I began my career cutting lawns. As a boy I had quite a little business cutting grass. I was so successful in fact that I hired my friends to work under me, neither of which was very good for the money or our friendships. In college, I mopped floors at night. When I finally graduated with my B.A. in Anthropology and I had moved to Storm Lake, IA I walked into the dean’s office of the local college, handed in my resume and asked the receptionist if the college was hiring. I imagined myself as a teaching assistant or researcher of some kind. She glanced at a resume filled with more aspiration than experience and said, “See Mr. Anderson in room 23.” Oh boy! I thought great! I thanked her and went off to find room 23. The doors on the first floor were all marked in the one hundreds. Where was 23? Oh, yes, the basement. Perhaps that’s where the labs are. So I trundle down stairs and finally find room 23. The room is ankle deep in water, flooding from the recent rains. The man in the middle of the room is vacuuming it out with a wet vac. He turns it off and I ask “I am here to see Mr. Anderson about a job.” He smiles. “I am Anderson. Chief of Building and Grounds. You want a job? You’re hired. Be here at 7 am.” And thus began my first post graduate job, cleaning toilets. As I look back on my life, I think cleaning toilets was the right place to begin my path to my ultimate vocation as a minister. Beyond the humility such a beginning instills, there is metaphorical value in understanding that my work is often marked by cleaning up the crap of life, including my own.
Work is a powerful word in our lives. And this Labor Day Sunday I want to examine its spiritual and moral implications. Work is right up there with money, time and sex. Sometimes we refer to work as an “occupation”, an interesting word which means to be “taken and seized”. We like to think we choose our work, but it could be our work, paid or otherwise, chooses us. Here I make the distinction between “occupation” that is what we do for money, and “vocation” from the Latin Vocae which means to be one with. I prefer to search for identity in this deeper sense of vocation; our passion, our calling, our need to be fulfilled through action. Some of us are able to earn money from our vocation, other not. But money should not be the measure of the work we love to do. I know many who work at a job, and give their time to another vocation – musicians, caregivers, helpers, volunteers.
When we think of work, we too often think of it as a function – what we do to get “it” done – and so the vocae of our souls are left to chance. We may or may not find meaning in what we do for money. The problem of our modern working life has less to do with efficiency and much more to with the lack of meaning in what we do: repetition of tasks, whether they be with our hands or with our heads pushing paper and keys from one place to another robs us of the meaning we crave. Alas, then, we tend to seek shelter from that meaninglessness in passive pastimes such as television which only improvises us more. Or in some instance we are doing work which is even contrary to what we value. This creates hypocrisy of soul. I knew a woman who literally made missiles for a living and try as she did to reconcile her occupation with her values for peace and justice (she told herself that missiles were for defense not offense, something akin to Reagan’s “Peacekeeper Missiles”) she ultimately lost so much sleep that she became ill and her soul cried out to her to quit.
It is never easy to reconcile these contradictions in our lives. The better paying jobs are more often than not the ones that lie at the edge of what we value as a people. Single parents who struggle to raise their families and not quite so able to just give up a well-paying job and maintain the environment they want for their children. I do believe that money does make a difference in raising a family. But I am asking us to examine the gap between what we do and what we value. And just as we should question making money at a job that has little meaning to us, we need to also question making enough money at a job that does have meaning. It is a tragedy that some of our most socially beneficial vocations pay far below what the people do them need to live on. More than once, I have been tempted by offers that would take me away from my work as a minister. I was once tempted to quit the ministry and become a prosecutor. Until I realized I was just having a bad day. Work is about finding an outlet for your soul, your body, your sister, your brother. In the words of
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to hear this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
We all know what work is but what makes good work? It’s not always in what you do. I spent a lot of time before I left California helping immigrant truck drivers become employees of the firms they hauled for and not so called contractors. I heard these men talk about the pride they took in their work, and the pleasure they had when they earned a living wage that day. I hired immigrants most of whom were undocumented who came to work as we readied our house for sale; I insisted that I buy lunch and that we broke bread together. They all shared stories, of escaping poverty, even though they were poorer than most, and coming to America. There they were taking care of one another and their families, brothers and sisters all, standing on a street corner. We paid cash for their work, at double the going rate as if to make up the lost karma of the gringos who had stolen from them already. Good work is the work that makes the world go, better than it was before, if only in staying alive with as much dignity as we can stand.
So often we think that the only work worth doing is something Big. So we invalidate the small, beautiful stirrings that are the bulk of humanity; a floor swept, a meal cooked, a wound healed, a forehead stroked. After 26 years as a minister, I can say that Big Work is highly overrated. Where is the lesson in only succeeding? What about the lessons, the good work of failing from time to time? I will share with you many of those failings as we travel together because they are instructive as they are painful Being famous at what we do is more about ego than change, more separation from the good work that remains.
The biologist Rupert Sheldrake claims that we are in the midst of a “morphic resonance” a shift in history so great that our very understanding of life (whether carbon based or silicon based through the artificial intelligence of machines) is changing. In order for that shift to be positive it will take a billion of us engaged in the good work of inspiring hope, connecting to one another in community and acting with kindness, in other words the very heart of our mission as a church. (Charles Eisenstein, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, 2014)
Good work is the work of this church, the ministry we have to do together. The path to achieving the impossible, even in our own broken lives, consists of the many steps of the possible. I share Goethe’s passion: “I love those who yearn for the possible”.
But our good work won’t always be found in how we make our money. Indeed, the making of money would seem to be antiethical to the Good Work.
I note the tragic irony that reported unemployment numbers are down – and Wall Street is up – when those numbers fail to report the many who have given up on the market and work underground and, more tragically, include people working one, two or three part time jobs and still not able to make ends meet (or President George W. Bush commented to a woman who complained that she had to work three jobs to keep going “Isn’t America Great!). “What do you do?”, indeed the very question of work is so badly distorted that most of us can’t answer the question with a straight face. What we do is often, far too often, wrapped up in the identity of our jobs. God help us if we have no job, or too many jobs, or a job that pays far too little. Too often the job we “do” is far from what we love to do.
What we do amounts to finding the strength to answer the question another way; a way that starts with the premise that what we “do” is foremost to live. The shame of not having a job takes other forms; mothers and fathers who choose to stay home and raise their children. When will we transcend the lack of worth to raising our most precious treasures into young adults? Or those folks who have retired and give their time so generously to many worthy causes such as this church. Last week I complained to Dorothy our Director of Operations that there were weeds growing in the parking lot. And lo, if a group of volunteers wasn’t out there in the blazing sun pulling those weeds. Thank you!!!! I never forget those who give so much of themselves to work here as volunteers. We simply could not exist without you.
“Right work” wrote the Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh, “is the result of being present in the moment of doing”. Whatever we are doing, becomes meaningful when we pay attention to all that the work means. The process of working, whether it is paid or not, whether it is your vocation or your occupation, is a spiritual opportunity. When you think about what your work means, when you consider all the other people you work with to make what you do happen, when you consider that whatever you are doing requires your best effort, than you are transcending the ordinary and entering the spiritual. It takes about two days of my work week to adequately prepare for Sunday worship. The reading, the notes, the thinking, the writing, the coordination, the practice and the engagement with all of you is almost always a spiritual exercise for me. But the same could be said of visiting with someone in pain or struggle. I know when the work has been good by the relief I feel when it is over.
I liken the good work we do to what alchemists call our opus magnum or “life’s work”, the doing of what gives us the greatest meaning. The plain concerns of our ordinary work are the prime material for working out our place in the universe. I met the trash guy at the end of my driveway as I was running down with the trash. He took the bags from me and smiled, I thanked him for waiting and for doing his job. “That’s right” he smiled back “what would happen if I stopped taking the trash, what would the world look like then?” We laughed. What would happen if the immigrants of this country stopped doing this work. Some people work with their hands, some work with their voices, everyone works with their heads.
Our Good Work here in this church, the work we are about to do together in ministry will be to reinvent this church to be relevant in a postmodern world; a world in which truths are relevant, experience is critical, relationships are vital, change is necessary and justice is our outcome. I believe that what you love to do is your destiny to do, what the English Philosopher David Cupot called “Solar Ethics”; to give your light to what attracts you. I love to teach and preach and lead. Perhaps not so much the other aspects of ministry to which I find those of you better suited to help. Do what we love, and love what we do. That is why volunteering here is a spiritual task; not just because we need your help but because if you serve at what you enjoy you grow as well. That is why we are a church – a community, a communion, a common sharing of faith. We ask you to serve your church not just because we need your help but because you need your help.
We used to have a big round table in our last house that a friend custom made for the room; in the center he carved the words in a circle “In serving the world, We serve One Another” It can be read either way. By serving we are making a difference. We will fail at the good work we attempt from time to time. I have failed many times trying to launch something I thought was important. We will burn out at times but I am of the opinion that burn out is the sign that you have done the work. I often say to those who are burned out, ‘take a break, a sabbatical, but come back’ The work we do for love, creates the world we share. Good work is what we do with love. As Kahlil Gibran wrote so many years ago, “Work is love made visible”. Work, our work together upon which we embark this day, is nothing short of miraculous.
So may it be. Amen.