Work as a Spiritual Practice

How many of us think of our work as something to get through instead of something to make us whole? How many of us box God up in a building we visit on Sunday so we can complain about how poorly things are going? Separation of life into parts- -work, family, spirit, romance, social…- -represents false dichotomies. Life is fuller and more satisfying if we integrate these allegedly different parts. How might we go about accomplishing such an integration? I recently wrote in my Journal:

Friends are not strangers to different reasons for having meeting for worship. We have meeting for worship with a concern for business, for marriage, for health and many other reasons. It is important to take what we learn in the meetinghouse and apply it to our everyday lives. So it is that I have had meeting for worship with a concern for kayaking. I frequently have meeting for worship with a concern for work and there is no reason that we could not have meeting for worship with a concern for cleaning the house for cooking dinner or any number of other reasons.

If we try this we find what early friends asserted to be true. Life is communion and our actions are sacramental. The individual pieces of these different practices of worship with a concern for this or that begin to merge and coalesce until we find we are practicing meeting for life.[1]

I am not so naïve as to pretend that most of the world treats work as a spiritual practice. I am, however, enough of a dreamer, an idealist, and a pragmatist to ask “what if we did?” What would the fruits be? Kindness? Patience? Caring? Companies have discovered that happy employees are more productive. That feeds the company’s bottom line. Their focus is on meeting needs a la Maslow, not on the ability of some unseen administrator to direct activities in such a manner as to make straight the ways. When we treat each other as Christ taught, amazing things happen. But I have gotten ahead of myself a bit.

There was a time I was unaware of the Presence in my work, or even the potential to be in conversation with God while at work. The word turned. The sun rose and set. I was master of (or the cause of) my own destiny. God was distant, uninterested in my doings. If we are to begin this process of “Meeting for Life,” it is necessary to unlock God from the confines of scripture and tradition. God is no longer remote or ancient or out of touch with today’s reality. Heshe is right here, right now. “OK,” you say, “So I commit to live a life of worship. Why should work be a practice of its own?”

Let’s start by defining a spiritual practice as any activity (physical, social, mental, worship, or otherwise) which improves our understanding and practice of living in right relationship to God. How can work help us be closer to God?

First, work is a huge part of life for (too) many of us. A typical 40-hour work week consumes almost a quarter of that week, about 2,000 hours of our lives of the 8,700 in a year. Time is abundant, but it is also short. Opportunities abound every day to ask “where is God in this (situation, policy, person…)? How should I respond in a way that is true to my faith tradition? We can effect positive change on many levels, from the micro to the macro. By speaking up about unjust policies, we live faithfully. By responding to that of God in our coworkers (even if they provide us with generous amounts of aggravational therapy)[2], we experience the two-way street of ministering to each other. We grow. They grow. In my journal I wrote:

The root of the word vocation comes from Latin, and means voice. In this context, to let your life speak takes on a different feel. Whatever we do, our actions speak louder than our words. Inward peace is expressed often unconsciously as outward peace. The corollary is true of turmoil. Within this ministry of vocation, we are parents, coworkers, spouses, lovers. Our ministry may not be where we feel called, and it may not be where we feel our gifts lie. We may not feel that God speaks through us as parents (read: bosses, supervisors or employees), and we may or may not feel that we have gifts to offer our children (read: employees and coworkers). But by doing the work of parenting, we are engaged in ministry whether or not we think we are. The same is true of our “day jobs.”[3]

When we understand work as spiritual practice, it furthers the work of Spirit in others (and often in our selves). It enriches boring or repetitive tasks. Unexpected inspiration arrives. Third way emerges.

An auctioneer was trying to get an opening bid. He called and called. Finally someone offered a lowball bid. He responded “I hadn’t thought of that.” Bidding then proceeded past his original starting point. Once we become aware that this phenomenon occurs, we see it frequently. Perhaps we are observant enough to wonder why we didn’t notice it before.

Everything we do- -even the smallest act of kindness – -is humbly offered up as a way to make the world a better place. We rarely know our place in the scheme of things. Sometimes we’re the opening bidder, often an intermediate bidder (part of the process, a facilitator), sometimes the “successful” bidder (though it may not seem that way to us).

Second, work offers a different vantage point for us to examine the questions “what is God doing?” and “How am I to respond?” We experience a different context and set of perspectives. I see different things when I stand at the base of a tree than I do when I am up in the crown. For instance, birds sometimes fly underneath me when I’m 60 feet or more above the ground. Yet both views are true. Some ways, the work of aligning our lives with the Divine is about garnering and incorporating as many viewpoints, as much of the richness of life, as possible. What we see and come to understand at work is (often) different from what we see in other parts of our lives. Often there is crossover: lessons from work about how to treat others apply to the way we treat our lover (who might just be our spouse).

Third, work can serve as a framework on which conversations with the Divine occur. While this is true for the rest of life, the fruits of the spirit from work have a different savor than those from the other parts of life. If we think that our job is limited to the production of widgets we are only seeing half of the work at hand:

We misperceive that the work at hand is the accomplishment of an observable task, rather than anything deeper. It took a long time to realize that when I went to visit my mother, it wasn’t to clean the gutters, mow the grass….or the rest of the arm-long list she had made up. “It” was sitting at the kitchen table sharing what was going on in my life, talking philosophically. And even that wasn’t “it.” We could be silent and she was grateful for my presence. “It” was about being present. The “work,” the tasks on the list, didn’t matter. The real work was being there.[4]

In order to address this idea that there is more to work than work, I can identify four broad categories which can help us live into work as a spiritual practice: reflection, revelation, conviction and opportunities.

  1. Reflection is when we stop or pause to ask. In the example above, it is stopping to think about the nature of the work at hand. Questions formed as queries are helpful. Am I working to further God’s purposes for humans and the planet? For a long time, the answer was yes. I’m doing the yardwork. It is possible to reflect on things from the minute to the global level: Why did I yell at George? Is our company’s policy on waste consistent with its witness as a steward of the environment? What would a “how to” model for this discipline look like?Many of us are ignorant (in the sense that we are unaware) of anything larger than our observable circumstances. Others are just lazy. Like the licensing agreement for some software program, we check “I agree” without reading the fine print. In the book “Influence,” Robert Cialdini observes that in the modern world we are confronted with a huge amount of sensory input. One way we cope with this overload is to run on autopilot. When we encounter generic (or what we think are generic) situations, we just go with the default or majority opinion. Most of the time that works. The problem arises in the disconnect between what humans tend to value (worldly or temporal, ephemeral things) and the eternal “riches” of God. When we are faced with whether to go with the flow or buck it, it is important to choose the path that leads towards the eternal.
  2. Brother Lawrence was a 7th century monk. He came to treasure the time he spent in the garden and especially in the kitchen doing what others considered menial (work of the hands) work. He found it easiest to hear or connect to God while doing this kind of work. We learn to pray without ceasing. Pick up a “dish” (whatever your work is). Your hands wash it. You converse with God as you would with a coworker. Ask questions. Offer yourself. Seek. Listen. A silent conversation. It can be hard work, and the answers don’t always suit us.

At the end of a job, the logger sent part of a load of logs to the sawmill. The sawmill said some of the logs were rotten. After paying the truck driver and his crew, there was $75.00 left for the landowner. The landowner was outraged and claimed the logger was trying to screw him. Surely a load of logs was worth more than $75.The logger could have just pretended the load never existed- -the landowner would have been none the wiser. Instead, he got chewed out for being honest. Faith isn’t always easy.

Within this context of worldly & eternal, it is important to consider “noise,” for noise makes listening and faithful response even harder. It comes in two different types: internal noise makes it difficult to hear God. Whatever is on your mind, it is helpful to leave behind when entering into spiritual silence. Buddhists refer to this mental noise as “monkey mind” because it is similar to the behavior of monkeys: always restless. External noise consists of the sounds of the world: traffic, sirens, a factory, weedeaters…. It can be blocked out (or at least not be a distraction) with discipline. It is, therefore, possible to worship in the median of a busy expressway if your mind is still. Reflection is a listening conversation.

  1. Revelation is the aha-moment when we realize the answer or some deeper (universal or overarching) truth. Sometimes it creeps up on us on its little cat feet.[5] God is still speaking, sometimes reaffirming “old” knowledge, sometimes giving new insights into our relationship with Him. While the chores need to be done, what mom really needs is attention, love, presence. I yelled at George because I’m frustrated with myself. Our company can do a better job of environmental stewardship….
  2. Conviction is when we realize that we have been called to change. Early Friends spoke of the experience when the Light of Christ revealed the places their lives were out of line with Scriptural teachings. This they called Gospel order, each part (gospel and order) having a distinct meaning. Sandra Cronk writes:

In this context, “it (gospel) is the actual life, power and reality of the relationship with God….Order refers to the characteristics of daily living which flow from God’s life & power and which allow the community to deepen its relationship with Christ.”[6]

With this understanding, we are shown where our work lives and corporate culture are out of line with Divine intention. The conviction comes when we realize that we are the ones called to instigate change. It could be referred to as a “Moses moment:” when we say “No God. You’ve got the wrong person,” and the response is “no mistake here, junior.”

  1. Opportunity is way opening. By understanding and recognizing our conviction, we are better able to see where God is (and isn’t) in people, policies and situations we face daily. Because of our own imperfect natures, humility is essential. Community can be helpful as a sounding board. By understanding where God is, we are better able to see the path ahead. These opportunities can include promoting conflict resolution techniques in the workplace or social and economic justice to society. The path is not necessarily easy; people in positions of power rarely like to be told that their way needs to be changed.

My goal is not so much to provide a roadmap as to assert that work as a spiritual practice is realistic and quite possible. Very few of us leap tall buildings in a single bound. It is important to recognize that change is gradual and incremental. We didn’t learn to walk in a day. Or ride a bike. Or drive. Or love. Most things worth attaining require patience and persistence. Combine patience and persistence with the realization God can reach us in any way possible, and then that all (good) things are possible. Fear and anxiety melt. The starting place is to ask: reflection.

What would work as spiritual practice look like? What would be different?

Breathe through the heats of our desires thy coolness and thy balm…let all our strivings cease[7] Let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace

I do residential trimming and tree removal. When this way of working is practiced, the climb becomes effortless. The branches swing with a grace that is not mine to confer. We move entire trees, often entirely by hand. One piece at a time, we accomplish the undoable. Gratitude is directed outward as praise, not inward to self-congratulation. Even if you choose not to believe in god, this change in focus is transformative. It is manifested in reverence for the tree. It is understanding of the tree that the secular world claims is beyond reason. It is the experience of reverence for the gifts that allows me and my crew to do the work. On the one hand, patience becomes a practice. On the other, so does tenacity. Way opens. Obstacles become challenges. Nothing is insurmountable.

[1] Melville. Journal 3 (unpublished) Jan. 18, 2015

[2] Anything described as therapy is good for you, right? That’s true even if it’s not fun at the time, like physical therapy.

[3] Melville. Journal 2 (unpublished) Nov. 24, 2013

[4] Melville. Image journal (unpublished) 12-23-12

[5] An allusion to the Emily Dickinson poem “Fog.” Related to the assertion that “God didn’t answer my prayer.” Yes, She did. The answer was a.) below your radar; b.) not what you expected, c.) not what you wanted; or d.) something else.

[6] Sandra Cronk. Gospel Order Pendle Hill pamphlet 297. 1991

[7] Dear Lord and Father of Mankind (hymn)

3 thoughts on “Work as a Spiritual Practice

  1. Suzanne C

    You really should consider submitting this piece to Friends Journal. I think this article both fits their business column and speaks to a very important part of being a modern Quaker.

  2. Mary

    Wow! Good thoughts. I’ve always considered my work in this way but recently I began to think of my running in this way. Am currently expanding to house cleaning, gardening, dog walking….
    Thanks for sharing. I’m sorry our paths didn’t cross at ESR


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