Category: Theology

What engagement taught me about theology of work

While engagement is full of joy and excitement, there were many moments my fiancé and I wanted to hit fast forward to the wedding. Choosing the design of our wedding invitations, the flavor of cake, and the hundreds of other micro-decisions at times made our eleven-month engagement feel more like eleven years.

I found many moments joyful and enriching, but in others I felt like an indentured servant to the Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 10.16.04 AMnext menial task on my wedding to-do list. Why do the centerpieces even matter? We just want to be married!

Now on the other side of our wedding day, I appreciate what the mundane decisions of engagement taught me. I grew in my understanding of the eternal significance of work, despite the tension and weariness it sometimes brings.

A few months before my big day, my friend texted me this quote:

The more we grow in grace and love, the more we want to be with Him. At some point I think every engaged couple says, “We just want to be married.” Similarly, that is the ache in the heart of the Christian who is growing in love for the Savior—we just want to be with him at last! In a way, planning a wedding is the unique opportunity to do practically what we are all doing figuratively as we await Christ’s return. You will look forward with eagerness to the wedding day, but in the meantime there are tasks you must complete and mundane decisions that must be made.

In light of eternity you might think, ‘What does it matter which chairs we choose?’ Or, ‘Who cares what the centerpieces look like?’ These are mundane decisions—the banal details that can send an otherwise sane bride over the edge. But while planning a wedding is an unusual experience, having to carry out seemingly pointless tasks is not.

This excerpt from the book A Christ-Centered Wedding: Rejoicing in the Gospel on Your Big Day encouraged me as a fatigued bride-to-be. I realized engagement holds significant theological meaning in symbolizing our day-to-day work.

If marriage is a biblical picture of the final consummation of Christ and his bride, the church, what is engagement? Maybe it acts as a snapshot of our life here on earth, preparing for eternity with God. During engagement and during life on earth, we work while we wait in anticipation.

I found planning a wedding to be like our work on earth in these four ways:

There Is Tension

Most engaged couples will experience tensions that are spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational. For me, engagement felt like a weird “neither-here-nor-there” place of relationship limbo. On earth, we experience this same tension with God. We can be in relationship with Christ, but we still long to stand face to face with him.

This reminds me of the tension of living in the “already but not yet,” as Paul describes in Philippians 1:23-24:

I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.

It Can Disappoint

During my single days, I romanticized engagement. What’s not to love about being in love and planning a big party? However, the difficulty of meshing two lives together overwhelmed me, and my expectations did not meet reality.

Just the same is our work at times. Many students long to begin their careers after college but quickly lose enthusiasm for their work when things don’t turn out as they hoped. Some days on the job are defined by stress, toil, and disappointment rather than satisfaction and fulfillment.

This is the reality of sin at work in the world. It’s the bad news, but it’s not the whole story. There’s a reason for all of it.

Details Seem Insignificant, but They Don’t Have to Be

While planning my wedding, I often felt like many decisions were unimportant. Who cares about the cake topper or the program font? I find myself sometimes wondering the same about my work. Will anyone even read this blog post I’m writing?

Wedding details and little tasks at work may seem insignificant, but they all have the potential to point to something greater. For the bride-to-be, there is a healthy middle ground between obsessing over details and not caring at all—details aren’t the point, but they do matter. Micro-decisions are parts of a greater whole.

Likewise, even our most mundane tasks at work carry meaning and have the potential to play a small part in God’s plan.

We’re Working towards Something Greater than We Can Imagine

My wedding day wasn’t about the live band or which signature cocktail we chose, but when I saw my guests laughing, sipping old-fashioneds, and dancing, all my hard work seemed meaningful. I did not fully realize this during the planning process, but afterward, it all felt worth it.

Similarly, we cannot fully realize the meaning of our work on earth. It might be difficult to understand the significance of database entry, blog writing, or whatever it is you do at your job that feels mundane, so we must labor in faith we’re working toward something so great and wonderful beyond our comprehension. The work we do will be worth it.

My 5 favorite quotes from the Pope’s address to Congress

On Thursday, I stood on the Capitol lawn with 50,000 others to watch the Pope’s address to Congress over a live Jumbotron feed. His speech was both encouraging and challenging as he called legislative members to action on the most pressing issues of our day.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the papal address to Congress.

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The role of government: Francis called the preservation of human dignity and the common good the chief aim of politics. He uplifted the vocation of the legislator, whose role is to protect the Imago Dei of every individual.

You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics…. Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just  legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

Freedom: The Pope suggested ways to protect freedom, later mentioning specifically religious and intellectual freedom and individual rights.

Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity…. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.

The Golden Rule: A common theme of Francis’s talks, he reminded us to give to the world what we want from it and to protect human life.

Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12). This rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

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Poverty: The Pope acknowledges great progress in the global fight against poverty and encourages the American people to continue since there is still more work to be done.

How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.

Economics: The Pope called for greater wealth creation and distribution and proper employment of natural resources, as well as a harnessed spirit of enterprise.

It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (Laudato Si’, 129).

Though the pontiff’s speech seemed generally political, his overall message was one of love, generosity, and hope, pointing to God.

After his address to Congress, the Holy Father stepped outside. A roar of applause and 100,000 waving hands greeted him and he humbly asked for our prayers.

You can read the full transcript of his speech here.

*Originally published on the IFWE blog.

Your Laudato Si’ crash course

The Pope’s latest encyclical, Laudato Si’ (or “Be Praised”), sparked a theological debate between Catholics, Protestants, and even many non-Christians about the environment, climate change, and the global market economy.

The papal letter isn’t for a quick read over your morning cup-o-joe. The pdf version from the Vatican’s website is 184 pages cover to cover, so I’ve rounded up the best videos and commentary on the web to get you up to speed on the eco-encyclical discussion. Consider this  your Laudato Si’ crash course.

Father Barron hits the highlights of Laudato Si’.

Dr. Samuel Gregg on the strengths and weaknesses of the eco-encyclical:

Though papal encyclicals are one of the most authoritative statements a pope can issue, the positions expressed are not a declaration of Catholic Church doctrine. This leaves a lot of room for debate!

What do you think about Laudato Si’?

*Originally published at the IFWE blog.

“We’re not on a sinking ship”: an interview with Isaac Cheatham

Isaac Cheatham has always had a strong passion for teaching and sharing the gospel. During college, he wanted to pursue ministry work.

Those closest to him expected him to become a preacher, but today he is a broker at TD Ameritrade.

At Stephen F. Austin State University, Cheatham served with Campus Crusade as a small group leader and eventually became president of CRU. He was very involved with his church in Austin, Grace Bible Church, and loved nothing more than seeing people come to know and love Jesus.

Though he wanted to go into ministry, Cheatham also always felt a tug to pursue business. He just didn’t know what to do with it. He says,

I felt like being in the business world would pull me away from the intimacy I had with Jesus, so I sort of avoided what was in my heart because I didn’t want to sacrifice any part of my relationship with Jesus for a job.

In May 2012, Cheatham graduated and began pursuing a career in ministry, taking an internship at Grace Bible Church. Since the internship didn’t pay much, he picked up two part-time jobs on the side to help pay the bills. He also enrolled in classes at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Between graduate school, three jobs, and incredible financial stress, Cheatham realized he had spread himself too thin. He says,

In December of 2012, I was completely exhausted and burnt out. Behind on every bill, discouraged, and broken down. I came back to Dallas [and] met with one of my best friends and talked to him about everything that was going on. He pointed out what I already knew: this wasn’t working.

Even though he assumed he’d always be a preacher, he knew something had to change. So he applied for a job in Dallas, his hometown:

I decided that I would apply to a job that was way out of my league in terms of experience and education it required and if The Lord opened a door, I would follow it. Within 48 hours of applying for that job, they had already interviewed me and offered me a job in medical sales. That’s when I knew it was time for me to leave for the next phase of life the Lord had for me.

Cheatham packed his bags in Austin and returned home to Dallas. It was during this time he experienced a theological paradigm shift that changed the way he thought about his work.

God had a different plan for him, and it wasn’t full-time preaching.

Though Cheatham was confident God was calling him home, the transition wasn’t easy. Everything he knew was taken from him – his Christian community, his role as a teacher and a leader at his church, and his dreams of pursing ministry work. “It felt like leaving the greenhouse and going to the desert,” Cheatham explains.

God used this time to mold and shape Cheatham’s character, and he came to realize working in business didn’t mean he had to sacrifice intimacy with Christ. This all became clear when he learned he believed in a very narrow version of the gospel:

I had no idea what a narrow version of the gospel I had learned…. [M]y operational theology of the gospel was “this ship is going down, lets rescue as many people as we can while we can.” Such. Bad. Theology.

Cheatham realized his view of the gospel was small because it only considered the reconciliation of humans. So he began to study Colossians 1:15-20:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Through studying this passage, the meaning of the full gospel became clear to Cheatham:

As I was studying this passage in Colossians it all came together for me all at once: We are not on a sinking ship – the ship already sank – we’re partnering with God to bring the ship back to life through the gospel of Jesus. All parts of the ship, not just the people.

Cheatham continues:

As believers, we are mini viceroys, reconciling all aspects of life back under the kingship of Jesus. Finances, relationships, technology, medicine, politics, and the apex: people. Very quickly the Lord started to open my eyes to passages I knew by heart but had missed God’s hope and plan for reconciling the actual physical creation to what it was intended to be, a garden for his children to reflect his creative capacity and passion for cultivation.

He also spoke about the dangers of narrowing the gospel:

If we narrow the gospel for it to mean, “God is only reconciling people”, we reduce the value of the cross and limit our ability to reflect and be in relationship with a God who is creative, who works, who feels, who loves the arts, who has plans, who manages the earth, economies, governments, finances, who holds the keys to the next great technological advance, and we limit our ability to worship him in all of who he is. Yes, pastoring and teaching and evangelism is important, but no more or less important than God working with us to reconcile back to himself and make beautiful all other things which he created.

Today, Cheatham is a broker at TD Ameritrade and eventually plans to start his own investment analyst firm.

*Originally published at the IFWE blog.

Sufjan Stevens would make Francis Schaeffer proud

If Francis Schaeffer was alive today, Sufjan Stevens would make him proud.

Stevens’ new album, Carrie and Lowell, which debuted last Tuesday, was named best new music by Pitchfork shortly after he was compared to theologian Francis Schaeffer in the Atlantic. Few self-proclaimed Christian artists have achieved such secular popularity and recognition for their faith as Stevens.

71cd3730His success among both non-Christians and Christians may be explained by the fact that he seems to embody a Schaefferian view of work as an artist. In Art & the Bible, Schaeffer asks,

How should an artist begin to do his work as an artist? I would insist that he begin his work as an artist by setting out to make a work of art.

Focusing on the artistic qualities of his music first is an area many agree Stevens has mastered but where Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) artists have failed.

David Roark argues in the Atlantic that most music typically considered “Christian” today really isn’t all that good. CCM, which started during wake of the “Jesus Movement” in the 60s and 70s, views music strictly as a tool for evangelism rather than an art form. The highest measure of value is the number of times “Jesus” is mentioned while talent and production quality take a backseat. This is why he argues Christians have failed to make much of a dent in the popular music scene.

While Stevens doesn’t hide his beliefs in his work, he purposefully avoids the CCM label, perhaps because he doesn’t believe Christianity should be viewed as a cultural subset. Instead, we should live and breathe the Gospel so naturally that it weaves its way into every area of life, transforming it.

According to Roark, Stevens’ music is the physical embodiment of what Schaeffer called “the totality of life.” He says,

Instead of dealing directly with religious or biblical matters, Stevens’ music embodies what theologian Francis Schaeffer called the “totality of life,” as opposed some sort of “self-conscious evangelism”—an approach that turns the whole Christian-music stigma on its head. […]

For the musician, the gospel doesn’t just play some small, personal role in life and culture; it infiltrates and restores all of life and culture. It addresses the entire human experience, or “the totality of life” as Schaeffer described it.

Carrie and Lowell centers around Stevens’ mother Carrie who abandoned him as a child and recently passed in 2012. In Should Have Known Better, he shares the hurt his mother caused him as a child as well as his regret in not trying to be closer to her. He wrestles with depression in The Only Thing and cries out to Jesus for help in John My Beloved. He shares his brokenness, his fears, (Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away), and the symbols of hope he sees in the world around him (My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings, illumination).

He struggles with sin and wrestles with his faith. Many moments are so raw and so vulnerable; some may find them difficult to listen to. But maybe that realism about the human condition is exactly what we crave in a song.

The way in which Stevens integrates his faith with his music can be compared to other artists like Johnny Cash and U2. Roark says these Christians artists stand in stark contrast to CCM because,

They didn’t see music as just a means to an end, or a way of evangelizing to young people. Instead, they focused on telling compelling stories and creating aesthetically pleasing music, while still expressing themselves personally and spiritually. It’s not as if they separated their faith from their work—on the contrary, Christian themes and ideas are woven throughout their lyrics. It’s more that their endeavors were simpler: They cared more about writing good songs than converting the world through music.

Is a song about a mother abandoning her son any less Christian than a song about a Biblical scene? Sufjan Stevens wouldn’t say so, and neither would Francis Schaeffer.

Stevens’ music speaks something beautiful and true to our souls, which is why it’s captivating both Christian non-Christians alike. And if Francis Schaeffer had a chance to listen to Carrie and Lowell, I’m sure it would make him proud.

Tibetan sand mandala in ‘House of Cards’: not a good way to think about work

In season three of House of Cards, a group of Tibetan monks are invited to the White House to perform a Buddhist tradition involving the creation of a sand mandala. The ritual requires painstaking work and intricate detail.

But almost as soon as the masterpiece is finished, it’s destroyed.

In episode seven, four monks bend over a mandala blueprint, holding a metal rod in one hand and a grated funnel in the other. Running the rod over the funnel grates, they tediously shake each colored gain of sand into place. They work for an entire month until their work is finished. Millions of grains of sand display a breathtaking image, but the image is soon wiped away.

I couldn’t help but silently say “Nooo!” to myself as I watched the monks destroy their masterpiece. If I spent a whole month working on a sand mandala that looked like that, I’d probably be on the phone with an art conservator.

But it’s not surprising why this scene appeared in House of Cards. The creation and destruction of sand mandalas is a Buddhist tradition of healing that signifies impermanence, which might symbolize the impermanence of Frank Underwood’s work to further his own influence and power as President of the United States.

Underwood is a modern, fictional example of what man’s work looks like when it’s not in line with God’s work. A biblical illustration of this is found in the story of the Tower of Babel. When we work for ourselves and not for God, we are like the people of Babel who said in Genesis 11:4,

Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.

The people of Babel worked to glorify themselves by building a tower to reach the heavens, assuming they would be capable of doing what only God is capable of doing. They also deliberately disobeyed God’s command to fill the earth and subdue it by concentrating their power in one central location. Then God confuses them with many languages, which ultimately destroys their plans.

Similarly, Underwood works to build his own Tower of Babel in season three. He desires to leave a legacy for himself by increasing his power and influence, so he oversteps his presidential authority in several ways.

Underwood’s selfish work is like a sand mandala that will be quickly destroyed.

But there are some Christians who think all work is impermanent in this way. Vincent Bacote calls this the “temptation of meaninglessness.” He says,

This is when we view culture and the world of work as useless because we believe that “it’s all going to burn up in the end.” Our work is not meaningless, but neither is it responsible for ushering in the kingdom. God is responsible for that.

Revelations 21:23-26 even says that the glory and the honor of the nations will be brought into heaven:

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

Theologians still discuss what is meant by “the glory and the honor of the nations,” but in general, it’s thought to mean that the best of our work may not be impermanent. Art Lindsley writes,

What is this glory and honor of the nations? It has to be something that distinctively comes from the nations that expresses glory and honor. This probably means the best of humanity’s diverse creative works, the best products that people from the nations have created. Perhaps the best artistic works, the best of our engineering, and the best of other human endeavors will be for us to enjoy for all eternity.

The creation and destruction of sand mandalas, while a fascinating Buddhist tradition, is no way to think about our work.

Man’s work for man’s sake is fleeting, but work for God’s sake is everlasting.

*Originally published at the IFWE blog.

My newfound appreciation for Saint Joseph the Worker

If someone were to ask me as a kid who my favorite character in the Bible (besides Jesus) was, I would have said Noah, David, or even Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Never Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. As a seven-year-old, I didn’t think he seemed that exciting. He was kind of just there.

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But today, as a young professional trying to navigate the seas of my calling, Joseph takes on a completely different meaning.

And I’m finding that I have severely underrated him.

Joseph is known to some Christian traditions as Saint Joseph the Worker or the patron saint of workers. By looking to Joseph’s example on his solemnity, I uncovered three insights that can apply to anyone in any job.

Our Work Is an Expression of Virtue

Joseph was a carpenter, as humbling an occupation then as it is today. While not much is known about the details of Joseph’s work, it likely offered him many opportunities to practice humility.

Most humbling was that God chose Joseph’s little workshop in Nazareth as the earthly surroundings and workplace for his Son, not the courts of princes or the halls of the learned.

The work of Joseph’s hands embodied humility, reminding us that we each have the opportunity to express virtue through our work.

In my job at IFWE, God is always giving me opportunities to practice discernment in my writing. Before I write a blog post, I spend time deliberating and seeking good judgment to decide what to write about and how to write it.

What virtues does God give you the opportunity to practice in your job daily? Diligence? Fortitude? Prudence?

Our Work Mimics God

Joseph reflected God’s nature while laboring away with his wood. Whenever he built, he imitated the way the Lord “built” the vast universe with wonderful skill.

Joseph likely had many opportunities to remind himself and others of God’s creative majesty through his carpentry.

My job often involves outreach and bringing people together over ideas. When I’m connecting people, I’m often reminded of Jesus, the greatest networker of all time.

I know it might sound silly to compare what I do to what Jesus did, but when we see how our work mimics God, we find a fuller sense of purpose.

How does your work signify Imago Dei?

We Are All Working alongside Christ

The thing I love the most about Joseph’s work is that he worked alongside Jesus. How awesome is that? And what a beautiful reminder it is to all of us: we all work alongside Christ every day.

Though Jesus is the perfect example, sometimes we overlook characters in the Bible who can encourage us in specific areas of our Christian walk.

When you find yourself dragging at work or wondering if what you do even matters to God, pray the prayer below and think about Joseph. His example will point you to Christ.

“Lord, thank you for the privilege to work side by side with Jesus, just as Joseph did in the carpenter shop of Nazareth. Show me how I imitate your nature in my work. Sanctify my work by presenting me with opportunities to practice virtue. Teach me to work for you and with you in the spirit of humility and prayer. Amen.”

*Originally published at the IFWE blog.