“There is a ‘spokenness’ to all of life, of course, but one important place where it happens is at work.”
Have you ever had a moment at work that felt as if it was being spoken, written or sketched by another?
It may last for only a second, but when it happens, you have this sense that circumstances are playing out on purpose, that they are heading somewhere and that there is a plot. Even though you know you are the one making choices, it is as though you are living into a script that in some mysterious way has already been written. The beauty, clarity, creativity or goodness of what you are doing seems a bit too good, too wonderful, too outside-of-yourself to be solely sourced in you. It is as if you are part of a story that God is authoring and speaking in real time.
There is a spokenness to all of life, of course, but one important place where it happens is at work.
This can happen to me when I’m preaching—having a sense that my words aren’t mine, even though I’m speaking them. They are more eloquent than I’m capable of and carry a poignancy, power, and efficacy that are beyond me. When these moments happen, it feels as if everyone in the congregation also knows that something bigger is going on, that someone else is speaking.
You would expect (or at least hope for) that to happen in a church through the work of a preacher, but if God truly is speaking the embodied parable that is you doing your job, then shouldn’t you have these kinds of moments as well? After all, your work is every bit as much a ministry.
Following are a few ways to more fully identify and enter into the spokenness of your job.
One of the best ways to learn how to identify the spokenness of your job is to listen to what God might be saying through another person’s work. Ideally, this would be someone whose work has had a direct and beneficial impact on you: a nurse who helped you in the waiting room, a retailer who helped you find what you were looking for or a mentor who gave you some wise new perspective. There are several reasons why this is a good starting point.
First, it is easier to discern God’s voice through someone else’s job (it is hard to observe yourself objectively). By honing your ability to read God’s word in another person’s work, you grow your capacity to read his word in your own.
Second, by applying this discernment process to work that directly benefits you, you increase the odds of encountering God’s activity there. By definition, God is always working for your best interest.
Third, when someone’s work benefits you, you become more yourself. When you are more yourself, you are more of who God made you to be, and you have more of yourself with which to discern God’s work in your life.
And fourth, there is something very important about the stance of receiving that aids in discerning the spokenness of life. All of life is a gift from God. Everything is received. To be in a receptive stance—needing, open, vulnerable and trusting—is to acknowledge the basic state of your reality. There is something about the humility of that place that is crucial to discerning the spokenness of one’s life and work.
For years I have sat in the same hairstylist’s chair, trying to discern what God was saying through her job. Talk about a trusting and vulnerable place! Every month or so, I put a part of my identity into her hands. And as the grateful recipient of the good graces of her hairstyling expertise, I was aesthetically made new and became a little bit more myself again. Receiving the goodness of her work, I came to understand a little bit more of God’s identity-renewing nature.
Think about it. A stylist holds your head as you lean back into a washing basin. With her own hands she washes your hair and, if you are lucky, gives you a scalp massage. After she towel-dries you and moves you to the chair, she then takes a part of who you physically are—your hair—and cuts it, reshapes it and (for some) recolors it. A stylist touches your body and uses sharp instruments near your eyes, and you sit there, wide open to this very intimate aesthetic intervention.
In order to see God’s hand at work in the parable of another person’s job, you have to let their good work touch you. God knows every intimate detail of who you are—your flaws, your gray areas, the places where you are thinning—and he wants to make every square inch of your being and body new. He wants to shape you—to wash, cut, dry and style your life.
When you receive the good work of another human being at an intimate level, you become a more trusting and open person. Openness is key to seeing God at work. When you put yourself in the hands of another, you become more of the kind of person who is comfortable in the hands of Another. This is the optimal position to be in to see God’s hands holding you. Every visit to the salon is an opportunity to grow in your capacity to be aware of and receive God’s intimate touch wherever you work.
Discussing what she loved most about her work, my stylist said, “Hearing the words ‘I trust you.’” Customers often step into her salon totally exasperated and give her total freedom to cut and style their hair in whatever way she thinks best. Knowing hair the way she does, assessing a person’s face shape and considering their overall look, she will come up with something her customer could never have imagined, often to their great delight. But it takes trust to get there. You need to let go and put your life in another’s hands. It is only then that you will be able to experience the delight—both yours and that of the one who is making you over.
Just as a stylist delights in being given this kind of trust, God does, too.
God wants you to become fully you. He desires the best for your life and has a maker’s heart to know what it will take to get you there. Saying “I trust you” can take many forms in a vocational context. When you extend trust, you make room for God to prove himself trustworthy; in a sense you free space for God to intervene in a powerful new way. Even as a stylist relishes a time when she has complete freedom to make someone new—her sense of responsibility growing, her creative adrenaline starting to pump, her desire to do her best now piqued—God must surely rise to the occasion as well. This is what happens when you submit your will to his. In that new place of increased will alignment, you discover that he is closer to you than you realize.
The moments when I have been most aware of my life being part of God’s story have been those times when people have recognized and named it for me—when they have expressed gratitude for what I do and how I listened, spoke and acted. It is at those times when I realize that God is saying, doing and accomplishing something through my life. At times like this I inevitably feel closer to God; his presence is made clear as someone I have served names his good work in me.
I have been a part of those naming moments for others on many occasions. I have seen the excitement on an epigenetic researcher’s face as I have connected the essence of his field of study to God’s truth in the second commandment. I have witnessed the tears in the eyes of a corporate real-estate executive as he sees the profound connection between his passions and God’s. I have observed a sense of validation pouring over a server when she came to realize that her serving passion is powerfully Christ like. I have seen in a mirror the trembling loss of words that comes to my stylist every time I name another part of what she does in relation to the making-new heart of God.
Naming is a powerful way to recognize the parable that is your job. As you name where God is at work in others and begin to see the story God is speaking through them, you grow your vocational parable-reading capacity. Soon you start to discern universal principles that apply to the spokenness of all jobs. The emergency room doctor’s passion to save also applies to your job. The stylist’s desire to make things new is a desire that God has put into all of us so that all things can be made new. A judge’s God-imaging passion for justice gets planted more deeply into our psyches and we become more Godlike as a result. As this naming and reclaiming of the work of God in others grows, so does our capacity to enter into the spokenness.
In the book of Genesis, one of Adam’s great privileges was naming the animals that God had made. In the Bible, the process of naming carried a great deal of value and importance. A name expressed “the essential nature of its bearer; to know the name is to know the person.” As Adam’s descendants, we have the great privilege of discerning and then naming the essence and nature of a particular part of God’s good creation. We are called to do this naming for all of creation, including the providentially spoken parabolic nature of our jobs.
Whom do you trust to come alongside and translate for you?
Perhaps it is time that someone named the true God-spoken essence of what you do at work. Imagine that moment when you hear that spoken for the first time and get a sense of the person and presence of God at work—when you actually experience your part in his story.
Taken from Every Job a Parable by John Van Sloten. Copyright © 2017. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
John Van Sloten pastors a church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything. He teaches a preaching course at Ambrose Seminary and has been the recipient of several John Templeton Fund grants for preaching science.