Reflections on the 2018 Faith@Work Summit

“In the Kingdom of God, work is collaborative.”

This was the opening remark from Dr. Greg Forster, chairman of the 2018 Faith@Work Summit in Chicago that my wife and I attended from October 11-13 with close to 500 others.

My initial thought was that this was a good way to welcome us.  We were there to collaborate with one another.  It occurred to me that he may have been alluding to the idea that the work we do for the Kingdom is done as God’s co-laborers.

I want to take a little time to reflect a bit on some new things I learned and old things that were reinforced during this time.  I also want to share some of the experiences that moved me to tears.  Lastly, I want to focus on what it is that I sense I need to do because I attended this event.

Before I dive deeply into how the presence of the Lord affected my head, heart, and hands, let me provide a brief summary of what the conference was about and for whom it was intended.

Conference Overview

This year’s summit was the third one of its kind.  The first one was held in 2014 and was followed by one in 2016.  (See my reflections on the 2016 event here and here.)  Interestingly, these events were not sponsored by just one organization.  They were initiated to bring together a variety of faith and work groups and practitioners to highlight what God was doing in this movement of His Spirit and to get a vision of where to go next.

This year’s schedule was full of a diverse group of keynote speakers and workshop leaders who addressed a variety of relevant issues facing the church concerning faith, work, and economics.  The speakers came from church-based or parachurch organizations, academia, and professionals from various fields such as business or medicine who had inspiring stories of how God used them at work.  Attendees, like my wife and I, came to learn more about how to integrate our Christian faith in the workplace and to connect with fellow believers for encouragement and new ideas.

Head

There were a number of items of interest to me that I captured in my notes.  An investment banker spoke on the value of being a steward, and that his employees were his most important asset.  A doctor mentioned the value of being faithfully present with someone in pain.  We were challenged to consider that advances in artificial intelligence might radically change the landscape of employment for many workers in a variety of fields, displacing thousands of workers who will need compassion, retraining, and financial assistance from the local church.  Several speakers emphasized the dignity of all people, not just all workers, as we have had a tendency to express.  One leader taught that humility is developed by working a job we feel is beneath us.  Another’s exhortation tied in with the last – “God wants us in broken places.”

In addition to the keynote speakers and panel discussions, three optional workshops were scheduled on Friday and Saturday.  The one I went to Saturday morning was the best.  It was entitled “Connecting How We Read the Bible to Faith at Work in Practice”, and facilitated by Mark Greene, Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.  He challenged us to look closer at the context of biblical passages to see that many of them are set in workplaces or reflect the occupation of the writer.  For example, we examined Ps. 144:1, “Praise be to the Lord my Rock who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”  As a table group practical exercise, we noticed a number of things that are often overlooked.  God personally provided training and education of this Soldier by the name of King David.  God’s presence enabled the worker (Immanuel labor).  God helps him fulfill his calling.   It was very good session.

Heart

Although many of the speakers challenged me intellectually, there were a couple of sessions that particularly grabbed my emotions.

On Friday afternoon, they scheduled a one and a half hour music, worship, and reflection time.  The service featured songs about work, which came out of the Porter’s Gate Worship Project recorded in the summer of 2017.  This collaboration was developed to address the lack of hymns and contemporary worship songs that directly address the concept that God is present in our vocation.  Several songs were difficult to sing through the tears that came so freely.  One song in particular, “Day by Day”, grabbed by my wife and I.  It described the value of ordinary workers, such as servers, teachers, and lawyers as they do God’s work in our midst.  Another song, “Your Labor is not in Vain”, tied together God’s presence and our work.

The first speaker emphasized changing a dominion focus on work to one of communion.  Once again, this confirmed my own thoughts on God’s presence affecting our work.  He stated, “This is not just a movement of promise, but of joy.”  The second speaker gave us a great word picture of worship being like the heart – it pulls us in to the life of Christ and then sends us out to the world.

After that, we watched a documentary film, which highlighted the work of one executive in a steel manufacturing foundry in Pennsylvania in the 1970s whose faith directly affected the workplace.  He brought peace amidst labor union strife, racial tension, and harsh working conditions.  By consistently treating his workers with dignity and respect, he demonstrated Christian love in action.  This put the national spotlight on his company, bringing glory to God.

Hands

Finally, what did I take away from the conference?  Mainly, I was assured that my active involvement in this movement is something that I need to continue.  I do not know exactly what the Lord has in mind, but I will continue to write and see where He leads.  My labor is not in vain.

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Illustrations of Thorns and Thistles

(Note: this article has been adapted from my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession.”)

One of the most important aspects of a theology of work is the impact of the Fall, as described in Gen. 3:16-19.  I discussed some of these basic ideas in a previous article I wrote three years ago.

As a result of Adam’s sin, until Jesus returns, work is always going to be painful, frustrating, and stressful; more difficult and time-consuming than necessary; unpredictable, unproductive, and fruitless; sweaty; full of interpersonal conflict (with sinners); and set in a challenging environment.

Let me expand on that by providing some illustrations from the Bible and from my own experience.

Illustrations from Scripture

Exodus gives us a wealth of illustrations of how work was impacted by sin.  In Exo. 1:11-14, we see that the Egyptians treated the Israelites poorly as their slaves, making their lives miserable with forced labor.  Later on in Exo. 5:4-19, we read that the Israelites’ desire to hold a festival for Yahweh resulted in much more stressful conditions and unreasonable deadlines.  The slave drivers and foremen in charge changed their work environment as a punishment, which meant they had to work harder.  They were forced to gather their own straw instead of having it brought to them, but they had to make the same amount of bricks.

Ecclesiastes paints another vivid description of how empty work can be.  The Preacher concludes, “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.  All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 2:17).  He continues, “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?   All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is meaningless” (Eccl. 2:22-23).  Stevens, in Work Matters offers this concise summary: “Work ‘under the sun’ is impermanent, unappreciated, without results, unfair and seductive.”

The prophet Isaiah sheds some light on how work is impacted by sin.  Isa. 62:8-9 promises the exiles, “Never again will I give your grain as food for your enemies, and never again will foreigners drink the new wine for which you have toiled.”  While Israel’s enemies were taking God’s people to a foreign land, the food they had grown and the wine they had produced by their own hands went to someone else who did not work for these things.

Illustrations from life

When I painted my fence last year, it didn’t take long for me to experience this phenomenon when I had a major spill.  (I knew Major Spill way back when he was a second lieutenant!)  After working an hour, I inexplicably dumped half of my paint container down the front of my sweatshirt, which was now going to become a rag.  It was time for me to take a break, clean up, and change my clothes.  Painting my fence was far messier that it should have been.

Here is another example.  I was seated next to our plumber at a gathering of friends at a local restaurant.  I seized the moment to ask him some probing questions about his job as a residential plumbing repair specialist.  (I imagine that it was draining.  He looked a little flushed!)  I expected to hear that his thorns and thistles would revolve around challenges with the repair work itself; i.e., jobs taking longer than he thought, finding out that something was more broken than he was prepared for, an inability to get the right tools or parts quickly, the fact that it was extremely nasty at times, that he got scraped knuckles, etc.  However, he indicated it was much more about dealing with many kinds of difficult customers.  Some were inflexible and could not be there when he was available, some wanted to pay him less than the going rate, and some had unreasonable demands.

For others, thorns and thistles on the job appear in different ways.  I stumbled on a video of baby pandas.  There was one frazzled zookeeper desperately trying to rake leaves in the pandas’ area.   Several toddler-like pandas kept climbing into her basket and getting in her way.  These cute, playful cubs made her job more difficult and time-consuming than it needed to be.  Even though it was funny to watch, there was so much frustration.  She had to do the same thing repeatedly with little results to show for her work.

Redemption from the curse

Corbett and Fikkert in When Helping Hurts explain how the gospel affects these negative aspects of work brought by Adam’s sin.  “The curse is cosmic in scope, bringing decay, brokenness, and death to every speck of the universe.”  However, they are quick to remind us that Jesus’s death and resurrection make everything right in creation.  This is the truth we sing about in the well-known Christmas carol, Joy to the World: “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

The good news is that God graciously provides redemption of our work through Jesus Christ. He redeems the worker and to a limited extent, the workplace.  This give us hope for real change.

Douglas Schuurman in Vocation: Discerning our Callings in Life, instructs, “The purpose of God’s redemptive covenants is to restore all these relationships.  As each and every central part of life stands under the divine blessing at creation and becomes warped by sin, so too each and every part is being redeemed in Christ Jesus.”  Amen!

God did not leave Adam and Eve to remain in the mess they created for themselves and us.  The gospel of Jesus Christ brings to all some measure of relief from the curse in this life.  In the life to come, I fully anticipate that we will enjoy the work of our hands.  We will no longer toil in vain.  (See Rev. 22:3.)