In an early episode of NBC's situation comedy The Office, the mismanaging manager Michael Scott herds all the white-collar male employees of Dunder-Mifflin paper company down to the warehouse to see how the blue-collar half lives. As they load a truck-literally pushing paper-with bumbling inefficiency, Ryan the temp suggests to Stanley the jaded sales rep that they could get the job done faster if they formed an assembly line. "Look," says Stanley, "I'm just running out the clock down here, same as I do upstairs."
Though exaggerated for laughs, The Office resonates with cubicle-dwellers everywhere. Sometimes the highest calling of an employee is putting up with the other employees-meanwhile clearing the desk so it can pile up again, avoiding sensitive toes, and gathering in the conference room on the boss's latest whim. And what is our purpose, again? Why does this year's motivational seminar look suspiciously like last year's? Aren't we motivated yet?
"This also is vanity," says the preacher, "and a striving after wind."
Work is not our curse, but our calling; our Father works, and so do we. Even in a fallen world, there is no greater satisfaction than that of a job well done. Still, every job is subject to what we might call the four F's: frustration, failure, futility, and false starts. To lose a six-figure client in air-conditioned comfort is as maddening as losing a crop by the sweat of one's brow. None of this is new; an old Puritan prayer reads, "But O what a death it is to strive and labor; to be always in a hurry and yet do nothing!" "I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?" (Ecclesiastes 2:18).
Even a great job has its down days, when we're tempted merely to run out the clock-especially when we feel the clock running us out. At my stage in life (I turn 60 this month), it takes faith sometimes just to get out of bed. Many a poet likens sleep to death, and now I know why; gravity settles on me as the dark moments creep. Raw time spins its web over me with no advocate to argue or protest. The muscles are not so springy, the bones have mysteriously taken on weight during the night. The alarm goes off, and I'm Lazarus in the tomb, edging toward decay, bound in strips of linen, thinking "What the heck . . . ?" when he hears his name called. After all, nobody asked Lazarus if he wanted to come forth.
Faith without works is dead. Likewise, faith without work is dead. Work is the arena where faith proves itself to be true. I know from experience that rewards lie on the other side of getting up, running my two miles, cracking open the Bible, communing with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When the alarm goes off, these are things not seen, for which faith is the assurance. I'm not dead yet-God is here, calling me in the buzz of the alarm. My vocation is His hammer, level, and awl.
Because while we work, invisible walls and gateways are rising around us. God is also at work, and for our four F's He substitutes His three R's: restoration, renewal, resurrection. While we push paper or dig ditches, He builds His kingdom with our sweat. In that kingdom, there are no false starts, no futility; what looks like failure here may be treasure in heaven. No one is sidelined, no one takes a sick day, no one retires, and there is no running out the clock.
"Everybody's working for the weekend" in the secular world. In the spiritual world, there's another weekend. For our six days on the earth we labor; on the seventh, the unseen gates are seen at last, and we enter to rest.
Email Janie B. Cheaney