Blessed are the Unemployed
We started out with great faith in our gifts and skills. Each rejection puts another hairline crack in our self confidence. Maybe we're not so competent after all. Maybe all these people who turn us down are perfectly correct in their conclusion that we're not worth employing.
Six months ago we finished our former job. It was a highly polished finish with multiple farewell functions, tears, prayers and eulogies. For us, a good ending to twenty years with the same organisation. We left with a feeling of being loved, valued and appreciated. Six months down the unemployment road those feelings have eroded almost down to bedrock.
We used to be busy all the time. Consulting colleagues, called on to give advice. Making plans and actioning plans. Thinking ahead to large future strategies as well as coping with minor daily chores and a variety of not-so-minor crises. Always interacting with people, always challenged, always taken out of ourselves.
Our colleagues were also our friends, our employees were also our fellow church members, our home was also our workplace, our hospitality was also our job. We were useful, we were tired, we were stressed, we were fulfilled, we were employed.
Now we contrive our routines to fill our days with what feels like an artificial busyness. We do what you're supposed to do.
We've been to the employment agencies. We scan the paper and the Internet for job opportunities. We ring up for job descriptions, study them, choose the possible ones. We fill in the application form, sculpt our CV to the scope of the job, craft the letter to go with it, post it off with prayer and hope and anxiety.
Sometimes there is no reply at all. Sometimes a polite regret that the position has been filled. Three times, an interview, then the wait with heightened hope, and the disappointing let-down.
We didn't want to do it, but after a fruitless month we decided we'd better apply for the benefits we can claim. That felt like a big lump to swallow. We've never even been entitled to family support before now. Venturing into this world of WINZ and IRD feels like trying to push our way up a hillside covered with thick gorse. We collect pamphlets and booklets and forms and try to puzzle them out. We put off making the application because we keep thinking that next week we'll have a job.
We discover that different schemes cancel each other out. If we apply for family support we should get it but if we receive an unemployment benefit it seems we don't get it any more, so we debate about whether it's worth applying. We had to declare our income for 1997-98 in order to get one allowance. But we had to declare our income for 98-99 to obtain community cards. The gratuity we received from our former employer means we've had too much money in the past twenty-six weeks to receive the unemployment benefit for another ten weeks.
Along with confusion and frustration we feel guilty and embarrassed about asking for anything at all.
We wanted help, so we went to the IRD office. Sorry, they said, we don't talk to customers face to face. Please ring this number. Dial, wait on hold, press this digit if you want this service, finally get to talk to a faceless voice and get our questions answered.
We take a form into WINZ. The large, impeccably groomed lady on the desk is friendly and helpful but conveys a slightly menacing presence like a strict school principal. She checks our form and says we've filled it in correctly but we can't just hand it over to her. Please put it in an envelope and post it back to us.
We feel confused, cross and out of control. We feel the system hates us. We look around at the others in the office. A Nigerian woman swathed head to foot in flowing gown, a man with his leg in plaster. Tired people, ordinary people, out-of-work people. Like us. We don't want to be counted here.
We're assigned a case officer, a cheerful, friendly young man who is positive and encouraging. "You're eminently employable. I'll make an appointment to meet you again in a month but I don't expect to see you back here." Grudgingly grateful for his encouragement, I feel irrationally resentful of his cheerfulness.
We try to keep things in perspective by counting our blessings. We have somewhere to live, we have each other, we have friends, we have family. People write or telephone with encouraging messages. It's good to feel that they care. But inwardly nagging is the feeling that we don't just want love, we don't just want support, we want to be doing something. We started out with great faith in our gifts and skills. Each rejection puts another hairline crack in our self confidence. Maybe we're not so competent after all. Maybe all these people who turn us down are perfectly correct in their conclusion that we're not worth employing.
In counting our blessings I've gone back to the beatitudes. I learnt them as a child from a beautiful children's prayer book. The words are associated for me with a picture of bearded men in long robes sitting on a peaceful green hillside listening to a gentle discourse from a golden-haired Jesus. The way I'm learning them now a more appropriate picture would be a violent mountain torrent crashing down a steep gorge. My frail kayak hurtles around huge bluffs, each of them labelled: blessed ... blessed ... blessed.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Or as The Message puts it "You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope". So this is a blessing? We are blessed in being dependent, jobless, without resources? We're blessed in being poor in recognition and status? I look for the blessing here and find this: that we're experiencing God's fatherly care. We've had enough money to live on, even without a salary. We've opened in ourselves a small window on the experience of the truly poor of the world.
This encounter with loss - loss of friends, work, income, home, self-worth - is a deep wound. I can't find any sweetness or blessing in it at all. But Jesus said: Blessed are those who mourn because they shall be comforted.
Will we feel in the future that God companioned us on this road of grief? Right now I can't say. The grieving is now, the comfort still future tense.
And blessed are the meek. Chewing and cogitating on what it means to be meek, I wonder whether this blessing can possibly be ours. It seems that this experience of unemployment may offer us an advanced class in meekness should we choose to enrol in it.
Can we trust in God's assessment of us, not be undermined by employers who reject us? Can we accept gifts gratefully and simply instead of fretting because we're not in a position to return favours? Can we be ourselves without apology? Not exploit people's good will nor be embarrassed by their pity?
To hunger and thirst for righteousness in this place of unemployment seems to me a call to want God more than his good gifts. We pray daily for a job, not just any job but the right one. We assure ourselves and each other that something will turn up soon, God must intend for us to have a job and even a ministry. On my good days I believe it. On my bad days I reinforce my broken faith with the splint of this beatitude: God first and God last, whether or not he grants our prayers.
The mercy transactions are an easier lesson. We've given and taken mercy over the years, this is familiar ground. Not so purity in heart. No wonder I don't see God very much.
I've never before lived the beatitudes as I'm living them now, or trying to. I still don't know what they mean, but I'm striving to direct my experience of joblessness through these steep, rocky, difficult words.
Jesus never said "Blessed are the unemployed". And if he had, I don't think he would have added "for they shall obtain a job". But he might have promised a radically transformed perspective on what it means to be blessed.
Adrienne Thompson and her husband Paul went as missionaries to Bangladesh in October 1979. In Bangladesh they were involved with evangelism, church planting, Christian publishing, and with official and unofficial relief projects. With their four children they returned to New Zealand in November 1999.