I love this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep the streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.” (Quoted in Tom Nelson’s Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work.)
Here’s what I love about it: He calls everyone to high expectations and recognizes that creativity and excellence can be exercised in any and every type of (lawful) work.
This stands in contrast to the thinking I encounter sometimes among some Christians of the more cynical variety. Most Christians don’t think so poorly, but sometimes I encounter people that actually have a problem with the call to exercising creativity and finding meaning in our work. They say things like “how can this or that person find meaning in their work — they sweep streets [or whatever]. You have your head in the clouds. They need to focus on just paying the bills, not finding meaning and purpose in what they do.”
This view is then justified on allegedly spiritual grounds as being “liberating” by “freeing” people in difficult jobs from the “obligation” to find meaning and purpose in their work.
But in reality this perspective is fueled by cynicism and low expectations. It is a very un-Christian way to look at work.
The call to find meaning and satisfaction in our work is not a new burdensome law; it is, rather, an invitation. The point is not “you better find meaning in your work.” Rather, it is: “guess what: you can find satisfaction in your work, whatever it is.” It is pointing to an opportunity, not one more burden a person has to carry.
And MLK here captures it perfectly. We can all find meaning in our work, whatever it is, by doing it for Christ and doing it with creativity and excellence. This is something any person can do in any vocation — even street sweeping or collecting the garbage.
In fact, in my view, a sweet sweeper who does his work with excellence and diligence and creativity is creating just as much a work of art as anything Michelangelo did. Michelangelo’s art was on the canvas; the street sweepers is on the streets and the beneficiaries are everyone who walks by.
Art is more than just paintings and poetry. Anything you do with emotional investment and creativity is a type of art, and all work is to be done in an artful — rather than merely utilitarian — way.