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We are [not] our work

micrometer

At the Chapel last Thursday evening, I had the honor of welcoming the capacity Lutheran Basketball Association of America crowd to the University.

Here’s what I said to them:

Welcome to Valparaiso University, a university where talented students work hard under the guidance of dedicated professors to acquire the wisdom and knowledge they need to lead and serve in church and society and where both senior administrators and members of the faculty believe that the worth and value of every member of the community is not based on their performance but is theirs as a gift that comes from their creator God for the sake of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. This fact brings real freedom to serve.

I think it's the second part of what I said that sets Valpo apart from many – including church-affiliated colleges and universities. Service can be a buzzword and freedom is presumed, but value and meaning as a fully realized gift apart from performance? That's radical.

That’s not to say that exams don't happen, papers aren't written and graded, that transcripts aren't recorded. They are. In the same way, performance reviews are made, papers researched and published, applications for academic promotion are made, reviewed and evaluated. But these things are about our work, not ourselves.

Oh, I realize that we pour ourselves into our work, that we take pride in our work and even sometimes are defined (or self-defined) by our work. But we are not the same as our work. We are people made by God, redeemed by Christ and offered to the world.

Sometimes the work that we do will be noticed and praised by the world. Sometimes it will seem as though our work is overlooked. Sometimes the work we offer is our best and the accomplishment fills us with satisfaction. Other times the work that we produce is what we could muster in the moment and we know in hindsight of the many ways it could have been better. Always our ultimate identity and worth comes from another place– what God has said about us.

Lately I've been rereading Matthew Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft. Crawford argues that to work with one’s hands, especially repair work, is intellectually satisfying because it is evaluated by objective standards. He writes, “The machinist makes his part, then hands it to the boss. Let us imagine that the boss pulls a micrometer out of his breast pocket, and either finds the part with in spec or doesn't. If he doesn't, he looks at the worker with displeasure… Whatever the cause, the worker's failing is sitting on the bench, staring parties in the face, and this object is likely to be the focal point of the conversation (p.127)."

As one who likes to work with his hands, I think Crawford has a point. It’s why I like the book. But the greater point for people of faith (which is not the subject of Crawford’s book) lies in the objective standard of Christ’s righteousness for us. You are, for the sake of Christ, loved and treasured and of value in this world, apart from your perception another’s evaluation or your own feelings or failures. It’s a reality that comes from outside of you, hanging there on the cross. This does not mean that Crawford’s failing machinist is off the hook; the part must meet specifications. But it does mean that such failures can be redirected for learning, for discernment about the work. It need not be the stuff of self identity. Nothing trumps your identity in Christ.

Peace and joy,

Pr. Jim

4/1/14

Rev. James A. Wetzstein and Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox serve as university pastors at Valpo and take turns writing weekly reflections.