…the brothers should be occupied according to schedule in either manual labour or holy reading.
What is work?
Why is it that after time off from ‘work’, feeling refreshed and think clearer, you begin work and almost immediately feel exhausted? The phrase ‘back to the grindstone’ is so apt at these times. I am just starting back at work after a week of relaxation and rest and for some reason find myself asking,
Why can’t I find the peace of rest during my working week?
It is not sustainable nor logical, I think we can all agree, to work until you’re exhausted and empty and then recoup the lost energy only to spend it all until the next break. The constant emptying and filling puts our nerves on edge as we live at extremes. In this narrative work becomes draining and rest becomes fulfilling. We immediately start to talk about work/life balance as if work and life are separate. We see work as a means to afford to live; life happens after work.
E.F. Schumacher, in his wonderful book ‘Small is Beautiful’, describes the West’s fundamental understanding of work.
There is a universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider ‘labour’ or work as little more than necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a ‘disutility’; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment. (E.F.Schumacher, ‘Small is beautiful:a study of economics as if people mattered’ (London: Abacus, 1988) p.44-45)
I remember when I first read this section of Schumacher’s book and having an intellectual light switched on. I looked at the economic problems facing the UK at the time (and which have not gone away but got worse!) and it made sense: The government, both then and more so now, in trying to balance the books, needs more money coming in than going out and so they want to increase exports whilst cutting costs. What is the greatest cost? Wages. That is why, when money is tight people get laid off or made redundant. People are just a cost, a necessary burden. If we could work without having to pay them then we’d make more money or if we can get one person to do three people’s job then we’d make a massive saving.
Why do we need more money? So we can pay to not work?
Work is seen by the workman, i.e. those who work, as task to be done in order to be able to pay for leisure. The shared vision of work/labour is to earn money to be spent on leisure pursuits outside of work. In the current economic climate, however, people are fearful for their jobs and so, to avoid redundancy and still be able to pay top price for mortgages, cars, leisure activities which are going to make you feel that slaving away was worth it, you work harder and longer hours to show your bosses that you are willing to sacrifice more than others and therefore you have no time for leisure. Work is sacrifice! Those who sacrifice more, appease the economic ‘gods’ and so are safe for another season but the ‘gods’ are never appeased… I digress!
Schumacher goes on to suggest,
If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that ‘reduces the work load’ is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called ‘division of labour’ and the classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practised from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs. (Schumacher, ‘Small is Beautiful’, p.45)
Here is where I have a major problem with the current governments approach to the welfare problem: it is based on this notion that we can continue to see work in the way outlined above and yet force people also to do it more and for less money. People who don’t work cost the government money and don’t pay any money into the bank. To create money and balance the books we must cut the number of people we give money away to and encourage them to give more to us. If they worked, then they’d earn money and pay tax, they’d also not need money from us to live off. Why don’t they work? Why would they work if they get the money anyway? The mantra, therefore, ‘making it pay to work’, is employed.
This is nonsense, however, when jobs are being cut and the jobs being created are so unskilled that no takes pride in what they do. People aren’t at work because they’ve been made redundant or they’ve not been trained with a skill that is valued. We cut the pay of teachers and they feel unvalued and so struggle to commit to their vocation of training our children to achieve. We cut the pay of nurses and they feel unvalued and so can feel unenthusiastic to work beyond the bare minimum (thankfully many fight this urge!)
I sit each week volunteering at a Food Bank and I hear the same stories again and again. People who are trained in one trade/skill, who have worked for years find themselves laid off because money was tight or they’re pay has been cut or is static against the raising prices and are unable to pay the essentials to live. Cheaper labour can be found and so we become wary of foreigners coming in and being willing to work for less because they’re just happy to work but we don’t want to work because work is about earning enough to enjoy life outside of work.
The other thing wrong with the mantra ‘making it pay to work’ is that it still sits within the understanding that to get someone to work the incentive is money. Money is the system of value, in other words, we judge our value in the world by how much we get paid; this is why the celebrity culture is so big, we look at them and how much money they have and we subconsciously or consciously judge them to be valued more in society. Our teenagers all want the jobs that pay more money and be famous because they are desperate to feel valued by others. When they are completely starved of that sense of value they ‘settle’ for ‘menial’ jobs and accept that they are not valued by society so why bother contributing to it. In fact, why bother even working? They say to themselves,
I will never amount to anything of value (being paid money) so I can take that value (money) without working.
I think there needs to be a change in language around work. The culture needs to change to see work as something you do to connect with other people and to develop as a human being. The major difficulty with this is that a new vision of work requires the death of the major shackle we have to the capitalist materialist view of labour: consumption.
I was not accurate when I said that we find value in how much money we have; to be more precise we find value in how much we consume and in order to consume we must pay. Advertising is driven by the need to increase consumption so that people give more money so that others can consume more so that others can consume more, etc. This is another area of our society where we are lost and broken. Is there any hope?
This is the message of grace: Forget the system of sacrifice and trust in God who provides. God grows the plants in the field and has created food to sustain us. He gives us what we need for free in order that we might enjoy the world and life with him. In this world of grace work is another opportunity to be with God. We are called to be co-labourers with God in his world; from the very beginning we are to work alongside God not because He couldn’t do it on his own but because work is more about relationship and process than the end product. We feel fulfilled when we enjoy good relationships with others. Work within the understanding of grace is to be celebrated and enjoyed as a complimentary part of life with God and others. It is to fit equally beside prayer/worship, rest and play.
Reading and study
There’s so much to say about work that I’ve neglected to even talk about what most of this chapter in the Rule of St. Benedict spoke on; reading!
Here study and reading is as much part of the day as prayer, work and eating. As an avid reader my heart jumps for joy to know that reading/study is marked into the day as a task that is expected to be done, so much so that someone will come round and make sure I’m doing it! The pressure I feel when I’m not ‘working’, fulfilling the expectation of those who pay me money, should equally be felt if I fail to read a book and study.
I often feel guilty when I sit down and read or study. I even feel guilty writing this blog because it is technically not part of any job description I have, but then my job description doesn’t really exist because, again that is not part of the world of grace…
Why do I feel so much pressure to be seen to be doing something? It’s because I want to know that I am valued. Our society values someone by what they do and contribute and so I must do or contribute something. This is not grace…
I feel I am indebted to others whose money goes to ‘pay my bills’ and to I am then shackled to them as a slave. What will reading and study do for them. I feel that if they pay me then I should perform my duties to them. This is not grace…
Some might say,
Other people can’t afford to not work and to spend their days reading and studying. What gives you the right to be given money by others to sit about and be lazy?
I’d challenge that. There is always time for reading and studying if you prioritise it. There is also an assumption that reading and studying has no value because not many people would pay you money to read and study. If we need to earn the right to stop generating income and ‘waste time’ participating in a task which cannot be valued then we are slaves to a world outside of grace…
I feel guilty about my life as full-time minister. I feel the judgement of others as they look at me, in my free house, with my stipend,
Am I worth it?
What differentiates me from those who don’t get this?
The problem begins when we talk of what I do as ‘work’ in the sense of what it is widely understood to be. I don’t do what I do in order to pay for leisure; I do what I do because I feel God is growing me in the tasks of this ministry. My ministry is my life not a means to a life. Every disciple should be able to say that. My worth, in the world of grace, comes not from what I do or achieve or ‘earn’ but by the unending love of God. I work not to earn value or worth but as a vehicle to experience value and worth. I work because I am blessed because it is part of the gift of life.
Take my wife as an example. She doesn’t get paid by a pay check for anything she does. In the eyes of the current society is is a sponging, work-shy slacker. She costs money to stay alive, with her food, heating, shelter and (in my wife’s case) medicine (lots of it!) What does she contribute to society? A lot. Does she generate income? No. Nothing she does adds money into the bank. She is of little value to society in this sense.
She does contribute to society. She spends her days caring for others, encouraging others, giving people value outside of the purely materialistic understanding of existence. She is able to do that because she herself has received that same love and value from God as a gift in His pure grace. Without people like Sarah, the world would be a poorer place. She is my partner in ministry; it’s my name on the pay-check but it’s our money. If Sarah didn’t do what she does in the way she does it I wouldn’t be able to be the person God wants me to be in the place where he wants me.
I contemplate my life without Sarah a lot and I’m genuinely scared. How will I function without her beside me? I know, however, that what my life with her has taught me that life is a gift of grace from God that is meant to be shared with others. We must begin any understanding or study of life with the understanding of ‘grace’. God provides out of love for us and we’re called to participate in its delivery in order to draw close to him. The money I receive is not a deserved outcome of a sacrifice I have made, it is a gift to ensure I am able to live the life God has called me to. The gift comes first, the rest is a response.
Sarah lives by grace. I want to too.
The Christian community should be a place where all resources are shared, not out of duty but out of love. This means to have an attitude to all things as gift and to and to eradicate discussions of earning, sacrificing, etc. In this community reading and studying is another activity that is done; it has no less value than the creation of goods which can be sold to purchase other goods. In this community prayer is not a luxury which must be done after you have earned enough money to stop working.
I am fortunate to live the life I lead but it is a life that I invite others to live too, not because I don’t work but because work is another way I get to be with God. I am free to choose to follow God in everything I do. I share all I have with anyone who needs it. My house has been used to house others so they don’t feel the need to sacrifice life to just survive.
I share my table to help people who have none. The money that comes into my bank account each month is a generous gift from others which I pass on to others, through charity, relational gifts and blessing.
If you live in York and would be interested in living a life of grace why not get in touch and join Sarah and I in trying to work out what that looks like for us. We want to structure our lives around ‘prayer, study, dialogue and worship’ (Alan Roxburgh, Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1997) p.66).
Prayer is a life shaped around times in the presence of God establishing identity in his grace. By study I mean exploring and seeking out the truth of God where it may be found. By dialogue I mean real and deep, committed relationship with others that leads to wholeness, healing and reconciliation and by worship I mean activities which honour God, using our body and skills to communicate our love and acceptance of his grace.
Gracious Father, Thank you. Thank you for all your gifts to us. Thank you for your acceptance of us and desire to see us grow in maturity of faith. Thank you that everything in heaven and on earth is yours and of your own do we give you.
Come, Lord Jesus