Memorializing Iraq and Afghanistan

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.

I’d like to begin this morning by talking with you a little bit about the origins of Memorial Day: where and when it started, and for what purpose. And after we talk about the origins of Memorial Day, then I’d like to talk with you about how the situation we find ourselves in today is quite different from time of the origin of Memorial Day, and given the changed situation I’ll speak about how we might adequately memorialize the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Historian David Blight tells us that the first recorded instance of Memorial Day took placed in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. The city of Charleston had been evacuated, and most of the non-combatants remaining in the city were African Americans who could not get out. Also present were the Union troops who had defeated the Confederate Army, and a few white abolitionists.

During the war, the Confederate Army had established a prison camp on the site of a race course in Charleston. 257 Union soldiers had died in that prison camp, and were dumped unceremoniously into a mass grave. In April, 1865, the African American community of Charleston decided to create a proper gravesite for the Union dead buried in that mass grave. They disinterred the bodies from the mass graves, and reinterred them in individual graves; then African American carpenters built a fence around the new grave yard.

To officially open this new grave yard for Civil War dead, the African American community organized a parade of some ten thousand people, including African American schoolchildren and ordinary African American citizens. White Americans were represented by some nearby Union regiments, and some white abolitionists. All these people gathered in the new graveyard. They listened to preachers. They sang songs like “America the Beautiful” and “John Brown’s Body” and old spirituals. And at last they settled down to picnics, and while they ate they could watch the Union regiments march in formation.

That, according to David Blight, was the first recorded celebration of Memorial Day. But times were different then, and that was a very different war from today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On his Web site, Blight writes: “At the end of the Civil War the dead were everywhere, some in half buried coffins and some visible only as unidentified bones strewn on the killing fields of Virginia or Georgia.” Today, we don’t see the war dead. The most we might see is a photograph or video of a coffin neatly draped with an American flag, accompanied by soldiers in full dress uniform, being taken off an airplane that has just arrived from overseas. Today, we are not confronted with the physical reality of the bodies of war dead.

When it came to memorializing the war dead, the African American community of Charleston had a straightforward task in 1865: after the fighting was over, create an adequate graveyard, and respectfully reinter the Union war dead into that new graveyard. But we have no such well-defined, concrete tasks. Because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are so far away and such a small percentage of the population have actually fought in those wars, memorializing them is not going to be straightforward; and to complicate matters further, the fighting isn’t even over in Afghanistan.

The 2005 poem “Ashbah” by Brian Turner, a talented poet who served in the infantry in Iraq in 2003-2004, captures something of the problem we face.

Click here for the poem “Ashbah” (both the text, and an audio recording of the poet reading the poem).

In the poem, the ghosts of American soldiers are alone and cannot find their way home. Even though they are exhausted, they keep trying to find their way home, unsure which way to go. The Iraqi dead are, of course, already home, and they can watch the American soldiers from a safe perch on the rooftops; but as I imagine the scene, the Iraqi dead would just as soon the American dead would figure out how to get home so that they, the Iraqi dead, could have their streets back.

Now obviously this poem is not literally true. The poet did not see the ghosts of dead Americans literally wandering the streets of Balad, and the Iraqi dead were not literally sitting on the rooftops watching them. But there is symbolic truth in this poem.

For me, part of the symbolic truth in the poem lies in the fact that the war dead of Iraq and Afghanistan remain ghostlike and insubstantial to most Americans. The vast majority of us have not seen the body of someone who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Indeed, I would be willing to bet that the majority of Americans don’t even know someone who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Although something on the order of six thousand five hundred soldiers have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan [link], this number is tiny compared to the three hundred million people who live in the United States today.

Because so few soldiers have died relative to the total population of the United States, it’s easy for us to spend very little time thinking about the war dead. I don’t want to say that we ignore the war dead; certainly we don’t do that; but we concentrate on other things. Those of us who are politically active might concentrate on advocating for policy changes that will keep us out of another long-term military engagement like Iraq and Afghanistan. Or — and I think this is more likely among us here — those of us who are politically active have turned our attention to problems that seem more pressing, like global climate change or election reform or homelessness in Palo Alto or food security or one of the many ethical and political challenges facing us today. This is not a bad thing: Lord knows, we are faced with a great many pressing problems; and we do the best we can to address those problems, but one person can only do so much. If, for example, you’re going to tackle global climate change, a problem that can be morally and psychologically draining, you may not have much energy left over for other ethical challenges.

We’re doing the best we can to make this world a better place. But most of us have turned out attention away from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as a result, those ghosts of American soldiers that Brian Turner writes about in his poem still wander the streets of Balad by night, still unsure of their way home, still exhausted.

I’m not trying to make you feel guilty about the war dead. I’m not asking you — many of whom work 70 hours a week at your job, take care of your family, volunteer in the community, and work on social justice projects besides — I’m not asking you to do one more thing to make the world a better place. You do enough as it is. But because this is Memorial Day, I would like to remind you of three things we already do that can help memorialize the war dead, and thus help those ghosts of American soldiers find their way home, find rest.


First, as religious people we are not afraid to talk about death and about those who have died. In this, we are quite different from mainstream American society, which prefers to ignore the fact of death. At the beginning of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration carefully enforced a long-standing Pentagon ban on media coverage of the arrival of coffins containing dead soldiers from overseas. This Pentagon ban had been in effect since the First Gulf War, and while some critics accused the Bush administration of using the ban for propaganda purposes, it always seemed to me that the Pentagon and the government were also motivated by a typical American squeamishness when it comes to death, a typical American denial of the reality of death.

But as religious people, we are less likely to deny the reality of death. A central part of what we do as religious people is we celebrate rites of passage, including memorial services for those who have died. Many of us here this morning have been in this room for a memorial service; and when we come here on Sunday mornings, we will always be aware of the dual use of this room. The very nature of our religious community helps us be free of the unhealthy American denial of death. Because we don’t deny the reality of death, we are better able to understand that our actions as a nation have resulted in very real deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By confronting the reality of the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are taking a step towards allowing the ghosts in the poem to find their way home, metaphorically speaking. And when those ghosts of American soldiers leave the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan, then the Iraqi war dead, and the Afghani war dead, can come down from their roof tops.


Second, as religious people we engage in critical patriotism. Let me explain what I mean by “critical patriotism.”

As religious people, we have a strong allegiance to certain moral and ethical principles, and our allegiance to those moral and ethical principles can be stronger than our allegiance to our nation. For example, as Unitarian Universalists we say that one of our ethical principles is that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. We adopted that particular principle in 1985, but it has roots going back much further than that. That particular ethical principle can trace its roots back to the Golden Rule, a far older ethical principle that states that we shall do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Unitarians and Universalists got the Golden Rule from the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who was reported to have told his followers a form of the Golden Rule some two thousand years ago.

But Jesus did not make up the Golden Rule; he was restating an even older ethical precept that he got from his Jewish upbringing. In the Torah, those Jewish books traditionally supposed to have been written by Moses, in the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18, it states: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The book of Leviticus is at least two thousand five hundred years old, in its present form, though it is made up of even older material; and surely the Golden Rule is among the older material in the book. Suffice it to say that we are the inheritors of a religious tradition that has affirmed the ideal of this ethical precept for thousands of years.

Obviously, then, our ethical tradition can trace its roots back to well before the founding of the United States. In fact, some of us would say that our ethical principles transcend any one people or nation or moment in history. The Golden Rule has been worded differently at different times, and we further know that there are examples of ethical principles in other cultures that sound a good deal like our Golden Rule. All these are specific manifestations of a general transcendent principle; as a religious people, we owe our allegiance to this transcendent, eternally true ethical principle; and as a religious people, we owe a greater allegiance to this transcendent ethical principle than we do to the relatively short-lived American nation.

Our adherence to such transcendent ethical principles leads us to what I’m calling “critical patriotism.” We do owe patriotic feelings towards the United States; but our patriotic feelings will never overpower our allegiance to our higher ethical precepts. Indeed, the opposite is the case: we must critically examine our country’s actions and policies in light of our higher ethical precepts.

Such critical patriotism allows us to look with open eyes on the reasons and motivations behind our military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we as Americans are not honest about our motivations for going into Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s going to be difficult for those ghosts of American soldiers in the streets of Balad to be able to come home. Critical patriotism allows us to see that some of the reasons for starting these wars could be ethically justified, and other reasons could not be ethically justified; critical patriotism allows us to decide which reasons for war pass muster with our own transcendent ethical principles, and which reasons for war do not pass muster.

This kind of careful ethical examination of the war, and an attendant acceptance of responsibility as American citizens, is one of the things that we as a religious people do as a matter of course. We take the time to reflect upon, and to sort through the enormously complex ethical arguments surrounding the war. And this kind of ethical reflection, this kind of critical patriotism, is another step we take towards allowing the ghosts in the poem to find rest, to find their way home.


Third — and this is a corollary to the last point — we can affirm that religion is an important moral and ethical counterweight to politics. Political decisions are often made from expediency, and made in a hurry, without time for adequate ethical reflection. At its best, organized religion can serve as a metaphorical place where we can take the time to reflect seriously on the ethical implications of political decisions.

One of the reasons that the ghosts of the American soldiers roam the streets of Balad in the poem is that they have not been memorialized by American society, except in the most superficial way. Of course they have been memorialized by their Army buddies, and of course they have been mourned by their families. But wider American society has done little more than assert “We support our troops.” That last statement does not constitute adequate ethical reflection on the death of American soldiers. But by carefully reflecting on the death of American soldiers — and on the death of Iraqi and Afghani civilians, and on the death of other soldiers, for that matter — by such careful reflection, we can lay the metaphorical ghosts to rest.

We can engage in this ethical reflection through our ongoing participation in the democratic process. Most obviously, you and I can engage in ethical reflection through carefully exercising our right to vote. We have a primary election coming up very soon here in California, and the national election is only a few months away. It is our duty as religious people to carefully study the issues in the election, and then to reflect on the moral and ethical implications of those issues, to consider how our vote can be a moral and ethical response to American policy. Of course any vote is going to be something of a compromise — reality never seems to match our transcendent ethical ideals — but with careful reflection, our participation in the democratic process can have a worthwhile moral and ethical outcome.


Back in May of 1865, the African American community of Charleston, South Carolina, had a fairly straightforward task: to memorialize the Civil War dead by disinterring their bodies from a mass grave into a graveyard that was more in keeping with the respect that was due to them. Our task today, memorializing the dead from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not quite so physical and concrete.

But there are some straightforward things we can do to memorialize our war dead. We can be honest about death, and not try to deny the reality of the war dead. We can affirm our transcendent moral and ethical ideals, and in so doing we can engage in a kind of critical patriotism. And finally we can understand our religious ideals as a moral counterweight to politics, so that when we participate in democracy we will have a moral impact on the country.

These are the things we can do to memorialize the war dead. And so, at last, may the ghosts of American soldiers wandering the streets of Balad at night find their way home once again.

Liberal Religion, Silicon Valley Style

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.


“Jesus said: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of flour. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the flour spilled out behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.”

Gospel of Thomas, ch. 97, Scholar’s Version translation.


I’d like to speak with you this morning about liberal religion in Silicon Valley, or more precisely Unitarian Universalism in Silicon Valley. There are three distinctive features of Silicon Valley culture, and I think these are also distinctive features of our liberal religious congregation.

One distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life is the ethic of hard work: here in the Valley, people believe that the harder one works the better off one will be. And this holds true in our congregation: we work hard, and we accomplish a great deal.

Another distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life is that we live in a truly multicultural and multiracial place, we’re used to it, and we like it this way. And this holds true in our congregation: though we are still majority white, we are changing, and I’d say most of us will feel more comfortable once we have a smaller percentage of white people.

A third distinctive feature of Silicon Valley life is the engineering and entrepreneurial drive which leads us to believe we can fix anything if we put our minds to it. This is also true of our congregation: and so, for one example, last spring even though the Great Recession is still if full swing, even though many of people in this congregation are out of work, our pledge drive was up more than 15% over the previous year.

Hard work. Multiculturalism. We can fix anything and do the impossible. Those three things help distinguish the Silicon Valley way. And those three things are also distinguishing features of our congregation.


Now I’d like to say a little bit more about each of these three things as it pertains to our congregation. I’ll begin with the culture of hard work.

At this point in my career as a minister, I’ve served in eight different congregations. People in this congregation work harder and accomplish more than in any of the other seven congregations I’ve served. I’ll give you some specific examples of what I mean. I once served a congregation fifty percent larger than ours, and it did not have nearly as programs and activities as we do. We carry out more social justice projects than most congregations our size: we host a homeless shelter here in our buildings one month a year and we cook all the meals for them; we serve meals at Stevenson House next door several times a year; we host innumerable lectures and talks on social justice issues, including having the former president of Amnesty International speak here. We provide excellent programs for kids, like our comprehensive sexuality education programs that are better than those offered in area schools. We have a bunch of small groups: men’s groups and women’s groups and so-called “Chalice Circles” and support groups and social groups.

All these things have been accomplished by hard work. People in our congregation put in hundreds of volunteer hours to make all this work. Any congregation requires hundreds of hours of volunteer work, and we’re no different than other congregations in this respect. And it’s something of a misnomer to label this work, because most of what we do around here offers opportunities to socialize and to have time away from job and home responsibilities. Nevertheless, my sense is that we in this congregation tend to be more purposeful and more serious and more focused in our volunteer work than other congregations I’ve known. We may have fun doing our volunteer work here, but it’s purposeful fun, it’s serious fun, it’s very focused fun.

Not only do we work hard, but we are convinced that the harder we work, the better off we will be. I say this based on the following evidence:– Even though we do more than most congregations our size, we are fully convinced that we are not doing enough. And even though we do more than most congregations our size, we are fully convinced that we need to do more in order to feel barely adequate.

And isn’t this the way most people in Silicon Valley treat their jobs? We are convinced that hard work pays off, which implies that working harder and longer pays off even more, so some people estimate that the average work week in Silicon Valley is something like 60 hours a week. That would translate to 8.57 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s a lot of hard work.


Having demonstrated that hard work is one distinctive feature of liberal religion, Silicon Valley style, I’d like to turn your attention to another such distinctive feature. We are convinced that we can fix anything and do the impossible.

Silicon Valley is full of tales of people who can do the impossible. In 1939, two guys named Hewlett and Packard started a business in their garage. That business turned into a major corporation. In 1977, two guys named Wozniak and Jobs incorporated another business in a different garage. That business is now one of the top three biggest companies in the world by market capitalization. And in 1947 a bunch of religious liberals started a congregation which they called the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. In less than a decade, they built it up from a tiny congregation to a big one.

All these people did something that seemed impossible to others. That Palo Alto Unitarian Church, for example, started with fewer than fifty people in a rented space, and in ten years they had built their own building and offered three services with hundreds of adults and hundreds of children in attendance each week. Yes, I know they were riding a demographic trend: the congregation was formed at the peak of the Baby Boom, during the years when this region was experiencing huge population growth as a result of its then affordable housing. But that again is typical of Silicon Valley: successful companies ride trends; as do successful congregations. Hewlett Packard rode the trend of individuals and businesses owning personal computers. Apple rode the personal computer trend for a while, but they moved into mP3 players and smartphones, and now they’re bigger than Hewlett Packard. Our congregation rode the Baby Boom.

I’m going to come back to that notion of following trends in just a minute. But first I’d like to use Apple as an example of a Silicon Valley company that did things that people said were impossible, or at least improbable. Take their mP3 player, the iPod. The first iPods had little hard drives in them, because people said it would be too expensive to manufacture flash drives; but Apple did just that. Another thing that Apple did that was impossible was to rebound from mistakes and reverse downwards trends. Perhaps you remember the Apple Newton, a handheld device of the type known as a personal digital assistant. The Newton was a commercial failure, although medical doctors loved them and used them for years. After the Newton failed, other companies like Palm Computing came in and developed commercially successful personal digital assistants, and the common wisdom was that would be impossible for Apple to become a major player in that market ever again. But Apple did the impossible, combined the personal digital assistant with a cellphone, and dominated the new smartphone market with their iPhone.


Now let me come back to this notion of following significant demographic trends; and this relates directly to a third distinctive feature of both Silicon Valley, the multiracial and multicultural character of this area.

Demographers tell us that within a generation, the United States will be a majority minority country: that is, white Anglo people will no longer constitute a majority of the population. Well, Silicon Valley is already there. A couple of days ago, I was in the little supermarket across the street from here, and I heard five different languages within five minutes: English and Spanish of course, but also French, what sounded to my ears like Chinese, and what might have been Russian. There were white people, black people, East Asians, South Asians. We who live in Silicon Valley already know what it’s like to live in a majority minority country. This is the biggest demographic trend that’s going on right now.

If you look around you this morning, you’ll see that our congregation remains mostly white. Last time I checked for myself, about 85 percent of the people who show up on Sunday morning are white. Mind you, we are still way ahead of other suburban Unitarian Universalist congregations, most of which are 98% white Anglo; the only Unitarian Universalist congregations I know of that are more than 20% non-white and non-Anglo are in the middle of cities. Yet in true Silicon Valley style, I am not satisfied that we are performing better than any other suburban congregation — I want us to be better than anyone else. When I hear that we are only 15% non-white and non-Anglo, I feel inadequate, and my first thought is that we need to work harder so that we can become a majority minority congregation as soon as possible.

But fostering multiculturalism is one thing that no longer yields to conventional hard work. In the past fifty years we have done an enormous amount of hard work, and we have made great progress, both within this congregation, and in the country at large. It is now illegal to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity, and it is this congregation’s policy that we aim to be completely inclusive in terms of race and ethnicity. We have gone about as far as hard work can take us. And we’re still not there yet. And this brings me back to the reading from the Gospel of Thomas with which we began this service.

The Gospel of Thomas was one of the books that didn’t make it into the final approved and authorized version of the Christian Bible. It is, in fact, a heretical book, and therefore perfect for Unitarian Universalists. Chapter 97 of the Gospel of Thomas says this:

“Jesus said: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of flour. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the flour spilled out behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.”

What Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven is what we today would call the Web of Life; it is that network of inescapable bonds and connections that tie us to one another. The Web of Life exists whether you believe in it or not. Many people do not believe in the Web of Life; these people do not believe that all living organisms are interconnected in one planet-wide ecosystem that is tied together through the complex interaction of many different feedback loops. But whether you believe in it or not, the Web of Life exists.

Human relations are just a more specific part of this Web of Life. We human beings are all interconnected with each other, our destinies are intertwined with the destinies of all other human beings, whether we like to admit that fact or not.

This is the nature of existence. It does not matter whether you want it to be this way or not; it is this way, we are all connected. You do not have to work hard to make all human beings connect to one another; we are already connected to one another. Indeed, more often than not, hard work can actually obscure or even damage the connections between human beings. If I work more than 50 hours a week — something that I have to admit I have done more than once in the past month — I may get more work done, but I won’t make my connections with other human beings any stronger, and I may make them weaker. If I work too much, I won’t see Carol, my partner, as much as I should, and I will actively damage that relationship. If I work too much, I will get grumpy, and that grumpiness will play out here at church, and that’s only going to annoy people, and again damage my connections with other people.

This does not mean we should stop working. This does not mean that if we stop working altogether, some kind of utopia will emerge. Work, too, is part of the Web of Life; all organisms have to work to get the food and shelter they need to stay alive. But problems arise when we work too much. When we are working so hard that we are not paying adequate attention to what’s going on around us, we may find that the huge ceramic jar that we have been carrying slung over our backs has broken, and the flour that we were carrying has spilled out along the road behind us. And then we get home, and put the jar down, and look inside it, and find to our surprise that it is empty.

It is in that empty jar that we may find the Kingdom of Heaven. That empty jar is a wake-up call, a call for us to pay attention. Pay attention, because the Kingdom of Heaven is here and now, it is not some distant happy land you go to after death, nor is it some distant utopia that we will create one day in the future. The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now; the Web of Life is here and now.

As people who live in Silicon Valley, we are accustomed to doing the impossible. Given the long history of racial division in this country, creating a truly multicultural congregation is impossible. Yet we can do it. We can do it, but not by adding even more hard work to the hard work we have already done.

One of the things I like best about the ideal of Silicon Valley is the way playfulness is to Silicon Valley culture. In one paradigmatic example of this, I am told that when you go into one of Google’s buildings, there are places where you can play with Legos.

I would like to suggest to you that if we are going to achieve our dreams, if we are going to achieve the impossible and become a multicultural congregation that reflects the demographics of Silicon Valley — if we are going to be the first truly multicultural, multiracial, Unitarian Universalist suburban congregations — we will achieve that through ratcheting back on the hard work, and turning instead to playfulness.

In the Gospel of Thomas, the parable does not say that the Kingdom of Heaven is hard work. It is a playful parable that tells us the Kingdom of Heaven is like an empty jar. Yes, we still need some hard work. But we also need more Legos, more playfulness, more Second Sunday lunches, more conversations on the patio, more peering into an empty jar and laughing at ourselves for having not noticed that the flour had poured out on the road behind us.


And for your amusement, here’s a video I made using Xtranormal of this morning’s reading, as told by a robot:

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.