The following readings and comments are from Tuesdays in the chapel for October 5, 2010
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – The Village Blacksmith
UNDER a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.
And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.
He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter's voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.
It sounds to him like her mother's voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night's repose.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought
In some ways, I suppose, we might say that Whole or Holy Work is embedded in the very mission of MIT as an institution.
If you do not know it, let me read it to you and draw a few reflections for us this morning.
The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.
The Institute is committed to generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world's great challenges. MIT is dedicated to providing its students with an education that combines rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery with the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community. We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind (emphasis mine).
It is this last phrase that seems particularly applicable to our topic today.
In many ways, I’m not sure I could write a better mission statement for the work of a chaplain at any institution or write a better theology of work.
This mission to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind echoes an encouragement of the Apostle Paul in the Christian scriptures to how Christians should be diligent about, “…doing something useful with you own hands, that you may have something to share with those in need.”
This seems like Holy Work – educate for the betterment of humankind.
But, as I visited this pas week with a student entering the Institute to pursue his doctorate in electrical engineering, I was reminded that our mission in theory does not always meet our mission in practice. Because there are competing missions that are at work to fragment the Wholly/Holy intention.
As this student reflected about their current job, there was a sense of dissatisfaction because there was nothing left to discover, nothing left to create…only continue to take what exists are and make it more efficient. Over and over.
Where excitement began to pour out was in the description of what lies unknown at the crossroads of genetic mapping and electrical engineering, the reason for entering The Institute. It is likely that the “work” he will get paid for when he is finished has yet to be discovered. But, he wants to be a part of that discovery, something stirs him to be part of making something for the future.
I tell the story because whether we serve in the chaplaincy, as instructors or we are engaged as students I’m sure that we frequently experience this tension, whether in conversations with students or colleagues, but just as likely a wrestling within ourselves… a tension that divides us. Working a job for good money, or something with a deeper satisfaction.
It is a related tension I hear when visiting with entrepreneurs who speak of bottom of the pyramid and developing markets as both those who can be helped with access to new technology as those who also become consumers, new markets for larger profits.
Although working for the betterment of humankind is a lofty goal, and one might even say holy, the experience of my own life (and I would say likely most of us) and my experience as a chaplain is this lofty goal of work is often hijacked by two other equally powerful forces:
Work is holy or whole when what we do and who we are does not create fragmentation.
There is a weariness found in fragmented lives. When work is simply a means to an end.
In the Christian narrative man is created in harmony with work in the garden, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”
There is a harmony between God, His creation, and the work of taking care of the earth. Holy work, is work that integrates our soul rather than satisfying fragments over competing missions.
Working for Status/Identity and wealth often competes against our work for the betterment of humankind.
The result is not simply a wrestling with what is right/wrong or a concerns of unethical practices. The result runs much deeper. It creates internal conflicts. Conflicts that cannot be worked out in an ethics class that is distant from the praxis of our work.
When I work for status/identity, when my work defines me, when success defines me…what happens when I do not reach the goal? No one I have ever met has entered The Institute to become mid-level management at a mediocre company.
Quickly we must split the soul to deal with our lack of success…work becomes a means to an end, we lose our passion for what we do.
When wealth becomes part of the equation…and no doubt…when millions of dollars for R&D are being spent with an expectation of results and way of life is connected to this dependent chain…we are more likely to compromise…to use others…to falsify results.
We are more likely to split the soul, to convince ourselves that the end will make the means pure. We must compartmentalize and fragment to move ahead.
But, what we witness in this fragmentation is a weariness that comes with unwholly/unholy work. We see weariness of work often. Not because we are physically incapable of the labor, but because our soul wearies at the battle.
There is a great story told in the New Testament, in the gospel of Luke about a man named Zaccheus, defined by Luke as a tax-collector…by others as “a sinner”. The story is short…Luke doesn’t tell us the nature of the conversation between Jesus and Zaccheus…only that there was a dinner party. In the midst of which Zaccheus stands and says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."
9Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house…”
I’m struck by the story, because my contemporary ears and my own journey wonders at the relief that Zaccheus must have felt as he reintegrate his life…to re-align his life…and not just to give back what he may have fraudulently taken, but 4 times that amount! That is moving toward the betterment of humankind. Zaccheus could fragment and justify his work.
“It is for building roads to connect commerce.”
“I’m looking out for my family.”
“My position allows me influence into civic life.”
Wholly/Holy work compels us on an individual level, as well as an institutional level, to reflect on whether our work is accomplishing the mission…for the betterment of humanity. Or whether competing missions, identity, status, wealth, prestige, etc. only give nod to our real mission and leave us fragmented in our soul.
A Celtic Blessing
May the light of your soul guide you.
May the light of your soul bless the work that you do
with the secret love and warmth of your heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light
and renewal to those who work with you
and to those who see and receive your work.
May your work never weary you.
May it release within you wellsprings of
refreshment, inspiration and excitement.
May you be present in what you do.
May you never become lost in bland absences.
May the day never burden.
May dawn find you awake and alert,
approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities and promises.
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.
May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected.
May your soul calm, console and renew you.