The Work of Love and Wisdom
September 05, 2004
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If, then, your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.
Reading from Swedenborg
Before creation, God was love itself and wisdom itself, and the union of these two in the effort to accomplish uses. Love and wisdom apart from use are only fleeting matters of reason, which fly away unless they are applied to use. Love and wisdom without use are like birds flying across a great ocean, which are eventually exhausted by flying, fall down, and are drowned. Evidently, then, the universe was created by God to bring uses into existence. Therefore the universe may be called a theater of uses. And as humankind is the main goal of creation, everything was created for the sake of humans. Therefore every detail of order was brought together and concentrated in them, so that through them God might accomplish primary uses. (True Christian Religion #67)
It is a sign of the times that in one of the most popular syndicated comic strips today, the everyday life of corporate America is ridiculed to the point of hilarity. Dilbert, the brainchild of Scott Adams, a Bay Area local, is a scathing critique of inept managers, faulty products, Machiavellian business schemes, and endless permutations of the bizarre personality traits of co-workers. Adams's point of view has struck a chord with millions of people who can identify with the bittersweet struggle to earn a living in a system that does not inherently uphold their ultimate well-being as its end. Yet it is in this capitalist system that we Americans carve out our destinies, form life-long relationships, and usher our souls along on the never-ending process of regeneration. Although Dilbert might never admit it, work is clearly a spiritual undertaking.
Tomorrow is Labor Day, a holiday intended as a time to recognize and celebrate the contributions of the American worker. The workers of this country, from the railroad builders to the garment workers, from the teachers to the architects of the telecommunications infrastructure, from the farm workers to the retail salespeople--the labor of these workers has formed this country into the most powerful nation on earth. It is right indeed to give thanks to the generations of hard workers who have made it possible for us to live the way we do today.
A few decades ago, it was believed that advances in technology would lead us to work less--that the array of new machines handling menial tasks for us would result in an ever-increasing amount of leisure time for everyday people. Far from that vision, today's workers are working longer hours than ever before; and for many people, work has become a primary arena in which to look for meaning in one's life.
One of the things I love the most about the theology of our church is that it is supremely practical: its sublime spiritual truths are applicable to everyday life. Emanuel Swedenborg himself exemplified a practical, spiritually grounded life in his own work. He had a career as a brilliant scientist and distinguished statesman before turning his primary occupation to spiritual and theological undertakings after a life-changing visionary experience at the age of 54. Even after his change of vocation, he continued to make contributions to government affairs. Many people understand this to be a testament to his conviction that one should be of service in the real world.
One of the most central concepts of Swedenborg's theology is the notion of "use." Use--or usefulness, as we might say in contemporary parlance--is joined with love and wisdom as the essential tripartite formulation of existence. Swedenborg believed that the divine itself consists of love and wisdom. Divine love and divine wisdom are in constant, co-creative interplay with each other; but the way they come into being in the world is through uses. Uses are essentially actions that are good; and Swedenborg believed that the entire created universe is made of and for uses. In other words, love and wisdom are actualized in this world through the actions of human beings. The way we bring God into existence is through our words, our speech, our actions--and indeed, through our occupations.
There are two main points that I would like to convey about usefulness. Usefulness, first of all, means that we are meant to live out our spiritual values in the real world. It means that true piety and devotion are not to be undertaken only in church, but all over the place, right in the middle of our ordinary lives. Second, usefulness also means that part of the essential responsibility we inherit as God's creatures is that we offer ourselves in service to creation. We use our lives to give back a little bit of the awesome beauty and wonder that we have each been given.
It might seem natural that as people of faith, we would live out our spiritual values in the real world. Why does it get so complicated, then, in the daily living of our lives? One reason is that the spiritual pitfalls of work can be tricky. For many of us, work has taken over the majority of our lives, and yet its goals can be incongruous with our own. Work can also be deceptive. It can drive us to become attached to wealth, success, authority, or even our own identity. If we work in business, work can seduce us into believing that the laws of supply and demand are in fact eternal spiritual truths, and that the activity of buying things is the ultimate reason for being. In addition, work can make us perpetually future-oriented--focused on projects that need to be completed and goals that need to be reached--and by doing so it can diminish our ability to live in the present. It can fool us into believing that an organization's goals are actually more important than the humanity of our colleagues. Any of these distortions, taken to heart, can be destructive to the soul.
To avoid these pitfalls, we must be guided by a spiritual road map. Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures reflects this guidance. In the passage from Micah, the questioner wonders what kinds of elaborate sacrifices he should bring to express his devotion to God. In ancient Near Eastern religions, it was a common practice to sacrifice valuable goods to show the extent of one's faith. Alas, the answer in this case is that none of them are needed. All that the Lord requires is for us to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
To embrace the concept of uses means that we do not let the negative potentials of work overtake us. It means that we bring our spiritual values right into the conference calls, the classrooms, the email messages, and the budget decisions. We practice an awareness and conscientiousness of how our speech and actions affect those around us. We can strive to be present to the gifts of the moment, and we can embrace our whole, complicated, expansive selves that spill over the distinct categories of our daily occupations. We can help make decisions that will steer our organization's efforts to benefit humankind. Perhaps most importantly, we can honor the people with whom we share our lives, understanding them as both flawed and gifted, wounded and productive. In all of these "good actions" we practice, we are bringing divine love and divine wisdom into reality in our world.
The second aspect of uses that I noted can be more elusive, and more challenging. It is the idea that with our very lives, we can be useful to God's creation. For some, this can translate into finding one's mission in life; for others, it can speak to the need to live in harmony with one's passions and values. One of the most helpful expressions of how to go about being useful in this way comes from Frederick Buechner: "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's great hunger meet." This is a succinct expression of usefulness. We become useful when we use our gifts and abilities in a way that is both needed by the world and expressive of God's eternal love.
Our reading from the Gospel of Luke reflects this notion as well. It speaks of the eyes being the lamp of the body, and of their being clear enough to expel darkness and to fill one's entire body with light. While the light in this passage has frequently been understood to symbolize faith in Jesus--a faith that is not to be hidden--I read it in another way as well. To me, the image of a person illuminated from the inside out is a representation of that place Buechner describes where one's inner being has found perfect harmony both with God and with the needs of the world. It is a radiant, life-giving, and inspiring image.
Millard Fuller is a man who has made usefulness the foundation of his life. In fact, he has poured lots of foundations in the twenty-seven years since he founded Habitat for Humanity.
Fuller did not set out with a mission in life to help others. In fact, his goal from the time he was a young child was quite simply to make a lot of money. He proved to be quite good at it, running a successful law practice in Alabama and several profitable side businesses at the same time. He bought a big house, a fancy car, vacation homes, boats, and household help for his wife and children. When his company treasurer walked into his office one day in 1964 and announced that he was a millionaire, Fuller wasn't even surprised. He immediately set his next goal at ten million.
But things were not all rosy for Fuller and his wife. He had become addicted to his work, and had let all other aspects of his life fall away in importance. His wife, whom he had cherished so dearly when they were married, had in effect lost her spouse for years on end while he became more devoted to his work than to anything else. One day she announced to him that she didn't love him anymore, and that she couldn't stay in their loveless marriage.
It was the lightning bolt that changed his life. Up to that point, success was all he knew. It had never occurred to him that his marriage wouldn't be a success, too. He desperately wanted to continue his marriage, and he resolved to do whatever it would take to keep their family together. A few weeks later, Fuller and his wife found themselves in a New York taxicab. And it was there that he was hit with a flash of inspiration. "Linda," he said, "I know what we should do. I think we need to give away all our money. We need to give it away and make ourselves available for whatever God wants us to do."
Linda whole-heartedly agreed, and they proceeded to give their money to those in need, and to explore new ways of acting in the world that would benefit others. They became involved in an intentional Christian community, and through that organization became aware of the desolate conditions in which some of the local poor families were living near Americus, Georgia. They started a program to build solid houses for people, guided by the principle that all people deserve a decent place to live. Today, Habitat for Humanity has built more than 150,000 houses in more than 89 countries. Their work has changed the lives of thousands of people who now have the confidence, pride, and security of living in their own home.
It has also changed Millard Fuller. "I doubt anyone has felt Habitat's power to transform lives more than I have," he says. "I was on the verge of losing everything that truly meant anything to me. I had gone so far down the wrong track that I hadn't even noticed how empty my life had become. But when I turned my attention to helping other people, I healed myself, and I healed my relationships with the people I loved."
Millard Fuller found a way for his abilities and skills to be used in the service of humanity, in a way that was deeply harmonious with his values. Swedenborg wrote, "The universe was created by God to bring uses into existence. Therefore the universe may be called a theater of uses." My hope is that we might all consider how we can do our part toward embodying love and wisdom through our usefulness. In bringing our spirituality into everyday practice and in thinking of our very lives as an offering to creation, we respond in our relationship with God.
The poet Mary Oliver, in her poem "The Summer Day," poses this question: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Amen.
O God of heaven and earth, Creator of us all, we thank you for creating each one of us to fulfill a specific task; for creating each one of us to express a particular facet of your Divine Being. Keep us mindful, as we do the labor of our jobs, and as we go about our daily tasks, that in all these seemingly lowly actions and ordinary duties, we are expressing your will and your wisdom. Help us each day to accomplish not just temporary, but eternal good. Amen.
Rev. Kimberly M. Hinrichs