I think everyone fears working in an office that looks like mine. I know I used to. Gray institutional carpeting, dull fluorescent lights, and not a single window. The dingy off-white walls (painting them is against company policy) are ornamented only by motivational posters with sayings like, “Go over, go around, go through, but never give up.” Every cubicle wobbly, every chair uncomfortable, it’s designed to make you wish for Friday.
In this environment I answer my headset about a hundred calls a day, most of them about the same thing. But worse than the decor, worse than the monotony, is getting caught in a seemingly endless loop of bureaucracy. Customers laboriously give me the number of each item they want to order, like I’m some kind of robot who can only understand numbers. I call my boss with a client’s urgent problem to be told brusquely that we can’t help them, leaving me to wonder who can. I’m constantly telling people we need it in writing, they should have put their authorization on file ahead of time, and that my company is not responsible for postal snafus. Sometimes I’ll snap out of half-asleepness thinking, Where am I? Did I wake up in Kafka’s brain today?
Today was that kind of day. I stole out of the call center and tried to hide in a break room and read my Bible, preferably something heartily encouraging about God’s pure love for me, or maybe about chains falling off and everyone getting along in Heaven. But the joke was on me. I was in the middle of Ezra.
The Book of Ezra, if you didn’t know, begins with nothing but red tape. First, King Cyrus of Persia is going to let the Jews go home and finally, finally rebuild their temple. But of course it cannot be that simple. In Ezra 4, some adversaries convince King Artaxerxes, King Cyrus’s successor, that the Jews are up to no good and are just going to plot against the Empire if they get their temple back. The king listens and halts the construction project. Then, when the next guy (King Darius) is in power, the Jews submit a petition to start rebuilding again, encouraging him to look up the decree King Cyrus wrote back in the day (on the ancient equivalent of microfiche, one imagines). King Darius grants their request, mostly because he wants God’s blessing for himself and his empire. (Good one, Darius. We all know how God feels about kings in general. But hey, you’re in good company. God bless Persia.)
And then they can finally, finally, finally build the thing.
I read about this in that sad, gray, windowless break room, and I could relate. Nothing is ever simple, it seems. Where is God when your heart’s desire lies buried in paperwork and practicalities, when people delight in squelching your dreams, when you have hope that you can be healed, really, but you’re getting so tired of the waiting room?
I believe, I know, that God is there. God is there with us in the waiting, undaunted by the mountain of mundane details that seems so insurmountable to us. God cares even when the voice on the other end of the phone does not. Even when justice gets buried in paperwork, to be locked away until the next administration or maybe even longer, God never forgets a promise.
Today I found some joy in that dismal room, its air hazy with distant how-can-I-help-yous. I could know joy because I can read the whole story. I know the waiting didn’t last forever in the book of Ezra: that fragile temple was built again, and they celebrated the Passover there, beautiful festival of making it this far. I read, “With joy they celebrated the festival of unleavened bread seven days; for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.”
God made them joyful. God can do that. God can take the garbage of our lives, the boring and mundane, and he can make it beautiful. Yes, even that. God wants to reconcile everything to himself, meaning everything. Even my awful, gray-carpeted, windowless workplace can be his temple, if I’ll invite him in.