The Story of Work
It’s so good to see you all. Happy Father’s Day. Thank you. Let’s turn to Psalm 104. Psalm 104. Whether you’re in your living room or here in ours, we are very excited to start this series on work in Psalm 104.
Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich was once asked how to change society. He responded,
“Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new, powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step …. If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”
We are all driven in, living in, writing out stories, all of us. We work within a story as well. This jumped out to me a few months ago when I was reading the Winston Churchill biography, specifically, how Churchill’s work was so significantly shaped by his father. His absent father, both living and dead, really shaped the way he (worked) and what he did with work. His parents sent him away to boarding school, and he would plead with them to come and visit him. They were typically too busy to do so. So, then they would confront him about his lack of writing letters. But actually, the opposite was true. As Andrew Roberts points out, from the years 1885 to 1892, so this seven year period, which would have been Churchill’s pre-teen/early teen years, he wrote his parents 76 letters. They wrote him six. And yet he was rebuked for not writing.
His father was prone to criticize him and saw nothing remarkable in him. For example, in one letter that Lord Randolph, his father, wrote to him, which he, by the way, could quote perfectly 37 years later, ended this way. So, this is Churchill’s father writing to him.
“Because I am certain that if you cannot prevent yourself from leading the idle, useless, unprofitable life that you have had during your schooldays, and later months, you will become a mere social wastrel [a good for nothing], one of hundreds of the public school failures, and you will degenerate into a shabby, unhappy and futile existence. If that is so, you will have to bear all of the blame for such misfortunes yourself. Your affectionate father.”
I don’t know why I’m not feeling the affection. One of Churchill’s friends said Churchill “worshiped at the altar of his unknown father.” Lord Randolph died when he was 20, Churchill was 20. But he lived on in Churchill’s heart. For example, and by the way, one of the most remarkable things is Churchill held zero bitterness toward his father. He loved him dearly. He loved him delusionally. He wrote a two-volume, overly optimistic work on his father, a biography of his father’s life. He named his son after his father. He went into politics to vindicate his father’s memory.
Even in his 70s, Churchill wrote a short story entitled “The Dream,” in which he is dreaming about visiting with his father’s ghost. And he’s telling him all about World War I and World War II, about fighting in it and then leading and never actually in the short story, never tells him he became the Prime Minister, the leader of the free world. He didn’t tell him any of that, but repeatedly through the short story, the ghost of his father is shocked that Churchill amounted to anything. And yet, remarkably, there is love throughout the whole short story. When Churchill was in his late 70s, he predicted to a friend that he would die on the anniversary of his father’s death. Twelve years later, despite having a massive stroke and being unconscious, somehow, he found a way to die on the anniversary of his father’s death.
The echo of spoken and unspoken expectations can form the chapters in the story of our work. Daniel Doriani, in his excellent book “Work,” begins with a description of his father. His father was greatly gifted, highly competent. So, he could easily get jobs, but his integrity was not as great as his giftedness; therefore, he often lost jobs. And Doriani writes about his father.
“His setbacks troubled him, and he took out his frustrations on me, perhaps because he saw traces of himself in me. Over and over he told me that I was lazy, worthless, good for nothing, and that I always would be. Perhaps he was projecting his fears about himself onto me, but as a child, I could not see that. Children assume that whatever their parents say must be true. Besides, the charge of laziness was fair at times. In college, I began to work as if bent on avenging every lost hour and silencing my father.”
How many of us go to work to silence a voice from the past? To try to outrun our fear of failure? To make something of ourselves through our work, or to find security in financial success? I want to tell you a better story of work. Psalm 104 does that for us. It is God’s poetry of productivity, God’s story of work.
In verse 1 we are invited to have an internal dialogue, a narrative. “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” So, we’re being invited to look directly at our own soul and to speak to ourselves, to stop reacting to the false stories that are seeking to shape us, and start telling ourselves a better story, a story that blesses the Lord. Well, what is this story about? It is about, as you read through Psalm 104, God’s joy in his job, God’s joy in his job. Or we could summarize the chapter this way: God delights in his work, and he invites us into his joy. God delights in his work, and he invites us all into his joy. From the beginning of the song we see that God is separate from creation. Verse 1, “clothed with splendor and majesty.” And yet he delights in his cosmos. The galaxies are his workshop and his playground. Verse 3,
“He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters … He makes the clouds his chariot.”
When God calls us, as he does in the very beginning of the Bible, to exercise dominion over his creation, he is inviting us into his dominion of delight. Come into this joy that I experience with my creation. I’ve tried to find a word that summarizes this. I couldn’t. So, I was forced to invent one — “cosmoselation.” You can see it is pretty straightforward. Cosmos = universe, world. It comes from the Greek word, though the roots of the Greek word have to do with arrangement and order. The arrangement, the order of the universe. Elation = joy. So, cosmoselation is the joy of bringing order and beauty to the world. And this is what Psalm 104 is all about. Come, join me in the joy of bringing order and beauty to the world.
After introducing the Psalm, there are seven stanzas that tell us the story of God’s industry. Let’s summarize those. Number 1, and we’re going to get a picture of the joy of God’s job. Number 1, the work he does accomplishes his intention. God is pictured in verses 5-9 as the choreographer of creation, sequencing the movements of matter. Verse 5, the earth is the set, will not move. Verse 6, the waters are wrapped around the earth like a form-fitting garment. Verse 7, the rhythm of creation is intensified as the waters flee, the mountains rise, the valleys bow, the boundaries are established. And all of this with a word. Verse 7, “at your rebuke.” His work accomplishes his intention.
It was so interesting reading this passage in the morning and then later in the day, a couple months ago. I was trying to fix my septic system, which is a perennial activity with me, a sign of the curse. And I had just paid a professional to do it and they made it worse. So, I was in one of those “I’ve got to do this myself” modes. So, I rented a backhoe. The kids and I are out there digging. Piles of gravel on my driveway pad I’ve got to haul back and forth to put in the huge hole, pipes, all that. But late on a Friday night as it was getting dark, I’m digging in the mud. I’m thinking, “My work is so different from God’s work.” What God does accomplishes his intention. Even as I was working, I was realizing how quickly I was creating more work. I was breaking more things than I was fixing. Do you ever feel that way? Yeah. I’m hauling gravel, my pad is breaking, my lawn is being destroyed. I could very quickly flip the backhoe into the hole I’m digging and be stuck down there. Yet, that’s often the way our work is. Just picture for a moment, what God intends is accomplished with a word.
Number 2, the work he does (By the way, praise God! Miracle of miracles, my septic system works, which is really helpful when everybody was at home quarantined. Number 2, the work he does brings satisfying results for others. Look at verse 10.
“You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills; they give drink to every beast to the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches.”
Here, God is pictured like the couple who have worked so hard to build a playground for their kids in the backyard. And one day, miracle of miracles, they look out the window and their kids are joyfully playing on the playground that they built, not fighting. That feeling, that joy in seeing others enjoy what you have labored to provide, that is a glimpse of what God experiences as he works in creation for the good of others.
Also for the environment. Look at verse 13. “From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.” This is a picture of what in Hebrew would be called shalom — peace, wholeness. Things are the way they’re supposed to be.
Number 3, the work he does empowers others to flourish. Verse 14, I’ve just been consumed with these six words lately. There it is. “You cause the grass to grow.” You cause the grass to grow. Let’s stop and think about that for a moment. If God has time to put grass growing on his schedule, why do we think what we do does not matter? If God, King of kings and Lord of lords, has time and sees the significance of growing grass, why do many of us live with a low-grade dissatisfaction that what we do really doesn’t matter? And one day maybe we’ll do something significant, but it really doesn’t matter what kind of work I’m doing right now. He’s growing grass. You can’t get anything more mundane than that. Have you ever watched grass grow? But you notice the movement and purpose of this grass growing. Verse 14, “for the livestock … for man to cultivate.” Verse 15, “to gladden the heart of man, to make his face shine, to strengthen man’s heart.” The movement in these two verses is to empower others to flourish. Not merely handouts (although at times that there are those), but bigger than that. He creates so we can cultivate. He creates so that we can do something with what he has created. Wine, oil, bread are all examples of things that humans do something with to make something of. So, his productivity actually energizes ours. His creativity stimulates our creativity. Managers, see that?
Number 4, the work he does enables others to improve their situations. The work he does enables others to improve their situations. Verse 16,
“The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.”
God provides that others may find or build shelter.
Number 5, the work he does creates healthy rhythms. Verse 19, “He made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. You make darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they steal away and lie down in their dens. Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.”
Do you see the rhythm, the healthy rhythms God has created? We’re actually going to spend a whole session on work, rest, rhythms.
Number 6, the work he does, and this is where the psalmist is just piling on. The work he does is universal, diverse and even playful. Universal, diverse, and even playful. Verse 24,
“O Lord, how manifold are your works! [How many are your works!] In wisdom you have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great.”
According to the Smithsonian, there are 900,000 known kinds of insects, species (they call them) of insects. There are more insects that we have not identified than there are that we have identified. Some estimate up to 30,000,000 different kinds of insects. At any time (and this going to give some of you the shivers), at any time there are 10 quintillion insects alive. (Sorry, Cindy.) That means 10 with 18 zeros. One study showed that in North Carolina, they examined one acre, and if you go down five inches, there are 124 million animals on one acre, if you go down five inches. So, parents, if your kids are badgering you about getting a pet, tell them we have millions. Go find them. Play with them.
Verse 26, leviathan is most likely here referring to whales or killer whales, these huge beasts that are pictured here as God’s partner at play. The word play there is “frolic or sport with.” And you’ll notice at the bottom, the note in your Bible, you’ll see a textual variant. You could translate that: “you formed to play with.”
Number 7, and this is the climax, the work he does generates the raw materials for culture. The work he does generates the raw materials for culture. This paragraph, along with verse 14, provides us with a super concise definition of culture. Culture is the cultivation of creation.
Verse 28, he gives, we gather. He creates, we cultivate. Our work is flowing from his working. That’s why verse 27, “These all look to you,” whether they know it or not or acknowledge it or not. These, every living thing, look to you. And that is why, verse 29, if he hides, we die. Verse 30, if he sends his Spirit (in Hebrew, breath), we live. He hides, we die. He breathes, we blossom. Our every breath is literally dependent on his breath of life.
So, what do we conclude from all this? Again, God delights in his work and invites us into his joy. See if you see this in the conclusion. Verse 31,
“May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works, who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke! I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.”
The psalmist here is being swept into the joy of God’s productivity. And even the prayer at the very end in verse 35, that to us feels so uncomfortable, is a cry for shalom. For wholeness. For peace. For things to be the way they’re supposed to be. For everything and everyone that is warped or wicked to be transformed or removed.
The psalm, in the end, points to us to Jesus, who is the very work of God. Who, through his death, burial, and resurrection is eradicating our pride, selfishness, greed, racism, deception, violence, all that undermines the joy of God’s productivity.
So, in the end, we finish where we began. Verse 35, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! Praise the Lord!” He’s inviting us to invite ourselves into this story of work. This has huge implications in what we do. This isn’t just a Sunday joy. As Al Wolters beautifully summarizes,
“In the name of Christ, distortion must be opposed everywhere — in the kitchen and the bedroom, in city councils and corporate boardrooms, on the stage and on the air, in the classrooms and in the workshop. Everywhere creation calls for the honoring of God’s standards. Everywhere humanity’s sinfulness disrupts and deforms. Everywhere Christ’s victory is pregnant with the defeat of sin and the recovery of creation.”
This is God’s story of work. So, where do we start? Where do we begin? Start with your heart. You’re all thinking, “I knew he was going to say that.” Are you willing to be honest about your story of work? Why do you work? Why don’t you? What fuels you? What discourages you? Also, if you were to write a book about your story of work … I was blessed many years ago to do a self-counseling project on myself (of course, it was a self-counseling project) in this area. But if you were to write a story and put a title on the front of the book of your story of work, what would the title be? A couple suggestions: It’s a necessary evil. Can’t wait to be done with it. Maybe it’s a defiant, I will never be poor again. Or maybe it’s a motivating cry, win or puke. Or simply, my duty to provide. Silencing my father. Achieving success.
Will we take a moment … And don’t let the word work deceive you. We’re not just talking about what you get paid to do. That’s part of work. But we are working in many, many different ways throughout the day and night. So, what’s your story of work?
And then as you open your heart to what that looks like in different seasons of life, will you give your heart, with all the good and bad motivations, to God? That’s what Psalm 104 is doing, right? It’s seeking to orient our vision, our story living and telling, from God’s perspective. Will you come to him with all the good and the bad?
One of the most striking elements of Psalm 104, I believe, is how it ends. After describing the beauty of God’s creation, you would think it would end, “Hey, rejoice in the mountains. Rejoice in the clouds and the beautiful day and the trees and all the bugs, the dolphins, your friends, the car, house. But notice it doesn’t do that. “Rejoice in the Lord.” Rejoice in the Lord. Because the Bible knows, God is saying to us, if you start anywhere else when you write a story of work, you will either despise or idolize work. If we start anywhere else, you will either despise it or idolize it. You will either become lethargic or frantic regarding work, if we don’t start with God.
As Paul explains in Philippians 3 and 4, rejoicing in the Lord is set against rejoicing in your own performance, efforts, achievement. When we die to our own productivity, and we look to God who is the truly productive one, the ultimate worker who worked for us through his son’s death, burial and resurrection — everything we could never work on our own. We die to our own productivity. We rejoice in his. And ironically, that frees us to work joyfully, to image God without idolizing work or despising it.
In a fascinating article in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson attempts to prove (and this is the title of the article): “Workism is Making Americans Miserable.” This is not a Christian article, but listen to this.
“The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants. What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
So, even though most Americans work fewer hours than in the past, there is a demographic today that works more hours than anyone in the past. And it’s kind of a reverse “Pride and Prejudice.” You know, the class of people who are most wealthy and have nothing to do but drink tea and chat. What Thompson describes here is the rich today often work more than anyone else, hours-wise. Why?
“The best educated and the highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: it’s where they feel most themselves.”
So, their work is the place where they find out who they are. It’s where they play. It’s where they worship. This may be one of the reasons so many teenagers are so anxious about finding a career. In one study, 95% said having a career they enjoy is more important than marriage, more important than helping people in need. Thompson summarizes:
“A culture that worships the pursuit of extreme success will likely produce some of it. But extreme success is a falsifiable god, which rejects the vast majority of its worshipers. [I would say all of them, eventually.] Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight. A staggering 87% of employees are not engaged at their job, according to Gallup. That number is rising by the year.”
In summary, your job was not meant to be your God. Thompson has an interesting statement in the middle of the article where he talks about workism is a “narrative arc bending toward a set of precious initials: VP, SVP, CEO” is unable to deliver what is required to provide. What is a narrative arc? It’s a story. And if the pot of gold at the end of your story of work is a certain status or financial achievement, it will never deliver what you long for it to deliver.
So, what is the solution? This is the part I was so excited about in the article. I thought, “Right, right! Wow, so good!” And he comes to the end and he says, this is the solution. We must “make work less central.” Okay, that can be good. It’s not your God. But what does that mean? Immediately, Thompson explains what it means. We should start [he says] with public policy. And then he gives four examples: universal basic income, parental leave, subsidized childcare, child allowance. I remember gasping when I read that. It’s like someone falling off a cliff and someone reaches into their pocket and gets a bottle of pills and throws it to them to help solve their problem. Well, those pills may help if you had a different problem, perhaps. But the person falling off a cliff doesn’t need a pill. They may need a parachute or a rope or a hand or something. But it’s a classic example.
And the reason I think this is such a big deal is article after article, research journal after research journal, often can identify a problem. But, when they turn to provide a solution, they are absolutely incapable, unwilling to start with the heart. They won’t do it. And we can debate public policy all you want. But he’s just said the people he’s talking about are the very rich. They don’t need subsidized childcare. They can afford it. So why is that the place to start? Well, we don’t know where else to start. And you’ll notice it doesn’t matter what the problem is — poverty, racism, whatever the problem — this is what our culture does. It treats people like donuts. There’s nothing in the middle. There is no soul. There is no heart. We must start on the outside. And don’t misunderstand me, we have to get to the outside, but you start with the heart. And that’s what the Bible does. It goes after the real problem, because you can fix the outside, but you will never remedy the problem if you don’t start with the heart. What is driving me? Why do I care so much about what people think of me? Why do I feel like I need that job and then feel trapped? What story of work am I working in?
And secondly, once we’ve been honest about that, we need to tell a different story. I need to believe and live and share a different story of work. We don’t have time to develop that today. We’ve got to end. So, we’ll Lord willing, pick up here next week. But I want to share a summary of where I think Psalm 104 is heading that Jake Meador provides for us.
“The goal is to embody in our living and our working a better vision of life, [You can put the word story in there. A better story of life.] to direct people’s eyes to the beauty of the world, of human community, and, above all, the beauty of God himself, who in the perfect act of love gave up his body for the liberation of the world.”
And that is a story worth working for. Let’s pray. Father, thank you for stirring our vision of you and the way you work. You make cars out of clouds, water fountains for donkeys. You build tree forts for birds, and you laugh as the killer whales catapult and cannonball themselves. You grow grass. Nothing could be more mundane. And yet you do it, and you do it joyfully for the good of others and the glory of your splendor and majesty. Thank you for stirring in us an appetite for cosmoselation — the joy of bringing beauty and order — to a heart, to a home, to an office, to a neighborhood, to a street, to a city, country. Lord, stir in us a bigger vision of what you called us to do in work, no matter how mundane our specific task seems. And by your Spirit, enable us to see the story we work in and help us to turn from our tiny tales of toil, these small, selfish kingdom stories. And let us live in and look to your kingdom. Jesus, we need your sacrificial love to enable us to be honest, to have the courage to face some things that may be hard to face, and then to receive your forgiveness by faith. So, Lord, let us join in your delight as you work and invite us into your joy. In Jesus’ name, amen.