Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Myths About Work Part 2: Work is Bad

The first post in this series described an ancient Babylonian myth and pointed out that, although we may have shed its polytheistic trappings, it reflects false beliefs about work that are still common today. Now I’d like to talk about the first (and arguably the most common) myth I listed.

The Babylonian creation myth says, in essence, that the gods created humans because they didn’t want to work and deserved better than to be forced to do so. That means work is a bad thing. Similarly, many people today view work as a necessary evil. We complain about our jobs and look forward to vacations and, ultimately, retirement. We think of “living the good life” as lying around on a beach somewhere far from the demands of the workplace. When people win the lottery, often the first thing they do is quit their jobs. And some Christians take comfort in the idea that in heaven, we won’t need to work.

But is that what the Bible teaches? Although it doesn’t directly say whether people will work in heaven, the Bible does tell us a lot about the nature of work. And it begins right where the Babylonians did – at the very beginning.

The first place where the word “work” appears in the Bible is Genesis 2:2 “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” So the first person to do work was God, and the result of His work was a “very good” universe.

Of course, the verse does say that God rested, indicating that work wasn’t the only thing that mattered to Him (more on that in the next post). But that doesn’t mean He gave up working as soon as someone else could do it. Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:17) So clearly the Bible’s view of resting does not equal retirement.

When God created people, He did expect us to work. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:28) God’s statement is a blessing, but it’s also a job description. Any parent can tell you that “being fruitful and multiplying” is one of the hardest jobs anyone can be given. Filling, subduing and ruling the earth means developing its resources. That includes farming, building cities and other economic activity. So God began His relationship with people by telling them to work.

But unlike the Babylonian gods, the God of the Bible didn’t make people work because He didn’t want to. We work because we are created “in the image of God.” That means we are like God and do the things He does. Being made in God’s image separates us from the rest of creation and gives us unique dignity. So work is a sign of nobility, not of inferiority. We work because God works, not so that He doesn’t have to work. Perhaps this is why God’s first assignment of work is described as a blessing.

But work doesn’t always feel like a blessing. Even though I love my job, there are still mornings when I’d rather pull my quilt over my head and sleep than get up and face a day of work. There are afternoons when I feel like if I look at one more page of text, my brain will turn to liquid and start dripping out of my ears. And that’s with a good job.

The Bible explains this, too. When Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed the ground, saying it would yield “thorns and thistles” and that Adam would produce food from it “by the sweat of [his] face” (Genesis 3:18-19). This is the point where work, which is good, becomes toil, which is bad. The pain associated with toil is real and impossible to ignore. But the rest of the Bible tells about God making all things new, restoring that sin poisoned, including work.

In conclusion, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Your job isn’t bad; it was created by God and can be used to glorify Him. When we see our work as an act of worship and a way to better the world around us, we restore the goodness it was created to have and join God in rolling back the effects of the Fall.

Update: Please see part 3part 4 and part 5.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Instrument: A Haiku

This morning, I played my flute in chapel. Although Taiwan's temperature mostly stays above 10 degrees C/50 degrees F, we don't have indoor heating. That meant the instruments needed quite a bit of tuning. As I breathed warm air down my flute to warm it up, this poem came to me.

Cold, lifeless metal
Feels the warmth of living breath,
Wakes and sings for joy

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Myths About Work Part 1: Beginning at the Beginning

I began this series back in 2012 but never finished it. This is a reboot, so I’m revising the posts I wrote earlier and (I hope) finishing the series.

According to ancient Babylonian legend, the world began with a god and a goddess who gave birth to several other gods. The younger gods became disruptive, so their parents decided to destroy them. Naturally, the younger deities didn't want to be destroyed, and a cosmic battle began. Eventually Marduk, one of the younger gods and the chief god of Babylon, won the battle and was installed as king of the gods. This primeval conflict brought the forces of chaos under control, allowing Marduk and the other gods to form everything in existence.

Marduk and his fellow deities wanted to sit back and relax, enjoying their triumph. However, there was still work to be done. After all, immortals have to eat too. Marduk considered making the losers of the war do the work as punishment, but it didn’t seem fitting for divine beings to do such menial tasks. So the gods created human beings to do this work and free up all the gods, winners and losers alike, to relax and enjoy their unending lives.

“That’s nice,” you’re probably saying, “but why should I care what the ancient Babylonians thought? I don’t know anyone who still believes in Marduk.” No, I’m sure you don’t, but myths both reflect and shape a culture’s underlying assumptions about what (and who) is valuable. And I many of the assumptions expressed in this myth are surprisingly prevalent today. The Babylonian creation myth could have led people to conclude that …

1. Work is bad. After all, it was beneath the dignity of gods, even the gods who lost the war, to work. People were created as the gods’ slaves to do unpleasant things.

2. Work is the purpose of life.  According to the Babylonians, we were created to work, which makes work our purpose.

3. Inferior people do inferior work. This story doesn’t make distinctions between classes of people, but if the gods pass unpleasant tasks on to inferior beings, there’s no reason for humans not to do the same.

4. Work defines our relationship to the gods. Since the Babylonian gods see people primarily as workers, it would be logical for humans’ relationship with them to depend on how well people fulfill their function.

Do any of these attitudes look familiar? They should, because even though the story I drew them from has passed into obscurity, these ideas are alive and well.

Like the Babylonian myth, the creation account in the Bible says that God created the world, then created human beings and gave them work to do. This led some scholars, like the college professor who first taught me the Babylonian story, to compare the two. But behind any superficial similarities stand two completely opposed worldviews. The Bible presents work as something that is good but that does not determine a human being’s value or relationship with God. In future posts, I hope to look at each of the myths I listed in detail and contrast them with the Bible’s view of work.

Update: The series continues in part 2part 3, part 4 and part 5.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Shadow of Your Wings

My hatchling soul is thirsty for the rush
Of liberty beneath my tiny wings.
The bright blue beckons. As the breezes brush
Against my ear I hear a siren sing.
It bids me dive into the heights of blue
And rise to where my soul was born to be.
I will not wait. I know what I will do.
I leap and shout my triumph – I am free!

I beat my wings, but something has gone wrong.
My soul was born to sail upon the heights,
But I am young; my wings are not yet strong.
I flap; I flutter, flail with all my might,
But nothing I can do can make me fly.
I plunge beneath the ocean of the air,
And, seeing that I trusted in a lie,
I shatter on the rocks of rough despair.

Your shadow on my broken body falls.
I wish to hide my weakness from Your gaze,
But in Your voice, unbound compassion calls
To me. A fragile plea for help I raise.
Your mighty talons lift my shattered frame
And shelter me within Your mercy’s nest.
Though I am weak, you love me all the same.

In Your bright shadow I will wait and rest.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Angry Birds

I rewrote the words to this song a few months ago on the way home from a retreat, where we had been singing it. 

Angry Birds

Angry birds long prepared
To be launched through the air
They resound with noisy smacks
O let the angry birds impact

Birds of might only hope
They’ll have strength; they will cope
In the levels where they roam
Angry birds are hitting home

Angry birds, flying true
Changing pigs into goo
They have come the pigs to whack

O let the angry birds impact

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Chasing Dawn

I began the year 2014 with an adventure. Invited by my friend Zoe, I traveled to Keelung, a city on the northern coast of Taiwan. There Zoe, two other friends and I saw the harbor and a night market, enjoyed a meal of hot pot (meat, vegetables and noodles that you cook at your table in boiling broth) and watched fireworks. This was fun, but the excitement really began during the next leg of our trip, a journey to Fulong Beach on Taiwan’s northeast coast to watch the first sunrise of the new year.

The trip to Fulong itself was an adventure. Twice we were asked to wait for later trains because the earlier ones were too crowded. The train we did get on was hot and packed full of people. After a 50-minute train ride we got off, and the station was so full of people that it took us about 40 minutes to get out. And all this happened at the time of night when I was feeling most tired.

But finally we arrived at Fulong. Zoe and I rented bikes at the train station to travel to the place where we would watch the sunrise, while our third friend, Belinda, decided to take a shuttle bus and meet us at our destination. (The other friend had gone back to Taipei to rest.) All my frustration and tiredness melt away as I glided out of the station and down the slope toward the seashore. Taipei has too much light, pollution and cloud cover for stars to be visible there on most nights. But Fulong is far smaller, and it was a clear night, so I was delighted to see stars scattered above us.

Street lights and windows on some nearby buildings provided some illumination, but the path was quite dark. At several points, I couldn’t see the road itself, so I had to steer by looking at a wall that ran beside the bike path or by Zoe’s head as she rode in front of me. At one point it became so dark that we rode by the light of Zoe’s smartphone flashlight.

Even when the path ran next to the highway and our road was illuminated, the ocean lay in a field of blackness to our left. The utter lack of even a distant lamp or a faint star made the water appear as a shadow within a shadow. I found myself thinking of Genesis 1:2. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” I took comfort in the knowledge that God’s spirit is still hovering over Taiwan and all the earth, ready to bring light and hope out of the darkness that blankets our world.

After what I think was about 40 minutes of riding, we reached the spot where the shuttle busses dropped people off to walk up a mountain where they would watch the sunrise. But police officers blocked our way and told us we couldn’t bring our bikes up. We didn’t want to leave the bikes because the rental shop hadn’t given us locks. Belinda had already started up the mountain and was left without a cellphone signal. Zoe sent her a text message, hoping it would get through, and we continued on to look for another place to watch the sunrise.

Then we saw another, smaller path up to the top of the mountain. This path had fewer people, so we walked our bikes up the hill. This worked well for about five minutes, but then the slope changed into stairs.

Zoe and I walked on the concrete stairs, rolling our bikes up the muddy slope beside us. There were a few points where we had to lift our bikes over obstacles or move them to the other side of the stairs. People coming down from the top kept telling us that there were too many people and we couldn’t bring our bikes all the way up, but we were determined to try. When the path finally got to steep, we hid the bikes in the bushes by the trail.

We were hot and tired when we reached a plateau overlooking the ocean. Hundreds of people were gathered there to watch the sunrise. Singers were performing on a stage, and several representatives from the local government spoke. By the time we arrived, it was around 5:45, and the sun was expected to appear at 6:37. So we stood listening to the music and watching the sky grow lighter.

Soon pink and purple clouds appeared in the eastern sky. They then faded as the light grew and the whole sky turned silvery gray. The crowd waited eagerly as the set time came and went. The sun was still not visible because the horizon was covered with clouds.

Finally at around 6:45 the sun rose above the clouds, and the crowds cheered. We had reached the goal of our adventure. Zoe and I found Belinda and enjoyed the view of the sun rising over the ocean. The road back was incredibly beautiful, once it was light enough that I could see it. When I returned to the Fulong train station, I was tired but happy.

When I watch the news, I often become discouraged at the amount of violence, suffering and evil in the world. The Earth is a dark place, and sometimes it seems like it’s just getting darker. But just like the crowds waiting for the first dawn of 2014, we know that light will come into the world. God has promised to bring a new day free of darkness, confusion, war and pain. We may not know when it will come, but we can be as certain that God will fulfill His word as we are that the sun will rise each day. He is present in our darkness and will move decisively to bring an end to it once and for all.

None of us know what 2014 will bring. It may be a year full of toil and struggle, or it may be full of sunlight and beautiful views. But we can take courage, because we know how our adventure will end: with the defeat of the darkness and the dawn of a new, perfect day.