While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
Acts 13: 2
And whoever sees me sees the one who sent me.
As presented in Acts, the dynamic growth of the church in its earliest days occurs under the impulse and direction of the Holy Spirit. We read in Acts today that it is while the “prophets and teachers” of the church in Antioch are fasting and praying that they hear the Holy Spirit direct them to send Barnabas and Paul to Cyprus. The work undertaken by each disciple is a “mission,” that is a work to which he or she has been sent.
For many of us in the developed world an enormous disconnection has developed between our deeper sense of our life and life call and the work that we do. For perhaps most of us, our work is a necessary evil that is merely the means of our and our families’ survival and support. The complexity of our economic systems make it far too rare that we are able to know and live out our work as that contribution to the world that we have been sent to give.
Yet, the problem is not only systematic; it is also personal. Some years ago I was speaking with a woman who had recently taken on a job as a toll taker on an interstate highway. On its face, this is perhaps the most tedious work imaginable. However, this person spoke of how much she loved her work, for it gave her the possibility of so many encounters with others, fleeting as they may be. She spoke of how looking and smiling at those drivers who came through her booth she could, at least at times, see their expressions change. In her attention to and respect for the other, even so momentarily, she felt that she could offer each of them some small measure of respectful recognition, probably in a place where they might least expect it. As I listened to her, I could not help but have the sense that she had been sent to those people, perhaps especially to a person whose life at the moment lacked the kind of appreciative respect that her smile afforded.
Clearly, it is not only what we do for work but how we do it that creates the possibility that our colleagues, our customers, our students, our clients may see not merely us but the one who has sent us. It may well be true that the task we have before us on a given day may not be the most conducive place to express the particular gifts and talents that we possess. Yet, every moment contains the possibility and the call to attend to our work and to those who are part of it with the kind of generosity and fullness of presence that may allow “the one who sent” us to be manifested.
In our time, we often suffer a pronounced dissociation between our functional selves and our spirits, our transcendent selves. At least in American culture, it is becoming more and more common that we do not really encounter as persons those with whom and for whom we work, and we withhold what is most distinctively human in us from the workplace. To live and to work primarily, if not exclusively, as functionaries is hardly to live at all. As the person who took tolls learned, every human encounter is filled with possibilities for offering life to and evoking life in the other. There is, no doubt, a connection between the hyper-functionalism of our time and the level of violence with which we live. To fail or to refuse to recognize the humanity and the Divine image in those we work with and for is a violent act. To fail to respect the Buddha-image or Christ form of the other in our ordinary interactions is to create a climate where more pronounced acts of violence become possible. Without a profound recognition of the Divine within each person, our relationships become relations of power rather than of respect. Unless we are working to recognize the one who sent him or her in every person whom encounter, we shall inevitably fall into a place where some others are dispensable.
The public life and ministry of Jesus begins with his reading out in the synagogue the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free. . . . (Luke 4: 18) We, no less than Jesus, Paul, and Barnabas, have been anointed and are being sent each day of our lives into the world to proclaim good news, freedom, and recovery of sight to the blind. If even one driver who passed through that toll booth in a state of loneliness, pain, and worthlessness, could see in the smile of that toll taker respect, value, and communion, then her mission was fulfilled. For we are a capacity to bring into the world not only ourselves but the one who sent us. Our work then becomes a medium for the creative and merciful love of God, who remains always with and for us and who sends us to make that love known.
The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.
Lao Tzu, Tao, Te Ching, #8 (trans. Stephen Mitchell)