Finding the Good Life
Sunday, June 8, 2014
When I was a child, our family always subscribed to Reader’s Digest magazine. And, for many of our early years of marriage, Ann Marie and I continued to subscribe to the magazine as well. During those years, every month when the latest issue came in the mail, I most enjoyed reading the sections that included funny stories sent it by people like you and me. As you may recall, one column each month was “Life in these United States”, another was related to stories from the armed forces and other civic occupations and was called “Humor in Uniform” and yet another was entitled, “All in a Day’s Work” which related stories that happened at the workplace or in the office.
One month, the “All in a Day’s Work” column featured experiences that happened as a result of folks being overly busy in their jobs. I ran across two of those stories in my files this week. One was from a lady named Joan Rutka who was a receptionist at the time in an optometrist’s office. One day Joan remembers the phone ringing off the hook. In fact, all five lines were lit up with calls and Joan was doing her best to move from one call to another. As a result Joan became confused about whom she was talking to and in turn what their issues were. In one moment of frenzy as she switched from one line to another, Joan thought she was speaking to someone having issues with their contacts when in reality she was speaking to someone with bloodshot eyes. Joan said, “listen, just take it out rinse it and put it back in.” Obviously there was a long pause on the other end before the person with bloodshot eyes said rather sheepishly, “umm, maybe I’ll just get a second opinion.”
The other story from the same month came from a minister named Richard Hendry. Hendry at the time did not serve one congregation as minister but rather was a supply minister for a number of congregations in the area where he lived. One Sunday, he was scheduled to speak in two congregations. The first was a small church where he was to preach at 8:30 and the other was a larger church in town to which he had never been and at which he was to speak at 11am. As can happen to anyone, he got delayed leaving the first church and thus came into the parking lot of the second church on two wheels only to hear the choir already beginning the opening hymn. Without breaking stride, he walked down the center aisle and plopped down in the vacant pulpit seat. After the choir sang, he quickly stepped up to lead the congregation in the opening pastoral prayer. It was only when he said “Amen” and opened his eyes to be greeted by countless questioning faces and eyes that he realized he was in the wrong church.
I tell both of these stories because I suspect most of us can relate. Many of our days include our running around like chickens with our heads cut off from one event to another while barely having time to think about what we are doing much less how to do it well. We work way too many hours, are involved in far too many activities and try to do too much in a 24 hour period. Those of us who are retired wonder how we ever had time to work and those of who are still in school or college wonder how we will ever have time to work in light of all of the activities we are involved in. In turn, we wonder if we really need a sermon on working hard.
In turn, this morning let me be clear that the title of my sermon is not related to working hard by working more hours or by doing more things. My sense is that this is often the easy answer that all of us fall victim to — including me. In turn, my sense is that Proverbs 6 is not about working more hours or doing more things. Rather, my reading of this text finds the focus instead to be on working hard at working in a smarter way. In other words, how do we approach our work with the right perspective that in turn allows us to excel without destroying ourselves or our families in the process?
In turn, let me highlight two truths directly from these verses that I think are valuable for us as we think about all kinds of work — our jobs, our school work, our work in our community and our work for the kingdom of God.
On the one hand, Proverbs 6 and the example of the diligent ants remind us that eight hours of excellence is far better than twelve hours of mediocrity. Verse 7 of our text says a lot in only a few words. In turn, it is an important verse to read slowly and carefully. What the verse communicates on the one hand, is that ants appear to do a good job of governing themselves. They don’t appear to need a boss or a ruler to make them work hard. Instead they innately want to do good work. On the other hand, the verse also says that the ant works hard in the summer, thus in the season of work, or when it is time to work. In the vernacular of our day, it could be said this way — when it is time to go to work, ants give their best no matter who is looking or watching. They work hard until the whistle blows and it is time to stop for the day. When it is time to stop, they stop.
My first boss beyond a family member was a man by the name of Lowell Ledbetter. Mr. Ledbetter was retired from a long career in education and ministry. In retirement, he was hired to supervise the summer staff at the Alabama state Baptist retreat facilities. I worked for Mr. Ledbetter for two summers. The summer staff work was pure grunt work. We washed dishes in the dining hall, cleaned the hotel rooms, worked on the grounds and anything else that had to be done as one summer group came and another left. What I remember is that Mr. Ledbetter, who worked side by side with us, always wanted it done with excellence. If we were cleaning floors, he wanted to be able to eat off of them. If we were making beds, he wanted hospital corners and taut sheets. He drilled into us high expectations and excellence in whatever work we did. And, he taught us to do our best no matter who was looking. As believers, we should take pride in our work, he taught us.
What I also remember is that when the day was over, Mr. Ledbetter went home. He had lots of hobbies and he enjoyed them. When it was time to work, we worked hard and with excellence. We had high expectations of ourselves not matter who was watching and when the day was over, we quit and stopped until another day began.
Whether it is at school, on the job or at the church — we should have high expectations of ourselves. We shouldn’t have to live up to other’s expectations because we should have already set a high bar. When it is time to work, we should work hard and when the day is done, it should be done. Eight hours of excellence is far better than twelve hours of mediocrity. That’s the first lesson of the ant.
But the second lesson is just as important. This lesson is more subtle in the text and comes from the animal chosen being an ant. Ants by themselves can’t do much. So, ants work together. They accomplish tons as an “army” of ants. Ants do their part and only their part while trusting others to fulfill their role. This is the second lesson we should hear. It is far better to be content with our small part than trying to be a hero through doing the work of everyone.
During the offertory today, we illustrated this idea. Whether you noticed or not, Rosa Margaret offered us a beautiful example. When we came into the sanctuary this morning, four vases of flowers were scattered across the stage. All four vases contained flowers grown and nurtured in the yards of four different church members. They worked hard at growing their unique flowers. Rosa Margaret then, as a part of our worship, took the four flower offerings and arranged an even more beautiful central arrangement. Together they were greater than each individual part. Together they accomplished what none could do alone. But, without each unique set and each flower’s unique beauty the arrangement would be less than it is.
The great lesson of smart work and the great lesson of faith is that we are called in whatever we are about to know and to do our part and to do it well. But, the great lesson of smart work is also to know that our job is not to do it all but rather to trust God to take our individuals parts and make something greater out of them collectively.
In the modern world, we drive ourselves crazy trying to do our job and those of others. We make ourselves anxious and overwhelmed through the false belief that success or failure depends on us alone when it never does. And, we take the joy out of life by trying to be what we are not.
In work –let us strive for excellence. In work, when it is time to work let us work hard and when it is time to stop, let us stop. In work, let us do our part but let us not become prey to feeling a need to do everyone else’s part too. Work takes up a huge portion of the life God gives all of us. And, God wants us to enjoy the life we have. In turn, let us embrace the wisdom of Proverbs that reminds us that it is not about working longer or more much of the time, it is about working smarter. Amen.