A Poem for Pilgrims
Weary of wandering and weighing
Which way will take us where we need to go,
Our eyes catch a shadow on the path:
A fellow walker, here, just where we are.
Perhaps we can keep pace with him.
Walking with Jesus at Work
In the old hymn we sing:
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own.
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
The place where we “tarry” in the hymn is “the garden”—a metaphor for prayer, and a good one. The writer suggests that we walk with Jesus in a place lush with beauty, reminded of God’s care in the roses and the melody of birdsong.
But consider where the hymn was written. It came from the pen of C. Austin Miles, a pharmacist and editor, whose great-granddaughter asserts that he wrote it “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in Pitman, New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden.”
Work is like that. We want to hold the world of beauty in our hearts, but we find ourselves in a leaky basement, a sterile elevator, a windowless office. Even if we enjoy working in a setting of natural beauty, work itself imposes more scurrying than tarrying, more urgent productivity than quiet contemplation.
[This week we continue our series of Work Meditations. Check out our other posts on faith and work for more resources on living an integrated Christian life. Subscribe to get the next post in the series in your inbox.]
In our work, such as it is, the image of walking with Jesus can still help us. Jesus’ steps are not limited to gardens. He walks with us all the way to wherever our work takes us, and he meets us there. When we walk with him, he can change our attention to what comes across our path. And he can nourish us with the bread we need when it feels like we can’t go on.
What Comes Across Our Path
Paths contain surprises. Even a familiar walkway is ripe for renewed attention every time we take it. The plants have changed, if just a little, even since yesterday.
There’s a footpath that runs over a river about a ten-minute drive down the road from my home. My wife Katie and I walk there together. It’s September now, and the leaves are turning. If I go too long in between visits, I feel the pang that I’ve missed something. Fall has leapt ahead of me into brilliant color too quickly for me to see it come into itself.
When we walk, we stop to notice things. Is the heron there? Katie has christened him Elvis, and we miss him if he’s gone. We pause if the buzzing of the cicadas or crickets catches our ear.
Now contrast this with a day at work. Of necessity, we immerse ourselves in the task of the moment. What do I need to get done? What is most urgent, and most important? When we shift toward productivity and run after goals, our noticing recedes the margins of our minds. At least, it does for me.
One feature of diminished noticing is that interruptions, rather than being a welcome point of curiosity, become an annoyance. Someone swings by our desk or shoots us a message and we inwardly groan.
When we think about our work as part of walking with Jesus, we can welcome interruptions. That’s not to say there aren’t appropriate times for deep work when we shut off our notifications. We need to practice discernment in how accessible we make ourselves.
But just as Katie might pause on our river path and point something out before I notice it, Jesus can draw our gaze to some detour in our tasks at work that deserves our attention. Most often, he might help us really see a person who has come across our path. Without his help in the moment, it is so easy to miss the people who are right in front of us, who deserve the dignity of our care for their well-being, no matter how busy we are.
Bread for the Journey
The metaphor of walking is suggestive in another way: We need nourishment to sustain us as we go. Often, the weight of our work responsibilities is exhausting.
Consider the exhausted prophet Elijah. He is on the run. He wants to die. He goes to sleep.
An angel wakes him up and serves him a meal: “a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water” (1 Kings 19:6 ESV). The angel counsels him: “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.”
With this nourishment, something changes in Elijah: “And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:7-8 ESV).
Elijah came to a point where he felt he could not go on in the work God had given him to do. So God sent his messenger to meet him right where he was at, with just what he needed: bread for the journey.
Jesus as Companion
A New Testament story echoes this scene. Two disciples find themselves on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus some days after Jesus’ death. Someone comes alongside them: “While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:15-16 ESV).
They tell this inquisitive stranger their woes, and he surprises them with a lesson about the suffering and glory of the Messiah. As they reach their destination, they prevail upon the stranger to stay with them. But once inside, something happens: “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.” (Luke 24:30-31 ESV).
The two disciples leap up and return to Jerusalem. The meal in which Jesus made himself known gave their hearts the strength to do their journey all over again. Knowing that Jesus was risen was enough for them to keep going.
The Walk of Sorrow and the Walk of Joy
Early Christians viewed this story as an image of the Eucharist. Jesus breaks the bread, just as he did at the Last Supper. After unfolding the Scriptures to his companions, he nourishes their hearts with the meal of his presence.
That meal comes at the turning point of two walks: The one to Emmaus, and the one back to Jerusalem. The walk to Emmaus is the walk of sorrow. It’s the same walk that took Elijah to the wilderness where he wanted to die. It’s the same walk that we often walk in the pains and frustrations of the work day.
Sometimes, it’s the limitations of our work circumstances that dog our steps: An ill-fated decision we had no input on, a budget limitation, a cantankerous colleague. But our own shortcomings also drive us to sorrow: the unkind words spoken in impatience, the ego that skews our efforts toward self-promotion, the fear that drives us to hide from decisions that we need to make.
While we walk that path of sorrow, it feels as though we have been alone. We get to our destination and we just want to give up. But while we cannot see for exhaustion, God’s messenger is preparing a meal for us. While we talk with a stranger, Jesus is hiding in that conversation.
And when we awaken and see that the meal before us is from God, we can receive the strength that we need. The strength to keep going, to walk all the way back to Jerusalem with the good news of the resurrection in our hearts. The path to Jerusalem is the path of joy.
There’s more work to do. No matter the twists and turns we face, Jesus will give us the bread we need for the journey.
Reflect and Practice
Consider what work Jesus has put into your hands. What is he directing your attention toward as you walk together? What do you need his strength for?
Speak with the Lord about what is on your heart and mind. Then conclude with this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:
Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.
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