The Meaning of the Work of Our Hands
This weekend, throughout North America, is set aside as the Labor Day Long Weekend. So today we want to talk about work.
In a large factory not far from here there once was a Caution sign on the employee bulletin board, that said something like this: "In case of fire, flee the building with the same reckless abandon that occurs each day at quitting time." (Oh, you've seen the sign, have you?)
Then there is this story, I believe from the same workplace: A plant manager found that production was lower than what it could be because the employees took their time to get back to their work stations from the lunch hour. When the whistle blew not many workers were at their machines. So the manager posted a sign by the suggestion box offering a cash award for the best answer to this question: "What should we do to insure that everyone will be inside the factory when the whistle blows?" Many suggestions were submitted and one was selected which solved the problem. But the manager, a man with a sense of humor, liked this one best, though he could not use it: "Let the last man in blow the whistle."
Olle was talking to his friend Swen. LUCKY BOSS "You know," said Olle, "I got a real good reference from de boss at my last yob." "Really?" said Sven. "Ya, he wrote -- ''if you get Olle to verk for you, you''ll be lucky!"
The Labor Day Weekend is a time when Society honors the workers that allow the social machine to function. It is also a time when we as Christians are called to reflect on the significance of work in our lives.
In my meditation I will not make reference to the passage and topic noted in the bulletin. Instead, I will focus of work for our lives.
Our Work is that activity which in many ways determines who we are. Very often in our social interactions the first thing that we ask a new acquaintance is, "So, what do you do for a living?" In many ways, we measure our worth by the work that we do, the level of success and satisfaction that we experience in our work, and the amount of wealth that we accumulate based on our success.
We encourage our youngsters to be good students, to be diligent in their endeavors and to secure a successful career. We also often delay the rewards of our labors to "cash in big time" when we retire. We prefer work overtime on a long weekend to get a little extra cash, which will help us to retire earlier, rather than to take the time and hold our children and smell the roses.
You see, we often do our work for the rewards it promises for a distant, unsure future. And in the process we loose the joy and fulfillment that our work is intended to give us.
Today, we want to celebrate the God who loves us and accepts us, not on the basis of our work ethic and the sacrifices that we make (even those that we make in His name).
Today we celebrate the God, who in His wisdom and mercy gave us something meaningful to do in spite of our rebellion against Him in the Garden of Eden. We celebrate the God who loves us for who we are, and not for what we do.
Have you ever woken up in the morning and asked yourself: "What is the point of my work? What does all my labor add up to?"
In every vocation people get the frustrating feeling that the job is never done. Its all too easy to fall into the trap of pinning our hopes on our capacity to fulfill our dreams and goals. Ecclesiastes is not saying that we should not have goals and objectives. Work could not exist without them. Rather, the danger lies in attaching personal fulfillment to the end result. God alone knows what the result might hold.
Most of us will spend most of our lives at work. On this Labor Day weekend, we ask ourselves, "What does our work mean? Will what we do last? Will anyone remember my work after I have left the scene? Will my humble contribution, my faithful "keeping of the guard" be of any value to anyone other than myself?"
We have some biblical help with such deep questions. In the middle of the Old Testament there is a book, the book of Ecclesiastes. The writer looked over every aspect of life, all human endeavor, attempting to discern what endures, what lasts. He was in search for the meaning of life itself.
This is the way he put it (Eccl 2:11), "I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun".
An entire chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 2, looks at the results of work. We work hard, we toil, creating, pursuing, building and achieving, but what does it all add up to? In the words of Ecclesiastes, all of our work, despite our best efforts, is mostly vanity, or more accurately, "a chasing after wind."
We have to admit that some work is more fulfilling than other work, but the dissatisfaction in Ecclesiastes goes deeper than a complaint about unfair working conditions, too many hours, too short restroom breaks, and what have you.
According to the writer, you can build, you can achieve, you can try to gain knowledge and wisdom. The wise man stares at the works of his hands, his human labor, and declares it is all "chasing after wind." He gives us a litany of his accomplishments: "I built," and "I made great" (Eccl 2:4), I "planted" (vv. 4-5), "I made" (v. 5), "I bought" (v. 7), I "gathered" (v. 8). Anything that we are doing, he has also done. However, all of this doing is an illusion. It all goes down unto death, "There was nothing to be gained under the sun" (2:11).
The meaning of this is simple to appreciate: so much of what we do becomes quickly outdated and forgotten. Not much of what we do endures the test of time. Scientists figure that 1/2 of everything we know today will be "old news" or even untrue in only 20 years from now.
We ask ourselves, "will anyone remember the dedication and commitment that I had for my job?" But, what stands the test of time when it comes to the fruits of our labor is not the only test of our work? There is another reason for investing ourselves in our life's labors?
It is interesting that Ecclesiastes, rather than saying work is pointless and therefore it ought to be avoided at all cost, urges enthusiastic, vigorous engagement in work. The writer encourages us to seize the day - for this moment is all that is certain. Once we're dead - we cannot work any longer.
He says: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the land of the dead (Sheol), to which you are going" (9:10). Work is one of the gracious things God gives us to do. While the results of our work may not last forever, in the meantime, work should be enjoyed as active co-creation with God.
Ecclesiastes sees work not as an end in itself. Work should be enjoyed for its own sake. The joy is in the journey. It's like going on a trip with your best friends: The greatest fun is just getting to your destination together.
If our work is something we do in order to get something else, this leads to frustration and despair. But, if we enjoy it as an end in itself there will be many rewards in work (8:15).
We find fulfillment in work when we humbly accept the limits of life. We can cherish the time we have to work. We, like the animals, go down to death, along with most of our achievements. And yet that realization alone need not destroy the possibility of present enjoyments (9:7-10).
Let's face it, most of the trouble we get into with our work is when we fail to keep work in its place. We become obsessive, trying to secure ourselves through our work, making our work an idol. It is better to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, the day-to-day routine, the rhythm of work and rest.
Story: A newspaper reporter was interviewing an old rancher and asked him to what he would attribute his success as a rancher. With a twinkle in his eye the man replied, "It's been about 50 percent weather, 50 percent good luck and the rest is brains."
There is a sense of satisfaction in having a job. Much more even when we see our simple job as a calling - a vocation, a reason to get up, a place to go, something to do. "So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun" (Eccl 8:15).
Our own personal value comes from knowing our significance to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God is eternal. We are not. His gift of Grace has a lasting value. Therefore, we do not need to live with anxiety because of our own limitations. We do not need to dwell in endless worry. Joy and a sense of meaning comes to us as a surprise. As a gift. As Grace.
All of a sudden what earlier sounded like the desperation of the writer of Ecclesiastes, begins to sound a lot like good common sense advise.
We live in a society of achievement and success. We are ambitious, constantly making plans, setting goals, striving and moving forward. But where does it lead? Our goals, our great objectives are often "chasing after wind."
Our work becomes oppressive when we ask too much of it. When we insist that what we do lasts forever, that it be the only meaning and purpose of our lives. We must do more than work. We must learn how to have a life, more than simply making a living. We are therefore invited to work, not seeking results, but rather enjoying the process of the toil. Only God knows where all of this leads, what it finally adds up to. We don't have to keep anxiously asking ourselves what lasts. We can keep working, and enjoying our labors, because we know that the love of Jesus has no end.
Psalm 90, reminds us how fragile and vulnerable life is: "we are like grass that is renewed in the morning but in the evening it fades and withers" (vv. 5-6). Therefore, he also expresses this humble prayer to God: "Prosper for us the work of our hands - O prosper the work of our hands!" (90:17) (O Herr hilf, O Herr, laß wohl gelingen). In the end, God will somehow take all of our human efforts, mortal and vulnerable as they are, and will somehow weave them into His great, eternal purposes.
When you go back to work after this time of rest, Praise God in your work. Enjoy not only the fruit of your labor, but the labor itself. As the writer of Ecclesiastes would say: "Life is too short to be unfulfilled in your work." May God bless you in your work.