Thriving even when work disappears: Lessons from a poet
Record layoffs. Seclusion. Loss. In three weeks, Americans filed more than 30 million unemployment claims and more are coming. Shelter-in-place rules, age, illness, and the broad loss of livelihoods have stripped away roles and outlets for talents that help form self-identity and purposeful work. For many in our communities, the world has become a maze to stumble through in the dark.
Loss disorients us — not only in the paid-work world but also in the unpaid ways we contribute to human flourishing in our homes, churches, and communities. Even if only temporary, the unexpected loss of a defining identity (e.g., accountant, hugger, host) feels like suddenly waking up without an arm. Congregants and neighbors are not alone in this identity amputation; pastors feel its pain too. Most pastors aspire to work with people, not cameras. No virtual “like” takes the place of a hand held through pain; no Valentine emoji substitutes for a room of open, beating hearts. We all can acknowledge the loss.
Seventeenth century British writer John Milton could relate. For more than 40 years, he formed his identity around the gifts God had bestowed on him — a brilliant mind, freedom to study, and a powerful pen. Then he went blind. In the first two quatrains of “Sonnet 19,” written soon after darkness overtook him, Milton reflects on what must have been his own questions and grief in blindness:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent, which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he, returning, chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask.
Alluding to both the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14–30) and the parable of the laborers (20:1–16) in these lines, Milton poses the unjustness of his riddle: Will God rebuke the unproductive consequence of a loss he allowed? Will God require work for the day without providing the day’s light? At the core of these questions is a question we all ask, if we’re honest: Will God be disappointed in me if right now I don’t know how to be who I am?
In the poem’s final sestet, Milton gives us his hard-won answer: In certain seasons, we must re-envision what it means to work and flourish.
But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands, at his bidding, speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean, without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Waiting is sufficient work
As Milton points out, Jesus’s “state is Kingly.” Therefore, we do well to remember the invisible realities of his kingdom. His thousands of angels do his bidding by carrying messages, judgement, and intervention throughout heaven and earth. Yet his “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” also serve well who stand by his throne and wait (Rev 5:11). Angels need no rest and suffer no physical hindrance to their work. If waiting on the Lord is sufficient work for them, how can it be insufficient for us when we are called to it?
We flourish by engaging in the good work God created us for (Gen 2:15; Eph 2:10), whatever that looks like. We can certainly swivel gifts and talents from paid to unpaid work as needed. We can repurpose energy originally planned for the now forgotten book or unfunded community program. But we also must remind ourselves and those we care for that sometimes our good work is to stand and wait.
The Spirit connects when screens cannot
Although Milton could no longer read his Bible himself or write words with his own pen, he realized the light lost through his eyes was made whole by the light the Spirit provided. As pastors, small group leaders, and secluded believers trying to engage others, let’s remember we wait upon the Lord to connect us through his Spirit — not through our technology, charisma, or powers of persuasion. The Spirit makes powerful each small act of work and waiting by our congregants — not the businesses and money and titles they have lost.
God’s yoke is light
Milton thought in his mid-40s that his greatest work was behind him. But his waiting in hope yielded, despite his blindness, better fruit that endured. Without this time that required him to stand and wait, we may never have seen Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.
God requires nothing from us. Though we may want to earn our keep, God wants us to continue learning how to receive. We receive by bearing Jesus’s mild yoke and learning from him (Matt 11:29–30). We receive by the good work of waiting.
Links and sources:
Patricia Cohen and Tiffany Hsu, “‘Sudden Black Hole’ for the Economy with Millions More Unemployed,” NY Times, April 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/business/economy/unemployment-claim-numbers-coronavirus.html?referringSource=articleShare.
John Milton, “Sonnet 19,” accessed April 10, 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44750/sonnet-19-when-i-consider-how-my-light-is-spent. Public domain.Topics: Christian Life, Current Events, Issues Facing Workers, Unemployment, Work and Worship