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Sunday, 6 September 2015

Creativity and care

Here is a slightly expanded version of the sermon I preached today at Salvation Church, who share space with us at St Stephen Walbrook. This sermon can also be heard by clicking here.

At the weekends the City of London is very quiet, apart perhaps from those, like yourselves, travelling in for services at those churches which have Sunday services. But Monday to Friday first thing in the morning and early evening, Walbrook is a river of people travelling to and from their workplaces. These people pass by the church but, in the main, don’t come in and that is probably also, in the main, symptomatic of people who see little connection between the work they do and the Christian faith. As Mark Greene has written, “Society encourages us to believe that our faith is private and has no place in the working world. Indeed the working world operates on an atheistic basis. God, it believes, does not show up on the balance sheet. What we do in our own time is up to us, but there is no place for biblical ethics and claims about truth on the factory floor or in the board meeting” (Thank God it’s Monday, Scripture Union, 2002)

According to the most recent Business Register and Employment Survey, 392,400 people are employed in the City of London. This represents 8.3% of Greater London’s employment, and 1.4% of the UK’s total employment, meaning over 1 in 100 of the UK’s workforce are employed in the City. The great opportunity that the City’s churches seem to have, if it can be grasped, is to engage with working people and demonstrate the connections that do exist between the Christian faith and the world of work.

Those connections can be made. One example comes from Romans 12 where St Paul talks about offering the whole of your life to God as an act of worship, which includes your work whatever or wherever that may be, paid or voluntary. Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase of that passage: “Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”

This was an important passage for me when I worked in the Civil Service for 18 years prior to ordination. What did it mean to offer the work that I was doing then – which involved seeking various ways to assist disabled people to find and keep jobs – to God as an act of worship? For me, it meant doing my work as well as I could – bringing all my experience, skills and understanding to the role – and doing my best for those I was seeking to assist – by offering as holistic a service as I could within the constraints of the role instead of going through the motions by doing the basics of the role but no more. I also explored opportunities to make connections between the work I was involved in and the social action that churches and other faith groups were engaged in. This led to a project which demonstrated the value to Jobcentre staff of engaging with their local faith communities and provided them with resources to enable that engagement to happen effectively.

When I was ordained this continued to be a focus of my ministry. So I have provided working people with weekly work-based reflections and prayers, written resources on being a Christian at work, led a network on Faiths in London’s Economy and have set up ESOL courses and social enterprise projects in parishes. As a result, when the shared partnership development role with St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Stephen Walbrook was advertised providing the opportunity to minister to working people in Central London and set up partnerships between churches and the organisations around them, it seemed too good an opportunity and too close a fit with my interests to overlook.

So, I’d like to explore with you this morning some more of the connections that exist between faith and work before concluding by telling you a little about our first initiative here at St Stephen Walbrook to make these connections for those who pass by this church each weekday.

As we do so, I’d like to take us back in time to the beginning of time and to the stories of Genesis of the creation of our world. In Genesis 2. 8 – 23 we read:

8 Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and placed in the garden the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God planted all sorts of beautiful trees there in the garden, trees producing the choicest of fruit. At the centre of the garden he placed the Tree of Life, and also the Tree of Conscience, giving knowledge of Good and Bad. 10 A river from the land of Eden flowed through the garden to water it; afterwards the river divided into four branches. 11-12 One of these was named the Pishon; it winds across the entire length of the land of Havilah, where nuggets of pure gold are found, also beautiful bdellium and even lapis lazuli. 13 The second branch is called the Gihon, crossing the entire length of the land of Cush. 14 The third branch is the Tigris, which flows to the east of the city of Asher. And the fourth is the Euphrates.

15 The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden as its gardener, to tend and care for it. 16-17 But the Lord God gave the man this warning: “You may eat any fruit in the garden except fruit from the Tree of Conscience—for its fruit will open your eyes to make you aware of right and wrong, good and bad. If you eat its fruit, you will be doomed to die.”

18 And the Lord God said, “It isn’t good for man to be alone; I will make a companion for him, a helper suited to his needs.” 19-20 So the Lord God formed from the soil every kind of animal and bird, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever he called them, that was their name. But still there was no proper helper for the man. 21 Then the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and took one of his ribs and closed up the place from which he had removed it, 22 and made the rib into a woman, and brought her to the man.

23 “This is it!” Adam exclaimed. “She is part of my own bone and flesh! Her name is ‘woman’ because she was taken out of a man.”

Now there are all sorts of reasons why we might think this a surprising passage to look at in relation to faith and work but, as I hope to show, this is a passage about the very first tasks allocated to human beings and, because it comes before the Fall and before the entry of sin into the world, shows us something of God’s original intentions for work, to which it is imperative that we return.

Within the Biblical Creation stories human creativity is seen in: God’s blessing of humanity which included the tasks of increasing in number, filling and subduing the earth and, ruling over living creatures (Genesis 1: 28); Adam’s working and taking care of the garden (Genesis 2: 15); and, Adam’s naming of the living creatures (Genesis 2: 20). Albert Wolters notes that: “Adam and Eve, as the first married couple, represent the beginnings of societal life; their task of tending the garden, the primary task of agriculture, represents the beginnings of cultural life." (Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview)

This story from Genesis 2 suggests that work is intended to be about creativity and care - naming the essence and possibilities of a good creation and I would like to explore three points with you in relation to this understanding.

The first point is about creativity and care. Our task is to cultivate creation (to make it fruitful) and to care for it (to maintain and sustain it), just as God told Adam to work the ground and keep it in order. Now, cultivating creation is a creative activity based on understanding the essence of each thing that we cultivate. This understanding comes from the task God gave to Adam of naming the creatures brought to him. Names in ancient culture are descriptive of the essence or meaning of objects or people. So, in this story Adam’s task is to identify the essence of each creature that God brings to him.

Because the creation is good, Adam is being asked to name all that is good, integrated and coinherent within it. James Thwaites has suggested that this is what Paul, in Romans 8, suggests creation is crying out for from us as human beings (Romans 8: 19-22): “It must be crying out for its goodness to be fully realised and fully released. The creation cannot be good apart from the sons and daughters because we alone were given the right to name it; we are the image bearers who were made to speak moral value and divine intent into it. We were created to draw forth the attributes, nature and power of God in all things.” (The Church Beyond The Congregation)

As we do this, as we look for the essence - the attributes, nature and power of God in all things - we also see possibilities inherent in creation. Everything in creation is both what it is in its own right and what it could become. God has given us the task of naming both what things are - their actuality - and what they could become - their possibilities.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur has noted that: “In the case of human willing, the possible precedes the actual, for the forming of a project precedes its realization: “The presence of man in the world means that the possible precedes the actual and clears the way for it; a part of the actual is a voluntary realisation of possibilities anticipated by a project.” (Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur)

“… according to Ricouer, human being is possibility: “it does not yet appear what we shall be” (1 John 3: 2). Human existence is “forward-orientated,” constantly projecting itself in front of itself towards a possible way of being. Possibility is therefore intimately connected to the imagination which projects it, and to time, specifically the future. Human being, then, is not limited to the here and now, that is, to actuality … there is a “surplus of being” to human existence, and this surplus of being is nothing other than possibility. We are not as we shall be. Thanks to this surplus of being – possibility – humanity can hope.” (Kevin Vanhoozer, “The Image of God and the Epic of Man” )

So, in our work, we can explore the actual by looking both for the good in the work itself and in those with whom we work and we are to name the good when see it. We are also called to look for new possibilities in our work - both in the work itself and in those with whom we work - and to name these possibilities as we see them. Because we live after the Fall, our task is one of attempting "to change the world in the direction of its promised transformation, imaginatively grasping and realising the objective possibilities in the present which conform most closely to the coming Kingdom.”

The second point is that we are not made to do this alone but in collaboration. Our work of naming the good and the possible is to be done together with God, with each other and with creation. We are to be in conversation with God, each other and our world. Paul Ballard has said that “human beings can enter into a creative partnership with [God] in terms of [our] own powers over creation” and that the “power to work is a God-given power that finds its place in relation to the service of God and man’s place in creation”. As an example of this, Christian Schumacher has written in his book God in Work about team working and the way in which, in teams, “each person should be willing to give up the ‘raw material’ of his or her own ideas in order that it can be subsumed or absorbed into the pool of other ideas being contributed by other team members, so that a new and better ‘product’ of the team’s combined endeavours can be created”. He suggests that this experience “of unity in a warm, effective and strongly bound cohesive team operating within divinely compatible structures” has moved people “to deepen their own inner lives” and has drawn them closer to God. But much of the work we have done as human beings has been with our back turned to God - we have been ‘out of conversation’ with him - and, therefore, instead of caring for creation we have exploited it for our own selfish ends.

To turn away from this blindness about ourselves brings us to the third point. We need to see that work is also about our own self-understanding or comprehension. Again, Paul Ricoeur is helpful here as he suggests that “in determining to do something, I likewise determine myself: “In the same way that a project opens up possibilities in the world, it opens up new possibilities in myself and reveals me to myself as a possibility of acting. My power-to-be manifests itself in my power-to-do …” The “possible” is therefore an essential component in self-understanding. I achieve self-understanding when I grasp what possibilities are open to me." (Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur)

Work is intended to develop our understanding of ourselves because, as we name what is good and what is possible, we also develop our understanding of ourselves. As Adam named the good and imagined possibilities for each creature that God brought to him, he was also coming to an understanding of his needs as a human being and rejecting each creature in turn as a suitable helper for him. Therefore, when God created Eve, Adam had the necessary self-understanding to recognise Eve immediately as the helper for which he had been seeking. Work is intended to be a place in which we grow in our understanding and comprehension of ourselves.

So, work is intended to be about creativity and care - naming the essence and possibilities of a good creation. It is about collaboration - a conversation with God, each other and our world - in order to better comprehend or understand ourselves and our world and so see the creative possibilities for developing our world and culture in line with the essence of its goodness.

As I hope we can see from these brief reflections on one passage, the Bible contains significant wisdom on approaches to work. I would like St Stephen Walbrook to be seen as a place which is able to draw on its significant history in the City of London and the wisdom resources of Christianity to offer services which will make a difference to the way businesses in the City work and to those who employed here. To do this I would like to build a network of people able to offer support and consultancy services which could enable businesses to address issues of diversity, ethics, faith literacy, relationships, social enterprise, social responsibility and spirituality as they affect customers, employees and suppliers in workplaces and the markets.

It is vital that businesses understand their clients and their diverse cultures. Religion is a key influence globally and has very varied cultural expression making faith literacy important for working effectively on a global basis. Gaining some background knowledge about faith communities in a safe environment can give staff the confidence needed to engage with people from faith communities more directly and appropriately.

Research among managers by Roffey Park has indicated the extent to which managers are looking for more meaning in their work (70%) and to which tensions are experienced between personal spiritual values and daily work (39%). Values play a defining role in motivation at work. So, an organization that has identified and examined the values by which their staff want to live, is a workplace with motivation potential. The closer the fit between personal (often faith-based) values and company values, the higher the level of motivation.

Workers in the UK took an average 5.3 days off work in 2012, according to the 2013 CBI/Pfizer Fit for Purpose survey, with stress, anxiety and depression given as the main causes of absence. There is a growing body of research which suggests that prayer and religion rank high among the best stress busters. Use of a church or prayer/quiet room for meditation, reflection or prayer on a regular basis can assist greatly in the management of stress. “It is now widely accepted that those organisations which have a ‘spiritually-friendly’ culture, show universally lower than average rates of absenteeism, workplace stress and staff turnover”. (Spiritual Care Matters NHS Scotland, 2009)

We have begun to provide, in a small way, the beginnings of this type of provision through Start:Stop, our new regular Tuesday morning opportunity at St Stephen Walbrook for City workers to start their day by stopping to reflect for 10 minutes. Every 15 minutes between 7.30am and 9.15am, a 10 minute session of reflection begins which includes bible passages, meditations, music, prayers, readings and silence. City workers are encouraged to drop in on their way into work to start their day by stopping to reflect. Between 40 and 50, but sometimes as many as 70, people are availing themselves of this opportunity.

We would be glad of your prayers for this new area of ministry and for our engagement with the working life of the City. Some of you will work here in the City yourselves and might be able to participate in or contribute to Start:Stop and other work-related ministry that we intend to develop. Others can support us through yours prayers for this new ministry and its development. I would be very happy to talk further with you about this area of ministry if you would like once the service is over and have brought some examples of resources with me which you would be welcome to look through.

We often think of worship as being about the services which are held in church but, when St Paul says in Romans 12 offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, which is your true and proper worship, he is saying that what we do outside church in our sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life is our real act of worship. Time spent gathered together as we are today should resource and re-energise us to live as Christian people in our homes, communities and workplaces, wherever those may be.

St Paul seems to be saying in Romans 12 that our natural inclination as human beings is to be focused on our own self interest. Our thinking needs to be transformed by our faith in order to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who was focused on the needs of others. It is when we are transformed by the renewal of our minds – so that we think and act, to some extent, in Christ-like ways – that we can then live lives, which through service of others, are an act of worship to God.

At last Tuesday’s Start:Stop we reflected on Genesis 2 and concluded with the following prayer:

Creator God, you have given us the task of naming what things actually are, by looking for the essence of things and seeing the attributes, nature and power of you in all things. Enable us to do this in our work and for those with whom we work by naming the good when see it and by speaking moral value and divine intent into our workplaces and relationships. Through our speech, may we draw forth the attributes, nature and power of you in others. Guide us to see the good in our colleagues and workplaces. May we name and develop new possibilities in our work and colleagues.

Creator God, you have given us the task of naming what things could become - their possibilities. Enable us to look for new possibilities in our work - both in the work itself and in those with whom we work - and to name these possibilities as we see them. Guide us to see the good in our colleagues and workplaces. May we name and develop new possibilities in our work and colleagues.

Creator God, you have said that our work is intended to be about creativity and care - naming the essence and possibilities of a good creation. May we cultivate creation by making it fruitful and care for it by maintaining and sustaining it. Enable us to cultivate creation as a creative activity based on understanding the essence of each thing that we cultivate. Guide us to see the good in our colleagues and workplaces. May we name and develop new possibilities in our work and colleagues. Amen.


Sufjan Stevens - All the Trees of the Field will clap their Hands.

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