The Grand Essentials of Life and Work

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The Grand Essentials of Life and Work

Jeff Crosby reveals how the life of a nineteenth century cleric can inform our approach to Christian work today.

Thomas Chalmers was a Scottish cleric, philosopher and social reformer who lived from 1780 to 1847 and is generally thought of as Scotland’s greatest nineteenth century church leader. Chalmers was said to combine immense drive with considerable charm to form a leader of the first magnitude.

The primary biography of Chalmers, written by Stewart J. Brown, suggests that the Scot was a both a practical social reformer with a clear agenda for the changes his nation needed and also a visionary who touched the lives and the conscience of the people of his time.

I first encountered Chalmers and his work through a book by Ben Patterson, a former Presbyterian pastor and campus chaplain, titled The Grand Essentials. In it, Patterson quoted Chalmers as having said, ‘The Grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.’

I read Patterson’s book in 1987, just four years into my career in bookselling and publishing, and it’s framed my approach to and my understanding of work ever since. I’ve read it so many times, the yellowed, marked-up paper is literally falling out of its binding and the book is held together by rubber bands. For years until my supply ran out and couldn’t be replenished, I gave a booklet-length excerpt of Patterson’s book to every new employee I hired and asked them to read it and dialogue with me about it as part of their orientation to our work together. Patterson masterfully broke down the dichotomies that seem to plague many people in their work, and demonstrated the strong connection between our work and our worship of the living God:

• Something to do: Our occupations (which we are paid for), and our vocations (which may or may not be what we derive income from).

• Something to love: God, our families, our friends, our neighbours, God’s purposes in the world.

• Something to hope for: Ultimate restoration, reconciliation, shalom, all things being made right one day, some way – the very missionary impulse of our work as publishers, authors and booksellers.

‘We have to recover a sense of God’s presence in our work in the world,’ Patterson wrote. ‘But we won’t until we recover a sense of his presence in the work we do in the sanctuary. He is as present in the liturgy of the world as he is in the liturgy of the sanctuary, but it is in worship that we tune our spirits to hear and see him amid the noise and bustle of work.’

In a recent conversation, Patterson shared with me his late-career reflections on Chalmers’ grand essentials of happiness, and distilled the guidance he would offer to any who asked him for his insights today. He suggested that we should:

• seek to discern a sense of calling of what God has ordained us to do, which may or may not be what we’re paid for;

• pursue people who will walk with us in community as we journey on;

• find people with whom we can laugh.

What have you discerned about your own vocation? With whom are you in community, to provide companionship and discernment on your journey? With whom around you can you routinely laugh and enjoy light-hearted moments in the midst of the warp and woof of the heaviness of life?

In The Grand Essentials, Patterson writes, ‘The hope of the resurrection is that, in Christ, my work will be raised with me; that somehow God will weave the frazzled threads of my life and work them into his great tapestry of salvation.’ Patterson goes on to say, ‘That hope delivers us from the despair that nothing we do matters, and enables us to tackle even the most menial job with vigor.’

Such words breathed life into a passage in Colossians 3 that, after reading The Grand Essentials, became a guiding verse for my life and my work, whatever occupation I would hold: ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.’

If we long to live a life of meaning, and if our work occupies most of our waking hours, it seems apparent that wrestling with occupational and vocational questions early and often, in community with others, is a wise course of action. 

Jeff Crosby is the president and CEO of ECPA, the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association. This piece is adapted from chapter nine of his new book, The Language of the Soul: Meeting God in the Longings of Our Hearts (Broadleaf Books). It is used by permission of the publisher.

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