CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice

Work as Worship

This work is a four part sermon which Toni and I presented to the UUFC on 4/14/91 and, with some slight modification, to the TPUUF on 10/3/93. The text here is from the original service.

The program opened with a reading from "Worship" by Jacob Trapp, which says, in part, "To worship is to work with dedication and with skill; It is to pause from work and listen to a strain of music."

The service reflected our individual preferences (needs!) to "be doing something," to be a part of the process rather than mere spectators. This was the first formal intellectual work which Toni and I did together, despite having already been married for more than a quarter century at the time. While we were both satisfied by the result, the process was much more rewarding.

The program closed with two readings: I read "Work While It Is Day" by John Dwight Sullivan ("Work, and thou wilt bless the day ere the toil be done; They that work not, cannot pray, cannot feel the sun..."); Toni read a passage from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran: "Work is love made visible."

  What are we talking about, and why? (Toni)


Perhaps we should begin this morning's discussion by defining our terms. What do we mean by "work" and by "worship"?


Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary says that work is "bodily or mental effort to do or make something; purposeful activity."


Work is, to use James Fowler's phrases, what we spend ourselves for and are spent for.


When we speak of work we are not necessarily talking about jobs, for we can work without being paid and may be paid for activity which seems purposeless.


To speak of today's retirees, for example, as non-workers is clearly an absurdity. They teach illiterates to read, clean roadsides, publish newsletters, help in hospitals. They raise funds for museums and to meet the needs of children. They tend gardens, care for the young and make music for our services.


They may not have jobs, but they certainly work. They expend both bodily and mental effort to do and to make. Their lives are full of purposeful activity.


When I think about the contrast between work and job, Eric Hoffer comes to mind. He labored as a stevedore, a longshoreman. He was paid for that. He was a philosopher, author of several books. Which was his REAL work?


Work is not inherently unpleasant, not drudgery. It's not punishment. It need not be performed out of duty to authority (even God's) or to avoid punishment. Nor is it a matter of keeping out of trouble (deviltry) or of proving our worth. Work is choosing to do, to make, to act with purpose. It is natural for human beings.


Defining worship is trickier. Webster doesn't hand us a suitable description, being caught in conventional notions of rites and deity.


In a letter of challenge to the Fellowship last year1, Jonathan wrote of communal worship as "public, perhaps ceremonial, display of reverence and respect for the objects of our belief, for those things which we hold dear." That comes close.


I think, though, that for this discussion we might better define worship as celebration of ultimate values. In connotation, "celebration" is more active than displaying reverence and respect, and work is certainly active.


To celebrate: (Webster again) to observe (a holiday, anniversary etc.) with festivities; to perform a religious ceremony; to have a convivial good time. To celebrate is to show respect and or reverence in an active, joyful, festive way.


Ultimate values: All of us have values. Those that are most central and fundamental we call "ultimate." Each of us here may well have a slightly different list, with varying priorities. Some we probably hold in common:


The creation itself: nature in general and humans in particular.

Life, and the interconnectedness of living things.

Love, expressing the interconnectedness of people.

Respect for others, the basis of our democratic values.

Reason, as a tool.


Beauty may be on your list, or utility, or knowledge (sometimes thought of as "truth"). Humility may rank high, or responsibility, or justice.


Our values guide our choices and shape our experience of the world.




Work: bodily or mental effort to do or to make; purposeful activity.


Worship: celebration of ultimate values.


Today we explore how they fit together.




Our hymn2 answered that: "Let us then bring richer meaning to the world again." Let us return to work refreshed by the voice within, by communion with our ultimate values.



  The Shaker Example (Jonathan)


Kenneth Patton asks, "Why does a man work and what does he work for?"


Well, I work because, because... I work....


What is there to do, anyway?


There is work, there is personal maintenance (which seems to take longer every day!) and there is play.


And, of course, when all these are done, there is rest.


What distinguishes work from play?


Work is frequently regarded negatively: Hard work. Women's work is never done. "They should have hung the jerk who invented work."


Play, on the other hand is supposed to be fun. Children play, but child's play is often imitation of adult work. Adults play, but the basketball coach says, "We knew if we worked real hard we could get the job done."


The language is mixed, but the message is clear: play imitates work but to play at work is to be not serious, to be a dilettante.


Work, purposeful activity, force moving through distance, is the way we influence our surroundings, change our world, leave our mark. Play, a pastime, a way to pass time, leaves no lasting mark on us or others. Do you remember the score of the ninth Super Bowl? Do you remember the work of your life?


If work, the molding of our surroundings, is the central focus of life, can it be a sacramental act, an act of worship?


The Shakers made it so for nearly two hundred years.


Regard Ann Lee, an unlikely person to be a prophet. Born in 1736, in England, daughter of a poor blacksmith; five brothers, two sisters, married at 25, four children, all died in infancy. No stranger to hard work, hardship and misery. Subject to visions and revelations, she joined an obscure sect of Quakers who believed that the Second Coming was near. By 1770 she was preaching in Quaker meetings, breaking the Sabbath, causing unseemly disturbances. She and her small band of followers, fellow believers who shook in the imminent presence of the Lord, were by 1772 raising mobs with their message of the Second Coming and of the dispensation that, to be regenerated, to be born again in the coming Kingdom, one must repent and forsake all that is carnal.


In May 1774, Mother Ann Lee and eight followers sailed from Liverpool to the New World to organize the United Society of Believers otherwise known to us as the Shakers, for the emotional immediacy of their communal worship.


Out of their first covenant, came a new and peculiar faith in practice.


Its' attributes and tenets: recognition of native aptitudes and skills; respect for hand labor; strict equality of the sexes - a rejection of the male dominated trinity for a unitarian view, God as one, with equal male and female aspects; absolute celibacy; a desire for perfection in thought and deed; a drive for order, utility and improvement, "Where there is no order, there is no God," and communal use of all property, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness there of."


Ann Lee died before the particular form of the faith that we know emerged: Believers, gathered in to live together as families, but with no blood relation or sexual contact binding or separating their members, abiding together in orderly, industrious communities. Beginning with the Watervliet Community , these numbered twenty-three in all.


Never more than 6000 strong at their peak, the Shakers are all but gone now from the world. They have left an enduring legacy of work as worship.


Here, from Edward Horgan, is a testimony of their experience:3


"The communal life of the Shakers, based on the sharing of property and goods, clearly displayed the Shaker work ethic. Work was necessary for community and thus deserving to be performed with efficiency. Shakers at work made every task a prayer. Mother Ann had instructed her followers, "Put your hands to work and your hearts to God." Mother Ann had experienced intimately the lot of the laboring class; reverence for efficiently performed work was ingrained in her: "Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as if you knew you must die tomorrow," she taught.


The millennial Society was not for everyone. Mother Ann counseled, "Do not come unless you are able to take up the full cross." But for those who did, the Shaker experience afforded a fulfilling, healthy and long life, mixing hard work with intellectual stimulation and religious fervor.


And here4 is a contradiction: perhaps it teaches us that we are bound to come face to face with those things which we strive hardest to avoid:


A familiar Shaker box. Simple but complex.


Shaker Elder Frederick Evans speaks to us across the years:5


"The beautiful is absurd and abnormal. It has no business with us. The divine man has no right to waste money upon what you call beauty, in his house or daily life, while there are people living in misery."


But what beauty in simplicity!


What a simple, almost sensual shape from pure function!


Before Bauhaus, before Danish modern, before minimalism, before post-modernism, there was Shaker utilitarian simplicity. And out of strict function, out of reverence for work and its products, from the center of the Shaker spiritual mystery, arose great beauty.


The final two sections were more personal and entitled the same: "Work as Worship."

  Work as Worship (Toni)


The Shaker way was simple and beautiful, but to many it also seemed sterile, in more ways than one. In making the things they needed, however, they pointed to one kind of work which is truly worshipful.


We can all take part in the continuing creation. As Albert Einstein said,6 "The purpose of both art and science is to keep alive the cosmic religious feeling."


Each of us can experience art as process - a creative, spiritual experience.


Matthew Fox says:


"No person has the right to project onto someone else his or her responsibility for creativity and for carrying out the ongoing birth of the cosmos."

"The artist in each one of us needs to be let out of the closet. It deserves to be shared, to be wondered at, to be celebrated, and to be criticized. This letting out may take the form of story-telling and conversing; doing carpentry or repairs; writing or dancing; painting or parenting; singing or clowning."


In days past, Fox points out,


"Art as meditation could be almost taken for granted: The ability to grow one's own garden, to play a basic musical instrument, to sew, tell stories, relate to animals and to nature's seasons was widespread. But industrial society and urban living have changed much of this, and today we must make a conscious effort to develop the unconscious, the right brain, our mystical lives, by self expression or art."


This is a non-elitist perspective on art. Pablo Casals suggested the approach: "I have always regarded manual labor as creative and looked with respect - and, yes, wonder - at people who work with their hands." He has said and reports that he would have been a carpenter if his mother had not been so determined that he be a musician.


"The idea of 'professional artist' should be tossed away," Kenji Miyazawa wrote in Life as Art, "Everyone should feel as the artist does. Everyone should be free to let his or her inner mind speak to her. And everyone is an artist when she does this."


And the expression of the divine creative energy need not be limited to what we formally call "ART". Gardening, for example, is an excellent celebration of life and the cosmos. Thomas Berry points out:


"Gardening is an active participation in the deepest mysteries of the universe. By gardening our children [not just children] learn that they constitute with all growing things a single community of life. They learn to nurture and be nurtured."


Remember the activities on Fox's list: storytelling, carpentry and repairs, writing, sewing, parenting.


Nor must we all be doers of art (though we might be happier if we were). Appreciating the product of creative effort also celebrates the divine.


Thomas Merton points out:


"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. The mind that responds to the intellectual and spiritual values that lie hidden in a poem, a painting, or a piece of music, discovers a spiritual vitality that lifts it above itself."


I know that I NEED to work with my hands, to make things. During periods of my life when I have been very busy with "head" work, either words or numbers, so that I have not had the time or energy to sew or garden or weave, I've become a little crazy and somewhat depressed. I must have a balance that includes creating. Of necessity, I alternated work on this service with painting the bathroom woodwork and starting a flower garden.


Making things is not he only way to celebrate the creation. Matthew Fox again:


"A true artist is an intellectual who has ideas to share. By the same token, a true intellectual is an artist with ideas, passionately in love with their wonder and their consequences for humankind."


I've talked a lot about artistic and physical work, worshipful because they express and explore the divine creative energy. Let's look at some other kinds of work.


Science: explores the creation and tells about it.

Engineering: improves the quality of life.

Teaching: helps others to discover all they can be, enables them to achieve their goals.


The physician, the nurse, the psychologist, the counselor all help people to be whole, to be functional.


The librarian preserves knowledge and makes it accessible.


An administrator facilitates the creative work of others, makes order.


The attorney: helps to secure justice.


If you do not find in your work the carrying out of your ultimate values, perhaps you've chosen the wrong work...and very likely you do not like working.

  Work as Worship (Jonathan)


So, we have considered the meaning of work and of worship.


We have touched on a formal equality, work as prayer among the Shakers.


Artistic creativity and the human arts of helping have been seen as work and as worship, in so much as they touch on our ultimate values.


Now let us explore a central issue:


I, like the highwaymen of old, live by my wits rather than by the sweat of my brow. I am an intellectual; one of Virginia Wolfe's highbrows; and, as my thinning hair reveals an increasing expanse of forehead, truly an egghead


Like many of you, I am fortunate that my work, labors of mind and heart rather than of body and limb, and my job, professing to knowledge, are the same, at least most of the time.


Certainly there is much of my work in my job and I struggle valiantly against the rising tide of bureaucracy and of paper, to limit my job to my work.


But what about the work of the mind? Is it worship?


We professors do many things but today I will keep to one thing only, one which I share with most in this Fellowship: writing.


Mozart said7, "God gives me the notes, I write them down." A wise thought for a wise child who wrote his first major musical works before the age of ten.


Where do the words on the page come from?


I don't know.


Lacking Mozart's probable belief in a personalized deity, I am at a loss.


Let's think about writing - in fact, in writing these words, I am writing about thinking about writing and thus coming to know more about writing that I knew before.


Many years ago Toni told me that, for her, writing is a way of thinking, of sorting, arranging, setting straight and, most importantly, resolving her thoughts about a matter at hand, so that she can move on to other concerns.


There are many modes of writing: creative or descriptive, obligatory or voluntary, recreational or commercial, intense or superficial. However, I have found that all involve a common experience, differing only in depth of involvement, in degree of commitment.


Let me recount the phases of writing as I know them. Perhaps you have had similar experiences.


Writing begins with a tickle, a stirring, a seed planted and sprouting, a perception of need to make words about a subject or a concern.


Second: slow growth: a gathering of data, through talking, reading, reflecting, perhaps making notes.


Then: a latent period - a time when my attention is elsewhere, taken up with other matters.


Finally: the urge becomes an imperative that cannot be denied, nothing else can happen until the writing has been accomplished.


And what happens during writing?


Again, I must admit to ignorance. It is a period of intense effort but of great immobility. Two or three hours of eyes watching fingers deliver words leave me stiff, chilled, numb, sometimes almost literally speechless. I am as spent as a marathon runner at the finish line. I must get up, move about, read, as if to recharge a word battery, before I am marginally fit for human company again.


What goes on here?


Writing is a deep well, like the sacred cenotes of the Mayas. As if a Mayan king of the year, I prepare myself and then, when the time is right, in an act of faith and dedication, I take the deep plunge into darkness, without understanding the experience to come or its consequences.


I think that the process of writing is no different than that of personal prayer or meditation: recognition of a concern, a period of preparation, a purposeful, perhaps ritualistic, focusing of mind and spirit, and then an alert receptiveness.


Quakers at prayer wait in silence for an opening, for an illumination by an inner light.


I wait for the illumination of words.


As prayers are answered, so words come to the waiting writer.


Writing is for me a first cause leading to new answers.


I spend my life and spend of my life in its pursuit.


Writing is for me an approach to the ultimate.


I honor it, I revere it.


Therefore I say, while writing is work; the work of writing is worship.



1 See On Religious Activity

2 From all the Fret and Fever of the Day

3 The Shaker Holy Land (1987)

4 The reference here is to a oval wooden Shaker box, which I had bought some years before at the Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts, which was displayed to the congregation.

5 in Horgan, op. cit.

6 all of the quotations in this section are from Original Blessings (1983) by Matthew Fox

7 I don't know the source for this quotation; probably some long ago "music appreciation" class! However, similar statements were made in the very popular movie of Mozart's life, Amadeus.