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The Role of Work

We were talking about his parents and their extremely busy lives. Both beloved missionaries in Las Paz, Mexico, his father travels internationally to teach, and his mother is recovering from cancer surgery as she completes a degree in counseling to better meet the needs of those they serve. “Do they ever talk about retirement?” I asked naively. That is when my son-in-law, Martin, explained to me the cultural difference in how people in Mexico view work. He shared that Mexicans continue working as long as they can and when they can no longer work full-time because of waning strength or stamina, they work shorter or fewer days. He spoke about the sense of purpose it gives to the elders to continue to have a meaningful role to play.

I know that retirement has not always been a part of the American culture, either. Until the late 19th Century, working until you died or became unable to work was true for most of the world’s laborers. It has only been as people have become more prosperous that the notion has become an expectation in our country and that, rather short-lived. Many people in the “Greatest Generation” experienced lengthy retirements for which they planned well. My blue-collar-worker parents enjoyed almost as many years in retirement as they worked. But many Baby Boomers have not been so thrifty and are working longer, in part, to save what they anticipate needing in retirement. The reasons around which the concept of retirement was created, including limited-life spans, the strength required for many jobs, and the equation of those paying into social security balancing those who needed the benefits, have been challenged by current realities. Some futurists say that retirement as we know it is fast becoming a thing of the past.

As we approach Labor Day, when the nation celebrates the contributions that American workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country, I have been thinking about the role of work in our lives. For some of us it is a source of identity. For others of us it is way to pay the bills. For still others it is an expression of gifts and talents, while for others it is a way to heal the world.

In Hebrew, “Avodah,” the word for work, is also used for prayer. It has to do with service and has the potential to repair the world. While not a religious obligation in Judaism, work is highly valued. It is deemed part of the divine plan to work, but work is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Work is valued as a way to serve God and others, a way to benefit society.

Buddhists do not work to earn a living. Work is a means to cultivate consciousness, to soften the rough edges of the ego and to loosen the root of suffering. The fifth of the eight fold path is “right livelihood,” which encourages that people earn a living without transgressing the ideals of love and compassion. The work we do either nourishes understanding and compassion or erodes these ideals. Buddhism encourages that if your job is draining more than nourishing, it might be time to consider a change.

As part of God’s created order, Christians encourage offering or dedicating all work to God. Vocation is from the Latin word meaning “calling” and this is understood broadly, not just ministerially. Many people, including Christians, struggle with the purpose and value of the work they do. Determining ways to devote whatever work is ours to the good of others and the glory of God is a way to redeem even the most menial work as a “calling.” Centuries ago the joyful Brother Lawrence, who was the dishwasher in his monastery, said, “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

As a nation we are more aware than ever of the discontent of many regarding their jobs or the lack of a job. We pray for those who are not adequately or fairly paid or feel otherwise demoralized by their work or lack thereof on this Labor Day. We also pray for the strength and will to make of the work that is ours an expression of goodwill and love toward others. Happy Labor Day.