November 17, 2010

Busybodies or Workers?

I’ve been thinking a lot about “work” lately. The value of work, types of work, and how people work. St. Paul got me thinking even more last weekend with his letter to the Thessalonians. Bluntly put: if you won’t work, you shouldn’t eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13).

There’s nothing like living at a small scale farm to bring that message home. In our community of eight people, four Episcopal nuns and four resident companions, there’s little room for “idleness” (in Paul’s words). Laboring day in and day out, this community sows seeds, cultivates crops, and tends the harvest in order to eat.

What’s more, these sisters have explicitly made the commitment to connect their daily work to their daily bread. Their Bluestone Farm and Living Arts Center in Brewster, NY, provides an opportunity to live responsibly and responsively with the land and local resources, while at the same time engaging in work that is directly related to everyday life. We not only grow food for ourselves, guests, and the local community, but practice “living arts” such as preserving food, maple sugaring, spinning, weaving, carpentry, music, writing, etc. And of course prayer, a living art that monastic communities have practiced for centuries.

If anyone in the community doesn’t work for their food, it’s me. In the context of the farm, I’m dependent on other people’s labor for my meals. My “day job” for ECF in New York City means that I rarely spend time in the garden. A few hours every month is all I can reasonably contribute to weeding, harvesting, and cooking. Yet almost every morning I eat homemade yogurt and maple syrup, and pack an amazing lunch of the prior day’s farm feast.

Some days I feel the sting of Paul’s words, wondering if I’ve been a mere “busybody,” instead of engaging in valuable work.

Sure, I work hard at my ECF job. And I love it. But I’m probably not the only person who wonders if some days just feel like busywork. We can run around keeping ourselves busy or acting like we’re working. But are these activities really fruitful? Who benefits?

There is something deeply satisfying about doing work that is tangible, visible, and related to one’s skill, passion, and intellect. This point about doing something useful is raised up in a book I’m reading: Shop Class as Soul Craft: an Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford. After studying for a PhD and spending a short stint at a think-tank in Washington DC, the author found himself longing for purposeful work that linked manual skills and intellectual challenge. He went back to the basement to open a motorcycle repair shop.

One thing that struck me from this book is the sense of confidence and satisfaction that meaningful work can instill in a person. Meaningful work connects people to their talents and provides real service to others. Purposeful skilled work can feed the soul and put food on the table.

Mary MacGregor, in a talk that was hosted on this website last week, pushed this point when it comes to church work. We don’t need more “volunteers” to “fill slots” in congregations, she argues. What we need is for every person to understand his or her call from God and use their talents and passion in meaningful service and ministry.

I’m going try fasting from busywork and get on with the real stuff. What about you? 
What’s the work you’re called to in God’s vineyard?