“Excuse me. Could you spare some change so I can make a phone call?”
Those were the first words Marc ever said to me. I heard them as I was walking out of McDonald’s in 2007 while I was in seminary in St. Louis. They came from a disheveled but very polite and articulate black man. Anyone who has spent any time in the city has probably heard the same line from numerous nameless, faceless people. Like most, I too, usually just keep walking. But this time, I took the road less traveled by, and it has made all the difference.
Marc needed another week of rent. Our church helped. We went to dinner together that night, and he told me his story. Most of it was a lie, but I let it go. We kept getting together. Eventually, I learned his real story. It was much worse than his cover story. The details are not mine to share. Except one — along the way, we became friends. While he was at our house for Christmas, he told me that I was his “brother from another mother.” He got that right!
That was 13 years ago. Since then, Marc has been in and out of shelters and now lives back in Boston. We keep in touch through texting and phone calls, and whenever my travels take me to Boston, I forgo the hotel to stay with him. Marc would tell you that he got the better end of our conversation at McDonald’s. He’s wrong about that.
Learning from Marc
Marc has taught me the value of family. God created us for family. Sometimes those families are a mess. Marc has two children, 21 and 23, who face all the challenges you might imagine. Marc sacrifices much to do the best by his children. They are the joy of his life. He worries about them, believes he has failed them and would move heaven and earth to give them a better experience – just like us. Sometimes you meet your family outside of a McDonalds. After living life together for 13 years, Marc and I often refer to each other as “BFAM” (the brother from another mother).
Marc has taught me the value of work. Genesis says that after creating man, “He blessed them, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and rule over it.” We know this as the Creation Mandate, which gives us our purpose as his created people to offer our work as worship. Despite how we might experience it, work is a blessing and not a curse. Through our vocations, we participate in God’s intentions for the world and reflect his glory. The Creation Mandate ensures us that our work is treasured by God, even when others disregard it.
There is no one that I know who works harder than Marc. He has had numerous jobs since I have known him. He has been an airport shuttle driver, car wash attendant, loaded newspapers for the Boston Globe and food into trucks in a refrigerated warehouse, delivered artwork to museums, and now works days sorting for FedEx before heading to his second job as a warehouse forklift driver. These are the types of jobs that most of us don’t think about or perhaps even value. But those jobs meant the difference between living on the street or the efficiency apartment he lived in until he lost his job a year ago and fell behind on his rent. He lives with his mother.
We spoke earlier this week. He’s exhausted and concerned about his ability to maintain this level of exertion. Every time we talk, I share my concern about him pushing too hard and encourage him to rest. His response yesterday is, sadly, standard fare,
“I have no choice but to overwork myself. I have no time to sleep, not eating properly, just work. I feel like a slave. I was working three jobs but I can’t do that anymore. My body and mind won’t allow it. I was making fans for HVAC systems, but the fiberglass was too much to deal with.” Marc is in his late forties.
Marc takes pride in the fact that he’s paid his off all of his back rent, past judgments for an accident he had in an uninsured delivery truck, and has paid his $20,000 back child support down to $6,000. His debts are, in part, due to the reality that subsidized rent goes up as your income increases making it hard to save. Also, the delivery company owner closed shop and left town after the accident six years ago. Lastly, payments, interest, and penalties for child support accrue even when you’re jobless and homeless.
As Christians, it’s essential to recognize that Marc’s work is not just a blessing to him; it is a blessing to us. Further, in not valuing the types of jobs that have paid Marc’s bills, we fail to appreciate the value of others’ work and worship.
Because of Marc, many of us have made it to our planes on time or back to our cars while avoiding the rain, heat, or cold, sometimes with exhausted and fussy kids in tow. Marc’s work has enabled people to wake up in the morning and find the local paper. As they read the paper, they have pulled out advertisements that have drawn them into various stores to spend money, which has, in turn, provided jobs and wages for others.
We might consider that through Marc’s ten-hour days, people have had fresh fruits and vegetables to purchase. Those fruits and vegetables came from stores advertised in the same newspapers that people like Marc worked on sorting and loading for delivery vehicles in the early hours of the morning. In turn, those grocery stores have employed many single moms, college students, and teenagers eager to buy their first car. Marc’s labor has resulted in priceless (and not so priceless) artwork arriving at museums and galleries across the country. That artwork has given couples enjoyable date nights, and teachers an opportunity for field trips with their class. His current labor brings important packages to our homes and business.
Finally, Marc has taught me the value of hope. Marc often reminds me of a person lost at sea who keeps treading water waiting for the rescue to come and trying to keep their head above water until it does. But he keeps on going. He is hoping for something better soon. God offers us hope. Ten years after we met, Marc received Christ. I had the honor of baptizing him. Now, he’s not only my brother from another mother but my brother from the same Father. Marc’s life is still hard, but now he is hoping in Christ and offering his work as worship. Sometimes, hope is all you have, until it comes.
Through Marc, I have learned that I would have been a lot poorer if I had just given him the change he asked for outside of that McDonalds.
Teaching from Marc
It seems that we have quantitatively and qualitatively undervalued Marc’s type of work. Sadly, the church bears much of the responsibility. Perhaps that’s because the church has accommodated the cultural caste system of vocation. We even have a word for it: menial labor.
Thankfully, within my theological circles, the Reformed and Evangelical expressions of Christianity, the “faith and work” movement has experienced much-needed reprioritization, which is mission-critical because virtually everyone attending church works, and absolutely all of them are created to work.
We are comfortable offering sermons about marriage, parenting, sexuality, and even politics. But when church members hear messages on the intersection of faith and work, they are usually told:
- Make sure to tithe…
- Remember to witness to your coworker…
- Work hard and don’t steal the stapler…
- Pray for patience with your boss…
God has used my relationship with Marc to spark a deep interest in making vocational discipleship more central to our Christian growth.
After one particular sermon several years ago, in which I extolled the value of all vocations, a young woman approached me and said, “That was a nice sermon, but I think I’ve got a job that actually doesn’t matter beyond paying the bills.” She was a career hostess in a local Mexican restaurant and worked for minimum wage and tips. Her husband worked at a youth detention center. Together, their incomes supported a growing family. Her implied question required an answer that affirmed her role in God’s mission to bless the world.
As Steve Garber has often reminded us in these pages — the Biblical narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation places our vocations as integral, not incidental, to the revelation of this narrative to the world.
We follow the story from beginning to end: from the Creation Mandate’s “very good” call to rule the earth, to mankind’s Fall fueled by dissatisfaction with its vocational roles in the Garden (Gen. 3), to attempting to make a name for themselves by building a tower to the heavens (Gen. 11), to the providence of God in placing a self-centered youth into the leadership council of Pharaoh (Gen. 50), to God redeeming His people from slavery where their work was being misdirected and exploited by another Pharaoh 430 years later (Exodus).
God’s value of the diversity of vocational skills is on display in the directions for building the Tabernacle, the Temple, and rebuilding the city’s walls and the Temple after the Exile. That Exile came as God’s judgment in large part because of the people of God’s failure to live their lives vocationally as their Redeemer intended (Lev. 19, Isaiah 58). Upon entering Exile in Babylon, Jeremiah reminds the people of God of the declarative role of their vocational gifts as he instructs, “seek the flourishing of the city, and in its flourishing, you shall find your flourishing also.” (Jer. 29:7)
The New Testament presents Christ, who came as a carpenter who called fishermen and tax collectors to follow him. Paul worked as a tent-maker while planting churches and benefited from the financial support of many men and women in the marketplace. He wrote letters encouraging the diligent work of the laborer and the fair treatment of workers:
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Col. 3:22 -4:1, ESV)
Finally, the Bible offers us the promise of our work as worship untainted by our sin and the Fall effects:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Rev. 21:1-4, ESV)
Thanks to organizations such as The Acton Institute and Made to Flourish, and books like Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor, Katelyn Beaty’s A Woman’s Place, Tom Nelson’s Work Matters, Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling, and Stephen Garber’s Visions of Vocation, all of which have sought to equip Christian leaders for vocational discipleship, we have something more pastoral to say to this woman.
As the hostess, her intentionality in not over-seating sections during the dinner rush resulted in servers not being overwhelmed and a kitchen not being slammed. In doing so, orders came out of the kitchen in a timely fashion and error-free. This likely led to higher tips for the servers that needed that income to pay for rent and childcare. Further, the excellent Google reviews from satisfied customers meant more business for the restaurant, more food orders from vendors, secure cleaning service contracts, and possibly increased staff. It also meant the couple who came in during a break from bedside duty at the local Children’s Hospital would have a relaxing meal amid a horrible and chaotic situation. Her work as a hostess was integral, not incidental, to her employer’s flourishing and tens if not a hundred lives around her. Indeed, she was a central figure in the restaurant’s flourishing and was offering foretastes of the Kingdom of God to many.
Many readers of the Washington Institute have to look years back in their vocational history to locate themselves in the context of Marc or this young hostess. As we assess our work’s contribution to God’s mission in the world, we are easily encouraged by our bona fides. Yet, the question our commitment to Christ leads us to ask is, “As leaders, directors, Chiefs of Staff, managers, and owners are we communicating that the work of those subject to us is valuable because it was intended to be offered to God as worship?”
As followers of the One in whom, through whom, and for whom all things were created, are we considering the Creational intent of others’ vocations as we are hopping on the crowded shuttle at the airport, selecting which service level we want when getting our car washed, calling customer service about a missing newspaper, inquiring as to why they’re out of strawberries at the grocery store, being asked not to let our children touch art at the museum finding out there’s a 20-minute wait at our favorite, and highly rated, restaurant, or calling to find out why our FedEx package is late?
To put our vocational theology in a more culturally evocative phrase, “Menial Work Matters!”