“He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” ~Acts 14:17
Paul speaks these words to a crowd that is unfamiliar with the God of Israel. They are worshipers of the Greco-Roman pantheon, confusing he and Barnabas for Zeus and Hermes.
He attempts to correct their confusion not by denouncing Zeus and Hermes, per se, but by pointing to the natural world, and saying, this is all the result of God.
Look about you, says Paul, the valleys and plains are fertile. The rainfall here is fairly abundant. Those large drops of water are gifts from the heavens, bringing life to the verdant earth, which in turn sprouts crops – grains, vegetables, fruit, which in turn fills your bellies as you sit around fires and tables with those you love.
At those meals, as the shining faces of those you love reflect back to you the very joy you yourself feel, the goodness of life assaults you. Your heart is filled with joy.
Paul’s declaration of God to these people is based on the natural world. On the common joyful experience of life shared by all humanity.
Revelation 4:11 puts it this way: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created.”
Perhaps our joy is rooted in God’s joy. God created the world for his pleasure, and invites us to join him in that.
So Paul says: rain comes from God. Rain leads to crops. Crops lead to food. All of this fills our hearts with joy. But how do we get from rain to crops? And how do we get from crops to food? What is missing in this equation?
Work. There are some natural crops that will grow, to be sure, but when the time is taken to consciously plant and tend and harvest – the more fruitful it is for us and others.
And I think it’s understood in what Paul is saying, that work is part of what fills our hearts with joy.
Work and joy? Unfortunately, that is a rare combination today.
When you ask someone what gives them joy, or about what’s great in their lives – too often work is not a part of it. We sort of ‘put up with work’ so that we can then do the other things we really care about. By and large work is not what gives us pleasure.
In today’s economic reality, we have separated work and joy.
Wendell Berry, in an essay entitled “Economy and Pleasure” notes in regard to God’s delight in creation: “This bountiful and lovely thought that all creatures are pleasing to God – and potentially pleasing, therefore, to us – is unthinkable from the point of view of an economy divorced from pleasure, such as the one we have now, which completely discounts the capacity of people to be affectionate toward what they do and what they use and where they live and the other people and creatures with whom they live.”
Yet Berry notes we are not unfamiliar with pleasure:
“It may be argued that our whole society is more devoted to pleasure than any whole society ever was in the past, in the fact that we support a great variety of pleasure industries and that these are thriving as never before. But that would seem only to prove my point. That there can be pleasure industries at all, exploiting our apparently limitless inability to be pleased, can only mean that our economy is divorced from pleasure and that pleasure is gone from our workplaces and our dwelling places.
More and more, we take for granted that work must be destitute of pleasure. More and more, we assume that if we want to be pleased we must wait until evening, or the weekend, or vacation, or retirement. More and more, our farms and forests resemble our factories and offices, which in turn more and more resemble prisons – why else should we be so eager to escape them? We are defeated at work because our work gives us no pleasure. We are defeated at home because we have no pleasant work there either. We turn to the pleasure industries for relief from our defeat, and are again defeated, for the pleasure industries can thrive and grow only upon our dissatisfaction with them.”
And Berry, like Paul, encourages us to turn to the natural world:
“Where is our comfort but in the free, uninvolved, finally mysterious beauty and grace of this world that we did not make, that has no price? Where is our sanity but there? Where is our pleasure but in working and resting kindly in the presence of this world.”
Paul says – this world is filled with evidence of God. And these good things: rain, crops, food, work – these are evidence of God’s kindness – they give God joy, and in turn ought to give us joy.
And where does our dissatisfaction with work lead us?
“As evidence of the fact that we don’t like work,” Berry says, “we have mechanized and automated and computerized our work. But what does this do but divide us ever more from our work and our products – and in the process, from one another and the world?”
Berry concludes: “In the right sort of economy, our pleasure would not be an addition, or by-product or reward, it would be an empowerment of our work and the measure by which we gauge such work. Pleasure, he says, perfects work.”
Part of the problem is that we associate work with “drudgery”, especially hard work. And so we attempt to remove drudgery from our lives, and assume that if things are easier, we will be happier.
Wendell Berry gives a personal example:
“I can say, for example, that the tobacco harvest in my home area involves the hardest work that I have done in any quantity. In most of the years of my life, from early boyhood until now, I have taken part in the tobacco cutting. This work usually occurs at some time between the last part of August and the first part of October. Usually the weather is hot and the work is extremely demanding. Because all of the work still must be done by hand, this event has maintained much of its old character; it is very much the sort of thing the agriculture experts have had in mind when they have talked about freeing people from drudgery.
“That tobacco cutting can be drudgery is obvious. But for me, and I think for most of the men and women who have been my companions in this work, it has not been drudgery. None of us would say that we take pleasure in all of it all of the time, but we do take pleasure in it, and sometimes the pleasure can be intense and clear. Many of my dearest memories come from these times of hardest work.
The tobacco cutting is the most protracted social occasion of our year. Neighbors work together; they are together all day every day for weeks. The quiet of the work is not interrupted by machine noises, and so there is much talk. There is talk involved in the management of the work, speculation about the weather, and there is much laughter. Because of the unrelenting difficulty of the work, everything funny or amusing is relished. And there are memories.
The crew to which I belong is the product of kinships and friendships going far back; my own earliest associations with it occurred over fifty years ago. And so as we work we have before us not only the present crop and the present fields, but other crops and other fields that are remembered. The cutting is a sort of ritual and remembrance. Old stories are retold; the dead and the absent are remembered. Some of the best talk I have ever listened to I have heard during these times, and I am especially moved to think of the care that is sometimes taken to speak well – that is, to speak fittingly – of the dead and the absent. The conversation, one feels, is ancient. Such talk in barns and at row ends must go back without interruption to the first farmers. How long it may continue is now an uneasy question; not much longer perhaps, but we do not know. We only know that while it lasts it can carry us deeply into our shared life and the happiness of farming.”
The happiness of farming. The happiness of work.
Sadly, becoming more and more rare.
And it seems the more and more we’ve come up with processes to mechanize work, the freer we have felt to destroy the world that God created for his pleasure, rather than live in harmony with it. We now can farm tracts of land that would have been incomprehensible without machines, even if the land is not best suited for it, or a loss of topsoil is the result. Or we can strip mine in ways that give little thought to what we are doing to the land, or clear cut forests with little thought to the local culture and economy, shipping the ‘resources’ elsewhere, and leaving a wasteland behind. We use poisons and toxins to make sure the crop is not hindered by insects or disease, forgetting that our “technological fixes” while providing a bumper crop now, undoubtedly involve larger costs later. Technology is not the problem in and of itself. It can be a great good. It is technology without conscience that gets us in trouble.
We need less people to work, because we have replaced them with machines, because we value efficiency over process, because we value the dollar over everything else. And what has this done but force more and more people from rural life into cities, where there is no such work to be found, yet they continue to go under the myth of ‘progress’ and ‘new opportunities.’ The result is higher unemployment, and higher dissatisfaction with life, and a further distancing ourselves from work that gives us pleasure, and so we come up with whole industries to make us feel better about our lives and forget our misery. In other words, things that drug us to continue heading in the same miserable direction without once considering what might be the root cause of our unhappiness.
God has created a world for his pleasure, and invites us to join him in the delight. But when we despise those gifts, when we think we can outsmart God by constant and further industrialization and destruction of the world he has put under our care – and then live for the weekend – I think it seriously hampers our ability to preach a sermon like Paul is preaching in Acts 14.
We must find our pleasure again in God and in the world he delights in and has put under our care. That care requires work.
Perhaps most of us are not farmers, yet we can support local farmers who operate with the above mindset, shopping at local farmers markets, we can participate community-supported agriculture. We can tend our own small gardens and put our hands in the earth. We can get involved in our local watersheds and rivers, helping protect forests and becoming more conscious of how each activity we engage in impacts the people and world around us.
And we can delight in our own work – whatever it is. Work that operates in harmony with the world around us, that respects it and seeks to sustain and delight in it, such work must also bring delight and pleasure to the Creator.
The natural environment is not something simply to be used for our own ends. It is not just something given to us to “grow the economy.”
It is, as Paul reminds us today: a window into the divine, a picture of the wonder of a God who said, and still says of his world today, “It is good. Very good.”
So good, in fact, that he’s decided not to scrap it. Maybe it’s time for us to support that decision.