Good Work

Prayer is by necessity connected with good works, because a thing that is not good to be looked for is not good to be prayed for. . . . If you care for prayer know that it is not performed by words but by the choice of a virtuous life and by the love of God and diligence in one’s duty.
–Theodore of Mopsuestia

If work is about doing something and if ethics is about doing the right something, then, good work is a way of describing appropriate actions. However, what is good work? One way of understanding works as “good” is by identifying those works that connect our living with our purpose, our essence, our very selves. This kind of connection entails our turning to discover who we are at our very core and determining actions relative to that “core” understanding of self and life. For the Christian faith—and for many faiths, that core is understood to be God-shaped, implying a connection between who we are to be and our worshipful attendance to the Divine.

Said another way, good worship—orthodoxy (right praise)—leads to good work—orthopraxis (right actions).

There does seem to be a connection between our prayers and our life, at least there should be. In addition, that connection is more substantive than simply our praying for what we want or need or are worried about or challenged by. As Theodore of Mopsuestia suggests, the very structure and occurrence of our prayers should be/is bound to our moral commitments and our moral formation. In other words, how we pray and the substance of our prayers shapes our moral vision, discloses that vision, and fashions our moral selves. Importantly, what I am suggesting as “worship” while including what happens in a given building on a specific day of the week is a much broader description of a life engaged in prayerful attention to the Divine, to the Sacred.

Both Christian scripture and church tradition presume this connection. For instance, the first and second creation stories from Genesis craft a vision of the moral life that binds together worship and the moral life. In the first creation story—Genesis 1, often we say that God created for six days and then rested on the seventh day. However, that is not entirely correct. The seventh day was, also, a day of creation. On the seventh day, God created a restful space to be filled with worship. Said another way, the crown of God’s creation is not humanity but Sabbath. The pinnacle, the point of creation is to be in right relationship with God and the rest of creation. That right relationship is defined by the harmonious, cooperative, communion imbued throughout the vision of life captured in our picture of the Garden of Eden. That leads to the complimentary vision described by the second creation story—Genesis 2.

In that second story, we find the creation of the first people and, ultimately, their fall. Those first people in the Garden, again, are defined by their harmonious existence with their fellow creation and God. The first disruption of that existence happens when humanity attempts to reorder creation by replacing God with themselves, i.e., by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and, thus, assuming God’s position as the arbiter of right and wrong. Taken together, the first and second creation stories remind us that we are created to concentrate our lives on the Divine and when we fail to do so, the consequences are disastrous. God ceases to be our focus and, more often than not, we become our own center, devolving our lives from ones focused beyond ourselves to lives obsessed with ourselves. Said another way, there is a direct connection between worship—i.e., our focus on the Divine, the Sacred—and our moral lives. If we worship well, we will, also, live well; if we worship poorly, we will, also, live poorly.

Within the church’s tradition, the same emphasis permeates. The love of God is presumed to be paired with the love of neighbor. The first table of the law, i.e., the first part of the Ten Commandments, and the second table of the law, i.e., the second part of the Ten Commandments are thought to echo this dual-love mandate. Encoded within the United Methodist book of law, i.e., The Book of Discipline, the church articulates a direct connection between personal piety and social justice. These represent just a few of many examples that might be offered.

Emphasizing this point, ethicist Harmon Smith notes the inherent connection between worship and the moral life: “So there is actually no need to bifurcate teaching and celebration, or even make that division attractive or desirable. Truth be told, they go together. Liturgy both reflects and teaches us the kind of people we are and are meant to be.” (x, Where Two or Three Are Gathered). In fact, the word “liturgy” literally means the “work of the people.” That work is begun in worship but continued in the world beyond our worship because it is thought to shape its practitioners.

This week, our focus is on changing work. As we approach Labor Day, my hope is to reconsider all our work, especially the re-focusing of our lives on the ultimate work, i.e., the love of God that inevitably leads to the love of neighbor. In addition to changing our notions of work, this week we will change the location of our chapel service. We will worship alfresco under the open sky in the amphitheatre behind Enotah Hall.

See you at chapel.

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