I recall once noting that my job in college had not been "socially empowering." That's because cleaning other people's toilets (and sinks, and showers) can seem a bit demeaning, especially when those other people include your own classmates on a wealthy and often privileged campus. And yet I always found the job somehow rewarding, and even to a certain degree, enjoyable. Not only was I doing something constructive, I was also performing a service for others. Maybe not something they couldn't have done otherwise, but certainly something that they didn't have to bother doing, because I was employed to help. After two years of bathroom duty I was assigned to a wider range of work -- sweeping, mopping, moving trash, shoveling snow, and a myriad of other things. When other students were sleeping in I was getting things done. I felt like a caretaker,and I took pride in that. It was a paid job but it was also my role in the life of the school. I wouldn't have had it any other way.
I also learned over time (and especially in retrospect) that my earlier assessment wasn't entirely accurate. Sure, my job might not have been "socially empowering," but it wasn't "disempowering" either. I was not looked down upon for what I did, by anyone. If anything, I was warmly welcomed and well-respected by most of my classmates for whom I cleaned. They understood my reason for working and they understood that I was more than just a student custodian. Most importantly, they came to deeply appreciate my reliability and thoroughness. The entire experience taught me an important life lesson:
In terms of work, others do not judge us by what we do, but by how well we do it.
This lesson came into play during my divinity school years as well. During that period I worked in the copy room. The job involved not just making copies for professors, but also sorting mail, moving furniture for events, making deliveries across campus, etc. I loved it. It allowed me to learn a great deal about the people and structures of the divinity school, and of Duke as a whole. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, as I completed tangible jobs that helped make things run smoothly. During my last year I tacked on another job, working in the University Secretary's office. I spent my time on what may have seemed like menial tasks, from shredding paperwork to filing correspondence, but again, that maxim I learned in college held true. I did my best, and was appreciated for it. When I graduated, the staff took Brooke and me out for a swanky lunch, and presented me with a framed caricature of myself by a well-known area artist. It was a gift, and a memory, to treasure. And I had been nothing more than their work-study student.
There was a man in 17th century France who understood what I'm talking about here many times better than I do. His name was Brother Lawrence, and for decades he worked as the humble cook at his monastery. His singular pursuit was to find God in all that he did, and to grow closer to God through his work. His greatness lay not in his title or his deeds, but in his devotion, his humility, and his sincerity. These qualities led his fellow monks to be so deeply affected by him, that after his death a small collection of biographical remembrances, correspondence, and maxims was compiled to perpetuate his memory. This slim book, The Practice of the Presence of God, is still an influential spiritual guide.
In this work we find Brother Lawrence sharing:
It is not necessary to have great things to do.... I turn my little omelette in the pan for the love of God; when it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground and adore my God, who gave me the grace to make it, after which I arise, more content than a king. When I cannot do anything else, it is enough for me to have lifted a straw from the earth for the love of God.
I struggle continually to follow Brother Lawrence's example. The world defines success and happiness in so many ways which are counter to his lifestyle, and it is hard to embrace the servant attitude over that of our society. And yet Brother Lawrence teaches us no more than what Jesus teaches us -- the importance of the servant-leader. That term, "servant-leader," is far from rare in Christian circles, but it is talked about far, far more than it is lived. Yet servant-leadership is exactly what we are called toward. "The greatest among you will be your servant." Now that is counter-cultural. That is radical. And that is hard to live. But when we do live it out, when we live to serve and when we live to see God's glory in turning an omelette, mopping a floor, or clearing a paper jam, that is when we go from last to first, in the only eyes that matter.