Labor Day 2016
This one's for Jim.
I've long noted from personal experience that of all the Sundays in the year the one with the smallest attendance at worship is the one that immediately precedes Labor Day. The congregants' absences certainly weren't because they were storing up energy for the next day's solidarity marches. Mostly they were at home or at the beach busy barbecuing hamburgers and drinking beer.
So, Jim, I never got much exposure for my trenchant thoughts on labor from meditating on it with Bible in hand.
Which is a study in ambiguity.
Labor is the word for the highest form of human creativity, giving birth, and the lowest form of human servitude, hard labor (as in prison). The Bible begins with a curse on Adam and Eve for destroying Eden's harmony. She will bear intense pain at childbirth; he will toil in sweat and pain to keep life together. On the other hand the hymnal has taught us to sing of the Galilean, "He is Lord of lords; he is King of kings, Jesus Christ, the first and last; no one works like him." Which is an echo of John 10:38 in which Jesus claims that what people see in him are the works of the One who sent him. The Apostle Paul counsels us in Philippians 2:12 "to work out your own salvation in fear and trembling." But Martin Luther and others warn us (appropriately, to my way of thinking) that no amount of good works will ever merit God's favor, not just because we are hopelessly sinful, but because that favor is already there before any Samaritan deed is done.
But I still enjoy singing on September's first Sunday Horace Bonar's hymn "Go, Labor On." Doing good may not earn us a place at the Great Banquet Feast or multiply the stars in our crown, but the straight and virtuous path is its own reward. I don't consider myself to be particularly virtuous. My mind is full of trash and my heart can be cold and stony. But I have been lifted on others' shoulders (figuratively) because I offered in the name of God comfort to grieving families, direction to wayward teenagers, and, to name just one more of many kindnesses my vocation provided me to provide, meaning and hope to a community rocked by tragedy. The honor and affection for heaven drops down on very mere mortals trying to do that heaven's bidding.
Last April visiting with a colleague and seminary classmate now, like me, in his eighties, he thanked me for "keeping on keeping on." By which he meant this... what you are now reading, blogging that in an earlier age would have been named simply an essay, albeit, one with a religious temper. I didn't respond to my friend, though I should have, that I continue to get a quiet kick out of these occasional jottings; that, when I send one off into the ether and onto the internet, I get a couple of days of feeling better about myself, that, if I can no longer mow the lawn or change the fluorescent light bulbs, at least I can write. Work, including the mental variety, may not gain me heaven, but it sure makes the struggles on earth below a tad more bearable.
That is, work can be redemptive, if not for eternity, then for the moment.
There's another divine purpose for labor implicit, if never clearly stated, in the Good Book: that that's what we are made for, to be co-creators with the deity. Yes, of course, life is for smelling the flowers... and the coffee; but those flowers (and that coffee) need tending if they are to flourish. God commissions Adam to be a gardener. Apparently Eden had weeds and overzealous bugs. And Jesus, the peripatetic preacher, earned his keep for the first thirty years of his life making chairs and tables (a mural of which sticks in my mind's eye from attending a wedding at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Garden City). We join hands and hearts with the deity not only to pray but to build.
Among the few poets to whom I occasionally refer in these columns is the Irish religious of the 19th century, Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was enamored of the theology of Dun Scotus who claimed that all creatures praise the Lord best when they fulfill the purposes for which they are made. Thus in "Windhover" Hopkins describes a bird soaring and gliding and in the doing multiplying the praise of the creator of heaven and earth.
The issue, accordingly, is what is the purpose of human beings. The Westminster Catechism provides this succinct answer: "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever." Eighteen years of my confirmands in Brooklyn can recite that for you. Leave it to Jesus to explain what it means to "glorify" God. You can look it up in Matthew 22:36-39, that loving God and loving each other are the works set before us from the moment we come squealing into the world until the moment the last breath whispers out.
Loving God is the easy part... that is, if you're not an atheist. A little folding of the hands and a bowing of the head; a little study of Scripture. Don't carve any idols for yourself. Watch your language. Go to church more than once in a while. Remove your hat or put on your yarmulke, whichever is your denomination's standard of respect. Take it easy on the Sabbath. There's more, of course, and you know it; so there's no need to repeat it.
But loving your neighbor as yourself, ah, one needs a long life to get that life-long enterprise right. And I probably won't. It is, everything considered, the hardest and most unrelentingly intensive work anyone of us is called to do. Love your enemies? You've got to be kidding. Don't let the sun set on your anger? But schadenfreude is my favorite pastime. Be generous 'til it hurts? Come on, I've waited for years to take that trip to Bermuda. Consider the poor? Why should I? They don't consider me. Make peace? Even when they are out to destroy us? Comfort the sorrowing? I have enough sorrows of my own. Befriend the stranger? You never know who's going to play you for a sucker. Besides the neighbor, especially the one who lets his retriever pee on your lawn, isn't always lovable. Such is the argument I have with myself and the Bible about making this mortal flesh (in the words of the aforesaid Hopkins) "immortal diamond."
Nonetheless it is the labor heaven sets before us, to make a soul God can be proud of. And it's a project anyone of us, graced with skills or like that swimmer I marveled at along the shores of Memphremagog (see "A Message from the Kingdom" under Essays on this website), born without arms or legs, can do.
So, friends (including Jim), go labor on.