When I was a child I was lucky enough to have two sets of incredible grandparents who lived less than two hours away. My mother’s parents, Jimmy and Louise, lived in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in a little town called Stuarts Draft. It’s a farm town, a slow town and I have to imagine that it looked very much the same during those first dozen or so Summers I spent there as it had the last 50 years. Think “Footloose” minus John Lythgoe. Jimmy and Louise had moved here in their retirement. Both of them had grown up in the Great Depression, supremely poor and formally uneducated. Jimmy served as an infantryman in WWII and then worked for several decades at a fish hatchery for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Louise started out working in a family general store and spent the rest of her years as a hospice and rehab nurse. Work was the greatest constant of their lives.
Though I was the fourth grandchild, I was the first of their retirement, and I don’t remember a day when either was idle between sunrise and sunset. Jimmy had a green thumb and worked a garden that would make any farmer blush. Hours of my youth were spent getting lost in patches of corn, pumpkins, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, potatoes, eggplant, and a variety of spices and greens. Sounds of hoeing, raking, plowing, mowing, trimming, barking dogs, and Billy Graham radio scored the hot and humid Virginia Summers. When Louise wasn’t beside him in the dirt, she busied herself canning, cooking, cleaning, mending, and washing. I’m a millennial who split time between the present day and summer’s in the 1940’s. Even as a child the content and even joyful attitude with which my grandparents conducted their work did not go unnoticed. Work was never a burden, never an obligation, it was simply the rhythm and rhyme of their life. It was ordinary and wonderful. They loved it and served it, and in return it served them.
It wasn’t until recently, now in my early twenties and Jimmy and Louise firmly settled in Heaven, that I came to appreciate the biblical lessons of work my grandparents lived out in front of me. At the end of Genesis 1 God outlines His design, purpose and promise for humanity, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1.:28). Simple and straightforward but also a powerful expectation of responsibility to learn and steward – to always be active, aware, alert, and concerned with what is going on around us and our place in it. God worked to create, and we were created “in His image” (Genesis 1:27); therefore it’s logical that work would be written into our creation. Our work is a vital connection between the Creator and the created – stewarding the flourishing of creation and passing on this lordship to future generations. Subdue and fill. God, knowing our propensity toward legalism, does not pass down rules, regulations or specific benchmarks by which to measure or gloat over the “success” of our calling. Instead he lays out the principles and lets us determine the way in which we will accomplish them. It is a freedom to exercise and experiment, an invitation to discover the best way, God’s way. God promises that through work we will flourish, grow, learn and create to the benefit of the next generation.
I saw this in the lives of my grandparents. My grandparents were never at war with their work. They knew they were the master, that they possessed all of the control, all of the agency. Jimmy was at peace in work, even when the garden didn’t grow or the worms killed the crop or the birds stole the seeds. He simply got up the next morning and chose to continue. To learn, to create, to communicate with the God who placed him in a sleepy Virginia town. We know that after the Fall work became a toil; it became hard; it became a necessity for survival; and we forgot what it actually was, a way to worship and commune with the Lord (Genesis 2). We looked enviously on toward the 7th day forgetting that all of the excitement that occurred on the other 6.
But Christ has redeemed our work. Being no longer slaves to sin our lordship over work was restored through the Cross. “Your Kingdom Come, On Earth as it is in Heaven.” That is the call, and only if Christ was real is it a reality. I shiver when I think of what that statement could mean if we approach our work in the biblical way. If we stop seeing work as a burden but as a gift, not as a distraction but as a means of deep connection with our covenantal purpose and promise that God spoke in to us at the very beginning. My garden is an office complex. My tools are laptops and a mouse and books and data. But that doesn’t make my work any less important in the eyes of God. It’s still the Kingdom coming.
Stanton Coman works as a data analyst for the Institute of Faith, Work, and Economics in McLean, VA. He is a member of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.
Images: FreeImages.com/pipo99, Danny Tubbs