“You need to slow down. You’re making us look bad,” he said. The smile and tone of voice combined into a salty-sweet statement of fact which, if ignored, would turn bitter quickly.
This was my first job with paystubs and taxes. I was 16 and was working for the city cutting grass, trimming hedges, and figuring out the real world of work.
I didn’t like it.
Even though I was not a Christian when this happened, I had a huge amount of “do your best” drilled into me.
“Slow down?” I thought.
It felt as foreign as the first time I heard another person speaking a different language. I didn’t and still don’t have a poker face. And that supervisor caught it and expanded.
“We’ve been here a dozen years or more. This is how we do things. Don’t,” he emphasized, “make us look bad. Ever.”
I suddenly knew why one of the other workers, older than me by a couple of years, was given a truck to work by himself. This Christian had made them look bad. And when he got the truck to work by himself, they looked even worse. He consistently did more work than the normal crew of three.
I didn’t know the verses like Colossians 3:23-24 and Colossians 3:17. But he was an example. He had become separated from the others who worked in that environment.
For safety and comfort, I took the road most traveled. I notched it down. I survived the summer. My descent from doing my best had begun.
The descent quickened just a few years later when the military almost killed my work ethic. Saying this shocks some people because of the military’s incredible ability to work and protect.
This speaks more of me than anything bad in the military. Because it was me and how I chose to handle the problems, not the military itself.
The incident which shines in my mind so brightly was when I was in boot camp at Ft. Dix, New Jersey. We were a few weeks into training and were given a choice to go to a Christian concert on base or stay at the barracks.
I chose the barracks. I love people, but in smaller doses than the extroverts in my life. Solitude is more regenerative and recharging than being around loud music and even more people.
I got solitude.
It turned out I was the only one who chose this option. And that irritated the drill sergeant because maybe he wanted to go to the concert. He could’ve ordered me to go, and I would have.
Instead, I was given the task of pulling out bricks along the side of the paved road and stacking them for later. Jersey in the summer felt just as hot as Mississippi to me.
My solitude was ruined as my mind found no way to rejoice in those moments.
I was angry because had I chosen the other, it would’ve been more fun.
I was angry because I felt like I was being punished for being honest in my choice.
I was angry because I had been given no reason to do this task.
Within about 90 minutes of starting the task, my anger would intensify, and the seeds of a strategy would be planted and watered, fed by additional experiences until they fully grew into tares which looked like the wheat of work, but were not. That strategy would protect me from busy work.
The drill sergeant came out, looked at how much I got done, and gruffly ordered me, “Now put them back in the ground. The concert’s over. You better be done before they get back, or you’ll be doing push-ups.”
I was furious for having been given a job of busy work with zero purpose.
I discovered a quick, timely execution of my work often led to unimportant, time-wasting, soul-sucking busy work. Shortly after boot camp, I decided to test the strategy during Reserve drills and the two-week annual trainings.
I call it clipboard camouflage. It’s a secret I’ve never revealed.
If I somehow thought my reward for doing my best was pointless or busy work, I would often notch my speed down on essential duties and would often carry a clipboard around.
It camouflaged me from the potential barrage of busy work.
If I sniffed out the possibility of busy work as someone talked with me, the clipboard was both camouflage and shield.
It didn’t matter if they were equal or higher rank. I could simply point to the clipboard and reference “other work” which, coincidentally, was always for someone of higher rank.
I never got caught. Not once.
It wasn’t that I didn’t do my job, but it was that I didn’t do my best despite what I thought was needed. It was that I lied to others, joyfully lived that lie, and was proud of myself for doing it. I had applied working heartily in protecting my choices of doing “important-to-me because I understand it” work.
If I had been a Christian, I could have realized I was loving myself, but neither God nor my neighbor.
After I became a Christian and submitted to God’s will on this, I repented. The struggle now is continuing to learn and apply what the Holy Spirit places on my heart to deepen the meaning of working heartily for Him in both life and work—even if it means I may be given what I think is busy work.
The military uses a phrase which applies to shoddy or careless work, but usually only in the worst cases. Dereliction of Duty is the charge brought against those who fail to act as expected in their responsibilities. Dereliction, according to Google definitions, means the shameful failure to fulfill one’s obligations.
But when I was 16, there was no shame in the man who told me to slow down. Instead, I was made to feel the shame for having done my best with the obligations I had been hired to do.
Had I been a Christian then, perhaps I could’ve said, “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to make you look bad, but I’m trying to honor the Lord, my Savior, with my best work.”
To be honest, that response still scares me. Did you cringe a little too?
Nothing indicates duty better than the scriptures I’ve previously mentioned and the answer to Westminster Shorter Catechism’s question, “What is the chief end of man?”
The first half of the answer, supported by scriptural references like Psalm 86:10-13, Isaiah 60:21, 1 Corinthians 6:20 and 10:31, Revelation 4:11, is, “The chief end of man is to glorify God…”
The second half is supported by references like Psalm 16:5-11, Psalm 144:15, Isaiah 12:2, Philippians 4:4 and says, “…and to enjoy him forever.” Or “…to forever enjoy His presence.”
Enjoying whatever work we do, whether we currently see its importance or not, is not the command. The command for followers of Christ is whatever your hand finds to do, do heartily (Colossians 3:23-24).
The tough part is pulling what our hands find or are told to do and connecting it to our greater chief end and what it says in the Bible. Would the New Jersey experience of putting bricks back in the ground been different had I been a Christian?
Would the Holy Spirit have guided me to find the “commendable” and “anything worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8) as I sweated the afternoon away as others got to play? Would my thoughts have been different and “transformed by the renewal” of my mind (Romans 12:2)?
We don’t have to wonder about then, because we are given now.
Each day brings its challenges with this, and not long ago, I learned how parents taught this to children through the other half of the prayer most of us know so well.
Some of us will remember this as a bedtime prayer we said as children:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
The part which I hope you take with you from this day forward is this half which was said in the mornings:
Now I wake me up to work;
I pray the Lord I may not shirk.
If I should die before the night,
I pray the Lord my work’s alright.
I am grateful there is no condemnation for those found in Christ (Romans 8:1), and even so, I pray we all may hear what’s found in Matthew 25:21 as God refines us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”