Labor Day a time for reflection on the value and spiritual meaning of work

August 31, 2012

The Rev. Bill Haley is associate rector at the Falls Church Anglican and director of formation for the Washington Institute and a contributor to The Washington Post's local faith leader network.

Since Labor Day first became a federal holiday in 1894, the first Monday of September has been set apart to celebrate and value in American society the role of our workers and their work by providing, ironically and fittingly, a day off to rest and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. It also affords a tremendous opportunity to reflect on the deeper meaning of our work, which the language of faith provides.

Many people have come to feel that work is a result of the brokenness of things, and that if the world functioned the way it was supposed to, life would be like a long vacation. The Jewish and Christian scriptures offer a very different vision of work, however, one in which our work has a central role to play in the world from it’s very beginning. Even before the world became broken, humankind was to make something of the world on God’s behalf, in no small part through the labor of our hands. As we read in the Bible, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it.” (Genesis 2.15)

After this comes the biblical account of the fall of man, and all that was made good was twisted, but not irrecoverably. Work became harder, attended by “the sweat of our brow,” but the work itself it still good. Our work in the world was designed to be and continues to be how God does God’s work in the world.

Taking one example among dozens, God cares about people having enough to eat and not going hungry. Simply, if a person does not have enough food to eat, it is very hard for them to live into God's designs and desires for them, and hunger is no small problem, even in America. In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, one in five children live in situations of what is technically called “food insecurity,” or the more simple term, “hungry.” Nationally, one in four children in the United States lives hungry, and Washington, D.C., has some of our country’s highest rates of food insecurity and malnutrition among children.

While food banks and soup kitchens are one way people and their children get food, there’s a much more basic and far-reaching way that God enables food to get into stomachs, one that involves thousands of people who work.

A lot of different sorts of jobs are required to get food on the table: obviously farmers, but also truckers, grocers, butchers, railroad and transport workers, immigrant laborers, workers in food processing plants, policy makers, journalists covering food issues, and many more. There are the people who package it, people who try to provide food for those who do not have enough food, people who work at the food banks. There are the cooks and chefs, and moms and dads who prepare and provide food for their kids. This is just one example of how God uses people to take care of the needs of others through their work, paid and unpaid, so that others can flourish. For any of these professions, a good and deep answer to the ubiquitous question “What do you do?” would be “I help feed people.”

This example helps us realize that are a lot of jobs in which there is an immense amount of dignity because the work itself plays a part in helping another flourish through the provision of food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education, a just society, effective government, religious freedom, the possibility of meaningful work, access to the arts, freedom and other things required for a society where individuals can flourish, where others can can live into God's design for them.

As the noted author Richard Foster observes, “Work places us into the stream of divine action. We are ‘subcreators,’ as JRR Tolkien reminds us.” It should not be terribly surprising then that the Hebrew word for “work,” avodah, can also be translated as “worship.” When we work well for the sake of others, it’s one of the ways we worship God. We live into our design, and into the image of the One who made us, who, we’re told, also was a worker.

Reflecting on the deeper meaning of our work through the lens of faith, then, can have a profound impact on how we approach our jobs. It’s the difference between “I’ve got to go to work” and “I get to go to work,” and that’s a big difference.

A worthy exercise on this Labor Day, amidst the resting and the celebrating, would be to take a few minutes of reflection on the deeper meaning of one’s labor, and how one’s faith shapes our understanding of the value of our jobs. We ask, “How is my job creating good in the world?” or “How is my job helping fix what is broken in the world?”

I guarantee, if we take a few minutes on the Monday that is Labor Day to find compelling answers to those questions, we’ll return to our labor Tuesday with a lot more passion to get down to work, and do our work well, for our sake, for the sake of others, and for God’s sake.

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