A Sermon by Rev Grant H. Odhner
Preached in Rochester,Michigan January 19, 1992
OUR DAILY WORK
It is a common phenomenon that something we begin doing with a sense of higher purpose, in time loses its higher purpose and becomes a rote habit that serves self. For example, we begin giving of our time or money to some “cause” from an unselfish sight of its value, from an idealism and willing sense of duty. But after a while our motives and thoughts subtly drift to our own advantage. First, the thrill of the newness wears off. We do it without much forethought or reflection. Then we find ourselves thinking of our financial contribution (for example) as a tax deduction. Or we find ourselves helping out because we “said we would” or because we want to be thought well of.
This isn’t always the case with noble actions that become habitual. Over a long period of time many of the things we do “on principle” become “internalized” so that we don’t reflect self-consciously about them. We do them spontaneously from unselfish love.
How does this happen? How do our values become internalized in this way? It happens with effort. We need to go through the process of applying principles to our daily lives in a deliberate, self-conscious way. This involves something we might call “pairing”: we deliberately pair with our “working thoughts” higher thoughts about what we are doing and why.
When we’re doing the dishes, for example, we might reflect that washing dishes is a rather low-level job. We reflect on the uses associated with it: it protects us from disease; it enables us to carry on with other uses (viz. tomorrow). We think of the impact that a messy, dish-strewn kitchen has on our attitudes, on the atmosphere of our home, on our own sense of initiative. We think of the uses involved in eating: nourishing the body so that it can work, relaxing and delighting the mind after work, bringing household members together, both physically and spiritually. All these higher uses depend on dishes. And many more things could be mentioned, because all higher uses rest in lower ones: spiritual uses on the natural, domestic, and physical: eternal uses on the daily.
In anything that we are doing any act, any task, any recreation we can do this: we can pair with our present enjoyment or drudgery higher thoughts. This lifts us to a new plane of functioning. And with time and practice it brings a greater sense of delight and purpose to whatever it is we are doing.
The Writings of the New Church provide us with many “higher thoughts” that have the power to elevate the quality of our lives. Among these are some about the neighbor whom we are to love.
All might agree that loving the Lord and loving one’s neighbor as oneself are the essence of religion. These two loves make a Christian. But how do we go about expressing this love? How do we love rightly?
There’s a lot of confusion in our world about what charity (Christian love) is, and about what our primary focus should be in trying to live the religious life. Most Christian churches (other than Fundamentalists) see loving the neighbor primarily as feeling pity for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and for those who are the victims of social inequity or injustice. They suppose that love is best shown by giving money and providing assistance of various kinds. Other aspects of life are evidently viewed as means to the higher end. Having a job, for example, is a means to earning money, and affording leisure time, which we can share with the needy. In any case, this is certainly the order of priority that their clergy would set.
My point here is not to criticize other churches. Rather I want to set a contrast between this common emphasis and that offered in the Writings of the New Church. The Writings teach that the primary way we love the Lord and our neighbor is by doing the work of our particular calling sincerely, justly and faithfully (see AC 4730:3, 4783:5; D. Wis XI:5; Life 114; SE 6105; TCR 422ff). This is “charity” in the proper sense.
Our “calling” is whatever we happen to be doing as our main employment, what we are busy with day-to-day, whether we are retired, whether we are a mother, a professional, a laborer, a student, or whatever. This is what we are spending most of our mental and physical energy on. This is where Providence has placed us. This is the main arena of our usefulness (or our potential usefulness) to others and to society.
To appreciate why our job should be our main focus as a Christian, and how doing it “sincerely, justly, and faithfully” is loving both the Lord and our neighbor, we need to understand the concept of “use” as the Writings teach it.
Everyone’s life and happiness depend on the common good. We owe so much of our well-being to the health of our nation, our society, and to the health of the various groups of which we are a part! (We easily take this for granted.) And what makes for the common good? We are invited to see that it springs chiefly from the jobs that individuals perform in society, and particularly from the integrity, both personal and occupational, which they bring to their work. When everyone is useful in his or her work, the whole benefits. Each person’s use fits into a whole complex of inter-dependent and complementary uses. Together these make up the common good. Contributing to this common good, from love for it and for the people it blesses, is the essential expression of Christian love and charity (see Char 126-157).
It is easy to be misled into thinking that Christian love is expressed most strongly in acts of generosity and kindness toward people. When someone does something kind for us personally, we notice it. We are aware of the delight that it gives us. This kind of action is tangible. Therefore we tend to think that such acts are the primary acts of love.
But this is not the case! Such acts are important (as we will touch on later) and yet they are secondary. For the greatest good that can be given to any person is the good that comes to them from the common good. And this could not exist without each person doing his or her own daily duties faithfully, justly, and sincerely.
Heaven, more perfectly than here, is a “kingdom” of uses that together make a one. Note how the angels of the highest heaven view their main job:
They have no idea that loving the Lord is anything else than doing goods which are uses, and they say that uses are the Lord with them. By “uses” they understand the uses and good works of ministry, administration, and employment, as well with priests and magistrates as with merchants and workmen. The good works that are not connected with their occupation they do not call uses; they call them alms, benefactions, and gratuities” (D. Love XIII).
We find a similar teaching in the Doctrine of Life applies to us here:
Christian charity with everyone consists in faithfully performing what belongs to one’s calling; for by this, if one shuns evils as sins, one is doing goods every day, and is himself his own use in the general body. In this way also the common (or general) good is cared for, and the good of each person in particular. All other things one does are not the proper works of charity, but are either its signs, its benefactions, or its obligations (Life 114, emphasis added).
This passage raises another reason why our occupation is to be considered our primary focus, namely, that by it a person is doing goods every day. Our work (in most cases) brings us into contact with people daily. Through it we can touch others and find opportunity to affect them for good. What’s more, in our daily work we are led to shun evils. This is where real evils show themselves standing in the way of our doing our work properly and in the right spirit.
The Lord provides continual opportunities to love and serve Him through our life’s work! Doesn’t it make sense that He wants our primary focus to be here?! And isn’t it what we do day to day that molds us into the kind of person we are? Our daily job, and especially our attitude toward it and in it, forms us into a human being. It tests us, matures us, puts before us the most character-determining challenges that we face. True Christian Religion offers the same basic teaching emphasizing this last point:
[Acting justly and faithfully in one’s office, business, and employment] is charity itself, because charity may be defined as doing good to the neighbor daily and continually, not only to the neighbor individually, but also to the neighbor collectively. This can be done only through what is good and just in the office, business, and employment in which a person is engaged, and with those with whom he has any dealings; for this is one’s daily work, and when he is not doing it, it still occupies his mind continually, and he has it in thought and intention. The person who in this way practices charity becomes more and more charity in form; for justice and fidelity form his mind, and the practice of these forms his body (n.423, emphasis added; see also SD 6105; Char 158ff).
Now all of this does not mean that our work is the only area that we should give attention to. Far from it! Living the life of charity involves prayer, worship, reading the Word, thinking and talking about its principles, also instructing one’s children, and like things. These are healthy and proper “signs” or manifestations of our Christian love (see Char. 173-183). There are many duties that good people fulfill that lie outside their proper work (see Char 187ff; TCR 429ff). Charitable people take recreation of mind and body seriously (as well as joyfully). Diversions from their work help them stay “sharp” and actually foster their enthusiasm for their work (see Char. 189ff; TCR 433f). Finally, there is the area of showing good will toward others through deeds of kindness or “benefactions” (see Char. 184ff; TCR 425ff).
Earlier I used this last aspect of the life of charity as a contrast to “doing one’s job.” The reason for this is that the Christian world has largely made charity to consist in benefactions in the first place. This emphasis is wrong, and has led to a lot of confusion, guilt, and even to “charity” that has done more harm than good. But it would be a great mistake to minimize the importance of good deeds to the life of charity! First of all, children and the simple are initiated into a deeper concept of charity through simple, tangible good deeds. In the second place, the common good is greatly served through aid to the needy and poor, through the funding of hospitals, through the voluntary support of educational programs, etc. Finally, on a more personal level, good deeds are vital to fostering unity, good will, and friendship. Where would we be without acts of kindness? Where would society be?
Still, we need to remember that the greatest good depends on the uses which each person performs in society, the chief of which are through one’s daily work. This is a difficult priority to hold as a church among others at our day. Many churches are persuaded that our approach is selfish, a weak excuse and justification for maintaining our comfortable lifestyles.
We need to be firm in our resolve to see a deeper picture of our religious responsibility and hold to it. But see it and hold to it we must! For if we make our job our primary focus for the wrong reasons, if we don’t do it for the sake of our neighbor and the common good, then what others might accuse us of becomes true: we are being selfish and narrow! We are in effect using religion to justify our pursuit of our own well-being. What’s more, our church’s emphases do become mere “intellectualizing” or group narcissism.
What can save us from this is frequent and honest reflection about why we do what we do; also entertaining “higher thoughts” while we work. How we think and what we think day to day determine the spiritual quality of our lives; they determine the depth and scope of our Christian love.
Just think! We can deal with, say, a client or pupil, a co-worker or cashier in so many different spirits! We can do it with only self in mind. We can be trying to gain a service from them. We can be trying to impress them, gain recognition, exert influence, get their business, or simply get it over so that we can get on to what we want to be doing. On the other hand, we can deal with them with their welfare in mind. We can be concerned with furthering them, with their sense of job-satisfaction, with their self-esteem.
More deeply, our thoughts can be lifted above the people to the uses themselves which they are involved in. We can deal with them out of respect for their part in society; we can be trying to further or support those uses (even when we don’t like the people). We can be thinking of the good of our neighborhood, or school system, or company. Or still higher, we can be thinking of the good of our state and country and world! The higher our sights are, the deeper and broader the scope of our acts become inwardly and (perhaps in subtle ways) outwardly.
This is where the pairing of higher and lower thoughts we spoke of earlier comes into play. Higher thoughts about what we are trying to do, whom we are trying to love and serve, and how we are going about it are what lift our minds to function on a deeper plane, and to function more perceptively. And by sincerely lifting our thoughts, over time our love is lifted and ennobled. And all this happens through our daily uses.
May the Lord give us the strength and inspiration to do the work which He has put before us each day sincerely, justly and faithfully. And may we offer up with these “daily sacrifices” sweet thoughts, thoughts from His Word, to guide our hearts and bring eternal meaning to the works of our hands! Amen.
Readings: Deut. 15:1,2,7-11; Matt. 25:14-30; SD 6105.
Spiritual Experiences 6105
CHARITY TOWARD THE NEIGHBOR
Charity toward the neighbor, in a specific sense, is to perform the employment, business, and work which belong to one’s calling faithfully, sincerely and justly. The reason is that this is a person’s daily occupation, the very activity and delight of his life. When, therefore, a person performs this sincerely and justly, his life becomes such, thus becomes a certain charity, in its place and degree. [One’s daily work] may be compared to the germ [of a seed]: . . . from this as the essential, the other aspects of charity, which are called the signs, benevolences and obligations, proceed and derive their essence; for they flow from his life, which in this case is a charity. And without that essence, even though he may have the signs of charity, which are acts of piety and the like, though he may have its benevolences, which are giving to the poor, and similar things, though he may have its obligations, which are such things as are his duties at home and outside his home, then, all these are like a shell without a kernel. It is different when he has the germ and essence already described.
Moreover, such a person does good to the community, and does good to the individuals in the community in their degree. Hence, from the community there flows to him delight of life and every necessary. This obtains in heaven and in the societies there. For everyone is a part in the common body. From performing his work sincerely and justly he becomes a worthy part in the common body. For everyone in a society must be in some work. Works produce the communion, and cause all things to be held in connection; for works contain in them all things human. Wherefore, even in hell they must be in works.