Aw, I’m just a paper salesman

I recently received an email from a faith-based company (which I am not naming) that had this image included:

Screenshot (117)Now, I don’t want to pick on this particular company per se, but I use it as an example to get at a far too prevalent assumption about faith and work.

The company that sent this email is a company which produces Christian products for pastors and teachers. It is a great company and a helpful resource. But there is an underlying narrative: faith and work is only connected when doing work that is overtly “Christian.”

You may be a salesman, a software developer, or in customer service, but now that you can put those skills to work at an overtly Christian place producing overtly Christian products, you can finally connect your faith and your work. You are no longer a customer service representative, you are a Christian customer service representative.

I truly believe one of the reasons we have such shallow (or perhaps non-existent) theologies of work and vocation is because we have set several false dualisms. The primary three I see are these:

Sacred/Secular
Physical/Spiritual
Christian/non-Christian

Tim Keller relies heavily on Dorothy Sayer, who says this:”In nothing has the church so lost Her hold on reality as Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation.” She says we often believe all the Church has to say to the carpenter is “Don’t drink,” and we never teach a carpenter how making beautiful tables is an act of faith and worship.

The above dualisms are what keep us from thinking “secular work” is actually something that exists and limits the message of Christianity to something we do at Church or something that only counts when we tack on “Christian” as an adjective.

I recently had a conversation with my neighbor. I had seen a bumper sticker on a car outside of his house for the university I earned my master’s from, so I asked if he had a son or daughter in school there. As it turns out, it was his daughter’s friend so he had no idea what I was talking about, but thought I might be referring to the sign he had in his front yard for his church. This turned into a long conversation and he was asking if I had been in ministry, and what I was doing now. After explaining my relationship to ministry and my school work, I asked him what he did and he waved his hand dismissively and said: “Aw, I’m just a paper salesman.”

We have missed the mark if we are teaching people to think: Aw, I am just a _____. Christians have the tendency to communicate (much more often than we think) that the “real” action is church work or ideas and knowledge about God. When we do this, we communicate that a paper salesman has very little to offer the Kingdom of God for 40% of his waking life.

We have to do better.

We have to learn to tell the paper salesman: What you do matters. And not just if it gives you the opportunity to “share your faith” or invite someone to church. But being a really good paper salesman actually has meaning and significance in the Kingdom of God. And it is not just paper salesmen, but it is all the ways we are engaged in work and activity in the world.

Because work was God’s idea. Work moves the world God made forward. To stick with our example: Imagine life without paper. A paper salesman’s job is to get access to paper for those who need it. We take things like paper for granted, but it is an important part of daily life. It helps order the world, new ideas are created on it, relationships are deepened, businesses are expanded, the list goes on and on. There is meaning and value in this line of work because it helps create more meaning and value in the world.

But too often, the Church communicates to people: Aww, you’re just a paper salesman. (I would be remiss to not mention the Office in paper sales discussions, so here you go.)

As always, I think a lot of this boils down to the way we think about God.

We often think about God as something or someone “out there.” The goal for followers of God is to somehow understand and know more about God. So we try to learn as much information about God, and we locate God in specific holy places, such as Church, where we have special access to God that we do not have elsewhere. God is something separate from real life that we are supposed to believe certain things about.

I was reminded recently of the alternative Paul Tillich presents to this understanding of God. Tillich says that as soon as we think we understand God we are no longer talking about God. God is not something to be understood (and ultimately controlled), God is something we are invited to participate in. God is the “ground of being.” God is the source of everything there is. As the Biblical writers put it:

in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28)

and

…in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:16-17)

Rather than God being something regulated to the mind or to a specific location, God is something we participate in during our regular life. God is not something we hope to discover somewhere else, but in our actual, human, gritty, real lives. We experience God when we are pursuing what it means to be human. When we stop looking for God outside of human affairs, and become engaged in our real lives, we actually participate in the life of God.

God is not a belief to be possessed, but something we participate in as we engage other human beings and work towards greater love, justice, peace, and equity in the world. God is in the mundane, ordinary slog of real life. The pursuit of things which are actually and fully human is also the pursuit of and participation in the life of God.

There is not sacred and secular, there is no physical and spiritual, there is just the pursuit of being a real human being, and creating space for others to do so as well. And part of being a human being is that we need things like paper.

When we take this kind of view, we also get less caught up in Christian versus non-Christian. We are taken up with joining God in the pursuit of truth and making the world a more fully human place. And we celebrate whomever is engaging in these tasks. Because participating in good work is participating in God (e.g. Isaiah 28:24-29).

We need a bigger vision of God who is deeply concerned about our daily life, our work, and even in the mundane details of what it means to be human. When we start with that, and accept the invitation to participate in the life of God in a myriad of different ways, all of our work becomes much more meaningful and valuable because we participate in the life of God as well do it.

Even a paper salesman.

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