Spirituality at Work

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church in Hayward, California, 10:30 a.m. The sermon text below is an uncorrected reading text (typographical errors and all). The sermon as delivered contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.


The reading this morning is from a book titled Let Your Life Speak, by the Quaker writer Parker Palmer. As this reading opens, Palmer has left his job as a community organizer, and he has gone to Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center, as he tries to figure out what he should do with his life. He writes:

“If I were ever to discover a new direction, I thought, it would be at Pendle Hill, a community rooted in prayer, study, and a vision of human possibility. But when I arrived and started sharing my vocational quandary, people responded with a traditional Quaker counsel that, despite their good intentions, left me even more discouraged. ‘Have faith,’ they said, ‘and way will open.’

“‘I have faith,’ I thought to myself. ‘What I don’t have is time to wait for “way” to open. I am approaching middle age at warp speed, and I have yet to find a vocational path that feels right. The only way that’s opened so far is the wrong way.’

“After a few months of deepening frustration, I took my troubles to an older Quaker woman well known for her thoughtfulness and candor. ‘Ruth,’ I said, ‘people keep telling me that “way will open.” Well, I sit in the silence, I pray, I listen for my calling, but way is not opening. I’ve been trying to find my vocation for a long time, and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of what I’m meant to do. Way may open of other people, but it’s sure not opening for me.’

“Ruth’s reply was a model of Quaker plain-speaking. ‘I’m a birthright Friend [Quaker],’ she said somberly, ‘and in sixty-plus years of living, way has never opened in front of me.’ She paused, and I started sinking deeper into despair. Was this wise woman telling me that the Quaker concept of God’s guidance was a hoax?

“Then she spoke again, this time with a grin. ‘But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.'” [p. 38]

Sermon: “Spirituality at Work”

I said that I’d speak with you this morning on the general topic of spirituality and work. In the interests of full disclosure, right at the outset I have to tell you that a good chunk of my working life has been far from spiritual. I spent twelve years in the residential construction business, as a yardman and salesman in a lumber yard, and later working for a carpenter; I spent a year each as a sculptor’s assistant and clerk in a health food store; I’ve worked as a religious educator and as a parish minister. (Parenthetically, I should say that working for a congregation has its spiritual moments, but neither more nor less than other jobs I’ve had.)

In my limited experience, very few people find much that is spiritual in their work life. Spirituality can be defined as that which puts us in touch with something that is fine and good; if you experience God or some kind of divinity in your life, spirituality is that which puts you in touch with that which is divine; and if your experience of life doesn’t include God or divinity, spirituality is that which puts you in touch with that which is highest and best in humanity and nature. By contrast, it’s perhaps most common in our society to see work merely as something to be gotten through; as something necessary for survival, but nothing more. I include housework and child-rearing and caring for elders in this, for these are all kinds of work, and many people who do housework or raise children don’t find much that is spiritual in changing diapers or cleaning floors. And if you’re unemployed or out of work, that’s the hardest work of all: I’m fortunate and have only spent a month out of work and three weeks being laid off, but those were two of the toughest and least spiritual times of my life; I did not then feel in touch with anything divine, nor with anything that might be considered highest and best in humanity.

Thus, for many of us, whatever spiritual lives we might lead feel disconnected from our work lives. But I don’t think spirituality and work are as disconnected as they seem at first. So I would like to talk with you about the ways in which I believe work life and spiritual life are connected.


1. The first and most obvious connection: your work, your job, can be what supports your real calling in life. The circumstances of life might limit your options such that your job is neither going to fulfill you, nor give you scope to live out your highest ideals in the world. Then your job might be that which keeps food on the table and a roof over your head, while you do something else with the rest of your life. And I can offer you an example of what I mean in the life of Rosa Parks.

Growing up as a black woman in the segregated South, Rosa Parks did not have a wide range of careers open to her. As an African American, Parks had to attend segregated schools that were poorly funded compared to schools for white children; and even in those schools, less was expected of girls than of boys. In her junior high school, mostly what she was taught was what was called “domestic science”: sewing, cooking, and taking care of people who were sick. Later she had to drop out of high school to take care of her ill mother. When she got married, her husband encouraged her to finish her high school diploma, and towards the end of her life she wrote about what happened after she received her diploma:

“But that [diploma] still didn’t help me much in getting a job. I had a high school diploma, but I could only get jobs that didn’t need a high school diploma. I worked as a helped at St. Margaret’s Hospital. I took in sewing on the side. In 1941 I got a job at Maxwell Field, the local Army Air Force Base….” (1)

Then in 1943, Rosa Parks found out that a friend of hers, another woman belonged to the Montgomery, Alabama, branch of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Before that, Parks didn’t know that women could join the NAACP; but in December, 1943, she decided to go over and attend one of the meetings. As it turned out, she was the only woman there, and when it came time to elect the new officers for the year, they elected her, the only woman, to be the secretary.

So Rosa Parks wound up joining the leadership of the NAACP, and so she also found a place where she could use her education. As secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, one of her principal duties was “to keep a record of cases of discrimination or unfair treatment or acts of violence against black people.” [p. 84] Parks later wrote: “We didn’t have too many successes in getting justice. It was more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be, and to let it be known that we did not wish to continue being treated as second-class citizens.” [p. 89] Though she didn’t call it spiritual, this unpaid work was a form of spirituality, in which she turned her thoughts and her efforts to the highest ideals of humanity.

Rosa Parks began serving as the secretary of the local branch of the NAACP in December, 1943. Twelve years later, on Thursday, December 1, 1955, she was riding a segregated bus, and the driver told her to give up her seat to a white person. She refused to do so, and the bus driver had her arrested. Her arrest sparked the African American leaders of Montgomery to call for a boycott of the buses. A dynamic young minister no one had ever heard of named Martin Luther King, Jr., got selected to lead the boycott. And the Montgomery bus boycott marked the real beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the beginning of non-violent direct action aimed at eliminating segregation and legalized discrimination.

So it was that Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white person grew out of her long work to confront and eliminate discrimination; and confronting discrimination was spiritual work: she was living out her highest moral and ethical ideals. But this spiritual work had nothing to do with her job. In 1955, Rosa Parks was working as a seamstress for one of the downtown department stores. Her job was a means for supporting herself; it allowed her to continue serving as secretary of the NAACP, and to continue confronting racial discrimination in a variety of ways, including not giving up her seat. Her job was simply a means to a higher end.

Indeed, the values of her workplace opposed her spiritual work to confront and end discrimination, for once she achieved notoriety by refusing to give up her seat on the bus, her employers eliminated her job. And we can learn something from Rosa Parks’s example: if your spiritual life is centered around living out your highest ideals, you may well have to keep your spiritual life in large measure separate from your work life. That does not mean your work and your spirituality are disconnected, for you will still be a whole person, just as Rosa Parks was a whole person; but you may have to separate the time you spend at work, taking care of the necessities of life, from the time you spend on spiritual matters.


2. And this brings me to a separate but related matter. Back in 1973, New York Quarterly interviewed the poet Gary Snyder about the craft of writing. And the interviewer said that New York Quarterly had received a note from the poet Charles Bukowski who said that interviews about the craft of writing reminded him of people polishing mahogany. (Since polishing mahogany is boring, I take this to mean that Bukowski felt craft was boring.) The interviewer then asked Gary Snyder for a response. Snyder said:

“I like polishing mahogany! I like to sharpen my chain saw. I like to keep all my knives sharp. I like to change the oil in my truck. Creativity and maintenance go hand in hand. And in a mature ecosystem as much energy goes to maintenance as goes to creativity. Maturity, sanity, and diversity go together, and with that goes stability. I would wish that we could in time emerge from traumatized social situations and have six or seven hundred years of relative stability and peace. Then look at the kind of poetry we could write! Creativity is not at its best when it’s a by-product of turbulence.” (2)

So says poet Gary Snyder. Now if you think about it, maintenance, in the way Snyder means it here, is necessary but boring work. If you have ever sharpened a chain saw, you know it’s boring work; not as fussy as sharpening a hand saw, but still a simple and repetitive task that requires the full attention of hand and eye and mind. And the maintenance that you do around the house may be just as simple, repetitive, and boring: cleaning the toilets and doing the laundry and changing the diapers if you have children, and so on.

Most of the jobs I have held have tended to be dominated by maintenance tasks; as near as I can tell most jobs are dominated by maintenance tasks. I already told you that I once worked for a sculptor, and you might think that sculpture would include more creativity than maintenance, but you’d be wrong: the actual creative work was done relatively quickly; then the sculptor and his assistants had to make a mold, cast the piece in bronze, chase it, put a patina on it; and for each of those steps, he had to set up assistants and equipment and clean up afterwards; and then he had to sell his work; and on top of that he had to teach sculpture classes to make ends meet. That sculptor, like the rest of us, spent most of his work life taking care of boring repetitive maintenance tasks.

But Gary Snyder reminds us that repetitive maintenance tasks are not a bad thing. You can’t have creativity without maintenance; I would add (and I think Snyder would agree) that you can’t have spirituality without maintenance. Snyder points out that in a mature ecosystem, there’s as much energy going into maintenance as into creativity and generativity. Snyder doesn’t associate maintenance with boredom and repetition; he associates maintenance with maturity, stability, diversity, and sanity.

For many of us, a good part of our work life is a kind of maintenance work. If you’re like Rosa Parks, you do your job so you can support yourself while you do something more meaningful with the rest of your time. Even if you’re like the sculptor and have a job that allows you great scope for your creativity and spirituality, like the sculptor a good part of your job will be taken up with maintenance tasks. The higher things in life — creativity, spirituality — can’t exist without maintenance; I’m not even sure we should call them “higher things”; maintenance and spirituality are part of the same connected whole.

Having said that, in a turbulent society, it is probably impossible to achieve a balance between creativity and maintenance. In our turbulent economy, it’s easy to lose your job, and when you lose a job, you’ll be spending nearly all your time looking for a new one, which is to say, you’ll be spending all your time on maintenance. In our turbulent society, where social supports are often lacking, if you’re working full time while caring for children, or caring for aging parents, once again most of your life will be spent on maintenance. And in our turbulent workplaces, you may be called upon to work ten or twelve hours a day or longer on demanding projects that require all your creativity and energy, so that you have no time for maintenance. Because of the limitations of life, we may not achieve a balance between creativity and maintenance at this moment; we can only try to achieve it over time.


3. And this brings me to a final point. A necessary part of anyone’s spiritual life is confronting limitations. In the reading, the one by Parker Palmer, when the Quaker elder named Ruth talked about “way closing behind you,” she was talking about facing up to limitations. Let me point out that limitations can be imposed on us from the outside, as they were with Rosa Parks, but limitations can also be within us. Parker Palmer goes on to add that he once got fired from a job, and he says that it took a major failure like this for him to face up to the realities of his own personal limitations. He writes: “Despite the American myth, I cannot be or do whatever I desire….” (3) I think this is one of the more difficult spiritual lessons we have to learn in our society. The American myth tells us that we have no limitations; we can do or be whatever we want; but that simply isn’t true.

Spirituality is that which puts you in touch with the highest and best in humanity and in nature; spirituality is that through which you live out the highest and best in your life. But the spiritual life is not completely separate from your work life and the rest of your life; all parts of your life are connected. This is what can make it hard. It is not easy to bump up against the limitations in our lives. It is not easy when “way closes behind” us, and suddenly we have to figure out a new way forward.

And this points out one of the limitations of spirituality. Spirituality is what you do on your own; it is your own personal connection with that which is highest and best in life. Religion is related to spirituality, but it is what you do in community. When Parker Palmer was confronted with his own limitations, when he ran smack up against a career crisis, his own personal spirituality was not enough to carry him through. He turned to a religious community. He talked to several different people in his religious community, and finally he talked to Ruth, one of the elders in his religious community, and she gave him the insight that helped carry him through his crisis.

When way closes behind you, and you’re trying to figure out a new way forward — that’s when it can help to have a religious community to turn to for help. You may turn to a formal, organized religious community: Rosa Parks had several black churches she could turn to for support when she needed it. You may turn to a less formal religious community: Gary Snyder, as a practicing Buddhist living out in foothills of the Sierra Nevada, doesn’t have a formal Buddhist community nearby, but he can reach out for communal support when he needs it. When way closes behind you, when you find yourself drifting, when your work life and your spiritual life become disconnected, it helps to have a religious community to which you can turn so that you can reconnect the pieces of your life. When your work seems to take over the rest of your life, when maintenance tasks overwhelm you so that there’s no room for anything else, it helps to have a religious community to remind you that there is a spiritual side to life.

The various parts of our lives can become disconnected; work and spirituality can become disconnected. And we can reconnect the disconnected parts of ourselves with the help of other people. That’s why we’re here this morning: with the help of other people, we are once again reconnecting all the parts of our lives into one whole person.



(1) All information about Rosa Parks’s life (including quotes) are from Rosa Parks: My Story, by Rosa Parks with Jim Haskins. This quote is p. 65.

(2) Gary Snyder, Look Out: A Selection of Writings (New York: New Directions, 2002), p. 139. Interview previously published in Snyder, The Real Work, 1980, and in New York Quarterly, 1973.

(3) Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000), p. 44.