Saturday, May 17, 2014

Real Work

Vivid memories are stored for numerous reasons, from shock or surprise, to excitement or pain. One such memory of mine is of a friend picking me up for a weekend adventure. Five minutes into our drive, she asked the question that made my hackles rise, "How long do you see yourself working in your current position?" 

Even now my heart rate increases and my blood pressure rises. I hear her underlying question, "When are you going to get a real job?" I could have retorted, in good Madeleine L'Engle fashion, "'What is real?' Is it that which our hands close around, which our eyes see? No! The things which are most real are unseen, according to St Paul. We 'know' not by sight, but by what something actually is. So what is a real job by your own definition?" I did not respond with a single inquiry, however.  It is difficult for me to articulate my position instantly, putting the question-asker on the defensive when they have clearly offended me. It is probably healthier for my friendships that I am slow on my feet when it comes to replies.

Though my answer that day did not cause my friend to question her assumptions, I have questioned them many times since then. Her query not only wounded my heart about my work, it revealed a sore misunderstanding of both reality and work. A 'real job' in my friend's mind boiled down to tangible ends: healthcare, pay checks, and a retirement plan. I am sickened to realise that most persons in our culture (and the civilised world at large) would agree*. Horror! 

Let us recall to mind St Paul's assertion that, "the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal." (II Cor 4.18b) Thus, the most 'real' things are intangible things like honesty, graciousness, patience, compassion, hope, and so forth. But I do not want to dwell upon reality so much as 'work'. What is work, and what is work for?

Often the word 'work' elicits a groan. Many persons think work is synonymous with 'unenjoyable misery' it seems. However, the Online Etymological Dictionary defines work thus: "physical labour, toil; skilled trade, craft..." And Dorothy L Sayers brilliantly and succinctly calls us to see work in this way:

I asked that [work] should be looked upon, not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfil itself to the glory of God. That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.
 ~ Dorothy L Sayers, Why Work
Some jobs are not worth doing. Many items do not fit a need and are not worth making*. A work should be undertaken because it is good in itself, or because it benefits others. Perhaps this is why many persons dread Mondays – they are not doing something that breathes life into their own or others' souls. Even more painfully, because what they are doing is not worth doing.

Another reason for frustration in work is that the goal of the work is good, but the way it is gone about is not structurally sound, so those good ends are never attained. I once worked helping children learn and grow, a most worthy calling in itself. Yet, I could not bear to be around my co-workers. They came in every day to earn a pay check and benefits, for recognition and renown. I saw children chastised and held back because my co-workers did not try to understand their little oddities or help lead them out of ignorance. For the brief time that I was there I sought to love on those children the most. In the end, I could not remain in my position because the whole structure was misdirected and fragmented, there was no redeeming it from the inside. 

Finally, what is work for? Ideally, our work should fulfil a need, bring order or healing, or serve and enrich others, while bringing us joy. Certainly things like street sweepers, rubbish collectors, waste management, and other unpleasant jobs must be done. We live in a world with rubbish and decay. But even those jobs seek to keep persons well and make towns aesthetically pleasing; they are simply different ways of being a doctor or an artist, who also keep persons healthy and make things that are pleasing to the eye. And when we bring order to a place, person, or situation there is a sense of satisfaction.

We are called to various forms of labour, as varied as the personalities we possess. And often we are called to a conglomerate of labours, each worthy in its own place – lifting this or that, writing, cooking meals to share, asking good questions to spur thoughtful conversation, saving lives, cleaning up sickness for a friend, making music, bearing and raising children... It is hard to birth an essay, as it is hard to lift fifty large boxes, or to raise children day in and day out. But just because a thing is difficult does not mean it is not a joy. And just because something gives life to our souls does not mean that it is not real work. And just because we do not earn a pay check for much of our work does not mean it is less important. When we enjoy the work of our hands, finding it pleasurable, then we may rejoice in the kindness of God. For He made us to take joy in creating, cultivating, and caring in multi-fold ways.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul. 
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait. 
~ A Psalm of LifeHenry Wadsworth Longfellow
(Stanzas two and nine)

Just as labour comes in many forms, so the payment of labour does, too. It may mean insurance or a pay check, or it may be satisfaction in the work, or it could be that someone goes home well, or that order and beauty have been made. My hope is that my life shows my friend, and those who share her mindset, that living life well, working hard, enjoying beauty, and loving others all go hand in hand. In the end I want to love others well through the work that I do. Let us then be up and doing, with a heart to labour and to love.

~ Johanna

*While it is good to work hard in order to afford travel, own nice things, etc., nothing in our world is certain. Not jobs, banks, health, retirement funds, or anything else. Only God is unfailing. 

*On this topic of work being a good in itself, see C S Lewis' essay Good Work and Good Works

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Art of Grieving

Drip-drop. Drop-drip. Plink! Glorious Spring rain drips off the gutter-less eaves of my cottage this forenoon; every now and then one drop making a sharp ping off something metal below. Steady, strong notes to set the rhythm for the day, those water-drops. I draw icy water for the kettle, waiting for its warm whistle as a Southwest wind kicks up its heels. The song of the rain slows, softens, becomes silent. Whirling this way and that come the downy flakes of snow. 

Pungent Earl Grey tickles my senses as I gaze long at the steady, slanting white. I am very much alone, but not in the least lonely. Solitude need not make one solitary. Fog, snow, roiling grey skies – they are all friends. The damp, chill, and quiet give one time to pause, to recalibrate the soul toward stillness and Beauty. When we make the time to hush, not writing, nor reading, nor listening to the ever-present music that pervades our senses, we are able to be. We are able to grieve or mourn, to ponder and reflect, to pray and listen, to know and be known.

Stillness and reflection often seem colossal threats to our current 'culture of noise'. Particularly in the process of grieving, perhaps the greatest conundrum in this age. In times-not-long-past, there was a set period for mourning in which the mourner at the least wore a black band on their arm, if not complete outfits of black. Now we hardly even say someone has died, but that they have 'passed away'. We have funerals and weddings in 'Life Centres' at cemeteries. Our culture seeks to sanitise death from all its ugly brokenness. I am very, very pro-life, but even I cannot ignore the effects of the Fall. We cannot pretend that death is routine, neat, and 'part of life'. It is not. It is a violent affront to God the Creator. It is madness and fragmentation at their extreme end.

Grieving is a slow process; whether it is the death of a loved one, the loss of a friendship, or the crumbling of a cherished dream. It takes silence and prayer to walk the road of sorrow. Yet, not even the evangelical church seems to accept this. Half-truths are still lies, yet they ring forth from our Postmodern Evangelical churches and the reams of pages in 'Christian' bookstores: God must always make bad things good. We must always smile and say we are well, that it is good to be alive. Christians are always to be happy, happy, happy - which translates to fake, fake, fake. God will make all things well, but probably not the way we think He should, and often not on this earth. It is good to be alive, because we were made for life - but 'good' does not mean 'easy'. 

The Anglican response to death in the prayer book does not ignore the creeping shadow of death, nor does it wallow in the Fall. It brings one's focus back to God, the Author of life, the Redeemer of death:
Thou only art Immortal, Creator and Maker of mankind;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and unto earth shall
we return. 
For so Thou did ordain when Thou created me,
saying, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
All of us go down to the dust... 
Yet even at the grave we make
our song: 
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Even at the grave we sing of the Hope to come. We weep and mourn in Hope. This is not easy. We may sing our alleluias through teeth clenched, through stinging tears. But we have Hope: Jesus Himself, the Resurrection from the dead for all who are 'in Christ'. And when death takes from us one who does not know God, we lament even more. Again, we cannot pretend that death is normal. It is grotesquely abnormal. We still mourn loss. 

Learning to lament takes times of silence, of being. It can take the form of long walks, writing poetry, playing or writing music, cleaning vigorously, cooking and baking (for oneself or others), painting or drawing, gardening, crying, and many other things. Strikingly, lamentation is often pro-creative. By that I mean that we find an outlet for grief, anger, and sorrow in making, in serving. 

Look at the first line of the Memorial Prayer - it calls God three things: Immortal, Creator, and Maker. We tend to think of the last two words as being synonyms, but they are Names and have nuances. A 'creator' begets - the thing begotten is from himself, is part of himself, like a child shares the 'humanness'  and DNA of its parents. A 'maker' is a companion or a spouse, as well as one who designs or constructs. So, the act of creation is intensely personal and part of the creator-begetter. The act of making is taking something already in existence and fitting it together; as one takes flour, water, and yeast to make bread; or wood, nails, and varnish to fit into a wardrobe; or chisels and marble to form a sculpture; or a man and a woman together fashion a marriage. 

In grieving we image God by making. We turn to pro-creation to pro-cess (move forward, continue). We seek solitude and silence in order to better serve, because the act of serving (helping one's neighbour with various tasks, inviting others over for dinner, etc.) brings us outside of ourself so that we do not dead-end in grief.

This brings up the other aspect of lamenting. To lament, I said, one needs times of solitude. But one also needs time with others. God says in the beginning that, "It is not good for the Man to be alone". God was right there with the Man, but still says he is 'alone' or without a match (or mate) of his own. We need other persons. We need friends and family who will be still with us, who will listen to us. We need others to serve with our creative acts. We need those close to us to cry with us, and also to make us laugh. 

The hush of snow is heralding a chance to ponder, time to be. This late Spring snow is a gift before I step into the bustle of Summer. The silence of a full day to process and grieve is worth the thanks-giving. Right here and now I learn to be still and know... and to be known.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

~ Johanna

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Love Will Have the Final Word: Jason Gray

When Jason Gray's ‘Love Will Have the Final Word’ came out, I had been listening to his previous album ‘A Way to See in the Dark’ on constant replay for about a month. I didn't think any other set of songs could really express my own steps in life better than that record… I was wrong.

When the song ‘Not Right Now’ came on, all I could do was sit there with wet eyes and a raw heart. Finally, someone who understood that Christians need to grieve. Not every song or story ends happily or quite the way we might want. Oh, God’s story ends better than the beginning – of that I am firmly convinced… Just, our stories have loss and pain and we don’t need happy-go-lucky pat answers. We need a place to grieve. We sometimes need our friends to shut up and sit down in the ashes with us.

Every song on the new album expressed the reality of brokenness, the depth of re-creation, the aching need for real friendship, and much, much more. I have never heard such a real, painful, hopeful set of songs that express the fall and redemption so powerfully and beautifully. 

~ Johanna