The Work of our Hands
Spirituality Part II
Rev. Douglas Taylor
One autumn I spent a number of weekends painting houses for God. I trust you understand I am speaking metaphorically. The man who hired me, paid me and eventually let me go because I wasn’t very good, was named Erwin. And at the time and for years after, I thought I had been working for Erwin. But as it turns out I was painting houses for God. As it turns out, the work was laden with values and lessons about putting one’s faith into actions. I thought I was just looking for a few extra bucks and some lessons in house painting; as it turns out I was helping to bring more justice into the world. As it turns out, Erwin and I and the others there with us were all painting houses for God.
Erwin was a remarkable man. The majority of the painting jobs he did were for people in government subsidized housing, people who were required to maintain their homes according to bureaucratic standards yet lacked the financial resources and, frankly, the wherewithal to do so. Erwin did not work through the government, he was a private contractor, but he made a point of taking jobs based on the work that was needed rather than on the profitability of the job. Erwin didn’t get rich doing this. But he did a lot of good. He would always spend time talking with the resident. Philosophical conversations seemed to be a part of the package deal he offered people. They would often talk about the house and the job. But there were also times when they would talk about politics, education, childrearing, economics, ethics, poverty, and the welfare system.
Erwin figured this was his way of giving back to the world. This was his good works flowing from his deep humanistic ethic at the core of his faith. But for me, something else was going on. I was not there because my spirit called me to help people in that way. I was not there because my core faith led me to behave in such a good and helpful manner. But that work led me to reflection. That work led me to a deeper understanding of my own faith and beliefs. It was a reversal of the normal pattern and I did not know it could happen that way. My actions informed my faith rather than my faith informing my actions.
Most of the time the work of justice functions as the natural outgrowth of a healthy and active faith. Many people talk about social activism as “the fruits” of ministry. This agricultural metaphor likely continues to be so prominent in our non-agricultural society because of the passage in the Bible where it is mentioned that “By their fruits ye shall know them;” meaning: the inner motives of a person will show themselves in the course of time through word and deed. You can say you believe this, that or the other thing until you are blue in the face, but how does this, that or the other belief effect your life? Or, as the question was posed in our Building Your Own Theology workbook, “How do your beliefs interfere with your life?”
This is a very excellent question that we would do well to heed. So you believe in the principles of non-violence, how does that effect your driving? So you believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, how does that effect your choice of which grocery stores, clothing stores, and books stores you patronize? So you think Jesus said some powerful things about how we should treat one another, how does that effect the way you treat other people?
The classic question asks, “In what way does your faith bear fruit?” I wonder now, can this work in the opposite direction? Can our good works bear inner fruit? Or perhaps a different analogy would serve better: Can our good works bear seeds? Can justice making be seen not only as the outcome of a healthy spirituality, but also as a pathway into a healthy spirituality? Because if that is the case, then we can jump into the cycle at any point. I don’t need to wait until I have a healthy inner spiritual life before I go having fruits because if everyone waited until they had a healthy spiritual life, hardly any justice would get done.
Mother Teresa’s diaries made a stir when they were reviewed a few years ago. Mother Teresa has long been considered a spiritual giant as well as a powerful activist of the past century. Some of the contents of the diaries were reported on recently as it pertains to her fast-track to sainthood, and apparently Mother Teresa was not as spiritually sound as the world had believed. She was plagued with doubt and felt abandoned by God. She had one year of ecstatic visions and fifty years of drought. Can you imagine if she had pulled up early on and said to herself: no more good works until I get my spiritual life back on track! Vatican is not ruffled by her doubt. They are calling it her ‘dark night of the soul,’ granted it was a very long night, (lasting decades,) but the Catholic Church is still moving forward with their plans to make her a saint.
When I was still in seminary I delivered a vespers sermon that outlined a very linear view whereby first you have faith and then you do good: first one, then the other. One of my professors came up afterward and congratulated me on a good sermon, but challenged in the same breath. He said, “That was great Douglas, I only disagree with you about the order.” (I thought, “Ron, the order was the main point!” It amazes me how little comments like that can linger in the memory for years. I’m certainly glad his comment lingered, though. At the time I couldn’t see that the argument about which comes first the faith or the works, is like the chicken and the egg! It is cyclical: working for justice deepens your spirituality, which in turn can spur you to respond by working for justice, and so on.
I remember a colleague who expressed dismay over a justice project going on in his congregation. They were managing a Habitat for Humanity style house renovation for a family out in the community. The trouble was focused on the project manager who was getting very frustrated with the rest of the congregation because he couldn’t find regular skilled volunteers for the job and he was doing far more work than he had signed up to do. The project manager was getting very grumpy and indignant about the whole affair. My colleague lamented that there were always plenty of volunteers, just not the sort that this project manager wanted. The minister finally pulled the manager aside and asked him, “What are we doing here? What is this project all about?” The manager replied, “We’re building houses of course.” “No,” my colleague shot back. “If we are trying to build houses we should get out of the business now. We lack the proper skills, the proper funding, the proper commitment of time, the proper organization and the proper motivation! We are the last organization who should be trying to make houses. But that’s not what we’re doing. This project is about transforming lives: the lives of the people who will eventually move into this house, and your life and my life and the lives of all of us working on this project! We are not building houses, we are transforming lives.” The great end of Unitarian Universalism is transformation: personal and social transformation. That is why we are here: to become better people and to make the world a better place. We certainly don’t own the corner on this and can end up in some wonderful partnerships!
Back when I was living in Montgomery County, Maryland, I participated in a grassroots, interfaith, political lobbying group called Action In Montgomery, or “AIM”. It is based on the Industrial Areas Foundation that was founded by Saul Alinsky in Chicago in the 1940. People from all sorts of Jewish, Catholic, mainline Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist Congregations came together to advocate for issues of common concern in the community. Many people were involved from the start with the reflection and discussion about what the needs were. I showed up after things were already cooking, I walked in when it was time for the action to start.
I remember in particular an AIM meeting my family and I attended on county funding for housing held at a little Methodist church. Over 200 people from nearly 15 churches tried hard that evening to fit into a very small sanctuary! My family and I sat up in the choir seats next to the pulpit. (If I can’t be in the pulpit just put me in the choir and I’ll be happy.) It was a great meeting– exciting and efficient: a kind of mix between a tent revival and a well-run finance committee meeting. Near the end of the meeting there was a Call to Action. “Now, we’ve talked about power before,” said the speaker calling us to action. “We need some power now to see this housing proposal safely through the budget process of the County Council. We’ve got power right here in this room tonight. We are that power.” My daughter leaned over to my wife and whispered, “We have the power?” “Yes, we do,” my wife responded. “Do I have the power?” my daughter asked incredulously. “Yes,” my wife said smiling, “You do.” My daughter and I responded to the Call to Action and signed up to help see the proposal through.
Later I reflected on these experiences with my child. We talked about how exciting the big AIM meetings were and how good it felt to be a part of the smaller personal meetings with the various County Council members trying to convince them to fund the affordable housing proposal. All the people who were a part of the organizing from the beginning had a chance to reflect on what they were getting into before they did it. My daughter and I jumped into the action and found time to reflect on it and grow from it afterward.
Sometimes action can lead to reflection and deepening, working for justice in the world can help you figure out who you are and where you belong! Just leap in! There are thousands of opportunities awaiting you. The Social Responsibility committee can sell you fair trade coffee during coffee hour and tell you about the evils of Free Trade and what you can do about it. Petitions float through our midst now and then, if you agree with them, don’t hesitate to sign them! Our monthly Forum series is often focused on social and political concerns, learn more about what is going on by attending. And there is so much more just within our little congregation, so many opportunities for you to discover the truth to the aphorism, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled.”
You could think of it as a Unitarian Universalist version of the Christian season of Lent. Traditionally, Lent is a time when Christians, for their own spiritual betterment, give up a vice for the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. In the UU version, instead of giving up a behavior you don’t like in yourself, you pick up a behavior you wish was a regular part of who you are. What if, over the next six weeks we all did something extra to make the world a better place. Do it for your own spiritual growth. Do it to save the world. They may be the same thing in the end!
In a world without end,
May it be so.