Worked to Death

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Bob Trube2I never had a father-in-law. My wife’s father passed away a few months before we got engaged. Her uncle walked her down the aisle. Listening to my wife’s stories, I wish I’d had the time to get to know him better. He was a blue collar worker in a manufacturing plant in Youngstown. He retired early on disability. In many ways, work took a severe toll on his body, and he died within a few years of retirement. It didn’t happen to everyone, but it is the story of many men in his generation, subject to physically demanding work and exposed to numerous chemical toxins before we knew the effects they could have.

Rich’s sermon this past Sunday explored the ways that work and death have been intertwined since the “crash”, as Rich put it. Adam and Eve refused to work God’s way by working to be like gods through partaking of the tree instead of working in trusting dependence upon God to sustain their lives. Instead of work being a kind of joyful and playful tending of God’s delightful world, it becomes hard and toilsome. Work itself wasn’t “the curse” but work came under the curse of a fallen existence running down toward death.

Work was a good thing that got messed up. Down inside us we still have this drive to use skill and intelligence to do something really well, whether it is to repair an automobile or mobilize a community service project, to write elegant computer code or to intelligently manage an organization. Yet even our noblest efforts seem fraught with difficulty. I work in a collegiate ministry I love with a wonderful team of students and colleagues. Yet death in various forms intrudes: a colleague or their spouse faces a serious illness, we subject ourselves to destructive anxiety in juggling competing demands, miscommunications and misunderstandings arise that gnaw at the pit of your stomach, or a piece of office hardware dies just before an important conference.

I was also challenged by the thought that our work may be part of a system that contributes to the death of others. As Ben noted, the computer I am writing this post on may have been made under terrible working conditions, as is much of the computer and communications technology we use. In some cases, the factory conditions have been so bad and the constraints on workers so great that some have concluded the only way out is to take one’s own life. It’s complicated sometimes–maybe the major thing we can do is communicate our concerns with vendors we most work with. I have known faculty who chose lines of research not funded by defense budgets or that had applications that could contribute, as far as they could tell, to killing.

Yet I also think we need to exercise care and humility as we talk about this with thoughtful Christians in the military, defense-related work or who serve as peace officers. For many, their work is focused on preventing war or guarding the law-abiding so far as that’s humanly possible in a fallen world and protecting the innocent when it is not. One of the things I wonder about for those of us in the ‘peace church’ tradition is how we might engage with thoughtful Christians who believe they are fulfilling their calling in Christ in defense or police work, even if we believe we may not join them. How do we deal with the fact that we may benefit from efforts we cannot in good conscience engage? It seems that we cannot help but be implicated in these systems that arise in a fallen world. Sadly, the tragedy of the intertwined nature of work and death is that even our best attempts often end badly and technology designed for good may nevertheless by used to kill. We might cut our losses (and should), but we can’t fix this thing. We need salvation in the ultimate sense!

Rich pointed out that we live between the world that is and the world that is to come. He concluded with some thoughts about working in light of the world to come. I wonder if one of the things this means is the recovery of the joyful, playful, and creative aspects of our work wherever possible in ways that bring the blessing of God to others. It can be joyful and fun to leave a generous tip at a restaurant, as Rich mentioned. It can be creative and life-giving to find ways in the company we work for to ensure that all our workers get a living wage. I wonder sometimes for those of us who seek to address the problems of the world whether an over-seriousness betrays inordinate and death-dealing anxiety. Where is the place for joyfulness and playfulness in these efforts? Isn’t there joy in any work done that saves or brings life? A simple example for me is the joy and laughter I’ve often experienced at our food pantry as we’ve sorted food we haven’t worked for and help people cart box loads of that food to their cars. Hunger and poverty are serious yet our joy and laughter point to the generosity of a God who meets us at our place of need and brokenness. And don’t we mimic the Creator when we pause after a work-day, or a performance, or when we’ve completed a piece of work that has gone well, and just savor the goodness?

By this we say that death doesn’t have the last word in our work, but the life of the world to come.

Play as recreation: part 2

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Last week Rich talked about play as recreation in three parts.  I’d encourage you to read Ben’s post on Tuesday for an explanation of what this is.  Rich brought out play having three basic functions:  (1) play helping us grieve or work out our frustration, which Ben discussed at length in his post, (2) play allowing us to flex our strengths, and (3) play returning us to ourselves.  Since Ben discussed the first of these, I’ll take the last two.

The 2nd of these is that play allows us to flex our strengths.  Unless you have been blessed with having a job that allows you not only to pay your bills, but do something you love, this may look different.  I have a job that “just pays the bills.”  It is not what I went to school for.  I wanted to be a sports broadcaster, not a collection agent, which is vastly different.

I have learned however to take something I am good at and use it well.  Oddly enough, I am good at my job.  You may be thinking, well, you are not mean so how can you be good at collections?  Let me say, that is a stereotype that I have found is not true.  Most collection agents are not mean, money-grubbing, soulless jerks.  Most are good conversationalists that will try to help you pay your bills the best you can, in a timely manner.  It does however take some effort on your part too to be able to listen to the advice the agent gives and use it well.

This however is not play for me.  It is a job.  I don’t take my work home.  I can’t.  Or else I’d probably be angry and bitter.  I can say however that my strengths, skills and talents are being leveraged here.  I have been given the chance to use these well.  It also serves me well in the church I serve at.  I listen well.  I can give advice if asked.  I like to help others.  I care for others well being.  All of these skills and talents are seen in my job and my service at Smoky Row–just in different ways.

So what are your strengths, talents and gifts?  Are you leveraging those to the best of your ability? Are you doing what you love?

These questions then lead us to examine who we are.  Play as recreation should point to who we are.  If you don’t know who you are, Rich suggested, go play.  Find something you enjoy to do and do it.  Once you do, you will find out who you are and how you feel about yourself.

How is your soul?  How is your spirit?  Are you enjoying life?  If not, maybe you should play more often.  Just a thought.  Life should be enjoyable.  Play is a needed thing in life.  Otherwise, you’ll just get tired and miserable.  Play can not only help us identify our strengths it shows us the core of who we really are.  And that is a good thing.

So this weekend…go play.

Blowing Off Some Steam

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Rich talked about recreation this week, which is an awful lot like play, though maybe a little bit different. It’s the fancy adult word we use for play, though in this case Rich talked about a particular kind of playful activity, namely play as a restorative force. Restorative, but not restful.

On my planet, to rest is to rest. To cease using energy. To me, it is quite illogical to run up and down on green grass using energy instead of saving it.” ~Spock (TOS: Shore Leave)

Ben TrubeRecreational restorative play has three functions: to help us to grieve and work out frustration, to flex our strengths and to return us to ourselves. Today I’m going to focus on the first of these, play as a way to re-direct or work out anger, frustration, guilt, etc.

I, like most adult males, occasionally have days that make me want to punch something. But I’m a civilized 21st century male who wears fancy dress pants (though not a tie), and who must attempt to avoid beating the people who annoy me senseless.

So I play video games.

Or at least I used to when I had time. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as a first person shooter for venting off anger. This isn’t exactly flexing a strength; while I’m a capable player, I by no means am a match for elite players, or even particularly difficult AI’s. But wandering through an alien ship, taking out biological anomalies can be satisfying.

The only problem is, this form of recreation can equally cause you to loose track of time, or the feeling in certain fingers and in your behind. It can ramp up feelings as well as diffuse them. Now believe me, I’m not a pro or anti-gaming evangelist, but it is a popular way for people of my age and our time to deal with stress and attempt to recreate.

I have tried to channel feelings into productive energy for writing. This has varying degrees of success. Usually it only works when how I’m feeling corresponds to what I’m trying to write. Otherwise it’s hard to convert distracting energy into something useful. And truthfully, writing isn’t really recreation for me, it’s a passion and a job.

I’ve personally found that walking around and doing something physical can help, even something as simple as walking the dog, though there is part of me that resists for some reason the idea that physical activity has any effect on my mood or my energy. I think it is the downfall of having both programming and writing as passions to believe that every problem can be solved inside my head. Even the video game to a certain degree is a much more mental activity than a physical one.

When I was in college I sang in the Men’s Glee Club. I felt this was essential (in addition to being fun) because it forced me to think in a different way than I usually was, and it was physical in that there was breath control, and even the shape of one’s throat to think about. You had to use your ears to listen to everyone around you, and produce the correct notes on your own, eventually off book.

I think it’s important to have something, anything, that gets you thinking and doing differently than what it is you do the rest of the week. It makes you a more well rounded person, and it helps prevent getting stuck in ruts. What works for me may work for you, or more likely something else. The key is, to allow yourself time for these recreations, and not always to feel like you should be getting something done, or doing something productive. Even as a guy who’d like to write 20-30 books in my lifetime, there’s time to walk the dog.

– Spock to Kirk, declining shore leave

God at Play?

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“Work that’s unrelated to want.” That’s how our pastor defined “play” in a message on “the Christian at play.” This sparked some thinking about what it was that God was doing in the “work” of creation. If this definition is accurate, God was in fact at play, because there was no want or necessity in God’s creation. God didn’t create because God “had to.” All this was done simply for God’s pleasure. In the old King James Version, Revelation 4:11 says, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”

One gets a sense of God at play in making the creation. He says, “let’s do so and so” and it springs into existence, and then at the end of each day, he looks at this and says, “that was goo-ood!” (Bob’s paraphrase!). When he creates fish, he creates a bazillion different kinds. He doesn’t just make green, but an infinite variety of greens. And he gives human beings eyes that can distinguish those shades.

Was God at work or play in creation? Genesis 2:2 says, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” It sounds like God is in fact working, But then I notice the rest part. Was God wiped out from doing all this stuff? I don’t think so. Genesis says he “had finished”. One senses that God is admiring and delighting in what God had done–savoring the delight of making and the things made. Was God at work or play in creation? I think the answer is “yes”.

Rich’s definition explores the paradox that often play involves this intense investment of energy that we might be tempted to call work. Likewise, aren’t there times when the work we do that is related to want ceases to be labor and seems to be play? I often describe the joy I have in setting foot on the campus where I work as “feeling like a kid in a candy shop who just received his allowance”!

Sometimes, people think that work was “the curse” or part of the curse of the fall of Adam and Eve. I’ve often taught that work existed prior to the fall (see Genesis 2:15) and that work simply became toilsome and a necessity in consequence of the fall (see Genesis 3:17-19). What the message makes me think about is that there was a connection between work and play that was damaged along with the connections between God, people, and the creation. Work becomes this survival necessity that is often laborious but sometimes still has glimmers of play. Play gets relegated to a “carve out” in our days, or something we live for on the weekends. Sometimes it becomes an obsession and we literally work at our play.

Perhaps then, “playing together”, which is something Rich suggests should be part of the life of our community, is a way of celebrating “the new creation”, the ways Jesus is restoring all the connections severed in the garden. Playing together isn’t just a bonding, fellowship activity (nice churchy words!). It looks forward to the fulfillment of new creation–the new heaven and earth that exceeds our wildest dreams of all that is good and true and beautiful. Maybe Euchre Tournaments really are a taste of heaven!

All work and no play make Jack something something

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On Sunday Pastor Rich defined play as “work unrelated to want”. In this case want means the things we actually need (food, shelter, money, etc.) Often our play is a lot of work, whether it’s “playing” out in the yard (i.e. planting, laying bricks, painting which my wife has been doing since it got warm), or even a video game, which takes time and skill to master (and a lot of failure).

Ben TrubeIn this sense Pastor Rich is defining “work” more in the sense that physics defines it (exerting force upon a mass). Work doesn’t take on an emotional component in this evaluation. After all play serves many purposes, experimentation, enjoyment, restoration. Defining work as play seems a little counter to the way we think about it. “Work” in the way we think about it, is something we do because we have to, it’s a means to an end to provide the things we want. Sometimes “work” is enjoyable and sometimes it’s not. Play on the other hand is something meant to be fun. If you’re not enjoying play, then you’re doing it wrong.

Rich also talked about play being something we don’t like to talk about as adults except in a few acceptable forms. Golf, poker, in today’s society probably video games, etc.

Personally, I don’t buy this, though I think this has a little to do with where I work. I work with a bunch of other engineers, and our forms of play tend toward the “geekier”. A couple of week’s ago we had a discussion about the Marvel Civil War break out in our weekly meeting. We have a magnetic dartboard in our bullpen area, and every year we have a “Festivus” celebration where we do feats of strength (which have included Rock ’em Sock ’em robots, Wii bowling and arm wrestling).

The only time I’d say I self-censor about play is when talking with some of my co-workers with kids. When they’re telling me about all of the housework, laundry, dishes and time spent with activities, I don’t tend to like to follow that up with bragging about how I organized and cataloged my comic book collection.

This probably sums up best how I feel about the whole grown-ups and play thing (my friend has a print of this hanging in his kitchen):

grownups

Image Source: XKCD

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine how we play. Anything can become an obsession to an unhealthy amount. I think Rich is right when he talks about how play can be sexualized (playing with yourself, playmates, etc.). I think that’s what can happen when play is something we become ashamed of, when we worry about how people may judge us or think about what we do. Play can be very private and personal, it says something about us in what we choose to do when we have time all to ourselves.

That said, I think we do have the agency to decide what being an adult means. I’m on the tail end of what would be considered “the millennials” a term I kind of have a love-hate relationship with. But I’m also married, have a job, and am doing the adult thing in the way that makes the most sense for me and my partner. That’s why when my wife comes home with a bronze flying pig ornament for the lawn, all I can do is smile.

Now what are you reading me for? You still have 15 minutes of lunch. Go outside!