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of our Lives
Our world is changing. And this change is having a profoundeffect on the way we live, the way we work and the way wethink about our lives and our work. The only way that we canpossibly begin to respond well to the change is to face it honestly. While weoften bemoan it—it inevitably involves losses—what we urgently need isthe capacity to see change as opportunity.
The Crisis We Face
The change our world is experiencing has had and is having profound implicationsfor the way we think about our work and how we make sense of whowe are and what we do. In fact, it is appropriate to speak of this change as acrisis. Different people experience crisis in their lives and work in differentways and at different times. But when I have seen it—in myself and myfriends, peers, neighbors and colleagues—it has four distinct dimensions.
A crisis of employment. On a basic, observable and tangible level, ourglobal society is experiencing a crisis of employment. It is not merely thatthere is a large number of unemployed people. Rather unemployment—orbetter, the lack of employment or waged work—is increasingly part of acontemporary economy. We can expect that a high percentage of the adultsin our communities will not have waged worked when they need it. Theworkforce will be increasingly fluid, and many willfind themselves at leasttemporarily between jobs. Some are or will be left without work becausetheir employers are forced to let people go, no longer able to keep so manypeople on payroll.
For many, the employment and work situation has changed simplybecause the economy has changed. It is no one's fault, per se; it is just areality. Some farmers can no longer afford to farm because the crops theyhave been cultivating are now available elsewhere at cheaper prices. Theycan no longer compete given their own labor costs or the circumstances oftheir situation.
In different sectors of the employment world, there are those who havebeen unable to keep up with the information and technological developmentsand have been replaced either by computers or by younger, seeminglyquicker, more technically savvy workers.
The days are behind us when individuals in any field of work can feelthat they have their employment or position for life. When I pastored in thesmall city of Peterborough, Ontario, in the 1970s, most people in the congregationcould assume that if they were farmers or if they worked forQuaker Oats, General Electric or one of the other major industries in thecity, they would be with that company—or in the same line of work—fortheir whole careers. But that is no longer the case; that assumption can nolonger be made.
From Peterborough my wife and I went to the Philippines as missionaries,and again we served with people who took it for granted that theywould be missionaries for life. Many missionaries once thought that theywould serve in a particular country or with a particular organization for lifeand that their life-long commitment was a mark of their sincerity and dedication.But increasingly mission agencies are responding strategically toministry opportunities by deploying staff from one country to another, andglobal ministry will continue to call for highly flexible and adaptive people.It used to be the case that young people could choose a way of life or acareer with a reasonable expectation that they would be doing the samething for the next forty or so years. This is no longer the case. No one,regardless of vocation or line of work, can make that assumption.
We can think about our context in this way: the economy is changing.By economy, I mean what Wendell Berry describes as "our way of makinga living" that which "connects the human household with the good thingsthat sustain life." And this economy—the way we make a living—ischanging. The changes are permanent; this is not a temporary blip on thescreen. And these changes will affect all of us. Everyone, literally everyone,will have job changes and transitions as a matter of course. Whetherwe fulfill our vocation in the church or in the world will make little if anydifference. The organizations we work for and with will reflect the turbulencein our economy. There will be downsizing, outsourcing, companiesthat depend on a "just-in-time" labor force, and the growth of temporaryagencies and organizations that provide us with employment. But it isemployment that will be just that—temporary!
We will thrive in the new economy only when we accept this reality—theturbulence and change—and then embrace it as an opportunity ratherthan a threat.
A crisis of confidence. But the crisis we are facing is more complexthan merely a change in the economy—in the way we make a living. As wetake a step back we see that we are also facing a crisis of confidencecaused in part by the change in the economy.
Robert Kegan has written a book, the title of which on its own capturessomething worth repeating: In over Our Heads. The distinct impressionwe get is that in the new economy we are all in over our heads. Regardlessof our line of work or responsibility, whether it is business or child rearing,pastoral ministry or public-school teaching, changing circumstances leaveus all with a lack of confidence that we can do what we are called to do. Inthis new economy it is easy to conclude that no one can say that she is themaster of her field or that he is a leader in his discipline or a master of hiscraft. Not anymore.
I am an academic administrator. I love my work and sense that on thewhole I have the experience, the expertise and the determination to beeffective. But what I and others in this line of work regularly recognize isthat we can never keep up with all that we need to know in order to do ourjobs well. The complexities of higher education are such that it almostseems like sheer presumption to suggest that anyone can do this job well.
The wonderful word master was once used to describe the person whowas at the top of her craft—whatever the profession. It was a title that onecould work toward, a designation that could be assigned with some degreeof confidence to the person who was very, very good at what he did—whetherit was watchmaking, shipbuilding, teaching or business management.But in the new economy we are all "in over our heads." Just when wethink we have mastered our craft—in my case academic administration andclassroom instruction—the circumstances and expectations change. Thefield in which I work is developing so quickly that I always feel one stepbehind.
In some cases this crisis of confidence means that people experiencefailure, setbacks and disappointment. They do their work to the best of theirability, but they are not deemed to have done it well enough. The resultingchange in their employment situation—perhaps they are demoted—shatterstheir sense of competence to do that particular job, even their confidencethat they can do any job at all.
Others who are perhaps still employed face criticism or inadequate affirmationand support. They are left with little if any confidence for pressingon in the midst of changes in the economy and their work situations. Insome circumstances it is the political pressures of their occupations thathave taken the wind out of their sails.
Still others are parents who while raising their families moved out of thewaged workforce for a time, and now, perhaps as much as fifteen yearslater, things have changed so much that they lack the confidence to pick uptheir careers again or to return to the roles and responsibilities they oncehad.
Others in pastoral ministry have come to a realization in midlife thatcongregations are changing rapidly, especially in the way they are governedand in the qualities they seek in a pastor. These pastors wonder ifthey have what it takes to provide effective religious leadership.
Still others chose a line of work or a career when they were young, butnow that they have reached midlife and are perhaps in their fifties, theyhave found that what they had envisioned as an end goal is no longer there.The land they had hoped to farm for life doesn't belong to them anymore.Or perhaps the career they had anticipated is gone; they had trained for aparticular line of work and are now discovering that people are no longerneeded in that field.
Yet others have come to retirement and have struggled deeply with whatit means to let go of their careers; it is so easy for them to feel like they arebeing dismissed by the organizations for which they worked, perhaps formany years. There are few things as painful as the feeling that we havebeen pushed out, and that pain can strike at the heart of self-confidence.
Finally, for some the crisis of confidence comes when grandiose idealsare dashed. A woman who was certain that by the time she was in hermid-thirties she would have made her first million in her own business; aman who went into the pastorate convinced that he would quickly have acongregation that is the envy of all other pastors; the team of individualswho longed to do great deeds for God in the inner city only to see thosethey longed to serve reject the offer of help. Such people often hold thekinds of ideals that need to be set aside. Sometimes there is nothing to dobut accept the disappointment and honestly see that our illusions about ourselvesare just that—illusions. We are trying to be heroes, and the soonerwe let such dreams go the better. But however much we need to face up toour illusions, it is still painful and we will still experience a crisis of confidence.Sometimes it hurts so much that we wonder if we will ever do anythingwell again.
A crisis of focus. There is a third crisis, not unrelated to the first two butnevertheless distinct. In some respects it is unique to urban dwellers—allthose who live in the city or off the largesse of the city, which includesfarmers whose daily life is ordered by the ebb and flow of an urban complex.It is the crisis of hectic, unfocused activity. People have a remarkablecapacity to live overworked and confused lives, caught up in hectic activitythat in itself seems to have little meaning or purpose, but that is made up ofso many things that "have to be done" This is one of the sins of modernityand of life and work in urban, industrialized societies.
In our disturbed passion to accomplish much and to accomplish it assoon as possible, we have lost a sense of true leisure and of what it meansto be reflective and contemplative.
A crisis of meaning. Finally, all of these points of crisis ultimately leadus to a loss of meaning—in our work, in our relationships and in our identity.We all become confused about work and the meaning of work, andconsequently we are perplexed about the meaning of who we are.
Some people find that their identity was wrapped up in their work, andforced retirement or the loss of employment leaves them feeling hollow,lacking a personal sense of meaning and purpose. Others know, when theyare caught up in hectic activity, that something fundamental is missing. Asense of busyness often makes us feel important. We feed a misguidedsense of significance when we make the assumption that if a person is busyhe or she must be important or, to turn it around, that to be important a personmust be busy. If we are honest, we will see that underlying all of thisbusyness lies an inevitable awareness that we have begun to lose a sense ofwhat our actions mean and, ultimately, what our lives mean.
As a result of this crisis of meaning, people of all religious persuasionsare trying to find answers, solutions and ultimately meaning. Well-writtenbooks on work, career transitions and career development are best sellers.There is a palpable sense within our communities that we need to resolvethis crisis—that we must come to terms with both our identity and ourwork so that we can find meaning, joy and purpose in that work.
Various helpful resources are available, but it is most critical that weconsider and think deeply about a theological response to this crisis in ourlives and our work. Many people may consider this idea strange or perplexingbecause they have not given intentional theological thought to anything.But when a crisis looms before us we have to ask the most critical questions.And here is where careful theological reflection can provide us with away forward.
A Theological Response
There are three theological foundations that will enable us to rethink andembrace what it means to live and work in this new economy and respondwith courage to the crisis. We need to recover a theology of work, a theologyof vocation and a theology of self.
A theology of work. The revolutionary message of the Bible is that workis good. Central to the biblical description of the formation of the first manand woman is the mandate they were given to till the earth and name theanimals (Gen 2:15, 19-20). They were created to work, and their work wasmeaningful. God made them workers so that they could be cocreators withhim—not in the sense that they were creators of the earth, but in the sensethat their work was a part of God's continual re-creation and was thereforeimportant, significant and valued by God.
The Bible celebrates the work that we do in the world. Many of us think ofProverbs 31 as the celebration of a woman, especially a wife. And it is. But Iwonder if the central celebration is not actually of her work—and of work generallyas something that we engage in with energy, passion, joy and diligence.
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.
She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle. (Prov 31:13-19)
Work is good. It is a gift from God. With the Fall and with sin, workbecame toilsome (Gen 3:17-19). But we must never confuse work with toilor denigrate the joy and privilege of work just because it involves toil; wemust rather strive together for the recovery of meaningful and joyful work.
Excerpted from COURAGE & CALLING by Gordon T. Smith. Copyright © 1999 by Gordon T. Smith. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.