Spiritual Growth and the Workplace

This sermon was preached by Dan Harper at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 1998 Daniel Harper.

I’ve included this sermon because it’s the only sermon of mine that actually convinced someone to become a Unitarian Universalist (at least, that’s what he told me later).


The reading is by Henry David Thoreau, from the chapter “The Bean-field” in his book Walden:

“Meanwhile, my beans, the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles already planted, were impatient to be hoed, for the earliest had grown considerably before the latest were in the ground; indeed, they were not easily to be put off. What was the meaning of this so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor, I knew not. I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus. But why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows. This was my curious labor all summer, — to make this portion of the earth’s surface, which before had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort and the like, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse. What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work. It is a fine broad leaf to look on. My auxiliaries are the dews and rains which water this dry soil, and what fertility is in the soil itself, which for the most part is lean and effete. My enemies are worms, cool days, and most all woodchucks. The last have nibbled me a quarter of an acre clean. But what right had I to oust johnswort and the rest, and break up their ancient herb garden? Soon, however, the remaining beans will be too tough for them, and go forth to meet new foes.”

SERMON — “Spiritual Growth and the Workplace”

My girlfriend and I were talking on the phone early last week, making plans on what to do for this weekend, the last weekend of my vacation.

“Don’t forget that I’m preaching on Sunday morning,” I said.

“Oh, that’s right,” she said. “What’s the title of your sermon?”

“‘Spiritual Growth and the Workplace’,” I said.

There was a silence at the other end of the line. Then she said, “Boy, that will pack them in, won’t it.”

I said, “I guess it isn’t that great a sermon title, is it.”

She said, “It’s kind of an oxymoron. Spiritual growth — and the workplace?”

As usual, she’s right on all counts. My apologies for the title. But no apologies — yet, anyway — for the subject matter. I keep reading articles about finding or creating work that doesn’t crush your spirit. Susanna Whitman will be speaking from this pulpit next week on “Meaningful Work” — she and I came up with our sermon topics independently. I keep hearing people talk about whether or not they find spiritual fulfillment in their job. I think we’re beginning to see that there is a profound connection between spiritual growth and the workplace. I think people are finding that they want jobs that pay reasonably well and have decent benefits, but that people also want some kind of spiritual fulfillment from their jobs.

You’ll have to wait until next week to find out from Susanna about meaningful work. I’m going to assume that you’re stuck with the job you have. Given that, how is it possible to achieve spiritual growth in the workplace?

Henry David Thoreau, in his usual fashion, gives contradictory advice on work. On the one hand, he strongly advocates that we work as day laborers — it’s the best form of work, says Henry Thoreau, because it leaves you free from long-term entanglements so that you can see your job for what it is, just a means for making some ready cash when you happen to need ready cash.

But on the other hand, in his book Walden, Henry Thoreau writes eloquently about the joys of hoeing beans — hoeing beans! — which has to be one of the most tiresome forms of drudgery and toil I have ever experienced. Yet somehow, in this most menial of tasks, he manages to find a spiritual dimension.

Which leads me to recall one of the most tiresome jobs I have ever had in my checkered career. I think the least promising job I ever had — I mean least promising in terms of potential for spiritual fulfillment and enlightenment — was when I worked selling lumber and building materials to residential building contractors for about six years.

Sales is hardly a spiritual job. You are judged not by the quality of your soul but by your sales figures, that is, by how much you have sold figured in terms of gross dollar volume and in terms percentage of net profit. Where I worked, we routinely worked 50 or more hours a week. We were out on the sales floor or on the telephone hustling sales from 7:30 in the morning until past 5 in the evening. It was a high-pressure, low-status job, two thirds of the time talking on the phone with customers or suppliers and the other third taking care of who ever came into the store. We made decent money — if the economy was good, though when construction fell off in the economic slump of the late 80’s, I remember taking a 15% cut in pay in the course of a year.

Where’s the spiritual side to that job? — running around trying to squeeze more money out of building contractors. Doesn’t seem likely that there was much spiritual matter there, does it? Yet as it turned out — surprisingly — there was a profoundly spiritual side to being a salesman.

First, understand that sales is founded on the relationships that you build with other people. Whatever product knowledge I may have had, good prices that I may have been able to come up with — these were important, but no more important than the quality of the relationship I had with people. Now a cynical approach would have been to adopt a persona that was pleasing to most people — to put on that plastic personality, to wear that Teflon smile. But early in my career, as I recollect, I talked to an older salesman — we’ll call him Andy — a guy who’d been selling building materials for 20-odd years, and who was pretty good at it.

“How do you do it, Andy?” I said to him. “What’s your secret to sales?”

Andy said, “I treat everyone exactly the same.”

Treat everyone exactly the same. I began to watch him, and he did just that. He treated the whining, pain-in-the-neck, small-purchase homeowner the same as the millions-of-dollars-a-year contractor. In the profoundly sexist world of lumber sales, he treated women exactly the same as he treated men. In a place where, at that time, it was still O.K. to make racist remarks, he treated African-Americans and Hispanics exactly the same as he treated the privileged Yankee WASPs.

More than that, Andy treated — and still treats, he’s still working as a salesman — he treated everyone with decency and respect. I watched him, and I began to try to do the same kind of thing. It was tough, let me tell you — when you have a customer screaming obscenities at you over the phone for no good reason, it’s tough to continue to treat them with decency and respect the next time you see them!

But I kept at it, kept working away at it. What began to happen, as I tried to follow this fairly simple idea of treating everyone with the same decency and respect, what began to happen was that I began to change. I found I had to recognize, to become aware of my prejudices about people — and then I had to try to make sure that my prejudices didn’t affect how I dealt with a given person — at least, not much. I had to look for the humanity in every person I dealt with, no matter what they looked like on the outside, no matter how they treated me.

When I started, my goal was simple: do this so I could become a better salesman and make more money. But over time, I think it became an end in itself — it became a real, if unusual, form of spiritual practice. However, unlike what we usually think of as spiritual practice — sitting cross-legged in a Zen Buddhist monastery, doing contemplative prayer at a retreat center, going to church Sunday morning — this was a spiritual practice that took place out in the world, for 50 or more hours each week, in a decidedly un-contemplative environment.

Of course, there is a place for spiritual practices that require some degree of removal from the world. You should still come to church once a week! What I am saying here is that there is also a place for spiritual practice in everyday life. Spiritual practice can take place in the most unlikely places — including in workplaces that at first glance are deadening to the spirit.

That reminds me of another job I had, one that was more spiritually fulfilling, though it didn’t pay enough to pay my bills. 15 years ago, I worked for a year as a sculptor’s apprentice. The sculptor I worked for was, at that time, enamored of medieval sculpture, particularly the sculptors of the Gothic cathedrals. Those of us who worked for him — the foundry master, the other apprentice, his students — of course shared his fascination with the Gothic sculptors. We began to see ourselves inheritors of that great traditions of medieval sculptors. At some point, some one came up with a Latin phrase that we all began to repeat: “Omni ad majorem gloriam Dei” — Which translates as “all for the greater glory of God.” Supposedly this phrase was current among Gothic sculptors, and the meaning of the phrase — to us, anyway — was that these Gothic sculptors felt they were working to a standard greater than just a human standard — that somehow, everything they made was made as an offering to their conception of God, that God was watching everything they did. To use the words of the hot dog commercial: “We have to answer to a higher authority.”

Mind you, none of us took this phrase literally for ourselves. I think most of us were atheists, and none of us believed so literally in a God who watched over our shoulders as we worked. Nonetheless, we believed in the spirit of this phrase. We weren’t working just to please the boss — though of course we had to please the boss — we were working to do the best job we could do. And more than that, everything we did, even the most tiresome jobs — scraping the floors clean, shoveling and packing sand around the molds — everything was at some level important. What we did was important, and how we did it was important.

The old Gothic sculptors might have said that what they were doing was working as if work was a kind of prayer. Over the years, I’ve continued to think about that as a possibility — work as prayer. I think that’s what Henry Thoreau is getting at when he writes about hoeing his beans, work as a kind of prayer.

Now I have to tell you, I have always had a hard time understanding this whole notion of prayer. When Dana Greeley was the minister of First Parish of Concord, the Unitarian Universalist church I grew up in, we said the Lord’s Prayer together in church about once or twice a month. I have to tell you, it never did anything for me. Still doesn’t. Since then, I’ve tried various methods of praying, since I felt I should — never got much out of it, always seemed more trouble than it’s worth. There’s a pamphlet called “Unitarian Universalist Views of Prayer,” and I for one feel strongly that there should be a section of that pamphlet titled “Prayer Is a Crock of Malarkey.”

Yet at the same time, I’ve long been fascinated with Paul’s advice to the Christian community at Thessalonica. Paul wrote: “Pray without ceasing!” What does he mean by that? How can you pray without ceasing?

I was first made truly aware of Paul’s advice in J. D. Salinger’s book Franny and Zooey. In the book, Franny comes across a little book called “The Way of the Pilgrim,” a Russian book that tells how a Russian peasant discovered one way to pray without ceasing. This Russian peasant’s method of praying without ceasing was to repeat the same words over and over again: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on my soul,” until those words became something he did automatically, like breathing. Franny runs into some problems when she tries to overcome her own spiritual crisis through using this Russian peasant’s method of ceaseless prayer — Salinger almost tells us “Don’t try this at home, folks!”

Well, I was young and foolish when I read Salinger’s book, and so I tried doing the Jesus prayer — though being a good Unitarian Universalist, I left off the words “Lord” and “Christ” — and it didn’t work for me. But later in the story, Salinger quotes from the “Bhagavad Gita”:

You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.

Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme God. Renounce all attachment to the fruits [of work]. Be even-tempered; for it is the evenness of temper which is meant by yoga.

Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in a knowledge of Brahman. They who work selfishly for results are miserable.

That makes sense to me. Don’t think I’m suggesting that we all go tear up our paychecks and work for free — that’s hardly the point! The point is that there is more to work than just working for money, or for results. In spite of what Western culture tells us, the point of work is not the paycheck that you get — it’s not that competitive sense of being better than someone else. If the Bhagavad Gita is describing a form of prayer, then this is a form of prayer that makes sense to me.

Work for the sake of working — the work becomes a kind of prayer. When I was a salesman, sales became for me a matter of treating everyone exactly the same. That was the essence of being a good salesperson — I think maybe that’s the essence of every job where you work with people. So work becomes a spiritual matter, and only so is it truly worth doing — or at times, really, even at all bearable.

Perhaps that’s a pretty mundane conclusion to reach: work for the sake of working. Yet thus considered, work can be revealed as the spiritual matter that it truly is. Too often, I know I have treated my jobs as a necessary evil, as something to be endured, as a means to getting a paycheck. Always, when I have done that, I haven’t been particularly happy with my job. Slowly I have been trying to learn to see the work as an end in itself, even when the work seems mundane or stressful or demeaning. Especially at moments that are mundane, stressful, or demeaning.

The old Gothic sculptors vowed to do everything for the greater glory of God. We who are humanists, or neo-pagans, or Christians with a very different understanding of God, we with our many and diverse understandings can’t echo those old Gothic sculptors exactly. But perhaps we can say something similar, using an old Universalist formula:

In everything we do, in the workplace and elsewhere, we can fix our hearts on hope, and on courage, and on love.