If you have ever shared a room with someone, particularly as a child, teen, or college student, you’ve likely had experience with spatial boundary issues. My brother and I shared a room for years as we were growing up. There were advantages – someone to talk with late at night, extra clothes to borrow, someone to help architect and carry out a design of the room that made the most space for activities. But there always seems to be that moment that comes with roommates that we had once in a while as boys. Conflict arises and out comes the tape. We taped a line down the middle of the room – you stay on your side; I stay on mine. Oh and we’d test the boundary. We’d be toe-to-toe at times with that line under foot or I’d be on the look-out for one of my brother’s toys to cross the line, which by universal taped boundary guidelines dictates that the toy becomes my possession. Some boundaries are very clear.
Even at work there can be some clarity when it comes to boundaries. You receive a job description that theoretically says, “Here’s what you are to do and here’s what you are not to do.” Beyond that description is the employee manual that is designed to control behavior at work. You read that manual in amazement at some of those items that fall under, “Yep… that’s in there because somebody actually did that one time.” But today we’re talking about our Faith@Work and boundaries. What is that about? Are we talking about the appropriateness of praying before you eat your Hot Pocket in the public break room or if you can have a paper weight that is a replica of the 10 Commandments? Not so much. We’re thinking beyond some of that today to the inner struggle we have to create boundaries at work and from work based on the disciplines of our spiritual lives. Welcome to week three of Faith@Work: work and boundaries.
Last week we focused on Work and Sin and our tendency, especially in our culture, to idolize work, success and achievement. When it comes to sin, Christians tend to come at it from the back end. What does that mean? Well – it’s this sense that we do ill-advised things: lie, cheat, steal, etc and we make rules about those things like an employee manual to address sin. Paul writes in the second chapter of Colossians, “Don’t put up with anyone pressuring you in details of diet, worship services, or holy days.” Then he says, “Put this infantile religion behind you. Why do you let yourselves be bullied by it? ‘Don’t touch this! Don’t taste that! Don’t go near this!’ All those things are mere shadows cast before what was to come; the substance is Christ. We can grow healthy in God only as he nourishes us.” Paul is saying, “You can make rules about this stuff but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.” Approaching sin from the front end is harder but is really our work if we want to get to the heart of it. Our number one sin is essentially the wish to be God ourselves. “I don’t need God. I can be God.”
God is the source of everything so when I make myself God, I believe I am the source of everything. I’m responsible for everything. I make the world go ‘round. When I’m trapped in this sin, I’m not teachable. I don’t take counsel well. Therefore, I’m not all that open to grow. Dr. Henry Cloud, co-author of the best-selling book on “Boundaries” says the idea that “It’s lonely at the top,” is a misnomer.1 God is at the top and even God is not alone. He suggests that the isolated leader is basically the leader who is always in output mode. Consider the heart. The heart is an open system: flow coming in, flow going out. If a leader doesn’t operate as an open system, s/he will ultimately explode. You have to get energy and resource from outside of yourself. So the front end approach to sin is being aware of the idolatry of making ourselves God and attempting to operate from an output only mentality. Why is this important to boundaries at work? Because you can make boundaries from back end… I can’t, I won’t, etc, but unless we do the internal spiritual work on the front end (not the I can’t, I won’t but knowing I am – knowing and remembering that God is God and I am not), we will never find a place of peace nor know the freedom that such spiritual boundaries afford. Your self-pep-talk on the way into work could be, “Don’t screw this up, don’t say that thing, don’t hog the staples,” or it can be, “God, you are God and I am not and I don’t have to be. May I be your witness today – speaking with grace, serving with compassion, bringing my best self to each moment.” It is our faith that shapes the character of our work.
We’ve been following the larger scriptural narrative in this series that is designed around four key ideas: creation, struggle (or sin), redemption and restoration. This week’s focus is the third piece of that cycle: redemption. Though we’d like to skip over sin and struggle and we do our best to navigate around it, we generally have to navigate our way through it. Redemption isn’t necessary without the struggle first. On this Father’s Day, I think of the advice some dads have given over time when it comes to the struggle or sins of their children. There’s the “You’ll only do that once” approach to redemption which suggests making the mistake in and of itself is the greatest teacher toward not repeating the offense. There’s the “Learn from my mistakes” approach which functions more in the helicopter parenting mentality not wanting your child to face the heartache or repercussions of struggle and therefore trying to prevent it from ever occurring. And then, well, there is just the heroic dad approach, saving the day just before the damaging moment occurs. Take a look at some of those heroic-dad moments : https://youtu.be/5xiMbHO6NyI
Thanks for those heroic moments dad! The question in all of this is, “How do we participate in redemptive work of our faith?” The redemptive piece of this cycle comes in the creation of boundaries that will set us up to be as successful as possible. In Peter’s first epistle, his approach to boundaries is much more from an internal perspective – work within your means – do the work that is yours to do. “Love each other as if your life depended on it,” he says in verse eight. Think of your team at work – if everyone operated within that one life-giving boundary, what could we accomplish? His other points are also positive: “Be quick to give cheerfully.” “Be generous with the gifts God has given you,” which is to say, “Use your gifts to the fullest as you do what is yours to do.” This idea has come up every week in the series. Peter shares other boundaries or rules of the spirit as you approach your work: “When you speak, let your words be God’s words. If you’re a helper, help with God’s strength. In all things, then, God is glorified” which is to say, when we work this way, we are doing the work of the kingdom. Peter captures it all by saying, “In this way, we are stewards of God’s grace.” What greater honor exists?
And you’re thinking, “My work environment is not an open system – it’s negative and back-biting and people are mean. How can you possibly expect me to be full of grace?” It may be the only path to redemption. Jesus was full of grace and dealt with mean people quite often it seems. He was sort of immune to their drain; not because he was all that thick-skinned necessarily. He was very vulnerable with people. The immunity he had that protected from the negative environment was this: He was not dependent on the other person for his well-being. His prayer in John’s seventeenth chapter when talking about his followers was “I pray that we may be one as you [God] and I are one.” To put in work terms, “I pray our management team might be one as you and I are one.” That’s what made him safe. That’s what gave him peace inside. Do you have that internal security?
In a healthy family system, you see this progression in the life of a baby. There is a mind/body mystery that takes place and spiritual love somehow finds rest in our brain and our soul. Babies don’t have this at birth so they cry whenever their parent leaves the room. Out of sight means they no longer exist. It’s why toddlers are terrible at hide and seek for a while. They’ll hide by putting a blanket over their head with the rest of their body in plain view. If they can’t see you, they think you can’t see them. But when a baby is scared or hungry they have no internal security to fall back on so they cry until mom or dad shows up. As the child grows, they branch out a little more. I remember the day, looking out our back window at our house in Indianapolis when Morgan was a toddler. She was running free in the back yard. No fence, no fear. She was free. She didn’t have to see me or her mom any more to know our love was a part of her. She knew it was there. This is internal security that creates freedom to exist and thrive and be joyful. Until we have this sense of peace internally, then all of the external stuff controls us. We will forever struggle to be free in any specific context – in our relationships or our work until we find peace in God. If we don’t have that, a new boss isn’t going to change that reality. When we have all of those “grass-is-greener” feelings about any particular context, we need to check our connection with God first. We need to call on this often because every day brings some challenge. When a navy seal lands behind enemy lines, the first thing he does is look at his GPS device to answer three questions: Where am I? Where is the enemy? Where is my buddy? How could this serve you in your life? I feel like this is the essential work needed on the front end to prepare us to work, serve, volunteer at our best. You’ve got to get grounded first. And then you’re ready to tackle what is before you, administering the grace that is yours to give. This sets us up for success. It doesn’t matter what kind of work you are doing. If you’re trying to crush it for the Lord as an accountant or sales rep or counselor or line worker – get this in order and you’ll be bringing the kingdom to life.
Once you know where your peace comes from, and you’re functioning well within your vocation, then the flipside becomes the boundary issue. When your work is exciting and stimulating and you’re making an impact on the world and in the lives of your co-workers or customers, then you need the reminder that you are a complete being: mind, body, and spirit. A balance will be required for you to perform at high levels in an ongoing way. This used to be simpler in some ways. The boundaries were naturally in place: time and space. You go to work and then you go back home. You worked when you were at work and you were home when you were at home. But we are a nation of goal-setting over-achievers so we decided this wasn’t a good rhythm. We needed to produce more! So somebody much smarter than me created this device called a pager. Employees would wear them like an invisible fence shock collar you put on your dog so that even when you weren’t at the office, the boss could shock you (I mean page you) and you’d know you were out of bounds. Get back to the office! Then the cell phone came on the scene and email and social media and the time/space boundary went away entirely. Confession time here. How many of you from that deep place in your heart wish email had never been invented? But now we are totally available any time of day. We have even developed etiquette around expected response times to texts and emails and the like. This 24/7 approach to work is not the rhythm God set in place. God created from the beginning this idea of Sabbath. “Keep it holy,” God says in Genesis. Holy just means to set it apart, to separate it. God separates light from dark, sky from earth, land from sea. Sets it apart. The last thing God sets apart is labor from leisure. Work is just exploding all over the place and yet we always feel we’ve got to check that one last email before bed or have our phone at the table just in case. We live in a cult of connectivity.
In the middle of this… and I’ll call out the dad’s since its Father’s Day but the rest of you are welcome to overhear this too. We easily convince ourselves that “We’re doing this for the kids; for the family. We’re providing for them. It’s all for them.” But as I said last week, the most important thing you bring home from work is you. You are not a machine. For God there is this daily rhythm. At the end of every day, God would review the work and celebrate saying, “This is good.” Then he’s done and it’s dark. There’s a structure for output and rest. Set a time when you cross the daily finish line – no more emails, texts, phone calls and trust God. We weren’t made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for us. And the research will tell you. The highest performers across all fields do not work all of the time. They don’t over work. They’re not “on” all the time. So what do they do? They engage more deeply than everyone else for a focused period of time and then they 100% unplug and rest those muscle groups – their brain, their spirit. They rest and recreate. If you don’t do this, you won’t be a high performer – if you don’t buy it from a faith perspective, buy the science. The boundaries you create in this regard are to keep you from defaulting to that which feels good. If we’re addicted to work – we just can’t let it go. I know it’s hard. Spiritual Disciples are hard or we wouldn’t call them disciplines. Where are your boundaries out of whack? Where is your spirit losing? Where is your family losing? Make a rule and stick with it. Sabbath is for this and it is also for restorative activity. Be with your family and friends and with God. Do what you love. Listen to great music and eat great food. Hike, nap, geek out for a bit. It all will create a ‘you’ that is more present at work, at home, wherever you are.
The redemption component of the greater narrative cycle of scripture; of our lives, only comes through our grappling with the struggle, the loss, the pain. Such will come. It is a part of our reality – personally, nationally, globally. We’ve felt it this week haven’t we? Dr. Cloud’s advice around the boundaries of pain is to go into our mourning, processing the pain in a God-ward direction and trust that we’ll be reborn in that process. You can’t put a boundary around your own life and do this by yourself. Cloud asks a curious question: “Ever wonder why your tear ducts are not in your armpits? God could have put them anywhere, right? If our tear ducts were in our armpits and we got sad, we could just spray some anti-tear-perspirent and cover them up. Tear ducts are in our eyes because our pain is supposed to be seen. I’m supposed to be looking into your very soul. Your pain is for me to see and own.” This comes in the “encourage the broken hearted” work of our faith. This human connection changes us and begins to change the world. It doesn’t remove the pain but it shares it. And grieving in a God-ward direction reminds us that this pain is a scene in the movie but not the movie itself. It is a chapter in the book but not the book. There is a larger narrative at play. It’s not a one-person act – you’re a part of a cast. You’ve got to write the cast members into this scene that are going to help take this movie to a good place – and that’s your church family, your community, your support groups, your counselor. The pain is seen and processed and God will help us move toward the very thing for which we are made. That’s redemption. That’s your faith at work.
1Boundaries. Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Zondervan. 1992. Dr. Cloud’s interview with John Ortberg for his series, “Thank God It’s Monday” was most formative for this message. www.mppc.org.