The heresy of “our work”

I was a teen working with my grandfather during the summer break. At lunch one day he looked at me and begin to give me vocational advice. It began with “whatever you do, Donald, work with you head and not your hands. If you had to make a living working with your hands you would STARVE to death!” And somewhere in this one sided conversation he told me “A man’s work is his worth!”

Have you ever noticed that when we meet new people one of the first things we tell one another once we give our names – is our job – the work we do. Before we tell about anything else we rattle off our job information. We strut around our feathers displayed perhaps hoping to be the most impressive. And yet our job title or description or lack thereof says so little about who we really are.

My grandmother the widow of a cleric had reached her 80s and was not longer able to do all the things she was used to doing at church. She told me she got to feeling sorry for herself and when the rector visited she started saying how depressed she felt because she was useless and not able to do much anymore. She had expected sympathy. It was not to be (but more on that later)..

These three scenarios represent a prevalent heresy that is alive and well infecting far too many of us. Our identity and value is contained in what we do… The problem is that this flies in the face of the teachings of the Jesus in the Gospels. And yet it survives in and thrives in our current culture.

We begin to dismantle that cultural captivity when we begin to see ourselves as more than our profession or job title. When we understand ourselves to be unique individuals with gifts, values, interests and abilities that define who we are, we are free to be ourselves.

Back to my grandmother…The Rector later told me that he had simply said to her “Phyllis, I am surprised at you. HAVE YOU STOPPED PRAYING?”. She quickly answered “No!” He continued “You have been given the most important job of all – to support us with your prayers.” Prayer was part of who she was and yet she never related it to what she did. Yet that was a great gift she could give. And in recognizing it she reclaimed herself.

When we see ourselves as our jobs we claim very little of ourselves and when we no longer have the job title can think less of ourselves.

My grandmother set me straight in 8th grade when I was always picked last in gym class for teams, etc. I told her I “couldn’t do ANYTHING…” She looked at me and said with great authority “you are a child of God. And God doesn’t make junk!” After that it didn’t usually matter whether I was first or last pick, nor matter whether I was mowing lawns, working in a dry cleaner or being pastor of a parish, my identity is not the job – it is being a beloved of God and trying to fully live out what that means here and now.

About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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1 Response to The heresy of “our work”

  1. Amen! Beautifully and powerfully stated, Don. Thanks.

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