Good Work

My work with Shalom Farms is now behind me but as I continue weekly theology readings, this summer’s experiences remain fresh in my memory. Last week I read “The Body and the Earth,” an essay in which Wendell Berry illuminates the analogous plights of the human body and the land (agricultural land in particular) in modern society, and the potential for their common healing. As so often is the case with Berry’s writing, a good portion of the essay is concerned with the meaning and value of good workin that healing process. Having only recently finished my work with Shalom, I find Berry’s thoughts on the subject of good work to be of particular relevance. I’d like to use this blog post and my next to explore just a bit the notion of good work and perhaps to unearth a constructive definition and approach to its pursuit.

Let’s turn first to a helpful presentation of good work:

There is work that is isolating, harsh, destructive, specialized, or trivialized into meaninglessness. And there is work that is restorative, convivial, dignified and dignifying, and pleasing. Good work is not just the maintenance of connections – as one is now said to work “for a living” or “to support a family” – but the enactment of connections. It is living, and a way of living; it is not support for a family in the sense of an exterior brace or prop, but is one of the forms and acts of love. (The Art of The Commonplace, 133)

What is most striking to me about this passage are the many simultaneous goods that are enacted by good work, both within the person who is working, and in the world he works upon. This is perhaps the hallmark of good work. Not only will good work be “restorative, convivial, dignified, dignifying, and pleasing,” for the person performing the work, but it has also a positive outward influence as “the enactment of connections,” and “one of the forms and acts of love.” The enactment of connections Berry refers to here is his solution to the pervasive alienation and fragmentation he observes in everything from agriculture to the modern psyche to the household to contemporary medicine. Healing is to be found in integration, restoration of those vital relationships that sustain life. Berry writes, “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection ishealth.” (132) In other words, health is wholeness, and wholeness is realized by the reconciliation of parts, both interior and exterior.

The work of Jesus is our perfect example of good work. Jesus’ ministry was one of healing – physical, spiritual, and relational. His message is one of reconciliation – amongst all of the human family, and of every son and daughter to their loving Father. Health, wholeness, holiness – this is God’s will for His creation. In Colossians 1:20 we read that Jesus came, “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” All of Creation is destined for unity in the loving embrace of the Holy Trinity, itself the perfection of unity.

Amazingly, we are invited to participate in that unity even now, and in so doing to be part of the Creation’s reconciliation and healing. We are the Body of Christ, one Body of many bodies. As the Body of Christ, we are to do the work of Christ. To complete the Body of Christ means that each one of us must use our unique gifts to continue Jesus’ work in the way only we can. This diversity in the Body of Christ is not a cause of division; rather it is unified in God’s purpose.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12)

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27)

This image of the body beautifully expresses that inseparable relationship between the integrity of the individual and the health of the whole that is achieved through good work. When each part of the body is whole and healthy and functioning as it was created to function, then so too does each part of the body contribute to the wholeness and health of the entire body, and its good and proper functioning. This is that very hallmark of good work we identified earlier – that it is both interiorly and exteriorly restorative, healing for the individual and for the whole.

For Berry, good work is epitomized in good farming. By it, “we enact and understand our oneness with the Creation, the conviviality of one body with all bodies” (133). But what the image of the Body of Christ affirms is that there is much good work to be done, and innumerable good ways to do it. There are as many expressions of the conviviality of one body with all bodies as there are bodies. To discern that particular expression of oneness with the Creation that we must enact is to discern our unique part in the Body of Christ.

In my next post I hope to continue my exploration of good work and apply it to my own work experience this summer.