Work is a Four-Letter Word–Ecclesiastes 4:5-6

Driving east out of Kansas City on I-70, you can exit at Sterling Avenue. Where the off-ramp ends, you’ll always see one or several people holding signs that indicate their needs and particular pleas for assistance. In the rain, the snow, the baking sun, I don’t believe I have ever seen that corner empty. It must be a productive spot.

One of the reasons that these apparently homeless people frequent that intersection is that a little camp exists in the brush of a gully between the off-ramp and the interstate. You can’t see them from the road unless you look at just the right moment as you zoom by on I-70.

Yesterday, Solomon seemed to be praising people like these. If all labor is just driven by and the source of envy and strife, then aren’t those who don’t labor the most righteous? But today, he seems to cut back the other way.

The fool folds his arms
and consumes his own flesh.
Better one handful with rest
than two handfuls with effort and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:5-6

Those lines of poetry are a bit confusing. The first two appear to criticize that person on the corner. Those grubby folks with their signs, living rough and risky, are consuming their own flesh.

The second pair of lines, however, goes the other direction on first glance. Is the lazy person foolish or wise, choosing one handful? Or are these two lines in the voice of the lazy fool? I’m not sure, but certainly there’s some conflict in these verses.

So which is it, Solomon? Is work wisdom or folly? In Proverbs, we hear an unequivocal condemnation of laziness:

a little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the arms to rest,
and your poverty will come like a robber,
and your need, like a bandit.

Proverbs 24:33-34

Why Work?

What does work do for us? Sure, it puts money into the bank account, but it also fills our time and uses up our energy. When I think about my work, I see myself grading bad freshman essays for more than 30 years. It’s mind numbing and keeps a body indoors. Why do I do it? My hope is that as I continue toward retirement, I’ll build up finances that will allow me to live however I want in those later years. Great plan.

But then I see my in-laws with their deteriorating health. I see a cousin who is recently retired and dying from cancer. I see others who get to retirement financially set but without a clue as to how they might spend their time and money. Some retirees seem determined to use RVs and lottery tickets to fuel their happiness.

Let’s just face it: work seems to be something that causes problems if you do it and even bigger problems if you don’t.

Getting in Tune

So do you think that our man Solomon was aware that he was pulling on both ends of this rope? I’m guessing he saw it clearly. This work-or-no-work conundrum is one that every human needs to try to solve. And that, I’d argue, is the point.

Jesus does not call us to “seek first the kingdom of work,” but he also has harsh words for the rich fool with his self-indulgent retirement plan. When we read the accounts of the early church selling assets to help each other out, we know that if that generosity wasn’t accompanied by paying work, then the operation was not sustainable.

Clearly we’re called to find a “Goldilocks” approach to labor: not too little, not too much, but just right. In his wisdom, Solomon doesn’t tell us what “just right” is. Instead, he starts us thinking about the matter, so that we can get closer to our own “just right.”

So what’s your “just right”? Are you sure it’s right?

Shortcuts and Hacks

easyHow many times have you seen these sorts of teaser headlines on the covers of magazines:

  • Get a six-pack belly fast!
  • Six weeks to your best swimsuit body!
  • Lose 40 pounds in just three weeks!
  • Five secret foods to turbocharge your metabolism!

These headlines and the invariably disappointing articles behind them promise a shortcut to the accomplishment of something that normally takes a lot of time and effort. In the web-world these shortcuts are often called hacks.

A hack can be anything from a clever idea that can actually change your life to a ridiculous gimmick that only succeeds in getting the web browser to click on a link. These sorts of hacks are good for advertisers but bad for you and me.

In a guest post on The Art of Manliness, Kyle Eschenroeder argues that the endless quest for the hack, the search for the perfectest, most efficient, most clever approach to some task prevents a lot of people from accomplishing anything

The hacking mindset flatters the part of us who’s lazy, who always wants to take the path of least resistance, who loves feeling superior to the “chumps” who are taking the hard way. But, despite all our new technological advancements, life itself remains stubbornly impervious to hacking. You do not get to cheat death. You do not get to escape being human. You cannot circumvent the universal law which dictates that all goals require work, time, pain, and suffering to attain.

It seems to me that this author could have probably read the Proverbs and reached the same conclusion.

Running Lazy

I’m scheduled to run 8 to 10 miles today, letting how I feel about my legs and lungs determine the distance. The Rock the Parkway half marathon is a week away, and I’m tapering toward the start. My goal for the next seven days is simple: don’t get hurt. On the eighth day, the goal is to finish the race in less than two hours.

sedentary

As good as I’m feeling about my preparations for this race, as confident as I am that I can meet the goal I’ve set for myself, I’m also somewhat concerned about my attitude toward the activity. Is it possible that I’m running in laziness? I know that sounds bizarre, but I’ve been thinking along those lines recently, and another writing by Paul Maxwell has really brought the idea to the fore.

Maxwell argues that laziness is not exactly what it seems to be but is largely a spiritual condition. In his mind, the workaholic, the guy who won’t roll out of bed before noon, and the obsessed runner might all be suffering from a very similar affliction, although only one of them seems to be lazy.

You have your little idol, right? Maybe it is called Pinterest or Tumblr; perhaps it is golf or tennis. It could be reading or music, cooking or TV, antiquing or housework. Anything that we do without a clear vision of it within the Kingdom of God, anything that puts us in control, shares qualities with my son who is not out of bed at 11:02am on a Saturday. Maxwell shares a list of these things and then comments.

They are our easy-bake mud puddle gods — simply sit, add water, and worship. What gets you out of bed (or off the couch)? To withdraw, to procrastinate, to stumble through a blurry haze of work days just waiting for the next opportunity to get back on the couch, back to the workshop, back on Netflix, or back to the gym, that isn’t life — and none of us is honestly or passionately arguing that it really is.

And so my question for myself is running. Do I run to put myself in charge? Is the pleasure that I derive from this activity a substitute for the joy I should be experiencing in God? It is, of course, possible to have both, but it’s also possible to foul up that joy with any of the lesser pleasures.

I can experience God in eating or I can eat to cover up the absence of God. I can actually indulge in worship activities that cover up the lack of true worship in my life. And, to the point at hand, I can run away from the lack of God in my life or run in ways that celebrate His presence.

This much I know to be true. What’s not so obvious is how to do the latter.

That Internet Guy

Another “hobby” that many people–men mostly again–get into to make themselves feel as if they are producing something is commenting on Internet posts. Just scroll through the comments of some mildly contentious story if you don’t know what I mean. Isn’t it great that some self-appointed experts volunteer to maintain the public discourse?

Rip Van Winkle Redux

I meant to write this post last week, but I just didn’t have the energy. What with getting out of bed, brushing my teeth, eating, and a bunch of other stuff, I just couldn’t get myself to do it.

That’s meant as a joke, but it’s really no joking matter. What Paul Mitchell describes as the “Complicated Life of Lazy Boys,” I would term malaise or lethargy or something. Laziness or chronic inactivity–more accurately lack of productive activity–struck me a couple of years ago. I had my work in front of me. I knew what I had to do, but I just couldn’t get myself to do it.

Rip Van Winkle

When you find yourself in that state, anything is possible except for the productive and needful. You can even involve yourself doing productive and needful things for other people. When I was in college, back in the days of typewriters, I had a roommate who flunked out because he didn’t do his own work but instead spent his time typing papers up for other people. Rip Van Winkle, in Washington Irving’s story, has this affliction:

The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor. . . . He would never refuse to assist a neighbor even in the roughest toil, and was a foremost man at all country frolics for husking Indian corn, or building stone fences; the women of the village, too, used to employ him to run their errands and to do such little odd jobs as their less obliging husbands would not do for them. In a word, Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; bust as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, he found it impossible.

I understand you, Rip. I understand you, but I don’t want to be you. Rip went out hunting one day and just never came back. Years later, he wandered back into town and spun a tale of meeting spirits in the mountains and sleeping for decades, but any close reader of the story will realize that Rip almost certainly just checked out of life.

How many men in the church have just checked out? Have done their equivalent of tending to other people’s business or going hunting. Sometimes that “other people’s business” might be the church’s business. Since I’m a layperson, I can point out that some people’s hobby is their church work. For others it is golf or gaming, Netflix or napping. We have to fill our hours with something to salve the pain. Mitchell speaks to this:

What do we need for real joy? Well, what is real joy (for the lazy hobby guy)? It is joy that gets us through life. Not the joy of living, but of surviving. What does that surviving-joy look like for the lazy man? Avoiding more and more work — escaping into a hobby. Hobbies can be good gifts from God, but men were made to work. Proficient entertainment cannot replace profession in the fight to live. “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Proverbs 13:4).

In Jesus’ day, the problem, I think was less acute. If you didn’t work, you might well starve. Today, with food pantries and AFDC, with jobs where productivity isn’t always all that immediately visible, we can convince others or even ourselves that we have not taken a draught from Rip Van Winkle’s cask until we’re pretty well inebriated by the brew. And some of the topics that I take up in this space–running, cooking, and the like–can actually be part of the problem instead of the solution.

With the affliction well described, we need to consider the cure. But not today. I just don’t have the energy.