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The following captures a number of Tim Senapatiratne's personal reflections on the ongoing conversation around faith and work here at the seminary. Tim is a Seminary Reference Librarian and Faculty Associate.

Reflecting on Bethel’s Faith and Work Conversation

Over the last academic year, because of our Work With Purpose initiative here at Bethel Seminary, I have had a lot of varying thoughts about work. The topic of work (and how to integrate it into our faith structures) is itself hard work. Here are some of the highlights of my own personal reflections (not in chronological order) of this integration:

  • It is fascinating to me how passionate we all are about our work! I’m not sure if this is an American thing or what, but I never seemed to have trouble getting people to talk about how faith and work interact. This suggests to me that our work, for good or bad, is a very important part of our identity and we all, it seems, intuitively want to bring our faith into work. For some these intersections are easy to make and for others it is much more challenging.
  • In my Hebrew Bible Survey course I taught this semester I added several short discussions about work as presented in the Bible. It was fun to discover that the Bible really has a lot to say about work! For example, my class (and me too) got really excited as we looked at Genesis 1 and 2 and realized that we are co-creators with God in our work here on earth. We work to complete the creative work that God started.
  • In this same class we also discovered that in order for work to be purposeful it must be just. A lot of writing about work and faith integration (rightly) focuses on how we as individuals should view the work we have been given. It is important, however, to also reflect on the work itself. To use an obvious example, a slave trader’s work, which is unjust and abhorrent, can never be purposeful work in the way we define purpose. I’m not sure how often specific jobs fall into the category of unjust work, but in a world crying for justice we need to consider justice more closely. Do minimum wage jobs really fit the category of just work? Are jobs without basic health care benefits just?
  • I’ve heard some arguing that in order for work to be purposeful the work must allow us to live out our faith in explicit ways. While I’m not sure this push is incorrect, I do wonder if purpose must be thought of more robustly than that. The Hebrew concept of shalom points to completeness and wholeness as a goal and it seems to me helps to guide our purpose. To use a Bethel phrase, work should affirm us as humans, helping us to be “whole and holy.” In other words, sometimes the most purposeful work I do is the work that feeds and clothes my family.
  • Lastly, let’s talk blue collar. While I suppose that I am a white collar worker, many of my extended family of origin members are blue collar workers. My grandpa worked in the mines on the Iron Range and my father-in-law works in a warehouse. These people work hard and by worldly standards don’t get much to show for it. I have always read Jesus’ words about the greatest among us being a servant fairly literally. Those that serve in the service industry, work in dead end jobs, or have less than desirable jobs might be those that most clearly understand purpose when it comes to work. The work itself doesn’t give them much purpose, but they often have the clearest thinking on how work fulfils purposeful living. I believe we need to be careful not to equate “purpose” with “upward mobility.”

In her book The Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about seeking her “calling” in seminary. She got a rather strange answer back from God: “Do anything that pleases you; and belong to Me.” Taylor writes, “To become fully human means learning to turn my gratitude for being alive into some concrete common good… Wash feet. Give your stuff away. Share your food. Favor reprobates. Pray for those who are out to get you. Be the first to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ For those who took him as their model, being fully human became a full-time job. It became a vocation in itself, no matter what they happened to do for a living.”