Meyer’s Musings from Semi-Confinement, Part I
REV. PHILIP MEYER, PASTOR EMERITUS
Since I last wrote we have been half-way liberated from our confinement due to the Wuhan virus. A lot of space and time has been eaten up in the discussion of getting our nation back to work. Work, or jobs, is/are necessary to our nation’s well-being. There is a tug of war politically on this idea. One side says we should have a cure for the virus before we let anyone go back to work except for those who are deemed “essential,” like doctors, nurses, auto mechanics, firemen, law enforcement, and liquor stores. In every state where it has been legalized, pot stores are considered essential. Churches, however, have not been considered essential until today, 22 May, when President Trump declared churches essential to the well-being of our nation. Initial reports are that there will be pushback from certain governors. We’ve been in the same category with movie theaters and beaches. Churches are nice to have, but not really necessary.
My dear wife used to say of children, particularly preschool children, “Play is the work of children.” In other words, play is to children what a job is to their parents. Play is necessary for physical and social development. But that, too, has been curtailed. Playgrounds in Indiana are set to reopen soon, maybe swimming pools, yet our community has but one public pool and it seems to be in a perpetual state of disrepair.
Work is necessary to our well-being as play is to children. iPads, computers, and mobile phones are poor substitutes for playing outside and interacting with one’s playmates face to face. Without work most purpose is drained out of life. Why get up in the morning? And even if it isn’t an income producing job, as in the case of retirees, we need a reason to get up in the morning and be productive.
Work us usually seen as a curse. Yet, once Adam sinned his work became a curse. Before it was not, as Genesis 2. 15 states:
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”
But once sin entered into the world man’s work became toil. By the sweat of one’s face one works to earn a living. Sometimes one ekes out a living. Hard scrabble is a phrase that comes to mind when I think of coal miners. One of my great grandfathers was a coal miner in western Pennsylvania. How he lived as long as he did was by the grace of God. I have a particular attachment to a song from 1955 [yes, I was a boy then and I remember singing it!] by Tennessee Ernie Ford—Sixteen Tons. “I was born one morning when the sun didn’t shine. I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine.” The refrain is haunting: “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go; I owe my soul to the company store.”
Not everyone has toiled like that, and yet these are the very people who treasure work because it puts food on the table. They live a lot closer to the Word of God in Genesis than do the elites who don’t have to work to get their next meal.
Previously I wrote about the doctrine of Vocation, that all honorable work is what Christians to do glorify God, whether it pays a wage or not. Some vocations, like that of parents, don’t pay any wages. It’s a vocation of giving. Oscar Wilde invented an inverse of a popular proverb “Work is the original curse,” making it, “Work is the curse of the drinking class.”
When Gay and I were married we received a framed cross-stitched plaque from my old family doctor. I’m sure his wife picked it out. It said: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” For a long time I don’t think I appreciated it, but in light of our pandemic it seems like genius. Maybe it encapsulates the American Dream.
A scan of an English Concordance to the Bible reveals hundreds of references to work. Many of these are the works of God, what God does for us. Some are put in opposition to salvation, that we are saved not by our works but by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. But then there are the works which Christians do for the good of others and the glory of God. Paul tells us in Ephesians that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” [Eph. 2.10]
The poet T. S. Eliot said that man’s lot is ceaseless labor but I think that ceaseless idleness is even harder. How many times I have heard that in the past two months. Without our work, whatever that may be, we tend to be rudderless, not knowing where to go or what to do. People have asked me what I’m doing being confined. “Not a lot” is usually what I’ve answered. Even retirees need a purpose in life.
It seems a blessing that many have a different view of work than they did before this pandemic. Perhaps they complained about work, but given the chance to go back to work most will jump at the chance. Unemployment insurance is fine for those unable to find work but it doesn’t substitute for the satisfaction of having earned a living.
I remember a story about construction workers being asked what they were doing as a cathedral was under construction. More than one said, “I’m laying stones,” or “I’m doing carpentry,” or “Im earning a living.” One man had a different answer. He said, “I’m helping build a beautiful cathedral to the glory of God.” That man understood the real purpose of work. The others were shortsighted.
it seems to me that as people are permitted to go back to work—and I certainly hope and pray that their jobs will still await them—they will return with a greater appreciation of what God has given them. Moreover, I hope that they will appreciate this gift given by God as we confess it in the meaning of the First Article of the Creed,
He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.
and in the Fourth Petition of the Our Father,
Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.
All of that is given by God through our work. Work is a means, not an end. Sixteen tons of coal heated a lot of homes at one time and provided the fuel for industry. While it was tedious work, it was necessary. If my great grandfather had not labored in the mines I probably would not be here. He took care of his family, a blessing to be sure. No matter how humble, all honest work is a vocation in the sight of God and is for the common good. Let’s not forget that work has the curse of sin – but it is perhaps “a blessed curse.”