Labour Day weekend marks a milestone in my life. You see 24 years ago, after a driving about 4,000 kilometres, all the way from Vancouver, I arrived in Waterloo, Ontario, just in time for the long Labour Day weekend. I didn’t know anyone in Waterloo. I didn’t have a place to live. But on the Tuesday after Labour Day, I was scheduled to report to Waterloo Lutheran Seminary to begin orientation for what would be a four year masters of Divinity program. In the course of that long ago Labour Day weekend, I found a place to live, unpacked all the belongings that I’d been able to stuff in to my old 84 Oldsmobile, and discovered that in Ontario, milk comes out of in plastic bags. You have no idea how mystified I was wondering just how those plastic bags functioned as an appropriate container for milk. I actually remember standing in the grocery store wondering what people here in Ontario did once they’d opened the plastic bag. Visions of milk spilling everywhere caused me to well up with such a feeling of homesickness. Since then, Labour Day Weekends have been strange combination of nostalgia for what once was and excitement for what is yet to be.
I came to Ontario in the midst of a transition. I’d just completed a 4 year undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and I was about to begin Seminary. Both my undergraduate and my masters degree would qualify me to be a pastor. After a years in the travel industry working as both a tour wholesaler and an accountant, I wanted something more out of my work; I wanted something more than just a job I wanted a profession. Religion, Christianity, the Church, the inner workings of reality, books, studying, teaching, deep conversations, these things were and are expressions of my passion. Travel Brochures, numbers, spread-sheets, office politics, sales-figures, the day to day commute into the city, these things represented a means of making money to pay the bills. Don’t get me wrong, my work in the travel industry was usually interesting, sometimes challenging and often quite satisfying. But it had nothing what so ever to do with passion.I viewed my work as a job. What I wanted was a profession. I was caught up in a way of seeing that divided work into categories of meaningful and meaningless. I was incapable of seeing the sacred in my work. Despite the fact that I worked with interesting, beautiful, people and was privileged enough to enjoy the world in ways that some people can only dream of, I couldn’t see meaning in my work.
I was for all intents and purposes an arrogant snob.I was raised in a culture and in a time when education, and fancy letters after one’s name, meant that your work was more important and therefore more meaningful than the work of folks who didn’t have a professional calling. Not surprisingly, I am a product of my experience. I was raised by British working-class parents who struggled to ensure that I had access to the kind of educational opportunities that would result in more than just a job. Their dreams and visions were of having their children become “someone”. A job was something anyone could get. A career was something special. A career meant that you were someone who was involved in something more; a career meant that you were a professional. Even the word job is designed to put the worker in their place. Job comes from the word “jobbe” which describes piece work. A person who does a job is like a cog in a wheel of a much larger machine, who preforms a task that is often disconnected from the end product. A profession is defined as a vocation, a calling that requires specialized educational training. I was tired of functioning in a job and I felt called to a profession in which I could put my own particular passions to work. It took me a long time to understand that a profession could also be just a job and that a job could indeed be the expression of one’s passion.
While I was busy judging the quality of particular occupations, I failed to see the inherent dignity of work itself. The legacy of the class system that divided us into tribes based on the money our work could generate leaves many of us with the miss-guided notion that work is simply a means to an end. All too often we direct our attention to the end and judge the work by how much the worker is able to accumulate. How big is your pile of money? That becomes the point of our work. We express the value of our work in the size of our homes, our cars, the vacations we take, the clothes we wear, the toys we play with. The object of our work becomes the pile. How high can we build our towers? What mark can we leave upon the earth?
Years ago, when I was working as a volunteer at a retreat centre, I remember the most satisfying work that I did as a volunteer, was not serving as a board member, not even when I was elected Treasurer and controlled the purse strings of the organization. No! The most satisfying work that I ever did at the retreat centre, which was such a big part of my life for so many years, a place I loved, and worked hard to make a success, the place where my passions all came together, the place where I worked night and day at after putting in long hours at my job, the most satisfying work I did at the retreat centre was scrubbing the floors.
You see the main building of the retreat centre was an old farmhouse. The kitchen had an old and ugly linoleum floor. That floor had seen so much traffic that the the pattern was worn off in places. I remember getting up before sunrise, or wandering in late in the evening, to get down on my hands and knees and scrub that floor because it was a job best done when no one was around. First, I’d scrub it with a scrub brush and Comet; you know that old fashioned abrasive powder. Then I’d have to rinse it with hot water and a cloth. Then after it dried, I’d wax it. It wasn’t a very big kitchen, but it took a couple of hours to do it right. Yet, even when it was finished, that old linoleum wasn’t really up to much. But it was clean. You could have eaten off that floor.
I knew full well that it would only take a few moments for the retreat centres’ inhabitants and visitors to destroy the floors lustre, and I sometimes wondered why I even bothered. But then one night and old theologian who regularly visited the retreat centre, was up and about late at night and he found me on my hands and knees scrubbing. I don’t remember much about the long conversation we had that evening, but I do remember the words on the thank-you card that Fritz left for me before he left the retreat centre. Written on the card were the words of the Persian poet Gibran: “Work is love made visible.”
“Work is love made visible.” For just a moment the words penetrated my carefully held notions about the meaning of work and I understood why I felt so satisfied every time I scrubbed the floor. The work was my way of giving expression to the love I had for the people and the place. Years later I came across those words again. “Work is love made visible.” Joan Chittiser quoted Gibran in an essay I read and tucked away, back when I was trying to figure out what it means to be human.
Chittister writes: “A spirituality of work is based on a heightened sense of sacramentality, of the idea that everything that is, is holy and that our hands consecrate it to the service of God. When we grow radishes in a small container in a city apartment, we participate in creation. When we sweep the street in front of a house, we bring new order to the universe. When we repair what has been broken or paint what is old or give away what we have earned that is above and beyond our own sustenance, we stoop down and scoop up the earth and breathe into it new life again. When we compost garbage and recycle cans, when we clean a room and put coasters under glasses, when we care for everything we touch and touch it reverently, we become the creators of a new universe. Then we sanctify our work and our work sanctifies us. A spirituality of work puts us in touch with our own creativity. Making a salad for supper becomes a work of art. Planting another evergreen tree becomes our contribution to the health of the world. Organizing a good meeting with important questions for the sake of preserving the best in human values enhances humanity. Work enables us to put our personal stamp of approval, our own watermark, the autograph of our souls on the development of the world. In fact, to do less is to do nothing at all. A spirituality of work draws us out of ourselves and, at the same time, makes us more of what we are meant to be. Good work — work done with good intentions and good effects, work that up builds the human race rather than reduces it to the monstrous or risks its destruction — develops qualities of compassion and character in me. My work also develops everything around it. There is nothing I do that does not affect the world in which I live. In developing a spirituality of work, I learn to trust beyond reason that good work will gain good things for the world, even when I don’t expect them and I can’t see them. In that way, I gain myself. Literally. I come into possession of a me that is worthwhile, whose life has not been in vain, who has been a valuable member of the human race. Finally, a spirituality of work immerses me in the search for human community. I begin to see that everything I do, everything, has some effect on someone somewhere. I begin to see my life tied up in theirs. I begin to see that the starving starve because someone is not working hard enough to feed them. And so I do. It becomes obvious, then, that the poor are poor because someone is not intent on the just distribution of goods of the earth. And so I am. I begin to realize that work is the lifelong process of personal sanctification that is satisfied only for the globe. I finally come to know that my work is God’s work, unfinished by God because God meant it to be finished by me.”
Chittister’s view of work as an expression of our love, reminds me that the LOVE that we call God, finds expression in the work that we do. Indeed, the LOVE that IS God works in, with, through, and beyond us. On this Labour day weekend, may we all remember and honour the sacred work that has nourished, grounded, and sustained us in the blessed lives that we lead. May we honour the sacred workers who have provided a means for LOVE to find expression in the world. May we all find work that gives expression to our love for the world, our love for one another, and our love for our neighbours. Work is indeed LOVE made visible. LOVE is the source, and ground of our being.
May our work, together, and beyond make the LOVE that is God visible. Now and always.