Prosper the Work of My Hands

In the Summer of 1984, I was the Catholic equivalent of one of those polite Mormon boys during one of their summer, door-to-door missions. The pastor of Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church hired me to cast a broad net across the Chatham, Illinois community. The job description entailed finding people who had no church membership to interest them in my employer’s church, or to simply share faith and prayer with them.  

In those days, in between the seminary’s semesters, I lived on Lake Springfield, Illinois in my boyhood home. Without a car, I would stuff a clean shirt, some deodorant, and my brochures into a backpack. I would then ride my bicycle a few country miles to the rectory. There I would hydrate, and launch myself into the neighborhood of the day. That summer, I could be found walking up and down Chatham, Illinois streets, knocking on doors, and spending time with anyone who welcomed me.

Before my first day on the job, I had imagined that knew the challenges that would face me: doors slamming in my face, ridicule being heaped upon me, thorny theological questions contrived to trip me up. Imagine how romantic those challenges would feel to a young seminarian bent on building a little spiritual street cred…almost heroic…glamorous…in an Acts of the Apostles kind of way.  

But it ended up that the primary challenge of this summer’s work was decidedly non-heroic and certainly not glamorous. My biggest challenge that summer would never qualify me for a cameo in Butler’s Lives of the Saints.The largest obstacle to proclaiming the Gospel had to do with a traumatic encounter with a Doberman Pincher several years earlier that left me with a decidedly un-Saint Francis-like relationship with the canine community. The lax leash laws of 1984 Chatham interacting with my inner fear of dogs did not end up qualifying me for beatification.

A postal worker friend suggested that I carry a canister of pepper spray to bolster my confidence. I briefly considered this possibility. But the thought of a pet-owner coming to the door to talk about Christ while their dog was writhing in pain on the lawn struck me as strategically unsound. As with the other fears that this jobsurfaced within me, I resolved to keep my hands open to God’s grace as I tackled this work, one house, and one dog owner at a time.

That summer, God gave me what I needed to overcome fear and complete the work. What lasting effects did my work accomplish? I cannot say.  I can tell you that I was enriched by the people who were willing to open their homes and their lives to me.

In this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 10: 1-10; 17-20), Jesus sent a large group of rookie disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom of God. At the end of this hard day’s work, Luke painted a picture of back-slapping, knuckle-bumping, high-fiving joy as Jesus celebrated their first few innings in the Big Leagues.

One of the many insights that can be be culled from this celebratory passage was that God’s care for you and me extends to our work lives.   In the Judeo-Christian traditions, there is nothing wrong with pursuing monetary profit.  What’s different for the spiritually informed worker, manager, or business owner, is that the pursuit of profit is no more than a means to an end.  The primary goal for the spiritually informed worker is to bring justice, mercy, creativity, and care to the workplace.  Without uttering a word about God, a kind of evangelization and transformation unfolds when a worker, or employer sets his or her eyes on these kinds of goals.  

Understood in this way, God wants to give you what you need to be fruitful in your work. God wants to labor alongside you in your workaday world. God not only wants success for you, the divine desire is to celebrate your success with you after the fact.

In that summer of 1984, it was easy to see why God would want to help me with my work. Some jobs are more explicit in their ministerial content. But each of us has work to do that profoundly interests God. The writer of this Sunday’s second reading, Paul, was a tent-maker by trade. His success in business provided the means to pursue his avocation: to build the church. It is hard to imagine that the author of the words, “pray unceasingly,” would have viewed his tent-making business as something outside the realm of God’s concern.

For those who view life through the prism of the Eucharist, there is no part of our existence that stands outside of God’s care for us. According to the ancient writings of our spiritual mothers and fathers, it is the divine will that our work would be fruitful, regardless of what that work entails. Next time you process up to receive communion, consider bringing the intentions of your work up with you. See if there is a grace that God has in store for you that could prosper the work of your hands.

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