Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I Know Why It's Called "Labor Day"

My life emerged some forty-one years ago in what could generously be called “blue collar roots.” My father had finished ten years of school and left to work. My mother graduated high school and within twelve months began her caretaking tasks with me. My earliest and most vivid memories are of the central place of work in our family’s life, work performed either by necessity or work neglected due to personal shortfall.

In my older elementary and high school years, I would often hear the corrective for whatever situation I was facing. Whether my malady was disillusionment, a lack of direction or a general sense of malaise, my mother’s continuing advice was: “Well, you need to work more.” Hard work was her solution for nearly every crisis in life. It was a credo not only articulated with words, but demonstrated in daily living. Neither my mother nor my father, nor my grandmother nor my grandfather on either side of the familiy have known the luxury of a salaried position. Each dollar earned, saved or spent was the result of personal effort and physical investment. In the family’s work ethic there was no such things as “a free lunch,” no purpose in government-assisted welfare programs and little appreciation for the concept of a salaried income.

My life has taken on such a different complexion. Following high school I went immediately to college. The only other acceptable solution would have been military service, an option my mother still opines (“But you would have looked so good in a uniform”), and one which I continue not to regret. After college, then, it was time to work. The idea of a graduate degree was met with questioning disdain. “You’ve been to college and you’ve got loans to pay back, so you really should be getting a job. And what kind of job will you be getting, anyway, with a degree in Religion?”

I tried my hand at a master’s program at this juncture, but it just didn’t work. The challenges of independence, working full-time and trying to pursue graduate level work did not compute well in my life. And so I worked. I worked as a part-time barely paid pastoral intern and supplemented my meager salary with office-oriented jobs here and there. It was only a number of years later (six, to be exact) that I decided to come back to the graduate program and completed a Master of Divinity.

All of that to say that my life looks considerably different than that of my parents or my grandparents before me. Twice a month I receive a check, the same amount each time (whether I’ve worked sixty hours a week or thirty hours a week). I live in a church-provided home in which utlities are paid as part of my benefits package. My family and I have health insurance (an amenity even I did not have in my college years), a privilege for which my parents and grandparents had to wait until the age of 62. Each morning I drive my relatively new car to an office where I field phone calls, answer and send emails and prepare and administer the program of a medium-sized church. When it’s time to make a hospital visit I don’t have to “clock out.” If my children have a school program, I don’t need to get “prior approval” from a supervisor to be away for an hour or so. I simply make up the time in another arena. If it is blizzarding conditions that keep us sequestered in our home for more than a day, I do not have to worry about not getting a full paycheck for the week. Frankly, I know little about “labor” anymore, at least not in a physical sense.

Effectively, I “labor” often. Being summoned to the hospital bedside of a seriously ill individual and providing prayerful support to a beleaguered family is “labor,” but not of a physical sort. Knowing that my family and I will never experience a complete weekend (unless it’s one of my designated four vacation Sundays) together is laborious, and even though I have a flexible schedule to accommodate other family-related events, it is tiring to know that in this way our family will always be different. And when Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, it is confining to know that even if our family wanted to travel to distant relatives for the holiday celebration, we would likely be unable to do so because of my pastoral responsibilities. So, in a sense, there are laborious aspects to my vocation.

But I know little about wiping sweat from my brow hour after hour under a blazing sun while lifting huge chunks of wood into the back of a pickup. I no longer experience the prickly, hay-fever inducing moments in the field helping to stack freshly-created bales of hay. I don’t know what it is like to travel to the fields with family in tow where we might work untold hours in the summer heat and humidity to pick rocks or pull weeds or harvest delicate vegetables. The fact is, I know little about labor these days.

And so yesterday’s family activity was a good reminder of what it is to labor. Typically on Labor Day (and similar holidays) Claudia and I gather the kids, head off to the nearest “big town” and eat lunch together, see a movie matinee and spend some time at the park. This Labor Day we decided to forego those activities. With the rising cost of gas and with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina upon us, our family decided to stay home, thoroughly clean and organize our home and save our money to send to the victims in the southern states. It helped motivate us to know that today (Tuesday) was “parsonage inspection” day (an annual event to determine what concerns our church trustees need to address), and we all worked hard. We organized shelves that had been in disarray for months, scrubbed walls and windows. We labored together. And hours later, in the relative glow of the experience, I reflect upon how good it feels to see the result of honest, hard work.

Ironically, my paycheck will be no higher or lower as a result of our mutually expended efforts yesterday. But the sense of satisfaction that comes from the hard work of fall cleaning is something a paycheck cannot reflect. I know why it’s called Labor Day, and I take this moment to gratefuly remember the early values that give me the capacity to appreciate those whose work is visibly wrought through intentional, hard, physical labor.

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