By Bill Tillman
Labor Day — what a novel and paradoxical concept, at least the way many Americans think about it. The day, the first Monday in September, has ambiguous origins. The rationale for the day was that the American worker needed to be honored for the economic and cultural achievements brought in by the national labor movement more than 100 years ago.
A paradox is that no labor is expected on Labor Day! It’s a holiday for many American workers. Christians could offer some perspective on the day off from work. Christians should project the idea that all of us need a day of rest. This Sabbath principle, a time of pausing, resting, taking leave of work, has been among culture since early Genesis. The model moved into Hebrew culture and became the Fourth Commandment of the Ten. The theology and ethics of that commandment are probably the most abridged of any of the commandments, even by Christians. Another paradox.
A further paradox is that too many of us carry in our heads and hearts that “work” is hard labor. Some segments of our society conclude that anyone in the arts isn’t working. Or, sitting at a computer most of the time isn’t work. With the hard labor definition in our heads we refrain from rest, not questioning at all on why we work like we do.
Most people will respond, “It’s for the money. Money to take care of my family.” Caring for our families is a biblical dictum, too. We can get off track, though, for if we’re in a job just for the money. Our character will become distorted.
Calculate how much time you spend at your job. Add in the time commuting to and from work. Include time spent in the evenings and weekends, being anxious about work. Most people are startled at how many hours in a week they are involved in “work.” Such investment of time has a lot of formative influence on our character. All the time and energy invested in maintaining working relationships, being accurate, prompt, and a get along kind of person takes a toll on us, usually not for the best.
Christians, congregations, and especially ministers have tended to give little attention to these energy, time, anxiety drainers. Few sermons are dedicated to how one makes one’s money, how one spends one’s money. In the vacuum formed by little biblical, theological, and ethical input, the shaping influence of our culture’s perspectives on work and money becomes the driving force forming our character, our souls.
One remedy is to review those Protestant Reformation leaders who revitalized the implementation of vocation, what one is called to do, as they resurfaced the deep themes running through the New Testament. These themes exalt the gifts of the Spirit, how one could recognize where their life’s work could be headed. In the midst of those recognitions persons realize they are discovering themselves, their strengths, and their meaning of life. A friend related that he had two great days of his life. The first one was when he was born. The second one was when he discovered why he was born.
When one realizes a sense of meaning, significance, a transcendent view of life, even the most menial of occupations can take on new life. We have the record of a monk we know only as Brother Lawrence who discovered that being a kitchen helper put him into a context where he could make a difference in the world. Even as he washed dishes, he could pray and that activity put him into a frame of mind to work with whatever else came his way that could be even worse than dirty, greasy skillets! Indeed, whatever job we hold can become a ministry and missions base for the gospel. How we do the job will be one of the most authentic witnesses we can provide society.
Dr. Tillman is director of theological education for Texas Baptists.