508) Labor Day Meditation on Work (part one)

   

     I frequently visit people in care centers who are near the end of their lives.  Many of the residents just sit all day with nothing to do and nothing more to look forward than their next meal.  But if they have enough health and strength, some folks find things to do and a purpose for living even there.  One day I had completed my visits and was on my way to the exit.  I was about to push open the door when I heard someone say in a weak, but very emphatic voice, “Stop!”  I did as I was told, and just to my left I saw a frail old man in a wheel chair.  He had positioned himself by the big automatic door opener button.  As I waited, he slowly reached over, pressed that button and opened the door, saving me the effort of pushing the door open myself.  I thanked him, and he looked at me proudly and said, “That’s my job here.”

     People in their working years, especially if they are working too much, will often look forward to not working.  We look forward to weekends and to vacations when we have time off from work.  Many dream of retirement (or winning the lottery) and not having to work at all anymore.  There is a even chain of restaurants called TGIF, Thank God It’s Friday, celebrating by its name the end of the work week.  There is something is us that doesn’t want to work.

     There is also something in us that makes us want to work.  Care center residents don’t have to work at all, and many of them cannot do anything anyway; and that is a huge sadness and frustration for them.  This lack of purpose is even more difficult for some folks than their aches and pains.  These people used to be hard-workers and useful, and are now disheartened by having to just sit and do nothing.  That ‘official’ door opener at the care center had found in that little job something that still made him feel like his life was worthwhile.  He was still able to contribute something, and he was proud of his ‘job’ and the work he could do.

     Resting and relaxing is a pleasure only if you have been working and need to rest.  But if you only rest and relax, it is no longer a pleasure, but becomes a burden.  Have you ever been on a vacation that lasted just a little too long?  It is not uncommon for people to look forward to getting back to work just as much as they looked forward to going on vacation.  

      There is something in us that doesn’t want to work.  There is also something in us that has to work.

     In the first three chapters of the Bible there are two important references to work– one positive and one negative.  The second chapter of Genesis describes God’s perfect paradise, the Garden of Eden; and there was work to be done there.  Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to work it and take care of it.”  Work has been from the beginning a part of God’s perfect plan.  That is why we want to work.  That is why that little old man at the care center needed to sit by the door all day to do ‘his job.’  We were created to work.  Work is good, and we feel worthless and lost and useless without it.  And this ‘work’ need not be limited to our jobs, but can also include our work at our hobbies (like gardening), or volunteer work to serve others, or working in our homes as we do things for our families.

     But as much as this desire for and need to work is a part of what we were created to be, we do not love every aspect of all our work with our whole heart– do we?  There is something is us that doesn’t want to work, and for good reason.  Work can be difficult, frustrating, useless, pointless, dumb, and stressful.  Worst of all, you often have to work with other people, and that can drive you crazy– if you are in charge, or, if you are taking orders.  Work was at first a part of God’s perfect creation– but then Adam and Eve sinned.  They rejected God and chose their own way, and God sent them out of the Garden of Eden.  And, as part of our punishment for sin, the work we do is now under a curse, as God said to Adam and Eve:  “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you and by the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread.”  The ‘thorns and thistles’ apply not only to farm work, but are symbolic of all the troubles we have as we do our work.

     I am always amazed at the depth of truth and meaning in these ancient texts.  Here, at the very beginning of the Bible, we have the reasons for our love-hate relationship to our work.  We were created to work and so in our hearts we want to work; but because of our sin, the work that we do is under a curse and the source of endless frustration.  (continued…)

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Genesis 2:15  —  The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Genesis 3:17b-19  —  (The Lord God said), ““Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

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Lord, give me life until my work is done; and give me work until my life is done.  Amen.