June 3, 2017 • Life for Leaders
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
I recently read an essay by Wendell Berry that describes the Bible as an outdoor book. Given its ancient origins, that’s not surprising. Much of life was spent outside when the Bible was written. As today’s text reminds us, the first image of human work is that of tending a garden. Nevertheless, it strikes me that this is a problem for me, since most of my professional life has been spent working indoors.
My work takes place in the context of modern office buildings and manufacturing facilities. While the outdoors can sometimes be visible, I don’t experience it as the place of work. Like a lovely picture on a wall, I can see the outdoors through a window as a reminder of another world, other than the one in which I’m working.
For the most part, that’s a good thing. The work environment has been created to support my work. It has been carefully controlled and conditioned for that purpose. Unpredictable and disruptive weather is kept outside. The focus is on providing the best possible conditions to allow workers like me to get their work done productively.
Still, it’s not surprising that my work imagination has been shaped by my indoor environment. And, the focus of that environment is on human beings and human control. Human agency is primary, perhaps even exclusively so. Divine agency all but disappears and remains out of sight. There is little evidence that God does anything at all. Everything seems to depend on what human beings do or do not do. After all, in an office or industrial setting, it’s the responsibility of human beings, particularly of human leaders, “to make things happen.” Unlike the outdoor world, my work world seems to operate just fine in the absence of God’s work.
However, that’s not true in a garden. As any gardener knows, while we can plant, fertilize, weed and water, there is another sense in which a garden grows entirely independent of us as human beings. Gardening reminds us that God is the one who is the author and sustainer of life. While we can participate with God in the work of the garden, no gardener I know has any illusions that they “make the garden happen” by themselves.
That’s an important insight into how we imagine our work as human beings. And, it’s one that is easily lost in our modern world dominated by office and industrial settings. Our use of language sometimes betrays just such a shift in how we think about our work. Surprisingly, even those who work in the outdoors are affected. As a simple example, my wife and I recently landscaped our yard. When I received the proposal for the work, I noticed that our landscapers described some the work as “installing plants”. Isn’t that interesting? Not planting plants, but “installing” them. An industrial metaphor has replaced an agricultural one, even in a garden! Human agency and control takes center stage in our landscapers’ conception and description of their work.
How can we reimagine modern work so shaped by office and industrial contexts in a more helpful way? How might the biblical imagery of a garden help us recover a sense of God’s presence and activity in an otherwise secular context? We’ll reflect on that next time. For now, becoming aware of how our work environment shapes how we see our work is a good place to start.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
How do you describe the work that you do? How does your language reflect the ways in which you are active and in control of that work? How might you consider changing that language to acknowledge God’s presence and work in the midst of your work?
Does the metaphor of gardening help shape how you see your work? Why or why not?
Lord Jesus Christ, we are grateful that you are in our work even when we cannot see evidence of your presence. Thank you that there is no place we go nor any work that we do in which you do not precede us.
Give us wisdom as we reflect on the image of work in a garden as we contemplate the work you’ve given us to do. Grant us insight on how we might reimagine our work in a way that more faithfully reflects our vocation as your image bearers.
We ask in your name and for your glory. Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentary: The Work of the “Creation Mandate” (Genesis 1:28, 2:15)
During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
Click here to view Uli’s profile.