Theological Reflection of a Vocational Dishwasher

You cook, I will clean,”

I told my beloved wife. My wife and I agreed this would be a fair distribution of household duties while considering our natural preferences and desires. I do not mind cleaning and prefer doing the dishes. Cleaning dishes began as nothing more than a simple responsibility within the complex dynamic of a marital relationship. However, it has now evolved to be a mirror reflecting culture, theology, identity, vocation, and technology. Dishwashing has aided in the development of my personal theological foundation as well as of my understanding of how the gospel relates to (my) culture.[1] Dishwashing has helped me understand the overarching narrative of culture; pushed me to question what is the good news of Jesus Christ and its relevance to my role as a dishwasher; redeemed my understanding of identity and vocation; and guided my reflection on the impact of technology.

Can you please put away your dirty dishes,”

my mom occasionally told me while growing up. Dishwashing and anything related to it was never something to look forward to or be inspired by. My experiences as a dishwasher began in my early childhood, when putting away the dishes and sometimes cleaning them was nothing more than a menial chore. If anything, both cooking and cleaning were the tasks of my mother—the kids simply put their dishes away once finished with the meal. Later into adolescence, the chore slightly evolved acquiring a small payment for doing the task and with rare glimpses of maturity, I did my own dishes perhaps to help out my mother from time-to-time or to establish some sort of illusionary independence. I also learned at an early age that cleaning in general was the only job I could get without requiring special skill sets or simply being older. It seemed my own childhood experiences were universal as I learned when I started living with roommates during my undergraduate years. No one enjoyed doing the dishes and they would frequently pile up in the sink, leading to a game of who can stack the dishes the highest without touching the spout. It seemed as if I frequently lost this game as I ended up doing them out of frustration. This general pattern persisted up until my marriage, where I voluntarily chose to be the primary dishwasher or dishwasher loader—more will be said about this later.

My past experiences, including being the primary dishwasher for the past five years, has taught me much about culture. Dishwashing serves as a reflection on how culture views identity and what it values. Much of our cultural identity is shaped by what we do which further reflects what we value. And the role and function of a dishwasher is not on the high-end of what culture values. A simple job search easily reveals this notion and even more so, people do not attend university so they could obtain a degree in household cleaning.[2] Washing dishes as a function also does not “help pay for the bills” as the cliché goes. This challenged the deep-rooted narrative that had been written on my mind and heart for many years—the value of culture is largely determined by occupation and close behind that, money.[3],[4]

The subtlety of this value taking hold of my worldview revealed itself once I became a dishwasher. Prior to marriage, I thought I genuinely affirmed the role of full-time, stay-at-home mothers, recognizing household duties as valuable and necessary work. However, once I was in the position to be a full-time, house husband, that genuine affirmation slowly eroded after realizing one of my primary responsibilities was to wash dishes. According to cultural standards, because I had no occupation and was making little to no money, what I did had little value and in turn, my very identity as well.

Our occupations provide financial and social value. Thus, occupations that are high-paying or with significant titles generally hold more currency. There has also been a more recent shift or rather attachment to this cultural narrative, where personal fulfillment and meaning has become a major factor in choosing one’s occupation.[5] It would also be easy to assume that this cultural narrative is only a secular one. Particularly from a Western Christian perspective, there is an additional “religious currency” where the most valuable occupations or callings, to spiritualize the term, are ministerial roles such as pastors or traditional missionaries. Other occupations merely exist to support the institutional church’s agenda.[6] This false dichotomy between the sacred and secular and hierarchy of what one does plagues Western Christianity. In essence, so called sacred vocations are much more valuable than being a dishwasher. This version of the gospel of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with washing dishes, or one’s occupation, and more importantly, one’s vocation.

Do you believe Jesus died for your sins,”

would be the most common focus of the version of Christianity I knew. Where dishwashing reflects a broad cultural narrative, what is reflects about the gospel in most Christian narratives is the mere irrelevance of one to the other. Through my journey of becoming a vocational dishwasher, I have questioned what is the gospel. My prior understanding of the Christian gospel is my belief in Jesus Christ for my personal salvation. While there may be some truth to this, this solely individualistic perspective and “truncated version of the biblical gospel” has no relevance to the broader culture, society, and world.[7] While “it is gloriously true that sinners are saved through the cross of Christ, it is not actually the whole gospel or the whole achievement of the cross.”[8] If Christians continue to adopt this form of the gospel, there will continue to be this negative dualism and a complete insignificance to the burgeoning pluralistic culture. By redeeming the entire biblical narrative from the beginning of creation to the end of new creation, including themes of the value of one’s so-called ordinary work, being a blessing to other nations, and not only believing but knowing Jesus Christ who lived, died, and rose again from the dead, could there be a possible redemption of the relevance of the gospel to be just that—good news to culture.[9],[10]

I am a vocational dishwasher,”

is the new mantra I now confidently live by. My recent and ongoing explorations of the gospel and the whole biblical narrative has helped me to understand vocation and redeemed my identity as a dishwasher. According to the biblical narrative, who we are is shaped and defined by our relation to God and who God is and what we do is shaped and defined by our relation to what matters to God and what God is doing.[11] This stands in stark contrast to a cultural narrative that says we are largely shaped and defined by the shaky foundation of what we do. “Work is a creational good, but the Bible is well aware of the temptation to turn work into an idol – when we live for what we can do and achieve, and then derive our identity and fulfillment from that.[12] Rather, when our vocation is the whole range of relationships and responsibilities, not just our occupations or our primary means of making money, can we then live a life filled with good news.[13]

My vocation as a dishwasher is vital to the role I play in the relationship with my wife. As I am liberated by the narrative that I ought to be the primary financial provider, I can blossom in my responsibilities to provide a space and home that is clean, welcoming, and loving. As I am liberated by the notion that more is better, I can live simply within my means and truly be satisfied. This type of meaning and fulfillment had largely been elusive even when I was making a six-figure salary or doing impactful work. By living my life according to the biblical narrative, I can see how God is pure and “clean” and thus is in the job of cleaning up, not only my personal mess, but the entire world.

Another beauty in becoming a vocational dishwasher is the amount of transferable skills and lessons I have acquired over the years. When people see dishwashing as a vocation and not just a menial chore, they can benefit from practical growth. Over the years, I have improved on my time-management, organization, and innovation skills, just to name a few. An early lesson I learned is to do a little bit at a time because once the dishes pile up, they are much harder to do. Procrastination can be a form of poor time-management in any occupation or aspect of life and washing dishes has helped me to be more diligent in this regard. I have also found that it is better to do big dishes, pots, and pans at the end when there is more room in the sink. By organizing in this manner, it is much easier to tackle the little dishes or easier tasks before attempting to finish more difficult ones. And being a vocational dishwasher can lead to more innovative approaches and solutions in achieving one’s goal. For example, by stacking dishes utilizing my “proprietary method,” one is able to save water, which in turn cuts down on costs and is better for the world. One final lesson I learned in this journey is the importance of communication. Dishwasher or doing the dishes can mean different things depending on one’s context and culture. It is important to communicate and understand what work means for different people.

Just put it in the dishwasher,”

is a common instruction for the modern-day individual. While most discussions on technology surround digital innovations, one only has to look at dishwashing to see the impact of technology. The dishwashing machine was invented a little over a century ago. And now an Internet search for “dishwasher” returns results for dishwashing machines from major appliance stores.[14] Ironically, there have been more recent concerns for artificial intelligence (AI) and robots taking over the jobs of humans. However, this trend has already started long ago. Dishwasher is no longer a human who washes dishes, but for most in the modern world, it is a machine. While a discussion on the impacts of technology require its own place, my journey as a vocational dishwasher has reflected the trends of technology and its relation to or rather now its monopoly over culture.[15]

In simpler times, there may not have been a question of who is in control—the human uses and has control of a tool or technology. For example, a construction worker uses and controls a hammer or a dishwasher is in control of the tools used to wash dishes. With the invention of the dishwashing machine, it is more difficult to discern who is in control. The machine has stripped the human the title of dishwasher and so now we have to wonder if the human is still in control and utilizing the dishwasher or is the dishwasher dictating to the human its own ideology? It is not difficult to make the leap to where society and culture is now with “scientific studies” explaining the harmful effects of screen time or how we lose our relationality with robots and the networked life.[16] Scholars are concerned with the impact of our existing digital technologies, yet the wave of innovation for new discoveries in AI or blockchain, for example, show no sign of slowing down. Washing dishes may seem to have absolutely no relevance to this more complex topic and in some sense it does not. However, if a culture does not have a proper framework and understanding of people’s vocation, something as simple as washing dishes, it is only a matter of time that titles and professions humans hold dear such as accountant or caretaker will be monopolized by technology. It is also crucial that society does not leave this topic on the periphery, but address it head on. It is crucial for religious institutions to be relevant in this sphere as well so that they do not make the same mistake by disregarding the vocation of dishwashers and in turn having no good news to share with culture.[17]

So, what is your vocation,”

one may ask. My vocation is a dishwasher. Dishwasher relates to my wife who constitutes much of my life. Dishwasher speaks to my responsibility to wash dishes and by understanding my identity in light of a biblical narrative and Creator God, it also speaks of my responsibility to be a cleaner of all things, that whatever I touch, I can make the world a slightly cleaner and better place. The beauty of this vocation is anyone and everyone can do it. So,

Are you willing to wash some dishes?

[1] In the era of late globalization, it would be foolish to assume one culture is normative over another. When I use the term culture, it is from a modern, Western perspective and a middle-to-wealthy socioeconomic class.

[2] Out of curiosity, I searched if something like this existed. The closest thing would be online certificates, material from an established institute for cleaning practices, and a questionable “university for maids”.

[3] I must recognize that this is not the only value dominating the current cultural narrative, however it will be the one I will focus on. Other examples include consumerism or post-modernism.

[4] See Craig M. Gay, Cash Values: Money and the Erosion of Meaning in Today’s Society (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans and Regent College Pub, 2004).

[5] The influence of post-modernity is changing what people value in regards to occupations. I am mainly assuming that most in the modern West still value occupations that provide more financial and social currency.

[6] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2010), Location 206, 3953, 4191, Kindle.

[7] Wright, Loc 5250.

[8] Wright, Loc 824.

[9] See Gen 2:15-16, Isa 65:17-25, Acts 4:1-22, Jer 29:7, and 1 Tim 2:1-4.

[10] This is a very brief and elementary summary of the biblical gospel. Much more can and needs to be said in light of traditions differing from Western Evangelicals and more importantly the growth of World Christianity.

[11] Steven Garber, Visions Of Vocation (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP BOOKS, 2014), 161. Also adapted from Christopher Wright, The Mission of God’s People.

[12] Wright, Loc 4537.

[13] Garber, 11.

[14] Based on a search result from DuckDuckGo. Accessed on Feb 28, 2019. One would need to input “dishwasher job” to get results related to the human act of washing dishes.

[15] I owe much of this discussion on technology to Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Reprint edition (New York: Vintage, 1993).

[16] See Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, First Trade Paper Ed edition (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2012).

[17] My stance here is not an anti-technology one, as I am well aware of the tremendous benefits technology has brought to society, even the dishwashing machine, which I use. This excerpt is to highlight that the gravity of technology is much heavier than most probably realize.