The Janitor Who Taught the U.S. President a Thing or Two About Work
We spend our days working—at home, in the community and marketplace, as volunteers, or for a paycheck. Some of us feel mostly satisfied in our work. Others feel challenged, frustrated, and even wrecked by obstacles presented to us in our work. To whatever degree work is a part of our lives, it’s important to ask how our faith relates to it.
Currently, there is a global, emotional crisis related to work. Most people in the world deeply dislike their work. One Gallup poll revealed that what the world wants more than anything is a good job. More than food, shelter, safety and peace—a good job. And yet, as another poll revealed, a full 87% of workers are “disengaged to miserable” in their jobs.
In the movie, Office Space, the main character, Peter, visits a hypnotherapist to help him with his lack of motivation and disdain toward his mid-level corporate job. In that meeting, he says the following:
So I was sitting in my cubicle today and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s the worst day of my life…I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work.
Though intended to get a laugh, these words hit home for a lot of us. Our work doesn’t feel meaningful because our perspective about work lacks a biblical imagination. Dorothy Sayers says that the church is largely at fault for this crisis. According to Ms. Sayers, rather than foster a robust vocational imagination in its people, the church has allowed work and religion to become separate departments.
Clearly we must integrate faith and work. But how do we do this? It starts with perspective.
We need to work because work is in our wiring. As carriers of the divine imprint, as bearers of the image of God, we are by nature vocational beings. We are made to be purposeful and productive. We are made to work.
The first thing God reveals about himself in the Bible is that he is a worker. “In the beginning, God created…” That’s right. God, the Maker of all things, put himself to work. He started by creating water, earth and sky, all designed as hospitable spaces for life. Then came the plants, the land creatures, the birds, the fish, and then the crown of his creation—man and woman. At the end of his work, God looked at everything he had made and called it very good (Genesis 1:1-31).
Work did not stop with God. After creating everything, God put Adam and Eve in his garden and told them to work it and tend to it, to cultivate it…to make culture as they exercised dominion on God’s behalf over the world God had made (Genesis 2:15).
Tim Keller is fond of saying that history began in a garden and ends in a city. In the book of Genesis, everything starts in Eden, the garden of God’s delight. In Revelation, we are told that everything culminates in a New Heaven and New Earth, also referred to as the New Jerusalem—the Holy City of God (Revelation 21:1-2).
This is significant because it suggests that we live in a world that is under development, a world that’s heading somewhere. And the work that we do in this world, whether creative or restorative or both, represents a significant contribution to the cosmic mission of God.
So then, as those who bear God’s image, work is necessary not only for our obedience but for our fulfillment. When God put work in the world, he put work into Paradise. The fall of Adam and Eve that ruined everything—relationships, nature, and work—had not happened yet. Work, in other words, has been cursed but it is not a curse. Work is intrinsic to human flourishing and to the ideal human existence. Work is part of Paradise. We cannot fully thrive unless we are doing creative or restorative work that mirrors the work of God, the consummate Creator and Restorer. We cannot and will not thrive fully unless we become contributors seeking to participate in the universal Christian job description—to use our time, energy, imagination and resources to leave God’s world better than we found it.
If you’ve ever wondered why children instinctively “get to work” each morning, whether it be with crayons and paper or with a pile of Legos, this is why. We have been created to mirror God by creating and restoring, and in so doing leave people, places and things better than we found them.
That’s right. Work is glorious because it is our intersection point with God’s ongoing creative, restorative mission in the world. It is glorious because of how it moves God’s Garden toward becoming the Holy City it’s destined to be. But how do we determine whether our vocational endeavors are genuinely good endeavors?
You know you are “on mission” if you are leaving people, places or things in better shape than before.
Any kind of work that promotes truth, beauty, goodness or justice is work that should be celebrated as good.
Consider music, for example. Creating music involves taking the raw material of sounds and words and fashioning them into a cohesive whole. When carefully arranged, previously disconnected sounds and words have potential to add order to our lives, bring us more deeply in touch with reality, stir our souls, heal our wounds and give us hope. Even Nietzsche, whose worldview was predominantly dark and cynical, said that in music “the passions enjoy themselves” and “without music, life would be a mistake.”
Or consider janitorial work. Several years ago, I met a man named Joe. In the course of getting to know each other, Joe asked, “So, what do you do?” As a minister, before I answer that question I prepare for one of two standard reactions: excitement followed by a long conversation about God and church, or that oh boy, this-just-got-awkward look. There’s something about being a minister that causes people to either trust or distrust you instantly. (But I digress…)
Back to Joe. When the conversation turned to him and I asked him what he did for work, he responded in a way I will never forget. He said, “I just push a broom.”
He just pushes a broom? Who in the world told him that he should say or think that his work as a janitor was a ‘just.’
What would the world be like without janitors, caregivers, shelf-stockers, repairmen and women, mothers and fathers, seamstresses, bus boys, police officers, construction workers, mechanics and others who quietly and faithfully do their work every day? It’s difficult to think about.
And what about the dignity of Joe and his essential work? Regarding Joe’s work and all work, there are two anonymous statements incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther, but that are deeply important statements nonetheless:
The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.
The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.
I love the story of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to NASA Space Center in 1962. During his visit, he noticed a man who was carrying a broom. Pausing from his tour, the President approached the man and said, “Hi. I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”
“Well, Mr. President,” the janitor said, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
The NASA janitor understood the truth about all work, and especially his work. He wasn’t just pushing a broom. He was making history.
History began in a garden and will end in a city. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, which means “call.” Every vocation, then, is a calling from God to participate in his mission—the ones that beckons us to do our part in nudging that Garden toward becoming that City.
As we do this in our work, we don’t just do anything.
We, dear madams and sirs…
…are making history.
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