to arise from a combination of capacity to expect and manage change while holding on to an enduring conviction as to the true dignity and future of the human person and the human race. Change comes about in human affairs as a result of the gift of God to humankind to be made in his image and likeness and hence a co-creator and lord of this creation, shaping it ultimately to the glory of God. The enduring conviction of human dignity and our union with Jesus Christ the worker of Nazareth will act as a necessary defence and corrective to the impulses of selfishness and pride which can destroy human social organisation at local, nation and international level.
In this way and with these convictions, whatever choices human beings must make in the construction of the necessary social organisation under which society must operate, the poor will not be excluded from the common good; no individual or class of persons will be marginalised; the danger of the consequence of sin in each of us and in society will be recognised and combatted. Thus it is not organisation in itself, regulated solely by a simple search for obvious efficiency, but the full Christian vision of the human being, including the role as worker, which offers the hope for the future progress of our race.
(Bishop John Jukes OFM Conv.)
In setting us free to be his children, God wants to enlist us in his service as co-workers with himself in the business of the kingdom; we are to labour with God to humanise the universe and to help his children become ever more fully human, which is a glorious destiny - you see, God created us in his image. It was not to animals or spirits that he gave this splended privilege; and when he chose to intervene decisively in our affairs, he did not come as a magnificent and impressive awe-inspiring beast or as a glorious spirit but he became a human being. Thus our humanity is for ever united with divinity. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are God-carriers.
(Bishop Desmond Tutu)
I live in a world where air, trees, plants, water and fire, creatures and lands link to each other for food, for life, for balance, for use. A world which was made for them all - and for me.
God lives a life of holiness, joy, balance and truth, of justice and peace where Spirit links One with the Others, in love.
God looked, and God said, 'Let us make! Let us make!' So God spun the whole universe from atom to galaxy in the web of his love. It was great, it was good, there was meaning for all. God even provided true meaning for me.
But the story went on: there was trouble for earth; for we humans did not get the drift of God's plan. The web became tattered and torn; lost were justice and peace.
So God moved in again and at fearful expense made a way to restore the great tangle we'd made. So I live in a world where the lines of the tangled web and the love of God co-exist for a time. Praise to God for the web, for the way he re-plans our chance to create again, to make Love.
(Daphne Fraser - adapted)
All Christians are called to act.
For stating principles is not enough.
To point out injustice is not enough.
Prophetic cries are not enough.
Words lack weight
unless we all become responsible,
and act effectively.
To pass on to others
the blame for injustice
is all too easy.
Each of us has a share in it.
The first thing we need
is a personal conversion.
Such basic humility
keeps all our action
flexible, unsectarian, brave,
in the face of the immensity
of what we have to do.
The Christian's hope
rests on this knowledge:
the Lord is working
in the world.
Through his body, the Church,
through the whole of humankind,
Christ continues his Redemption,
accomplished on the Cross,
and bursting forth in victory
on Resurrection morning.
(From 'This is Action', Section 48 - a popular version of Octogesima Adveniens, an Apostolic Letter of Pope Paul VI)
Christ became a man of his people and of his time: he lived as a Jew, he worked as a labourer of Nazareth, and since then he continues to be incarnate in everyone. If many have distanced themselves from the Church, it is precisely because the Church has somewhat estranged itself from humanity. But a Church that can feel as its own all that is human, and wants to incarnate the pain, the hope, the experience of all who suffer and feel joy, such a Church will be Christ-loved and awaited, Christ present. And that depends on us.
(Oscar Romero, 1978, quoted in his book 'The Church is All of You' Collins (Fount) 1985, p.54)
Unemployment is feeling utterly useless as far as one's contribution to society is concerned.
Unemployment is seeing everyone else with a job, a purpose, while you wander around aimlessly.
Unemployment is having to face the indignity, time and time again, of signing on with the same DSS assistants.
Unemployment is the guilt of having to rely on society's money in order to simply exist.
Unemployment is the shame of bumping into colleagues in the city, former workmates from the times when the going was relatively good.
Unemployment is seeing that one's clothes are wearing out and yet not knowing where the next set is going to come from.
Unemployment is getting a pair of the cheapest shoes in town, smelly and ill-fitting and looking cheap.
Unemployment is having to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, not knowing how you're possibly going to get through or fill the day.
Unemployment is often absolute loneliness for hours on end.
Unemployment is seeing a new book you want in a shop and knowing you cannot afford it.
Unemployment is wanting to go to see a play at the theatre, or a film at the cinema, and knowing you cannot afford it.
Unemployment is experiencing the distance of relatives and friends, because they also do not know how to cope with the despair and desperation of the situation.
Unemployment is suddenly losing friends who simply do not want to know you any more, or relatives who simply can't be bothered to accept the pain of caring enough.
Unemployment is being too old for even Restart to bother with you.
Unemployment is taking it out on the wife because you've no-one else to take it out on.
Unemployment is an unshakable whinge and whine and moan because you don't know where else to put your frustration.
Unemployment is to be kicked about by DSS and Council officials without any status or redress.
Unemployment is to be told you don't qualify for benefits even when you've followed all the rules.
Unemployment is being offered the dirtiest, noisiest and most vulnerable flats in town.
Unemployment is having to borrow from friends in order to survive until the next dole cheque.
Unemployment is absolute terror when the dole cheque doesn't arrive on time.
Unemployment is simply surviving one day at a time.
Unemployment is to lose yourself in drink or cheap sex as sheer necessary escape.
Unemployment is to seriously consider suicide.
Unemployment is sometimes to feel that the whole world has forgotten you.
Unemployment is to get washed and shaved in the morning for you do not know what.
Unemployment is to stop wearing masks because you no longer have the energy to maintain them.
Unemployment is to find a strength and a courage and power and a will-to-live within yourself that you never knew you had.
Unemployment is time to review the past for what it was, even if you cannot see much of a future.
Unemployment is developing a hard nose to take any blows the world may hurl at you.
Unemployment is a determination to stick up for one's rights whatever the cost.
Unemployment is a coming closer to God, a going deep within yourself and finding the deepest spiritual roots.
Unemployment is seeing prayers answered in little ways every day.
Unemployment is seeing the unmistakable hand of Providence at work every day.
Unemployment is potentially a unique destiny granted by God.
Unemployment is an opportunity to become spiritually grounded like you've never been before.
Unemployment is seeing the society around you with the eye of Spirit: greedy, grasping, materially obsessed and insane.
Unemployment is making yourself rich by making your wants few.
Unemployment is being appalled at society's worship of consumer idols, its superficial and empty vanity, its utter lack of meaningful values.
Unemployment is seeing clearly "I'm all right, Jack" and "What can I do anyway?"
Unemployment is seeing the futility of laying up treasure on earth instead of treasure in heaven where rust cannot corrupt.
Unemployment is finally accepting the gift of the desert, the urban slums where life - and values - are turned inside out.
Unemployment is seeing:
In the desert, a highway ...
In the desert, a flower ...
In the desert, a fountain.
I journeyed to London to the timekept City
Where the river flows with foreign flotations.
There, I was told, we have too many churches,
And too few chop houses. There I was told:
Let the vicars retire. Men do not need the church
In the place where they work, but where they spend their Sundays.
In the City we need no bells:
Let them waken the suburbs.
I journeyed to the suburbs, and there I was told:
We toil for six days, on the seventh we must motor
To Hindhead or Maidenhead.
If the weather is foul we stay at home and read the papers.
In industrial districts there I was told
Of economic laws,
In the pleasant countryside, there it seemed
That the country now is only for picnics.
And the church does not seem to be wanted
In country or in suburb; and in the town
Only for important weddings…
The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder
Or irregular labour which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the wine press alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their dividends.
I say to you make perfect your will.
(T S Eliot ‘Choruses from the Rock’)
Light in the City
Look for the lights that will shine today in this city of…
the light of honourable commerce and business
the light of deep concern for human needs
the light of humble research
the light of wise teaching and diligent learning
the light of unassuming service
the light of leisure and travel appropriately enjoyed…
… each a part of the light of Christ.
You will have to wage a twofold fight in the heart of the city:
for God and against evil.
There you will receive a double grace:
a meeting with God and purification from your own sins.
In the city you will have to struggle and contemplate.
What the early monks set out to seek yesterday in the desert,
you will find today in the city.
Oppose eroticism, prestige and money,
with the firm contrast of a life of moderation, humility and purity.
Fight noise with your silence;
weariness with your peace;
endless comings and goings with your repose in God.
No cloister will protect your prayer;
the countryside will not bring you serenity;
the walls of your enclosure will not preserve your virtue.
Followers of Christ,
you are summoned to a real struggle
in the heart of the city.
(From the Jerusalem Community Rule of Life, adapted)
I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who deal in false dreams (Jeremiah 23:32 REB)
If the Gospel possesses us, we shall not be able to help showing that we have loyalties to a kingdom with a radically different understanding of what life is all about.
To those who worship the great financial director in the sky and whose priests are stockbrokers and bankers, we shall be declaring the God who pours out his riches for all.
To those who expect us to wheel out a tribal deity on special occasions to give credence to narrow national aims and prejudices, we shall be declaring the God whose love knows no boundaries and to whom every woman and man is dear.
To those consumed by ambition or greed, driven to climb higher or amass wealth without a thought for those they hurt in the process, we shall be declaring the God who calls us to life in community, where the joy of strength is the ability to support the weak.
To those who see life in terms of aggressive confrontation, we shall be declaring the God who suffers and forgives, that he may bring his scattered people back into one family.
To those who habitually use New-speak, calling retrogressive legislation reform, who are not so much economical with the truth as deliberately camouflaging their actions with falsehoods, we shall be declaring the God who cannot be fooled by any public relations exercise, however brilliantly it may be conceived.
At a time when successive Acts of Parliament are widening the already unacceptable divisions in our society, we shall be witnesses to the claims of the God whose justice is concerned, not with statutes, but with right dealing by the disadvantaged, and who holds us responsible for the way we treat our less fortunate sisters and brothers.
If the Gospel really possesses us we shall show in our living a fellowship in Christ of women and men who rejoice that they have a measure of strength to help the weak, a measure of wealth to share with the poor, a reservoir of love from which they may draw to refresh the unloved and the rejected, and a passion for justice to confront the often squalid legality of our times.
(Edward Banyard, from his Moderator’s Address to the URC Assembly 1988, c. ‘All Year Round’, 1996, The Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland.)