This is a keynote address I gave at the National Association of Baptist Enrollment Professionals Conference at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor this past week. Hope it’s helpful!
So you’re here at this conference for a number of reasons: to learn from others, to grow as a team, to network, to develop, because your boss said so. All good reasons to be here. And yet as our theme suggests, the reason for being here behind all those other reasons for being here is that you hope to be, in some sense, refreshed.
It’s been a long year for you. Some of you have done lots of traveling—lots of living out of a suitcase, lots of nights alone in a hotel, lots of time spent in front of a booth talking to sometimes pleasant but often clueless and obnoxious high-schoolers. Some of you have done lots of campus tours. Some of you have made lots of phone calls. And some of you have done lots of planning to make sure all the traveling and campus touring and phone calling are being done in the right way, by the right people, at the right time, to ensure you get the right students in the right amount at your university come late August. Like I said, it’s been a long year, and next year, you do it all over again.
And so you’re here to be refreshed because all of this is draining. Or to put it bluntly, you’re here because your job sucks. Now don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that your job is bad or un-enjoyable or something like that. I mean that your job, like all jobs, has a sneaky way of reaching down into your soul and taking things from you—important things like energy, joy, passion. Why do our jobs take these things from us, and how do we get them back?
The book of Ecclesiastes starts off with a rather depressing poem:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.“ Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
As I said, this is depressing stuff. The writer looks at all the work that humans do—all the jobs and tasks and roles—and he says “Hebel, Hebel, completely hebel. Everything is hebel.” This Hebrew word hebel means something like meaningless, pointless, absurd. Humans busy themselves with all of this work, it consumes our lives, and yet in the end we’re nothing more than ants, moving dirt around in circles, building up little mounds that won’t last long and might as well not exist. Round and round and round we go and yet none of it matters.
And you know this voice: the voice that says hebel, the voice that says “meaningless, pointless, absurd,” the voice that says your work doesn’t matter. It’s usually a whisper more than a shout—mocking your efforts, ridiculing your importance, accusing you of wasting your time. It wounds you, but not in obvious, auspicious ways. It’s more like…death by paper cuts.
I mean, we’ve all seen people who died in their jobs while they’re still living. They’re there, but they’re not really there. Something is gone, that light behind their eyes has gone out. They’re zombies, performing tasks but dead on the inside, living for a paycheck, hanging on for the next vacation so they can come back to life for a few days.
And here’s the thing: nobody wants to be that person. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that none of you took your job so you could slowly die on the inside. That wasn’t one of the benefits in your package. But make no mistake—better people than you have died in their jobs, and if you don’t do something about it, that voice that says hebel, meaningless, pointless will get the best of you too, and it’ll be death by paper cuts.
Because a human being can endure many difficult things in his or her work (crushing failures, nagging co-workers, ridiculous hours)—we can endure all this with a remarkable buoyancy and joy. But meaninglessness is the one burden we cannot bear for long and live to tell the tale. You need to do work that means something.
I have a friend named Todd who works harder than anyone I’ve ever met. He runs a rehabilitation home for addicts, and seven days a week, he’s with these guys—driving them around to find work, helping them find food, teaching them how to get back on their feet, showing them the love of Jesus.
And almost every single one of them relapses. He’s constantly lied to, often stolen from, even had his life threatened a few times. I was over at his house on Thanksgiving once when some guy called and threatened to come over and kill his whole family (which to me is kind of a big deal) and Todd says, “Man, you don’t mean that. So when you chill out, come swing by the house and I’ll have a turkey leg for you.”
That’s what he deals with daily, and yet he never seems to run out of energy and passion for his work. And that really annoys me, because I constantly run out of energy and passion for my work (and no one even threatens to kill me), so one day I asked him: “Todd, you work with addicts who are always lying to you and taking from you and threatening you. Your ‘success’ rate is abysmal. How do you do this and enjoy it, love it?”
He answered, “Giving somebody a chance to get better means something. And I can do just about anything with joy and love if it means something.”
So, what do you think: does your work mean something?
I have another friend named Rochelle. About 5 years ago, she was a senior in high school when she loaded up in the car with her mom to come visit Mary Hardin-Baylor. Now her mom had not gone to college, older brother had not gone to college, dad was not really in the picture. She had not made an appointment, had no clue about things like financial aid, academic requirements, and was so nervous that at the last second, she begged her mom to turn around and head back home. And her mom did, but accidently made a turn that placed them right in front of the university.
So they drove on in and walked into the recruiting office, where she met Brent Burks, who was the assistant director of recruiting at the time. And even though it wasn’t Brent’s job to interview students or give tours, he put his day on hold and spent the rest of that afternoon talking with Rochelle and her mom as they walked around campus.
And here’s what’s interesting. Because of that afternoon, Rochelle came to school here, where she was loved and challenged and stretched. She’s a remarkable young woman, filled with kindness, passion, and drive. Her life was changed in those 3 hours…but when I asked her what she remembers most about that afternoon, she didn’t mention the beauty of the campus, or the quality of Brent’s sales pitch (though I’m sure it was excellent). She remembers that Brent was a good listener. She remembers he asked her thoughtful questions about her life and then listened, really listened (you know the difference) to her answers. One human took the time to listen to another human and a miracle, albeit a small one, was set in motion.
And this, I would suggest, is what you have to understand if you want to understand why your work means something. You all know that big, beautiful things happen at your colleges. One student graduates and breaks a crippling cycle of poverty for her family. For the first time, someone hears that mysterious call of the Creator on his life. History is made. Lives are transformed. Like I said, it’s big stuff.
But you don’t get to do any of that big stuff. You don’t break cycles of poverty, you don’t mediate the call of the Creator, you don’t transform lives. No—you make phone calls, and go to meetings, and give tours, and explain why your dorms aren’t co-ed. You do little stuff. But can I tell you a secret? Everybody does little stuff. The president of your university, the most inspiring professor on campus—they make phone calls and go to meetings and talk some and listen some. We’re all ants pushing dirt around. And yet from the Christian perspective, remarkable things can happen when a little dirt gets pushed around.
Genesis 2: Out of the Dirt
According to one of the oldest stories of Christian faith, the story of the world starts out like this. In the beginning, God creates the heavens and the earth—swirling galaxies, billions of blazing stars, oceans, mountains. The universe is God’s canvas and he’s putting on quite a show.
And while God clearly enjoys dealing with galaxies and stars, he finally decides he wants to get his hands dirty. So in Genesis 2:4-7, we read this: “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven. Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground. But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed man out of the dirt from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”
Now these walking, talking piles of dirt, these human beings, prove to be quite messy and they make quite a mess of things. They’re not as beautiful as galaxies and they don’t sparkle like stars. And yet, they—and nothing else in all of creation—are said to be created in the very image of the Creator. God reaches his hands down into the dirt, moves it around a little bit, and creates the most remarkable thing the universe has ever seen.
So if you want a constant source of energy and passion in your job, if you want to silence the voice that says hebel, if you want to do work that means something, here’s the secret: don’t be greedy. Stop telling yourself that your work doesn’t matter unless you do big things and the whole thing. Stop reaching for galaxies and stars and instead let God take your hands and push around the dirt in front of you. Contrary to lots of the propaganda you’ve heard, that’s what you were made to do and it does mean something, it is important—in fact, it’s sacred, divine work.
Because both you and your work are every bit as little as you’ve thought and perhaps feared—maybe even littler. But that’s not something to fight against or lament—it’s something to surrender to, to embrace. As Kathleen Norris says it, “It’s a…mystery that dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our own salvation…We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing, and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were. We must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places…and not in spectacular events, such as the coming of a comet.”
In the hands of God, our dirty, daily work—the phone calls and meetings and scheduling and talking and listening—all of it, plays a part in God’s redemption of this broken and yet very beautiful world. None of it is wasted. All of it matters.
There is No Ladder
Not too long ago, I was forced to put my money where my mouth is on all of this. I had grown pretty restless in my job. I was bleeding out from the paper cuts of boredom and monotony. I was tired of dabbling in dirt. And I received a very enticing offer to leave my current church for a new one. And this new job had that sparkle and shine that new things have. Everything about it was bigger and we all know that everything bigger is better, so I was pretty set on leaving all my little stuff behind to go do some big stuff.
And then one day I had lunch with my friend, Larry. Now Larry is an interesting man. He’s been all over the world. He’s done all sorts of things—been a successful banker, businessman, lawyer, professor, and pastor. You know, the sort of guy you admire but secretly hate because he’s so good at everything. That’s Larry.
So we’re having lunch and I’m telling him about this job and he listens and agrees it sounds like a great opportunity. But then he says, “If you take this job, I hope it’s not because you think you’re climbing the ladder, because there is no ladder—there are only feet to be washed.”
There is no ladder—there are only feet to be washed.
You all know the ladder. It’s the thing we’re all trying to climb because everything is better “up there.” The work is better, and more important, and cleaner. And if you could just get up there, a little higher, you’d be happier.
But there is no ladder. So you can climb all you want, let your ambitions and ego run wild, but it won’t make you whole and it won’t make you important. It’ll just make you sad and empty.
Because God didn’t create us to climb ladders up into the stars. God created us to wash each other’s feet—
To serve one another through simple acts of love, to help a stranger find her place in the world by being a good listener. God created us to push around the dirt in front of us in faith, hope, and love, to the glory of God. That is work worth doing. That is work that matters.
I hope you enjoy this conference. I hope you learn from each other and grow as teams and network and develop. I hope you’re refreshed. But most of all, I hope you’ll stop trying to climb ladders that don’t exist. I hope you’ll learn to surrender to the sacredness of the littleness of your work.
I hope you’ll embrace the campus tours and phone calls and meetings and emails and conversations as the small but strangely significant contribution you get to make to your colleges. I hope that smack dab in the middle of the most frustrating, soul-sucking part of your job, you’ll reach not for the stars, but down into the dirt in front of you. You’ll find meaning there. You’ll find grace there. You’ll find God there.