What if not only what you do, but how you do what you do actually mattered to God?
The year, it could be said, was not particularly my best. In the course of my 12 months since graduating I had switched jobs 4 times (filing my taxes the following April was a mess). I found myself where almost every millennial in their twenties eventually does; as a barista in the local Starbucks. Working long summer shifts of Frappuccino rushes, I was utterly miserable. This is perhaps for each of us where the rubber of our worth meets the road of our toil, those crooked paths and darkened rooms that cause us to stumble aimlessly through the vocations we find ourselves in. We wonder how we got here and hope that if we squeeze our eyes and pray hard enough, we might find ourselves somewhere else, anywhere else doing something that actually nourished our soul.
As I’ve been reflecting on that season, that dark (or one could say bold? Coffee pun…) night of the soul, I’ve realized that something was missing from my understanding of vocation. You see, though I was at that time beginning to trust that what I did mattered to God, I couldn’t quite seem to figure out if how I did it made any difference at all. Each shift was a struggle, every hour felt long. My work became a grind (again, coffee pun) and with each passing cup, I felt part of my heart disengage. It seemed that my four jobs and my long shifts were beginning to get the better of my soul, and where I was only twelve months before a buoyant and bright-eyed college graduate, I now was a shell of myself, head down, heart at the door, pouring cup after cup, just waiting for my shift to end.
What saddens me most as I think about that time is really how common this experience of vocation becomes for most of us. We were told at some point that our lives would be filled with excitement, meaning, fulfillment, and instead we’ve found ourselves at home with the kids, stuck in a cubicle, working on the factory, fast food, or barista line. What do we do with such dissatisfaction? What do we do when life hasn’t panned out? Or perhaps worst, what do we do if life has panned out and it isn’t what we wanted?
My friend, wherever you are; in the mountaintops of fulfilling work or the valleys of vocational despair, I come to you with good news. Your work, your contribution, your vocation matters to God. But here perhaps is what’s most important. Not only what you do, but how you do what you do matters to God. You see there is this word. A rich word. A redemption word. A complex word. It is the word righteousness. Now for most of us, righteousness has become a salvation word, a Paul word, to talk about what Jesus’ forgiveness offers. And well it should. Righteousness is who we are in Christ, when our relationships broken by sin are set right with God. But you see, righteousness was not only a New Testament word but an Old Testament word as well, one that would have carried great weight and meaning in Paul’s day.
Righteousness was how Israel talked about God saving people from slavery to Egypt.
Righteousness was about God restoring peace and justice in the land.
Righteousness was about people participating rightly in their families, in their communities, in their jobs, in their vocations.
Righteousness in short was right living; right business, right character, right relationships, right service, right deeds. For Paul and the early believers, righteousness was not simply something abstract, that happened in the ethereal spirituality of our individual souls. Instead, righteousness was a tangible word, a demonstrable word about God setting all things right, not only inside us but through us as well. Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy Continued, offers us a really helpful definition that begins to hint at the implications of righteousness for our daily lives: the ability to know and do the good in all aspects of life.
For just a moment, imagine with me the implications. What if your righteousness was not only something inside you, but something you extended and enacted in the world? What if righteousness was not just about right relationship with God but right relationships with others; knowing and doing the good with your spouse, with your friends, with your kids, with your co-workers, with your boss? What is righteousness was right character? Not only what you did at work but how you did it, with integrity, uprightness, and wisdom? What if righteousness was our right service, our right actions, or right deeds in every task we’re assigned, every responsibility we’re entrusted, every hour with which we labor? What if as you began to live this righteousness out in your vocation, you began setting things right that had previously been wrong?
It’s possible that this kind of righteousness would mean goods would be made ethically. Money would be stewarded wisely and intentionally. Profit would not be the motivation but the outcome of work done well, for the good will of all. A mother’s righteousness would spill over into her children, a janitor’s righteousness would leave their bathrooms sparkling for others, a lawyer’s righteousness would bring forth justice, and a businesswoman’s righteousness would cause her work to shine. We talked last Sunday night about redemptive work being that which makes crooked paths straight, and shines light into darkness. Righteousness work is exactly that- a setting right to paths that were once wrong, a shining light into darkened crannies previously ignored.
Let’s get very real for a moment. Righteousness is incredibly difficult to bring into our vocations, because righteous work often involves a cost. You may not make as much money, or you may not be able to relax for as much of your time. Hard truthful words might need to be said, or diligent focused service might need to be offered. Righteousness requires knowing and doing the good even in environments that are crooked and wrong. For this reason, most of us give up on righteousness after a few attempts; it’s simply too hard.
We return then to the barista counter where I found myself worn and wearied. As I have been wrestling with this series at the Practice, exhorting everyone into their vocations that matter; I am haunted by the wearied soul that stood head down and eyes glazed at his barista counter, longing for nothing more than to be done with my labor. I confess before you my friends that my righteousness stayed home, while my weary hands toiled, neglecting darkened rooms and crooked paths in the hope someone else would set them right. But friends, imagine how a righteous barista might have shined? Imagine the way I could have loved my fellow co-workers? Could have labored for excellence over the dishes I washed and the floors I swept? Imagine the smile I could have given to each sleep-deprived customer whose coffee I was preparing? Imagine the way my righteousness could have shined, in the early morning labor at your local neighborhood Starbucks? What if I had known and done the good, in all aspects of my life?
My friends, most of us do not explicitly choose which vocation we’re given. Most of us at the end of our lives might not even be able to say, “my work mattered to me.” But it does to God. And perhaps even more, not only what we do, but how we do what we do matters to our God. If a lowly barista making minimum wage, has opportunity to make crooked paths straight, and shine light into darkness, how might your vocation be inviting you to bring your righteousness into all aspects of your life? Imagine a world full of Christian bankers, telemarketers, construction workers, sales associates, receptionists, bar tenders, doctors, fast food workers, retirees and unemployed, all bringing righteousness into the vocations in which they find themselves. I believe that God’s kingdom might begin inching its way towards earth, one vocation act of righteousness at a time. The journey is hard, the laborers few, but my friends the harvest of reaping righteousness in our vocations, may very well become the most important ministry of your life. May you my friends and fellow practioners join me in pondering how we might each begin to set crooked paths straight and shine light into darkness because how we do what we do matters to God.
Grace and peace,
John and the Practice team