Some time ago I received an e-mail from an older Englishman who told me this story.
“When I started working at the bank in the 1960s, every Monday morning at the start of work my team leader would gather us in the conference room for a team meeting, and he would close the meetings with this reminder, ‘Gentlemen, remember that your job here is simple. You are here to serve our customers and our shareholders. You are to be good and wise stewards of their money. For this you will receive fair pay and benefits, but remember, you are here to serve them and not yourselves.’ Then he would lead them in the Lord’s prayer.”
My correspondent pointed out that the simple action of beginning the week with prayer helped everyone to prioritize their work. Sure, they were there to serve their customers, but their larger purpose in life was to serve not the customer king but the King of Kings. Serving others in their business therefore became part of their Christian vocation and calling.
What would our world be like if the ideal of prayer-inspired service was universal? So many of the people I see who are unhappy are so self-absorbed. What freedom might they experience if they could only shift the focus off themselves, and serve others? What a transformation might take place in our parishes, our families and our personal lives if we could only shift from serving me, myself, and I to others.
Think that sounds silly?
I was on a crowded train coming out of London’s Paddington Station when a cheerful voice with an Indian accent came over the intercom, saying, “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is your train driver speaking. I welcome you to this train and hope it will be a pleasant and quick journey. Now let us say a word of prayer asking God’s blessing and safety for our trip.” To the shock and delight of most passengers, he then said a short and informal prayer. What was most amazing was how many of the train travelers actually stopped and bowed their heads to pray.
That train driver delivered service with a prayer and so brought the supernatural into the natural world. Without the supernatural dimension our customer service is simply a tactic to improve business and make more money. When the spiritual dimension is added the service, we offer connects with a deeper motivation and meaning. We’re serving others — even when waiting tables or helping in a retail store or working in a service industry — as part of a deeper realization that every person has eternal worth, and every little act of service, help and kindness matters.
Religion is not real if it is not ordinary, and it is in our ordinary lives that the extraordinary life of grace wells up and becomes real. Prayer and service in everyday life makes real the gospel principle that we are to love God and love others. These, Jesus teaches, are the two greatest commandments and all the other rules and regulations return to these two and are derived from these two.
The problem is I can’t do this on my own, and neither can you; our default settings are self-centered, thanks to original sin. The only way to conquer this is to work from the inside out, and the only way we can change on the inside, is through a supernatural infusion of grace. The only way that happens is by drawing closer to God, and the only way that happens is through prayer, penance, sacrifice, self-discipline and worship. By bringing all of that supernatural action with us, where we are, even in the workplace.
The Christian banker, and the train conductor in England, both wore the simple dignity of faith and brought it into their service to others.
Think what our greedy, self-centered and aggressive world would be like if we all did the same. Think of how the big bankers and financiers would change if each day began with prayer — or how the congresses and parliaments of the world would change if every politician began his day with prayer and a promise of service. Think how every restaurant, retail shop, school, college or industry would change if every day began with service informed by prayer.
Think of how your own life would change if you did the same.
In our increasingly secular world it may not always be possible to pray publicly, but you can do so privately, and that would be a good start.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a former Evangelical, then an Anglican priest, and now a Catholic priest. Visit his website at dwightlongenecker.com to browse his books and be in touch.