At the Office


Fellowship Class

Tarrytown United Methodist Church

August 17, 1997

Wayne Danielson

At the Office

Genesis 2: 1-4. Thus heaven and earth were completed with all their array. On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing.  He rested on the seventh day after all the work he had been doing.  God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on that day he had rested after all his work of creating.

Genesis: 3: 17-19. “Accursed be the soil because of you.  With suffering shall you get your food from it every day of your life.  With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread, until you return to the soil, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

Exodus 22:20. “You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt. You must not be harsh with the widow, or with the orphan; if you are harsh with them, they will surely cry out to me, and be sure I shall hear their cry...”

Matthew 22:17. They handed him a denarius.  “Whose fie head is this?  Whose name?”  “Caesar’s,” they replied.  He then said to them. “Very well. Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar — and to God what belongs to  God.”

Luke 12:16-21. Then he told them a parable.  “There was once a rich man who, having had a good harvest from his hand, thought to himself, ‘What am I to do? I have not enough room to store my crops.’ Then he said, “’This is what I will do: I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and I will say to my soul: My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time.  But God said to him, ‘Fool! This very night the demand will be made for  your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?’ So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.”

Paul and Judy and the girls were on the road yesterday, on their way to Paul’s new job in Atlanta. Yesterday was Paul’s 34th birthday. I’m sure  he would have preferred being in Austin, having a party with his brothers and Grace and all the nieces and nephews, and don’t forget  Pops and LaVonne. Instead he was out on the road listening to old songs by Elvis. But a new job beckoned with his company, and he felt he had to go.

For the last few years, Paul has lived in the Woodlands, a suburb outside of Houston. He had a 30-mile commute every day. He often called from his car in the evening, just as we were sitting down to dinner.

The phone would ring, and LaVonne would say, “It’s Paul.”

I would get up to answer it and hear his familiar voice over the car-hone static, “Hey Pops, what are you having for dinner?”

I think the commute was boring for him, and he liked to talk to someone, particularly on those days when Judy picked up the girls at the nursery school and he drove home alone.

He liked to talk over his problems in the office. I usually just mumbled and said “right!” now and then. I don’t think he wanted or needed my advice, although I gave him some from time to time. I think he just wanted to unwind after work and have a heart-to-heart with dear old dad.

To tell the truth, the talks were sometimes inconvenient – our schedules didn’t quite mesh – but LaVonne was tolerant, and all in all, I enjoyed them. It was a time we had together. I’ll miss them, although I really still expect to hear the phone ring one of these evenings as he commutes from Atlanta to his new home in Alpharetta, Georgia.

Paul is the youngest of the children, and although he was out of college and just married when Bev died, I always felt that she hadn’t quite finished with him, do you know what I mean? I think she had done all she could for the other offspring.  They were off on their own, married with children and doing fine, but Paul was still a work in progress, just getting started, not quite licked into shape.

I’ve tried to do my part and fill in a bit on the finishing work, but I’m not so sure about things as she was. Usually, I just try to listen, and drop in a few ideas now and then, with the hope that they will help. I don’t really know anything about his work in the health re-insurance field, so I have to fall back on basics – mainly about people and how to get along with them, and how to get them to work for you and with you, if you can.

When Paul had a difficult employee, I would often ask him, “What is it that this person does well? There must be something. Concentrate on that, let her be the office specialist in that field. You can’t just put a person on a shelf and forget about her.  She’s a person no matter what, and you’ve got to remember that.”

I’m not sure it helped all that much. But because it is nearly impossible to fire anyone these days, successful office management often consists of learning to make lemonade out of the lemons that fate hands you.

When I was dean of the college, a fellow professor disliked me intensely. In his eyes, I could do nothing right.  I tried various approaches to making peace, but they were all unsuccessful. I finally came to understand that he simply disliked and mistrusted administrators – administrators of any kind. I was going to be on his list until I ceased being one. In the meantime, I was going to get it in the neck whenever I proposed anything that had the remotest possibility of changing his life.

I didn’t know what to do about it. He was the cause of a lot of heartache for me. But one day I devised a new method of dealing with him. I decided to give him my plans before I discussed them with anyone else. I knew that he would disapprove of them – he always did.  And he would tell me exactly what was wrong with them – why they wouldn’t work, why they were destined to fail. It was a wonderful plan. When I had new projects to launch, I called him in and listened to his scathing criticism and then fixed up the ideas so they would work. Unintentionally, he helped me a great deal.  He was a genius at spotting the weak parts of any plan. So far as I know, he never figured out what I was doing. And, indeed, now that I am no longer an administrator, we get along much better than we did before, and we actually enjoy one another’s company.

The stock market fell off Friday. Some people thought a drop was overdue, and that’s probably right. My own interpretation, however, is that the UPS strike is having an unsettling effect on the economy. We haven’t had a major strike in a long time in this country, and the new generation doesn’t quite know what to do about it. Those Teamsters can be a tough bunch to deal with, and they have chosen to strike a company that depends for its very existence on the service that the members of the union offer. It may take some time to settle this one. Complex problems are involved. Should companies be allowed to operate with so many part-time workers, thus avoiding customary responsibilities for their welfare? Who should control the workers’ pension plan – the workers themselves or the company? Should the workers be allowed to vote on whether to strike or not – why should the union leaders insist on keeping this power in their own hands?

These are difficult questions, and everybody, from the president on down, will need to help answer them, before all of this is over. Where will we get the answers?

There are some problems over at Casis School, too, where LaVonne works. The principal for 12 years was moved to a new job by the superintendent. A new principal was hired from Lago Vista. Everything seemed to be set. But then it turned out that the new principal’s contract at Lago Vista said she couldn’t leave until a new principal was hired there, and the school board wasn’t in the mood to move very quickly on the matter. She has had to leave Casis temporarily and go back to Lago Vista until a replacement can be found. Now, she’s “kinda” principal at two schools, and the old Casis principal has been brought back to fill in. Some of the teachers are trying to make deals with the new principal or continue deals they had with the old principal. It’s a difficult situation. What should be done about it?  LaVonne hasn’t been sleeping well.

The other evening she moaned, “What should I do?”

“Beats me,” I said. “All I know is that the New Testament teaches that ‘no man can serve two masters,’ and I guess that goes for teachers at Casis School, too.  You’re just going to have to hunker down and wait until you get a for real boss.”

Later on, I thought about that bit of advice.  Should I have said that?

It was right out of the scriptures. And it seemed appropriate.  It seemed “right.”  But I wondered about it.  The church teaches that God is God of all our lives, but popular thinking says that we should leave our religion behind when we go to the office. What is right? How much of our thinking about work and work-related matters does come from the holy writings? How practical is the Bible as a source for guidance at the office?

I began to make a list of the ways our religion influences our behavior at work.  I thought it might be appropriate to share with you as Labor Day approaches.  I know that it may sound a little political -- but I am not trying to mix religion and politics, and I hope that you will forgive me if I do so unintentionally.

Heading my list was the biggest idea of all – one of the great ideas of Western Civilization. It comes from Genesis.  It is the idea of working six days and taking the seventh off.   I’ve always thought that if the Jews did nothing else, this idea alone was enough to justify the world’s respect.  The six-day week – having the Sabbath off – practically starts off the Book of Genesis, and “Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy” became one of the Ten Commandments.

It is a wonderful idea, a profound idea.  It is foolishly ignored these days all too often, even though we are harmed in many ways.  For example, I have been working straight through the weekends most of the summer, and I can tell the difference in my own behavior, and I am sure that LaVonne can too.  Some Monday mornings I’m downright snappish.  I need a break every seventh day.  We all do. In ancient Israel, even the land got to rest, not every seven days, but every seventh year. Farmers were supposed to let their fields lie fallow every seventh year.  My grandfather did that.  It was probably not a bad idea. Contemporary environmentalists tell us to let the land rest, too.

Another of the 10 commandments has lots of implications for business life.

When the kids were little, we were driving home one day after having picked up a prescription at the Tarrytown Pharmacy.  I noticed that Paul was eating some M&Ms.

“Where did you get those?” I asked.

He looked embarrassed.

“Where did you get them?” I insisted.

The other kids looked embarrassed. Paul turned red in the face.

“I took them when nobody was looking,” he said.

I put on the brakes and turned the car around and drove back to the store.

“You’re going to have to tell Mr. Newberry,” I said.

“Please, Dad, don’t make me do that,” Paul begged. “I’ll never do it again.”

“Go in and see Mr. Newberry,” I said. “You have to do it.”

While I stood at the door, Paul went in and put the half-eaten package of M&Ms on the counter in front of Mr. Newberry.


“I stole them,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

Mr. Newberry looked at Paul and he looked at me.  I think he understood the importance of the moment.

“Paul,” he said, picking up the sticky package and putting it out of sight. “Stealing is wrong.  You must never do it again.  I’ll excuse you this time, but that’s the last time.”

As far as I know, Paul has never stolen anything to this day.

“Thou shalt not steal” is fundamental to life in the office.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness” comes in a close second.  Telling the truth is vital to business.  Lying can’t be tolerated.  That should be put up on the wall at some used car dealerships I have had dealings with.

And the commandment not to covet is certainly wise as well, although it seems to me that many of us who avoid stealing and false witnessing pretty well find it difficult to keep from coveting that corner office with the great windows from time to time.

How about paying taxes?

I remember one conversation I had with Paul as he drove home from Houston to the Woodlands.

He had just paid his income tax, and he was hot about it.

“I work hard, and I make a lot of money,” he said. “But the government wants too big a share of what I make.  I don’t see why I should be supporting all those no-good bums living on welfare.”

“Now Paul,” I said. “Just think of where you are right now.  You are riding in a Cadillac with safety features that are there because of the government.  You are driving on a highway that was built with federal funds to federal standards.  Your baby in the back seat is in a car seat that meets government standards.  You are going to stop at Burger King and get some government-inspected hamburgers to feed your family.  Tell me it isn’t worth it to live in this country and support it with your taxes.”

“Oh, dad,” he said. “You’re impossible. I just object to all those welfare mothers out there having babies and living off my money.”

“Well you might as well get used to it, son,” I said. “Because ‘the poor are always with us’ and it is part of your responsibility as a human being to help them out.”

I was thinking of Mark 14:7 – “You have the poor with you always, and you can be kind to them whenever you wish.  But you will not always have me.”

“At the very least,” I said, “you should pay your taxes without complaint.”

I was thinking of  Matthew 22:17:  “They handed him a denarius. “Whose head is this? Whose Name?” he asked.  “Caesar’s,” they replied.  He then said to them. Very well. Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”

“You’ve got to pay your taxes to help the community,” I said. “But beyond that, your have an obligation as a successful person, a rich person, to do more.”

I thought of the words Jesus spoke about the Last Judgment.  In Matthew 25:34-40, he imagines the end of the world with all the nations assembled separated into two groups.

  “Then the King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink: I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison, and you came to see me.’ Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink?  When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, naked and clothe you, or sick or in prison and go to see you?’ And the King will answer, ‘I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’”

Helping the poor, the sick, the blind, the widows, the orphans, the aged -- why should we do it?  Are we obliged to do it?  Must we respond charitably in our daily life at the office? I think that the answer is yes, it is part of our religious heritage.  We can’t leave it behind when we walk through the office doors. An ancient saying commands us:

* Exodus 22:20. “You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt. You must not be harsh with the widow, or with the orphan; if you are harsh with them, they will surely cry out to me, and be sure I shall hear their cry....”

Another important idea that has a Biblical foundation is the idea of workers rights. Have you ever thought that the underlying cause of the Hebrews’ leaving Egypt was a labor dispute?  The Jews were practically slaves in that country.  Their overseers were cruel and demanding.  Among other things, they wanted them to make “bricks without straw.”   Moses killed an overseer who hit a Jew. He had to flee the country. When he returned, it was with the idea given to him by God that it would be up to him to free his people. What a strike that was -- plagues, locusts, frogs, water that turned to blood, children dying!  It makes our modern disputes pale by comparison.  The underlying idea was a novel one in the ancient world — workers had rights, too. It was wrong to oppress people.

Jesus was convinced that workers had rights.  As he was sending out the seventy disciples to carry out his ministry, he said to them:

Luke 10:7 “Stay in the same house, taking what food and drink they have to offer, for the laborer deserves his wages.”

He was, however, a stickler for keeping a contract and not trying to break it.  In a long parable, he tells the story of laborers who made deals with the landlord to come to work in his vineyard at various times during the day.  At the end of the day he gives the agreed upon sum -- a denarius -- to each worker regardless of how long he had worked.  Those who had worked all day objected. “‘The men who came last,’ they said, ‘have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.’  He answered them and said, ‘My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius?  Take your earnings and go.  I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you.  Have I no right to do what I like with my own?  Why be envious because I am generous?’ Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.”

Contracts must not be broken.  Servants are expected to do their jobs without complaint. People can make a profit, in fact they should strive to do so, as the story of the talents illustrates. But it is foolish to overdo it.  Remember the story of the rich farmer who kept building barns.Can we take our religion to the office?  I think we can, and we do.  The scriptures are filled with ideas about how we can do business and still be true to our religious beliefs.

Of course these writings can be interpreted differently by different people.  And it is certainly true that we tend to see in the holy writings what we want to see. But, all in all, it seems to me that these writings do tend to underlie the economic system that has arisen in the West and has gone on to influence the economic life of the entire world. It is no wonder that the Communist countries have always found it in their interest to restrict  the Judeo-Christian faith.  The texts of those faiths, by their very nature, tend to support individual freedom and an economic system based on personal ownership of goods.

What can we take with us to the office?  These are some of the basics:

We’re going to have to work for our living. With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread.

We ought to do right.Thou shalt not steal.

We should tell the truth. Thou shalt not bear false witness.

We should not covet what other people have.

We should pay our taxes. Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

We need to share what we make with others who need help.

We should be clear about what we will and will not do. No bricks without straw.

We should stand by our word.

We should keep our contracts, even though they may seem unfair later on.

We ought to use the talents we have been given.

We shouldn’t let money be everything. You fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul.

We ought to lay up treasures in heaven.

We should take one day a week off and keep it holy. Even God himself rested on the seventh day.

I’m not sure that this list would make it in Economics 301 at the University of Texas.  Probably it wouldn’t. And Donald Trump probably wouldn’t have made his millions by obeying these rules.  (He might have had a better home life -- but we’ll let that go.)  But for ordinary day today living in Austin, Texas, or in Atlanta, Georgia, the list isn’t too bad, in my opinion.   We can take this list to the office. And if we follow it, it may lead us one day to that promised Kingdom where the good folks go. As for Paul, he’s off on his own now, a long way from home.  He’s 34 years old, for heaven’s sake. I don’t need to worry about him. He’ll be all right. He doesn’t need my help any more. Nevertheless, one of these days, I hope to hear from him right in the middle of dinner.