A Walmart greeter, a nurse, and an astronaut walk into a church. . . .
They each bring with them their own exhaustions and exasperations, their own uncertainty about whether and how their work matters to God. Good news: All work matters to God, because all work reflects some aspect of the character of God. God created the world so that it runs best when it mirrors Him, and we ourselves find the most fulfillment when we recognize God behind our labor.
John Van Sloten offers a fascinating and innovative reflection on vocation: Our work is a parable of God; as we work, we are icons of grace.
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About the Author
John Van Sloten pastors a church in Calgary, Alberta. He is the author of The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything. He teaches a preaching course at Ambrose Seminary and has been the recipient of several John Templeton Foundation grants for preaching science.
Read an Excerpt
Every Job a Parable
What Walmart Greeters, Nurses, and Astronauts Tell Us About God
By John Van Sloten
NavPressCopyright © 2017 John Van Sloten
All rights reserved.
ALL WORK MATTERS
WHAT A FLYER DELIVERY PERSON, A WALMART GREETER,A FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGIST, AND A RESIDENTIAL LANDLORD TEACH US ABOUT THE VALUE OF ALL WORK
Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.
JACOB, IN GENESIS 28:16
In the book of Genesis, there is a story about the Old Testament patriarch Jacob, who, while on a journey, stopped in a seemingly ordinary, middle-of-nowhere place to rest for the night. He slept on the ground, using a rock as a pillow. And there he had a dream in which he met God.
In that dream, God made hope-filled promises to Jacob: that he would be Jacob's God, give him a place to make a life, and bless him in such a way that everyone around him would be blessed through his presence. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it. ... How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven" (Genesis 28:16-17).
Far too often people journey through their vocational lives with no expectation of ever meeting God there. For one reason or another, they have lost sight of God's everywhere presence. Some think their jobs are too insignificant, ordinary, and middle-of-nowhere. Others think that what they do couldn't possibly connect to the ways of God and that there is nothing of God's goodness in their jobs. Some have never even considered or imagined connecting with God at work. Work is work; God is at church.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with a woman who delivered flyers in our neighborhood. She was no more than five feet tall and in her seventies. Two or three times a week, she would pull a heavy, homemade wooden wagon filled with flyers through our streets — up and down the many hills; over curbs; through rain, snow, and heat. Every time I saw her working, I was amazed and also a bit saddened by how difficult that kind of job must have been for an older woman. Often I would say hi and talk to her as we passed on the street. One day I decided to stop and have a real conversation.
We talked about her work. She told me that she had been delivering flyers in my neighborhood for over twenty years; this was her last day on the job. Twenty years! Wow!
I told her that I had been watching her do her work since I had moved into the area. "I can't believe you have been strong enough to pull this heavy thing." I grabbed the handle of her wagon and pulled it a few inches; it must have weighed fifty pounds! She said that it wasn't so bad, once you got used to it.
I asked her why she had decided to stop work now. She said that over the past year, she had come to realize that she just couldn't do the job anymore — "You just know these things." She was thinking of working at Walmart instead. "At least I'll be warm in the winter."
This was the day of her retirement. Was anyone going to throw a party? Present her with a gold watch? Say a few kind words? I knew I had to say something and recognize her for what she had given. Someone had to thank her.
So I thanked her. "You know, you must have helped thousands of people in this community save money over the years with all those coupons and sales flyers. Thank you for that!"
She paused, took it in for a second, and then said, "Yeah, I guess so." Then she smiled. I asked her name; she told me it was Colleen. I introduced myself, shook her hand, and wished her all the best in her retirement.
I continued on my walk, and she picked up her wagon handle, looked over her address list one more time, and pulled her stack of flyers to the next house.
Too many times over the years, I have pulled a thick wad of advertisements out of my mailbox and felt a bit of frustration with the flyer industry. All that wasted paper and recycling hassle — all that consumer pressure. But for Colleen, this was her j ob — her life, in some large part. After our "retirement conversation," I hoped I could engage my job with as much dignity, perseverance, and strength.
I have to admit, I was kind of surprised that I was able and willing to articulate some of God's goodness to Colleen in relation to her work. As I look back, it had a lot to do with what I was feeling in that moment: a deep compassion, bordering on love, for her as a human being. As I looked at her from that perspective, I was able to see value in who she was and what she did. I was able to see where God was working through her.
Surely God was already in that place, and I was unaware of it.
Surely God feels a love that brings dignity to every human being doing every kind of job, no matter how big or small.
There is a Latin phrase used by the ancient mystics: ubi amor, ibi oculus — "Where there is love, there is seeing." God is love, so he must see everything. As maker and keeper of all people and things, God knows the real value, the eternal significance, of even the most seemingly insignificant work. "With God nothing is empty of meaning," wrote the early church father Irenaeus. As people of faith, we worship "a creator who loves us enough to seek us in the most mundane circumstances of our lives." There is no job so boring that it would disinterest God, because there is no person whom God does not love and see.
God is whispering truth and meaning in the most ordinary and small places. In fact, those are often the places where God especially shows up. Given what the Bible reveals about how he came to us as a baby and was born into very humble circumstances, it seems clear that God often chooses to show up in middle-of-nowhere places. Remember the times where Jesus reached out to and included the last and least? He chose untrained fishermen to be his disciples — ordinary laborers to deliver the world's greatest message.
So if you work at a seemingly ordinary job, don't let that lead you to believe that it is ordinary to God. God is at work and can be known anywhere.
We humans have created a kind of vocational hierarchy: White-collar is better than blue-collar; leading others trumps following them; high salaries outshine low salaries; managing beats out serving; highly educated is superior to less educated; high-profile is better than behind-the-scenes. While there is nothing wrong with high-level leadership, business success, or making a good salary (Jacob, for example, was materially blessed), these false assumptions undermine the vocational experience of many workers, lowering their job satisfaction and leaving them with little or no expectation of experiencing God at work. If you can't love an ordinary job, how can you ever find God there?
The first time I met Shirley, she was greeting at our neighborhood Walmart. When I asked her whether she would be willing to do a video interview for a sermon I was preaching, she initially didn't want to draw any attention to herself. For Shirley, greeting was all about others. "I like people," she said. "I want to help them find the department they are looking for, have a better day ... by smiling or just saying hello ... [or] by getting them a shopping cart." She loved her job, and she loved serving. Shirley did for others what she would want them to do for her. Many of the customers who walked by that morning knew her name.
Once she realized I was serious about wanting to understand more about her work, she consented to an interview. Following the interview, with the camera off, we had a more personal conversation. I discovered her deeper side. She had been through a lot, yet she seemed so content and at peace. She knew herself!
Driving home I thought, What a wonderful human being!
And then I felt ashamed.
The day before the interview, I had come up with the idea of asking the Walmart manager if I could be a greeter for a morning. What better way to understand the job? I quickly nixed the idea because I worried that someone I knew might see me there. Yet here was Shirley — a seventy-seven-year-old woman who didn't go to church but still believed in God — imaging Christ in a way that I couldn't.
At one point in the Gospels, Jesus washed his disciples' feet (John 13:1-17). Shirley does the same every time she humbly puts a Walmart customer before herself.
According to the Bible, God is a God who serves. Selflessness in the smallest things is indicative of his nature. So whenever anybody humbly serves another in a selfless way at their job or anywhere else, they are, in a very real sense, imitating Christ. I believe that the Holy Spirit is moving through them, giving them the humility to kneel and to look up to others. And through that humble act, they become more human. This must be why Shirley knew herself so well; God's humility was moving through her.
Theologian Cornelius Plantinga wrote,
According to God's intelligence, the way to thrive is to help others to thrive; the way to flourish is to cause others to flourish; the way to fulfill yourself is to spend yourself. Jesus himself tried to get this lesson across to his disciples by washing their feet, hoping to ignite a little of the trinitarian life in them. The idea is that if — in a band of disciples, in a family, in a college — people encourage each other, pour out interest and goodwill upon each other, favor each other with blessings customized to fit the other person's need, what transpires is a lovely burst of shalom.
For weeks after that Walmart interview, I kept seeing an image of Shirley's aged hands pushing those shopping carts — a great-grandmother doing all that physical work for other able-bodied people, standing all day, greeting customers where they were, selflessly incarnating the hospitable heart of God. She didn't judge those who walked through the door. And it made a difference.
Now, when I reconnect with Shirley at Walmart, I tell her about how her story continues to be told via online sermon video downloads, and she glows. My prayer is that through the attention I have shown her, she will catch a glimpse of a God who sees her as well. Perhaps she will even experience his smiling presence every time she smiles at another and a foretaste of his goodness in the goodness she already feels in greeting others.
There is no job too small for God's presence. But for some workers, it is not the size of their job that is the problem; it is the nature, scope, and content. What they do seems very far removed from what God would do. Aren't there just some jobs where God's goodness is unlikely to be found?
A while ago, a forensic psychologist told me that while there are many jobs where God's truth and goodness are clearly evident, in work like his — diagnosing and then bearing bad news about what is often irreparable i mpairment — God's presence is a lot harder to find. How could this kind of vocation ever image God?
Later he sent me an e-mail further detailing the nature of his work: "My job essentially consists of identifying neuro-cognitive impairment (i.e., impaired concentration, memory, speech/language, decision-making) associated with brain pathology (disease or injury) and predictive of disability." In other words, 99 percent of the time, he's giving people bad news: "The only good news would be if an individual is less impaired than he/she thought."
As I considered his e-mail, the words of God through the prophet Jeremiah came to mind:
This is what the Lord says:
"Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing. There is no one to plead your cause, no remedy for your sore, no healing for you."
We live in a sin-corrupted and broken world. People's bodies and minds and families and communities are not what they are supposed to be, not what God intended when he first made them. Life falls short — all of it, including our work.
But this psychologist's work was not devoid of the presence of God. Nothing can be completely so. While his particular profession may deal with more brokenness than most, God is still very much at work there.
A forensic psychologist is made in the image of a God who sometimes brings terrible news: "Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing. This won't ever go away or get better." Sometimes the truth is difficult to hear. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. And yet, there is still something very right — something Godlike! — about the act of naming fallen reality for what it is.
The forensic psychologist started to do the math himself. "Does a person whose job it is to search for pathology work in a role similar to the Holy Spirit, who convicts of brokenness, sin, and impurity?" he wrote me. "In turn, the pathologist is intimately reminded and convicted by the Holy Spirit of what is unholy and the need for healing, remediation, reconciliation, and resurrection. Unlike jobs filled with the beauty of creation, the pathologist is reminded daily of the futility of our attempts to be whole without God, never able to forget that we, and the otherwise beautiful creation around us, [are] fallen, and [remain] so without the hope of resurrection."
As I read his note, what came to mind were the words of Jesus, as recorded by his disciple John:
When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he'll expose the error of the godless world's view of sin, righteousness, and judgment: He'll show them that their refusal to believe in me [Jesus] is their basic sin; that righteousness comes from above, where I am with the Father, out of their sight and control; that judgment takes place as the ruler of this godless world is brought to trial and convicted.
JOHN 16:8-11, MSG
Wow! A pretty harsh diagnosis from Jesus! Our godless world isn't seeing things straight. Our basic sin is that we don't believe that Jesus is who he says he is and that what he says comes from God the Father. The Spirit's role is to bring judgment, trial, and conviction.
According to the Bible, Jesus is the one through whom and for whom all things were made — the one who is now holding all things together, including you and what you do. We say we believe these basic truths about who Jesus is, and yet most of the time we go about our daily work as though he is not there. We barely give him the time of day. We pay him lip service by limiting his presence at work to issues of morality, work ethic, or witnessing. In many ways, perhaps out of ignorance or willful denial or sloth, we refuse to give him lordship over our jobs. We forget that Jesus calls his followers to give their whole lives to him, every moment of every day. Christ loves us so much he could never be satisfied with anything less.
In order for us to really understand our vocational condition, Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to convict us, to name our working shortfalls for what they are, so that we will know how incurable our wounds are. Maybe then we might be humbled and inspired enough to look beyond ourselves for some kind of saving.
How we work (and live) is falling short of the glory of God. The Holy Spirit's job is to illumine this fact, even as a forensic psychologist's job is to incisively identify and name brokenness in our brains.
So how exactly does our experience of work fall short? If work, at its best, is meant to be a place where we experience God more fully and know Jesus for who he really is, then where exactly are things breaking down?
When it comes to getting the diagnosis right, the forensic psychologist has a laserlike focus. "I do not represent [the client]," he said. "What I do is represent brains, cognitive problems, depression, anxiety, [and] post-traumatic stress. I represent those things and will represent them very well." He wasn't a therapist, nor was he there to empathize or have a relationship with the client. The only reason he engaged his clients was to nail down the nature of the problem. "Getting it right is critical," he said.
Like this forensic psychologist, God isn't soft on sin. Yes, he loves us. But his holiness requires a perfect objectivity and a precise and unrelenting conviction when it comes to identifying sin's corrupting nature. God would agree with the psychologist's words: "Without conviction you can't bring about change."
And it is a conviction regarding a condition that is critical. Yes, sin manifests itself volitionally — we make poor choices — but sin is also very much a condition, something we don't really do and can't fix ourselves. Just as a brain-damaged person doesn't know any better, so too we don't know any better.
For the patient who hears the forensic psychologist's diagnosis for the first time, the news can be both unsettling and freeing — unsettling in terms of having to acknowledge the permanence of the condition, and freeing in that a person might for the first time understand his or her situation in a new way. They may think, Okay, there is a reason that I feel this way, that I respond to life this way! Now it makes more sense. I have a brain injury that I can't fix. But this is not all that I am.
Excerpted from Every Job a Parable by John Van Sloten. Copyright © 2017 John Van Sloten. Excerpted by permission of NavPress.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Finding God at Work ix
Part 1 What Does it Mean to Image God?
1 All Work Matters: What a Flyer Delivery Person, a Walmart Greeter, a Forensic Psychologist, and a Residential Landlord Teach Us about the Value of All Work 3
2 Imaging God with Your Whole Being: What Trades and Translators Teach Us about Experiencing God in Every image-Bearing Moment 19
3 Leaning into God's Signature Moves: Learning to Recognize His Presence Everywhere 33
Part 2 What is a Parable, and How is work a Parable?
4 Noticing God's Unnoticed Presence: The Parable of Sanitation Workers 45
5 The Iconic Nature of Vocational Parables: How Reversing Your Perspective Changes Your Vocational Point of View 57
Part 3 What Does God Reveal to Us about Himself Through Our Work?
6 God Made All Things (Creation): How God Speaks through Your Job and the World You Work In 73
7 Sin Distorts All Things (Fall): How Pride. Greed, Gluttony, Anger, Sloth, Lust, and Envy Keep Us from Experiencing God at Work 87
8 God Is Saving All Things (Redemption): How Naming God's Saving Presence in the World Transforms Our Experience of Work 107
9 God Will Make All Things New (New Earth): Experiencing the Vocational Now as a Foretaste of Eternity 121
Part 4 How Can We More Effectively and Consistently Image God Through Our Work?
10 Stepping into the Story That Is Your Job: Discerning Your God-Spoken Vocational Life 143
11 Employing the Gift of Gratitude: How Thankfulness Opens Your Eyes to God's On-the-Job Presence 159
12 Slowing Down, Opening Your Eyes, and Seeing: How Times of Rest Can Fuel and inform Your Awareness of God at Work 171
13 Becoming a Vocational Mystic: Engaging God with All of Your Senses and Listening Past Your Perceptive Biases 183
14 Trusting That God Will Use Your Work: Here-and-Now Vocational Hope in a Not-Yet-There World 195
Epilogue: The Parable of a Pastor: Honoring God as We Honor the Work of Others 207
Index of Vocations 210
What People are Saying About This
Filled with startling insights and fascinating characters, Van Sloten’s book will help you see that what you do Monday through Friday truly is a sacred calling, one in which God wants to speak to you and to the rest of the world. Highly recommended!
A greatly needed resource that pastorally weaves together biblical teaching and rich theology in the context of a wide diversity of occupations.
John Van Sloten’s book presents a wide-ranging and deeply practical theology of vocation, helping readers see how God speaks and works through jobs we might never have thought were “sacred.” A treasure trove of insights and a great resource for the church.
Here are stories of regular people who are discovering the bubbling ferment of God’s Kingdom in their callings and vocations. Read this and be encouraged that the Spirit really is out ahead of us in our work lives and callings.
All work is meant to be God honoring. I have long believed that and taught it. But in this marvelous book John Van Sloten brings it all alive for me in new ways. I will be ready to read a parable from the Lord every time I see a sanitation worker or a Walmart greeter!
Deeply thoughtful about the most important things while also drawing on the best of the Christian tradition, Every Job a Parable is for every man and every woman who cares about the work of work.
John Van Sloten gives us eyes to see that our work is not only designed to serve others but is also essentially formative on our journey to greater Christlikeness. I highly recommend this book.