Americans are proud of the fact that we have always taken our work ethic very seriously. Have you heard the statistic that manufacturing employees in our country work the equivalent of almost 2 months more than their counterparts in Germany and France? This statistic may cause some to believe that we take work a little too seriously. A humorous news release from the Willy Wonka Candy factory announced that the deputy executive director of laffy taffywrappers was dismissed because jokes on the wrapper were deemed unfunny. For example, “Which garden has the fastest growing vegetables?” The answer: Flash Garden. The company will address this by creating a humor study group that will review all wrapper jokes, such as where did the kittens go on the class trip? To the meow-seum. And why was it hard for the geometry teacher to walk? She broke her angle.
Work is a serious matter! As difficult as it is to get humor in our work, it is even more difficult to be spiritual at work. How do we fit spirituality into our day to day work schedule? We perceive spirituality as set apart from work, reserving Sundays for being spiritual when in fact we are spiritual beings every moment of every day.
I agree with the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, we feel as if “religion has to be smuggled into life.” It definitely has to be smuggled into the workplace. I’m not talking about inviting everyone to church with whom you work, or evangelizing others with messages regarding faith on your desk or door. What is happening inside ourselves when we approach the task that we consider work is my main concern today. When we become spiritual workers, we avoid living “lives of quiet desperation” to which Henry David Thoreau referred. Our work takes on a new level of meaning as the egocentricity which propels us to achieve and succeed is replaced by a new drive that uses compassion, love, kindness, and serving others as its fuel. We will still work as hard as we ever have, maybe even harder, yet the fruits of our labors will not be dedicated solely to our own ends. We will see our work as serving not only our own needs, but also the needs of the global community. We can develop a spiritual orientation in which our work becomes the way that we encounter the very presence of God. Holy Scripture gives us the story of the first humans’ work as being a model of working in partnership with God. Remember when in the Garden of Eden God instructed Adam to care for the garden? The Garden of Eden was a partnership, a collaboration, a metaphor for how we might work in the world — a communion with God our Creator. Life in the garden consisted of walking with God in pleasant conversation. Adam and Eve were aligned with God’s will, the Earth was cooperative, it sustained them and they enjoyed life. After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were punished with toilsome work on the earth and the pain of childbirth.
Bill Cosby wrote a book on fatherhood that touched on this story. Cosby states that Adam and Eve were not the first parents, but the first children- so God being the first parent. After God puts Adam and Eve in this garden, instructs them not to eat the forbidden fruit, they immediately ask God where the fruit is. After they eat the forbidden fruit, God asks them why they did it. Then comes the classical answer that children through the ages echo, “I don’t know.” God then pronounces a curse upon them, removing them from the garden, and telling them to be blessed and multiply. “They didn’t realize it just then, but kids were a part of the curse.” Cosby guesses what God might have been thinking, “I’ll show you what it is like to have kids who eat forbidden fruit. I’m going to give you kids, too.”
This illuminates why we feel so alone and so apart from God in our work and our child rearing. At some level we may feel as if we have been set adrift in the world of work apart from God’s guidance. Within each of us there is a garden that we wish we could return to, or we wish we could create, but on our own accord we feel as if it is never going to happen.
Several years ago my wife Christine and I attended a conference in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. We met Julie Moir Messervy, a native of Northfield, author of the book The Inward Garden which presents a very interesting theory. Our childhood, experiences, and memories have created within us an archetypal garden. This garden represents our greatest comfort and security. Some have within a garden that looks like an island. Some may have a garden that appears to be a mountain in which they are on top looking down all around. For some the garden may be a cliff, an overlook, a promontory, while for others a garden may be hovering above the earth in the sky. For many the garden may be a cave shape, or represent the sea with a lot of water, or even a harbor. These gardens are set deep in our memory and may be consciously or self-consciously imagined.
Once my family built a small wall within our garden. We briefly wondered whether or not it would fit, but once it was in and completely built, the decision had become a done deal. Maybe sometimes we make walls in our garden that do not seem to fit our ideal landscape. Maybe there is something in our lives that has become a part of our garden that we didn’t choose. Maybe there is a wall that has been put up that needs to come down. It could be a resentment, a need to forgive or be forgiven, a hurt, a prejudice, or the consequences of a bad decision. It could be a memory that we cannot release. Even in the realm of emotions and ideas, that wall could feel so tangible and set in place, even one might say, permanent. The good news of the day is that we can renew the garden by removing that wall. It can be done!
Adam may have left the garden, but the story of the Bible describes how the garden is always redeemed and made whole again. If we look at the story of the Israelites going through the garden for 40 years, a garden that was barren and literally the desert, they finally entered the promised land, a land of milk and honey as Scripture says. Then if we look at the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus struggled in prayer, we eventually find him in the garden of the resurrection calling Mary by name.
Whatever walls that have been constructed that prevent us from truly being what God wants, those walls can come down and we can be made whole again.
On a larger scale our church struggles with issues such as genocide in Darfur and Sudan, and with the hunger and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. When ambassador to Sudan Rich Williamson addressed our church recently, he unfolded the need for justice and food relief with crisis terminology. There are few times the world is united around a cause. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world could unite and attend to that region with the same energy it has devoted recently to the threat of swine flu? Ambassador Williamson informed me in a related document that “…under a business as usual scenario, with climate change taken into account, the number of undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa could triple between 1990 and 2080.”
The statistics for poverty are staggering. The gulf seems to be so wide that it may seem an impossible task to address. However, there is hope that these farmers can be trained and measures can be taken to make their garden flourish. When Mother Teresa was working in the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, someone asked her, “How in the world do you think you can actually make progress? There are so many people, and the need is so great. How can you tend to the sick and the dying knowing that you will not be successful with everyone?”Mother Teresa answered, “We are not here to be successful. We are here to be faithful.”
We need to look at this problem with an attitude of will we be faithful. That is how we began to tear down that wall. It looks as if it is too substantial, but nothing is impossible with God. We need to be faithful to a higher sense of ourselves, faithful to a long-term goal and vision that reaches beyond ourselves and what we are individually capable of toward what we are capable of as we work together in the fellowship that we have- because the fellowship we share is in partnership with God. We may wonder if we are welcome into God’s partnership, but God answers that question again and again in Scripture, especially in that resurrection scene when Jesus greets Mary. Yes, we are welcome and we can begin working with God again. Anthony de Mello’s One Minute Wisdom has a businessman asking how to do this. A holy man tells the businessman, “As the fish perishes on dryland, so you perish when you get entangled in the world. The fish must return to the water, you must return to solitude.” The businessman was aghast. “Must I give up my business and go into the monastery?” “No, no. Hold onto your business and go into your heart.”
So we can bring God back into the workplace. There is a Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, I saw only mountains; after beginning the practice of Zen, I saw mountains and something more; finally, now, I once again see only mountains.” The point of that is, if we reflect upon our business life and how God fits, eventually we will not see the two as separate. We will come to a point where the dichotomy between Sunday and the rest of the week will be less distinct. Maybe we can reach a point of enlightenment when we discover God in the garden again. Maybe our personal lives and work can be redeemed to include God’s guidance in what we do and how we design and care for our world. A contemporary poet put the Garden of Eden and the Garden Tomb in a poem that represents this transformation that brings our partnership with God back into focus.
“Walking in a garden at the
close of day,
Adam tried to hide him when
he heard God say:
‘Why are you so frightened,
why are you afraid?
You have brought the winter in,
made the flowers fade.’
“Walking in a garden at the
break of day,
Mary asked the gardener where
the body lay; but he turned
toward her, smiled at her and
‘Mary, spring is here to stay,
only death is dead.’”
What a story the Bible teaches us. When we are weeping in the garden and feel all is lost, suddenly God calls us by name and beckons us to rise to new life. That garden is a long way from the garden of Eden. Once again we are conversing with God in our work, making a new beginning.
Let us conclude with E.B. White’s description of watching his wife plant bulbs in her garden. Facing the end of the battle with cancer, he sees her in the last autumn of her life. “There was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance…the small hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her days (which she knew perfectly well was near at hand) sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in dying October, calmingly plotting the resurrection.”
May we open our hearts and bring God into our work, that the partnership with God will bless the fruits of our labor. Let the garden we tend replace a garden of hunger, pain, past frustration or mistakes, insecurities or fears, with a garden that is the greatest hope of the future – a garden built on earth that feeds all of God’s people from the heavenly garden of God’s grace.
Ambassador Williamson quote: Renewing American Leadership in the Fight Against Global Hunger and Poverty, The Chicago Initiative on Global Agricultural Development, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Poem- “Walking in a Garden,” A New Hymnal for Colleges and Schools, edited by Jeffry Rowthorn and Russell Schulz-Widmar [New Haven”: Yale University Press] 1992.