Spiritual Adventures in the Workplace

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Smashwords Interview

Recently I had the opportunity to talk about my life and work on the Smashwords website (click here to go to that site). Here is the text of that interview.

We’re talking with Dr. Ron Johnson from Spring Arbor University, and we’re asking him how he started writing about finding God in the workplace.

When I was in high school, I was surprised to discover that God was interested in more than just religion. I prayed about my homework, and God helped me in concrete ways. I prayed about my extracurricular activities and ended up flourishing in them. At first I didn’t want to talk about it because I was afraid of being branded “religious,” but some of my experiences were so extraordinary, I just had to tell people. “Listen!” I said, “Did you know that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life wondering whether God exists? You can find out. Pray about everything… and watch what happens!”

I went to a state college (Grand Valley State University) and was quite vocal about it there. I know I turned some people off, but I couldn’t keep quiet about it. Day after day I found God guiding me in my studies and leading me to people I could help in some way. It was an amazing experience.

After graduation, my denomination sent me out to the Pacific Northwest, and I spent two years telling my stories to congregations in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia. Although I was mostly appealing to high school and college students, I also reached out to adults. I said that God could be found not only in the classroom but also in our factories, our high-rise office complexes, our government agencies, and anyplace where people worked. People of all ages found that message compelling. A number of them reported that they tried the experiment and received concrete answers to their prayers. But some adults told me they had tried to pray about their jobs but had not had as much success as I had had. “What am I doing wrong?” they asked. “How can I find what you’ve found?”

I didn’t know how to answer their questions. I prayed for them, and I told them things that should have been obvious (make Jesus Christ the Lord of your life, don’t ask for anything that contradicts scripture, watch carefully for unexpected answers), but I found I was unequipped to help most of them. It took me years to figure out why.
What did you discover?

I already knew that this was not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Each individual had his or her own obstacles to overcome in their approach to God in secular life. I also knew that these obstacles could vary greatly. Some people might have to change their attitudes, while others might have to change the way they think. I realized right from the start that I would have to know a lot more about each person in order to help them.

But over the years, I became convinced that there are also some general obstacles that we all face. Contemporary life is structured in certain ways that make it very difficult for people to see what God is doing from day to day. Our upbringing trains us to view the world in certain ways that rarely intersect with religious or theological concerns.

Can you give an example?
Certainly. As I scanned the literature on workplace spirituality, I found that a lot of it talked about how to win our coworkers to Christ. Now, while sharing our witness is part of being a Christian, this approach to workplace spirituality filters out the most important questions. What is God doing in my place of employment? How is God seeking to make the world better through me as I perform the job I’ve been hired to do? Those are the questions that will help people to have a vital experience of the Living God in their workplace. And yes, part of the answer will be to share our witness with our coworkers. But that’s only a small part.
In the mid-1980s, you were a student at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, studying to become a minister in the United Church of Christ. Why did you leave seminary?
I realized that I was never going to find the answers to the questions my people were asking unless I went out into the work world and experienced God there for myself. So I left the path to pastoral ministry and did a number of other things instead. I was a platemaker in a printing company, acting as the middleman between the people in the darkroom and those out in the pressroom. I worked in the produce department of a supermarket. I was a professional storyteller. I joined a writers’ group. I was a substitute teacher. I sold advertising for a suburban newspaper. I was a computer software trainer. I worked for Western Union, first as an operator (taking telegrams and money transfer orders over the phone), then working my way up to Operations Manager.

In each of these places, I had vivid experiences of the presence of God, teaching me and helping others through me.

During these years, I also earned a masters degree in Education and a doctorate in the field of Philosophy. I began to believe that God was guiding me in a certain direction — that, as a professor, I would share the things I had learned in both academic and popular writing.

But things didn’t work out quite like you expected…
No, they didn’t. I was unable to obtain a tenure track position in Philosophy. In order to support my family, I went back to the field I had been in before graduate school: I took an entry-level position in a customer service call center. It was the lowest point of my life. But as I prayed and tried to make sense out of it all, I found God even there — even in this nightmare job. And then I began to see a larger plan. I wrote about my experiences as a call center representative, and that became my book, CUSTOMER SERVICE AND THE IMITATION OF CHRIST.
Is that book just for Customer Service representatives?
No, it’s for working people in all walks of life. A number of readers have told me that they found it deeply meaningful even though they aren’t CSRs (Customer Service Representatives). Here’s what I was trying to do. Through all those years, I had never forgotten the people in the Pacific Northwest who had tried unsuccessfully to experience God in their workplaces. I wrote CUSTOMER SERVICE AND THE IMITATION OF CHRIST as just one detailed example of how I had found God in my place of employment. Although I intended it to be useful for CSRs, I also hoped that people in a wide variety of jobs could use it as a springboard for their own spiritual lives in the workplace.
Why did you write WHAT DOES GOD DO FROM 9 TO 5?

As I said earlier, those of us who live in the contemporary world, at least here in the West, are trained to view the world around us in certain ways. Most of us are quite unreflective about it. We do it without even knowing we’re doing it. But those ways of thinking act like blinders, keeping us from seeing how God is active in our lives… or is at least trying to be.

In WHAT DOES GOD DO FROM 9 TO 5? I encourage the reader to view daily life as a vast web of interrelated stories. Both as individuals and as social groups, we are who we are because of all the things we’ve said and done in all the stories we’ve lived through so far. But the truth is, we don’t think about most of those episodes even while we’re living through them. In this book, I ask you to step back and look at what we’re doing, and to locate the ways in which God is trying to get us to grow and develop through those stories. And God is doing that everywhere and always, both while we’re working and when we’re doing other things. I hope this book will help readers think differently about their daily lives so that they can begin to see how God is already trying to interact with them right now.

Although this is a philosophical book, there are some great concrete examples in it, too.
Yes. The entire last chapter presents a number of cases in which people pray about their jobs and get concrete answers like the ones I’ve received over the years. A badly-divided department comes together when a woman is led to write a clear set of procedures, in answer to prayer. A salesman learns how to listen to his customers. A bill collector widens his repertoire of strategies. A manager finds ways to get along with union representatives.
None of your examples are about people getting rich or being promoted. You don’t preach a Gospel of Success, do you?
No. After all these years, I still work in a call center by day and teach college courses at night. I think my own career path speaks for itself. You can find out to your own satisfaction that God is real, and you can discover God actively engaged in your daily life even if you’re stuck in a dead-end job. But don’t base all your hopes on a promotion or on a path to riches. God wants to give you an adventure right where you are, by working through you to make the world a better place. You may not get all that you want in life, but you can have HIM for the asking, if you’re willing to turn over the wheel. What’s stopping you?
Published 2016-08-20.
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4 thoughts on “Smashwords Interview

  1. Ron, I enjoyed this interview and hearing about your journey. I was especially taken by the following paragraph:

    “…those of us who live in the contemporary world, at least here in the West, are trained to view the world around us in certain ways. Most of us are quite unreflective about it. We do it without even knowing we’re doing it. But those ways of thinking act like blinders, keeping us from seeing how God is active in our lives… or is at least trying to be.”

    Can you elaborate on what some of those way we are “trained to view the world around us” – what the blinders are?

    Shayne

    • Hi, Shayne. This is a great question that I’ve spent my life preparing to address, but for that very reason, it’s too big for me to answer in one shot. The best I can do is give you a couple of examples of what I have in mind.

      There are two overarching themes from which all these examples come, however: (1) the fact that human intelligence is spectacularly ill-equipped to understand truth in its totality, and (2) the extent to which our search for knowledge is governed by strategies that filter out far more than they allow in. Or to put it bluntly, we’re not God, and we never will be. Not even close. So as we seek to make sense out of the wonders going on all around us, we’ve found that reductionistic strategies serve us well, but we rarely stop to remind ourselves what we’re doing. In so many ways, we follow in the footsteps of Laplace and rule out any hypotheses that we find we have no need of. That’s fine, except that we forget that this is just a strategy that we use to accommodate our limited intelligence. We allow ourselves to believe that what we call “knowledge” is pretty close to the real thing. In fact, it’s but a dim version of a radiant reality that largely escapes us.

      Example 1: We experience life as a whole, but as soon as we try to think or talk about it, we chop it into little pieces. The problem is, we then become convinced that the pieces really are distinct from one another, and we have great difficulty in bringing them back together again. The sacred/secular dichotomy is the most obvious one that keeps people from seeing what God is doing in their lives when they’re at their places of employment. This is what I tried to illustrate in the first few chapters of 9 to 5. I showed a number of religious people who were incapable of viewing God’s activity in the work world apart from religious or ethical categories. They simply couldn’t see how God could be interested in the work world for its own sake. They’ve been trained to draw a line of demarcation around secular subjects.

      Example 2: We are strangely uneducated in how to think critically from a narrative point of view. We love to hear and tell stories, but we are not trained in how to view the patterns of God’s involvement in our daily lives. We may think the story of our own life is fairly straightforward… just a jumble of facts about us… but every prayer we utter takes place within that unfolding story, as does God’s reply. Yet we aren’t trained to view our lives narratively and to consider what God might be trying to tell us through those unfolding events.

      I’m not sure if I’m getting my point across, but here’s one sub-example, and it draws on something you said in a recent sermon. We humans view the future in terms of the past. We assume that past and present economic or social trends will help us predict future trends. We say we know John or Mary on the basis of who they have been up until now. But God doesn’t view us in terms of our past, whether in the aggregate or individually. Where we see Jacob, God sees Israel. Where we see Simon, God sees Peter. Where we see Saul, God sees Paul. And on a larger scale, we see this or that corporation, this or that public school system, this or that transportation network, and we may have hopes for the future of each of these entities based on past performance, but God is working through the people within them, trying to steer them in the direction of His coming Kingdom. As human beings, we don’t think that way naturally, and we’re certainly not trained to do so. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard for us to see what God is doing in our lives when we’re at our places of employment.

      Example 3: When we pray, we place alternatives before God that are far too narrow, because that’s all we can see. For instance, we ask God for A or B, and we can’t even imagine anything outside those options. If God were to give us C instead, that would challenge our thinking to a certain extent, but what often happens is more extreme: God gives us D, E, or F. And because we aren’t expecting such a thing, we don’t recognize it as an answer from God at all. We categorize it as an entirely different subplot in our life story, unrelated to the thing we prayed about. Only in retrospect are we sometimes blessed with the insight to say, “Wait a minute! Could that have been God’s answer to me?”

      Hopefully you get the idea. The point is that all of us humans–even we Christians–view the world from within a network of assumptions, assumptions that help us tune out whatever seems irrelevant at the moment. And I really don’t see how we can avoid doing this. But it gets in the way when we’re trying to find God in secular life. At such moments, it’s important to recognize that those blinders are there, even if we’re incapable of taking them off. Our best course of action is to confess them to God and ask that our eyes may be opened, at least a little.

      • Thanks, Ron, for articulating a thoughtful and helpful answer. It is one of the reasons i appreciated 9 to 5 so much and have recommended it to others.

        What you say strikes me as eminently true: “The point is that all of us humans–even we Christians–view the world from within a network of assumptions, assumptions that help us tune out whatever seems irrelevant at the moment. And I really don’t see how we can avoid doing this. But it gets in the way when we’re trying to find God in secular life.”

        It seems to me that this is one reason for the vital importance of the church. While we all “tune out whatever seems irrelevant,” what seems irrelevant to me may seem very relevant to you. Hence we can benefit enormously from one another – how good of God to give us the Body of Christ!

        Shayne

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