Monday, September 22, 2014

Work is a Sacrament?

Last week, I asked the question, is work a curse? While there are moments, and sometimes it’s longer than “moments,” when work can seem like a curse, the fact is that it is not. Like everything else, work was affected by the fall, and as a result our experiences in the workplace fall far short of the ideal. But work itself was created by God; the first example of work recorded in the Bible was creation itself. Work is a good thing; what a fallen humanity does to it can warp and distort it.

In the past two decades, another discussion about faith and work has arisen – and that is our tendency to divide work into “greater and lesser” or “higher and lower” forms. The ministry and the work of missionaries is viewed as “higher” or “greater” kinds of work, while the work the rest of us do is “lower and lesser.” While it’s not as common a view as it was 20 years ago, it’s still fairly common.

It’s also not Biblical. And such a view leads to distortions of its own, such as compartmentalize what you do in the workplace from what you do in church on Sunday. In fact, what we do in our jobs every day – all jobs – is worship.

In Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, Christopher Smith, John Pattison, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove expand on this idea of work as worship. They call work sacramental.

When I think of sacraments, I think of two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are the two sacraments recognized by the Protestant church (including my specific denomination), because they are the two specifically established (or singled out) by Jesus.

But work?

It’s important to note that the Slow Church authors don’t specifically call work a sacrament. They do, however, refer to it as sacramental (and I would add just as worship is sacramental). They specifically quote Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker, saying that “seeing work as a consequence of the fall saps it of its sacramental value.”

Work is sacramental in that it is owned by God; everything in the world is God’s and belongs to God, including the work we do. And one of the things we are to be about is redeeming work from the fall, just as we are to be about redeeming culture from the fall, and redeeming humanity from the fall.

It is all part of the whole. Our Christian faith is a whole faith, because our God is a whole God. And he owns all of the whole.  

What can the church do to help us be about this sacramental activity called work? The Slow Church authors cite several things.

Help people recognize and prefer good work over bad work.

Explore the possibilities (and limitations) of work as worship.

Champion work-related justice.

Recognize the human resources within our congregations and leverage them in the reconciling work of the kingdom.

I’ve been discussing Slow Church here for the past several Mondays. This post is the second of two parts on work; next Monday we’ll take a look at the discussion on the Sabbath.

Painting: A Cotton Office in New Orleans, oil on canvas by Edgar Degas (1873); Musee de Beaux Arts, Pau, France.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


He appeared to me last
not saving the best
but saving the worst
he appeared to me last.

To meet him wasn’t
to blind me was

He blinded me
so I could see,
I could not see
before the blindness.

My sight was imperfect.
Once you have seen,
all sight is imperfect.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sheila LaGrand’s Remembering for Ruth, Part 6: Police, Pizza, and Paparazzi

We’re approaching the conclusion of Sheila LaGrand’s Remembering for Ruth serialized novel, and the pace is quickening. 

The story so far: Paul and Margot Goodharte live in Calfornia, and are caring for Paul's mother, who suffers from Alzherimer's disease. Paul is a pastor; his black sheep brother Matthew shows up and seems to have had something of a black-sheep shedding experience. He becomes interested in next-door neighbor Sue, and the family has a coincidental meeting with Matthew's estranged daughter Amelia. The dog of former neighbors of the Goodhartes is left to them to care for, and Ruth becomes attached to him, naming him Zorro. The dog turns out to be a specially trained schutzhund, and obeys numerous commands -- in German. Amelia is invited to spend some time with the family, and when she arrives, she runs into immediate conflict with Matthew. And then the family discovers Ruth is missing. 

Part Six – Police, Pizza, and Paparazzi – focuses on the search for Ruth. The police are called in, Mrs. Delsey (the church busybody) gets involved and organizes the church’s youth group, and Matthew and Amelia set conflict aside while they search together for Matthew’s missing mother. The publicity-hungry mayor arrives, as does the news-hungry television news crew. The church busybody is only too happy to point the finger of blame at Margot Goodharte (author LaGrand has her do this effortlessly – drawing a picture of a church “type” we may all have experienced).

And then there’s the dog, Zorro – the dog sense something the people don’t. I kept wanting to shout, “Follow the dog! Follow the dog!” But you know how characters in a story are – they never listen to the reader.

I suspect LaGrand is enjoying writing the story. The basic premise – loving and caring for a patient with Alzheimer’s disease – is a serious one, but LaGrand keeps it from overpowering the characters and the plot. She uses occasional moments of laughter and even hilarity to leaven the seriousness. And she includes recipes of the foods mentioned in the story -- in this installment, they are pizza, crock pot oatmeal, and "Shredded Fiesta Chicken."

I’ll have to wait a few weeks to find out what happens to the church busybody. I have some suggestions, and know a place LaGrand can buy tar and feathers.

Photograph by RonMzr via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Business Books That Have Most Influenced Me

Over the years, I probably have read most of the self-help books that have taken the business world by storm. Speechwriters were almost required to do this, if for nothing else than finding a topical quote to use in an executive’s speech. In Search of Excellence. Who Moved My Cheese? The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The One Minute Manager. Reengineering the Corporation. Crucial Conversations. The Tipping Point. On Management. First, Break All the Rules. Made to Stick.

Many of these books had interesting ideas. However, the impact on me was nil, or close to nil.

But I did read books that changed my day-to-day work, transformed my work life, and made me think about work in a completely different way.

Most of them weren’t actually business books, however, or what we think of as business books. Many were about communication, which is no surprise because that’s the field I’ve worked in for my entire career. Some were academic works. Others weren’t.

Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (first published in 1964) is the source of the famous, almost clich├ęd statement “the medium is the message.” What that means is that the medium is as important as the message; some media are better for some kinds of communications than others. In this contemporary culture of the mania for “message points,” no one remembers what McLuhan said about the media themselves.

Eloquence in the Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking by Kathleen Hall Jamieson (1988) came at the mid-point of my speechwriting career. Jamieson’s focus was politics, and how the television sound bite had transformed political speech (and by extension, corporate speech). She did not see this as a good thing. She was right. Look at Washignton, D.C., where discourse has become all but impossible.

Poet David Whyte published two books that approximate “business books” – The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Corporate Soul in America (1994) and Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (2001) that had an enormous impact on how I thought about work, and what I understood work to be. (I also like his poetry.)

Walter Ong was a Jesuit priest who taught at St. Louis University. In 1982, he published Orality and Literacy, which in a sense continued the discussion started by McLuhan but broadened it to what was happening in human communication generally. I didn’t read the book until the mid-1990s, in the throes of just having started a (revolutionary-at-the-time) email newsletter and the company’s first web site. Ong helped me understand why I seemed to intuitively grasp electronic communication – it’s closer to an oral culture than a print culture (words encouraging to a speechwriter).

The late Neil Postman wrote two books that served as serious warnings in the rush to all things electronic: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1987) and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993). He wrote a number of other works as well (all of which I read) but these two provided the watch outs for embracing the internet and (later) social media.

More recently, and one closer to a traditional business book, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith published Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation and Earn Trust (2009). It shaped my entire approach at work to using social media. It still does.

Other books had an influence, but none like these eight. I still go back and read highlighted sections. And I remain surprised at how up-to-date they’ve remained.

Over at The High Calling, Jennifer Dukes-Lee is asking for what business books have influenced you the most. Check The High Calling to see what others are saying.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jill Paton Walsh’s “The Late Scholar”

From 1923 to 1937, Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of mystery novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, son of the Duke and Duchess of Denver. Lord Peter always seemed something of the quintessential English aristocrat, except one with a penchant for getting himself involved in murders and other nefarious situations.

Dorothy Sayers
Sayers was more than a mystery writer; she wrote plays, essays, literary criticism and poetry. She translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. And her writings on faith and Christianity so reflected Anglican  teaching that the Archbishop of Canterbury offered her a Lambeth doctorate in divinity (which she declined).

But it is for Lord Peter Wimsey that she’s best known today. The Lord Peter mysteries are still read, helped along over the years by television series. And there was one Lord Peter manuscript left unfinished by Sayers. In 1999, mystery and fiction writer Jill Paton Walsh stepped in and completed it, the title publishing as Thrones, Dominations in1999.

Walsh wrote two more Lord Peter stories (giving Lord Peter’s love interest and eventual wife Harriet Vane close to equal billing). A Presumption of Death was published in 2002, and The Attenbury Emeralds in 2011.

Now we have The Late Scholar. It is 1953, and Lord Peter discovers that he is the official “Visitor” at St. Severin’s College at Oxford, thanks to a generous donation made by an ancestor in the 1700s. And the Visitor is being asked to come to Oxford to break a college deadlock that has everything to do with tradition versus academic survival. The issue at hand is whether to sell an Anglo-Saxon copy of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, possibly annotated by King Alfred, so the college can buy a piece of land ripe for development, or hold on to what is the most prized possession of its library.

The vote by St. Severin’s fellows is split 50-50. The warden (head of college) who is supposed to break ties, had sided with keeping the manuscript, that is, until he disappeared. And then fellows start dying, in ways strongly suggestive of the plots of Harriet Vane’s murder mysteries. Threads are discovered leading to a savage five-year-old literary review in the Times Literary Supplement, a researcher’s suicide years before, and a beautiful and frightened woman living in an isolated house.

Jill Paton Walsh
Lord Peter (followed by Harriet) is on the scene, and the murders continue.

The Late Scholar is grand fun (fun in the sense of engaging murder mysteries). Walsh is faithful to the spirit of Sayers and her detective. No, it’s not exactly as Sayers might have written the story, but it’s close enough to be recognizable as a Lord Peter Wimsey story. And with deaths in organ lofts, attacks with ceremonial swords, and a murder via skylight, Walsh continues the Lord Peter Wimsey rather swashbuckling tradition of private detection.

Oh, and there’s Bunter, too, Lord Peter’s chauffeur, butler, cook and general factotum.

Yes, it’s great fun.

Photograph: A 1931 Daimler 4-seater; Lord Peter Wimsey owned a 1927 model (among others).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Day I Forgot to Wear My Mask

I was walking down the hall at the office. A person new to the department was walking toward me. As I passed her, I nodded and smiled and uttered the usual throwaway line. “How are you doing?” (The variation is, “How’s it going?”)

You don’t expect an answer. You’re being polite. But you’re not committing yourself to anything more than hearing a “Fine” in return. You have work to do, meetings to attend, people to talk to, all of the general busy-ness of contemporary work life.

“Do you really want to know?” she replied in an almost anguished voice.

She knew the politeness-in-the-hallway code. And something had prompted her to step out of it.

I stopped, and said what I didn’t really mean. “Yes. Are you okay?”

For the next 30 minutes (we moved to her office), a story poured out that seemed more like fiction than reality.

She came from a well-known and socially prominent local family. Her parents were always somewhere else, traveling. Her brother was in parts unknown. She was caring for an elderly aunt who alternated between lucidity and dementia, often in seconds. The aunt was terrified that someone would get control of her estate and have her committed to an institution, and for a very good reason: she herself had made a career out of doing exactly that – getting control of elderly people’s estates and then having them committed. To add to the mix, my new work colleague was being stalked by a distant relative, who himself was trying to get control of her aunt’s estate.

And all I had asked was how she was doing.

We became friends, and she became friends with my wife as well. We talked. We shared outside-of-work writing projects. We’d have dinner. It was only after we moved to a new town that our friendship gradually lessened. But our lives, and my life, was immeasurably enriched by that simple exchange in a workplace hallway.

None of us wore masks. My friend was feeling desperate. I decided to listen.

In The Cure: What if God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You, authors John Lynch, Bruce McNichol and Bill Thrall cite three categories mask-wearers fall into.

Those who try to convince others they’re doing “just fine.”

Those who are still searching for the next new technique to solve their issues and problems (and are the target audience of the self-help book publishing industry).

And those who wear the “pedigreed” masks – the postcard-perfect people who have everything together, no problems, no messy stuff in their lives.

The normal answer my work colleague should have made was “I’m fine, thank you” and walked on. But she didn’t. Her response caught me off-guard. I could have immediately donned a mask, probably the pedigreed mask. I could have listened politely and moved on.

But I didn’t. I could hear the desperation and even fear in her voice. So I listened.

And it changed my life.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Cure. To see more posts on this chapter, “Two Faces,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September Beats: Allen Ginsberg

They say all publicity is good. For poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), the publicity he received for the publication of Howl and Other Poems permanently defined his career.

It is 1955. Ginsberg has written a long poem he’s entitles “Howl” that is about capitalism and “the system.” In fact, the poem is a long “howl” about the system. It’s filled with vivid imagery, including sexual imagery, quite graphic sexual imagery.

Poet Louis Ferlinghetti, who owns the City Light Books bookstore in San Francisco, publishes the poem in a relatively small collection. William Carlos Williams writes the introduction. Ginsberg reads the poem publicly in late 1955. City Lights Books arranges the printing in London. The printed volumes arrive, and are promptly seized by customs officials.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.