My Biggest Challenge During the Pandemic

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(Note: This article was published in the Made to Flourish blog and the Women & Work website.)

Recently, I was asked to reflect on how the pandemic has affected integrating my Christian faith at work over the past six months.  What has been my biggest challenge?  Is there a word of encouragement that I could offer to offer a light of hope in this darkness?   I think I can.

New environments bring new temptations

Every one of us has been touched in some way by COVID-19.   Millions faced unemployment.  Many were forced to telework from home while supervising children trying to learn virtually.  Those who continued to work at the shop, factory, or office or have recently returned were given strict social distancing, sanitizing, and mask-wearing protocols that have made everything more difficult than expected.  

From a theological perspective, it seems likely that these kinds of challenges have brought new temptations our way.  If we are fortunate to have a job, Christian workers are struggling in their new environments with unique time pressures and stresses that have frankly made it harder to do their work “as unto the Lord”. 

Many of us are isolated at home.  We cannot randomly bump into our Christian coworker who we can ask to pray for us.  To make matters worse, most of us have not been able to maintain our normal Christian lives via our local church, to worship, pray, fellowship, and listen to messages of truth through the regular teaching of God’s Word.

Remaining in God’s presence brings victory over temptation

Whether we have been feeling lonely, anxious, dealing with anger, or any number of things that may cause us to drift away from God during this time, perhaps we need to be reminded of some basic ways that we can regain a very real sense of God’s presence with us at work or at home. 

I have observed from my own experience that when I have drifted away from God even for a short time, the first thing I notice is that the joy of the Lord diminishes until I repent of and confess my sin.  This lack of joy will negatively impact my relationships with co-workers, subordinates, and superiors, and significantly reduces my creativity and productivity on the job.

In Ps. 32:3-5, David describes a time when he was faced with the depths of his own sin.  David felt guilty about his sins, and rightfully so.  Before he dealt with it through confession, he said that his bones were wasting away.  He groaned all day long.  He felt God’s hand was heavy upon him. 

This was not God’s mighty hand of protection that David often spoke of, but God’s Spirit laying conviction on his heart.  When he could take it no more, David acknowledged his sin to the LORD.  He confessed it and received God’s forgiveness.  His guilty conscience was at peace.  This is similar to what the Apostle John taught Christ-followers to do in 1 John 1:9 when we sin.

A man of God from the 17th century named Brother Lawrence truly understood this concept of consistently remaining in God’s presence.  If you have not read The Practice of the Presence of God, I highly recommend it. 

In the preface of the book, he is described as having “a heart that had learned the most essential ingredient of the Christian life: how to remain in the presence of God daily.”  He experienced the joy of the Lord and divine strength for every task as he went about his daily mundane work washing dishes at the monastery.  He recognized the eternal value of the temporal tasks he did “as unto the Lord”.  He did this out of submission to the Father. 

As needed, Brother Lawrence confessed his sins right after he noticed them.  He rested in God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy based on Jesus’ atoning work on the cross.  Then, he continued to work in God’s holy presence. 

Listen to how his friend describes this process:  “When he sinned, he confessed it to God with these words: ‘I can do nothing better without You.  Please keep me from falling and correct the mistakes I make.’  After that he did not feel guilty about the sin.” 

We too can keep short accounts with God.  We can do what I learned as a college student with Campus Crusade.  It was called spiritual breathing.  Exhaling is confessing my sin.  Inhaling is asking God’s Holy Spirit to fill me again so that I can enjoy His presence.  When we can do that consistently, we find renewed strength in Jesus Christ to overcome every temptation we face. 

When we walk in the power and the presence of God at work or home on a daily basis, we will see over time how His purposes unfold in our life.  That is what I so desperately want to experience, especially now, during this most challenging pandemic season.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-EditRussell E. Gehrlein is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018.  He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  Nearly 50 articles posted on this blog have been published on several Christian organization’s blogs or websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

Returning to the Office after Months of Telework

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At 0630 last Monday morning, I was feeling a bit sad.  It was time to dismantle and depart my home office so that I could arrive at my regular office at 0730 to begin hooking my computer back up.  Let me reflect a bit on my experience as I returned to the office after four-and-a-half months of telework.  (I invite you to read my previous article where I shared my initial reflections on teleworking.)

A look backwards

Here what I had enjoyed (or learned to enjoy) while on telework from mid-March to the end of July:

  • I enjoyed sleeping in an extra half-hour in the morning; I did not miss my 45-minute commute to work each way, and I was way less fatigued at the end of the day
  • I loved making the quick switch on my desk from dedicated government work station to personal computer in about 30 seconds at the end of the work day, being able to step into the living room, and say to my wife, “Hi, honey, I’m home!”
  • I enjoyed seeing my wife often throughout the day; I appreciated her always giving me space during work hours and for praying for me when I was experiencing thorns and thistles
  • I grew professionally as I adapted to using a variety of platforms for personal and group communication and collaboration, such as video teleconferences and Microsoft Teams
  • I continued to experience God’s presence at work during this often stressful and ever-changing environment
  • I had the freedom to decide how to execute my responsibilities throughout the day

Here is what I found challenging or frustrating while teleworking:

  • I had too much freedom to decide how to execute my responsibilities throughout the day; there were many  days I did not get much direct guidance from my boss
  • There was little opportunity to be able to speak face-to-face when that means of communication was the most appropriate one to use
  • Although some of my normal work responsibilities were no longer necessary during the pandemic (i.e., managing VIP visits and tours), there were many new and difficult tasks to replace them

Here is what I had missed and truly appreciated when I came back to the office last week:

  • Seeing people’s faces and sharing a workspace with a team
  • An opportunity to listen to Focus on the Family on the way in to work every day from 0700-0730 and catching up on podcasts on the way home
  • The opportunity to fellowship spontaneously with a brother or sister in Christ (as I did on Wednesday afternoon) through accidentally bumping into folks down the hall, also known more biblically as divine appointments.

Looking forward

Here is what I find challenging about the “new normal” at the U.S. Army post where I serve:

  • Wearing a mask every time I leave my office
  • Walking by a water fountain while wearing a mask and not getting a drink
  • Trying to figure out the right mix of actual meetings versus virtual meetings
  • The uncertainty when chapel services and programs will return to what they once were; i.e., with child care so that young families can attend, not having to wear masks

Despite my somewhat light-hearted observations about my own experiences during my season of teleworking, I am sensitive to and aware of the fact that there are millions of workers whose lives were severely upended due to the pandemic.  There has not been any change to their routines yet.  Many of them are still looking for work, waiting for their businesses to reopen, or will continue to work from home indefinitely.  Many parents of school-age children are still wondering what the school year will look like and their kids’ teachers are anxious about what their local school boards are going to decide.  Those of us who have faith in a loving, merciful, faithful, and unchanging God need to pray for healing and safety as we all attempt to move cautiously forward into this new normal.

Looking upward

It is my belief that much of the turmoil from this extended pandemic season is a clear manifestation of God’s curse on the labor of both men and women that we find in Gen. 3:16-19 due to Adam’s sin.  Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, in their book, When Helping Hurts shed some light on the full extent of the curse on work.  They explain, “The curse is cosmic in scope, bringing decay, brokenness, and death to every speck of the universe.”  They also remind us that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection makes everything right in creation, which is what we sing at Christmastime in the carol “Joy to the World” – “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”  Although the work environment itself may be cursed for now, we know that we are not cursed.

Finally, let me add a personal word of encouragement.  I think that these uncertain times have given us a chance to learn to be content in all circumstances.  As Christ-following employees who are in-but-not-of-the-world, we need to be adaptable as we discern how we can best serve our bosses, coworkers, subordinates, and customers in whatever environments we have been placed.  We know without a doubt in our renewed minds that we can do all things we are called to do through the resurrection power of Jesus Christ who strengthens you and I every day.  (See Phil. 4:11-13.)

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-EditRussell E. Gehrlein is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018.  He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  Nearly 50 articles posted on this blog have been published on several Christian organization’s blogs or websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

God Continues to use Carpenters

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(Note: This article was posted on the Coram Deo blog.)

This past week, my wife and I had some construction done to the exterior of our house.  We had our back patio rail and our entire second story balcony and railing replaced.  The two-man crew was friendly, experienced, and competent.  They seemed to enjoy what the work they did for us.  I was grateful for their expertise, as I absolutely could not have done what they did myself.

I was reminded that I had addressed the value of blue-collar workers in a couple of places in my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession.  In chapter 6, I unpacked the biblical connection between God’s presence and human work and shared the story of the Spirit-filled tabernacle construction workers starting in Exodus 31.  In chapter 14, I shared my biblical perspective on several career fields of personal interest to me, including the blue-collar worker.

I am thankful that I felt led to address this important topic, as it was specifically mentioned in my latest book review from a leader in the Black Country Urban Industrial Mission, a faith at work organization in the United Kingdom.  He stated, “The inclusion of the section of blue collar work is important.  Many books on this subject scarcely mention people who make things or provide essential services, but throughout this book (including the cartoon on the cover), it is clear that that these jobs are equally places for Christians to work.”

Let me share some excerpts from chapter 14 to highlight the value that these manual laborers bring into each of our lives, as God uses them to meet the needs of our homes and businesses.

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When I read Beckett’s observations in his book Mastering Monday about Jesus’s work as a carpenter, it grabbed me.  This is literally a great example of Immanuel labor.  He observes:

For over a decade, Jesus ran a small woodworking shop.  Just as we do in our larger business, he had to plan ahead, purchase materials, maintain his tools and inventory, manage the work of others, tend to product quality, please his customers, and pay taxes.  He was making real products—tables and chairs, cabinets, oxen yokes for farming.  He was meeting real needs. . . Can you imagine the immense satisfaction Jesus found in his work, laboring not just to please himself but his Father in heaven? . . . He was actively modeling and extending the kingdom of God right where he was, amid wood chips and sawdust, rising to the challenges and receiving the rewards of his daily activities.

Wow! I had never thought much about Jesus’s work as a carpenter.  What a colorful description of Jesus’s ordinary blue-collar career!

There are many jobs in this category that I have never had (i.e., any kind of farm work, construction, auto mechanics, landscaping, assembly line, fast food, etc.).  However, I have worked full-time or part-time as a young man in high school, in college, in graduate school, and afterward on a painting crew, as a janitor, bus/van driver for a nursing home, and bus boy.

Believe it or not, I had a lot of fun doing all those jobs.  I learned a great deal, and met some interesting people along the way.  It was a character-building time.  It actually felt good to do manual labor for a season.  I was glad that God sovereignly allowed me to get this priceless hands-on experience.  I gained a completely new respect for those who had to do this kind of work for a living.  However, I am extremely grateful, especially as I have gotten older, that my current job requires me to use my mind and my keyboard much more than my body.

I worked all of these jobs before I joined the army.  Here is a list of some of the various types of work I had to do occasionally during my army career: digging fighting positions (foxholes), vehicle maintenance, inspecting and repairing weapons and protective masks, simulated decontamination of military vehicles, filling sandbags, picking up brass after shooting on a rifle range, loading and unloading heavy equipment and supplies from vehicles, putting up huge camouflage nets, pitching tents, erecting communication antennas, and driving around the desert.

A few years ago, Timothy Keller posted a quote on his Facebook page that caught my attention.  He said, “Mission includes our secular vocations, not just church ministry.”  I do not know if it was from a sermon or from his book, Every Good Endeavor, which I have quoted often.  It generated a good discussion.  One reader named Thomas Hoover, who graciously gave me permission to use his passionate response, posted this profound statement:

Secularly speaking, I am “just” a factory worker.  Is God not the God of factory workers as well?  Yes, factory workers as well.  When Jesus walks through the turnstile with me and the other Christians who work there the Kingdom is as much “at hand” as anywhere Jesus goes.  Wherever the soles of our feet tread is where His kingdom advances.  Whenever the Holy Spirit moves within us to speak and act as sons and daughters of God, there, on the factory floor, is holy ground.

This is powerful!

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As I look back on what I had written a few years ago, I feel I need to add something more.

During my studies over the past thirty years, I have come to a much better understanding of what the Bible says about God’s purposes for work, how work is intrinsically and instrumentally of value, and how God works through a variety of workers to meet the whole spectrum of human needs.  All work is of value because God is a worker, and therefore all workers are to be valued.

I have also become grateful for the multitude of people that have God-given talents that enable them to do those things that I could never do for myself.  I know that God still works today, largely through the work of humans that He has equipped with a variety of talents and gifts.  We need to encourage those who do work for us and with us that their work truly matters to God.

About the author:

91045809_10217299091332546_4886064790042050560_oRussell E. Gehrlein is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018.  He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  Over 40 articles posted on this blog have been published on several Christian organization’s blogs or websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, The Gospel Coalition, and Midwestern Seminary.