Labor & Life: A Meditation

I hate the traffic snarls while driving north on I-5 toward LA where construction crews are widening the freeway. But this week the slowdown helped me see something I would have missed.

The prior evening, I’d had dinner with another sixty-something couple. The conversation shifted to retirement, and they were surprised to learn that I’m hoping to work to age 75. When I explained my reasoning, the wife commented thoughtfully, “That’s really interesting; you should write about this.” I’ll do that briefly, but then let’s get back to the construction on I-5.

Of my two reasons for this aspiration, the first needs no explanation for those who know me: I love my work, especially the chance to play a meaningful role in the kind of impact World Vision has around the world every day. It’s truly a humbling honor to discharge my small but useful skills in service to a cause so close to my heart and that stirs my soul daily.

The second reason may require a bit of background: Lord willing, I will be 75 years old when the year 2030 dawns.  Two years ago, the world’s nations came together to create the Sustainable Development Goals, or Global Goals. The overarching theme is to eliminate extreme poverty from the face of the earth through 17 specific targets by—you guessed it—the year 2030.  Eliminating the worst forms of poverty may sound like a hopelessly audacious goal—perhaps naïve at first reading. But consider this: For all of human history well over half the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Yet over the past 40 years, this has been dropping continually, and last year the World Bank declared that for the first time ever, less than 10% of the world still lives in extreme poverty.  This is such shocking good news that renowned author and columnist Nicholas Kristof called it “The Best News You Don’t Know.”

It’s tragically true that 16,000 children still die every day of preventable causes. This is a mind-numbing statistic which, taken alone, could easily discourage anyone from thinking that we can make a difference.  Yet, when I joined World Vision in 1982, that number of preventable child deaths was 45,000 every day. What stunning progress I’ve witnessed!

I expect we will probably still have a few percent of the global population still in extreme poverty by 2030. But considering that the World Bank began measuring this only one year before I joined World Vision, what a joy it would be to “finish this ride!”  That would be a life worth living. Actually, it already has been. If I don’t have one more day of life on earth, it has been an incredible ride. And if Janet or I face a life-altering illness or other trauma or catastrophe, these of course could drastically change my retirement calculus

During this dinner discussion, I could sense the husband listening and yet, as a successful corporate executive, not relating to my situation. There is some Christian myth that people like him should retire early and go volunteer building houses for the poor or starting their own charity. We have devalued the role that our money and our positions of influence can play in building God’s Kingdom! If someone is skillful and has the gift of making money, God expects us to use those gifts—for God’s purposes!

Sometimes, this means “Changing the WHY, not the WHAT.” It’s not a matter of moving from high-paid work we excel at to low-paid work we’re not qualified to do! But instead, of seeing the fruits of our work and the credibility we have achieved to engage more and more of our LIFE—our Labor, Influence, Finances and Experience—toward God’s work. I know people who have extended their working years even after they had enough money in their retirement accounts just so they could direct more of their work-enabled resources and influence toward the causes that animate their lives.

I was thinking about this the next day, while driving on I-5.  I realized that the idea of adding additional work years can seem emotionally overwhelming when the finish-line is in sight, or that a person may not sense that God is inviting them to do this.  Just then, I glanced over and saw the giant cement cranes filling in the box molds with concrete. As each box was sufficiently filled, the operator then moved the spigot to another box.

I think a lot of our career frustrations come because we just keeping filling the same personal-family-wealth box beyond sufficiency. We don’t ask “How much is enough?” and realize that at any point we can move the spigot to far more exciting and meaningful boxes. I had lunch this week with a friend who is doing just that: He decided to dedicate every penny he earns this year toward God’s work. He knows there will be temptations along the way, so after I asked him how it’s going, he reminded me, “Cory, don’t forget that I asked you to hold me accountable!” He and his wife have 25 people coming to their home later this month to discuss the world’s poorest people… because this professional couple is also using their personal credibility to inspire others in an area of their godly passions.

This weekend, as we reflect on the meaning of Labor Day, let’s ponder what it means for each of us personally to “Labor as unto the Lord.” [Col 3:24]  First, how does this impact the quality of our labor, our attitude toward work, our commitment to integrity? But also, what about our stewardship of the fruits of this labor, of what our careers make possible for us to do and be and contribute to God’s world?

After all, that’s where all of us can make a life, not just a living.


September 2017


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