My Psalm 86
Today is Labor Day. It is one of several federal holidays and, though considered uniquely American, many countries do have holidays to celebrate the labor force. According to the Department of Labor, Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
For many countries, Labor is Labour Day and it is celebrated on May 1st which is also International Workers’ Day. In some countries like Bangladesh, though, Labour Day is celebrated on the date that groups of workers perished. While not generally considered a dangerous location, the workplace has resulted in the deaths of many.
The DOL website states the reason we celebrate Labor Day: “The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”
Worldwide over twelve million children comprise the labor force. Being able-bodied and full of energy, children throughout history seemed like the perfect workers. Unfortunately, their youth and abilities were usually overused with little regard given to their health. Child labor in the United States continued until the beginning of the twentieth century, although reforms regarding such began almost one hundred years earlier.
The Child Labor Project explains that in 1832 the New England union, The New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workingmen condemned the practice and harsh use of children in factories, resolving that “Children should not be allowed to labor in the factories from morning till night, without any time for healthy recreation and mental culture,” for it “endangers their . . . well-being and health.” It would not be until 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act would regulate the age of children employed and the number of hours they could work.
Fourteen American workers are killed on the job every day. While it may seem like government interference, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration serves a vital purpose in protecting the employed in the United States of America. In the past forty years, workplace deaths have decreased by over sixty-five percent and even illnesses are done by almost seventy percent. There is still much to do, however. Almost five thousand workers were killed on the job in 2012 and while this is the second lowest yearly total in the past twenty years, it is still too high.
Much of this country depends upon the construction industry since most of us live and work in something that needed to be constructed. Almost twenty percent of worker fatalities in 2012 were in construction. The “fatal Four’ causes of death for construction were falls, being struck by an object, electrocution, and caught in-between. Eliminating these deaths would save almost four hundred and fifty lives in the USA every year.
“Go, labor on. Who dare stands idle?” is the line of a well-known hymn. Penned by Laurie Jane Borthwick in 1859, the words have been a description of the American worker throughout time. “Come, labor on. Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain? And to each servant does the Master say, “Go work today.”
The Reverend Matt Gaventa of Amherst Presbyterian Church in Amherst, Virginia spoke about the American workforce and the current economic and vocational crises this past March. One could not, he explained, separate themselves from it, nor could it be considered just a work-related problem. “It’s not economic. It’s emotional. It’s spiritual. And you don’t even have to lose your job to know how it feels, because we live it every day. For a society bent on making life as convenient as possible, we are working ourselves to death. For a society bent on saving as much time as possible, everybody’s busy.”
Galenta explained: “Think about that: I used to have to take the film out of the camera by hand, package it up in those fancy Kodak envelopes, drop it off at the CVS, wait a few days, go back to pick it up, and then swing by the post office and put a few of my favorites in the mail to grandma or mom and dad or whoever and now I just put it on Instagram and five seconds later it’s done and yet somehow I have less time. “How are things?” “ Well, you know. Busy. Isn’t everybody?”
Galenta continued: “It’s become entirely socially unacceptable not to say how busy you are, and yet by all accounts life has never in human history been more convenient. It doesn’t add up. And the reason it doesn’t add up is that it’s not an economic crisis: it’s emotional; it’s pathological; it’s the voice inside that says “Who am I if I’m not working? Who am I if I don’t have a job? Who am I if I don’t have a task at hand?” And so the fullness of the hours of the day, the frenzy of the calendar, the torrid pace that we set for ourselves; these things become the yardstick of our self-worth, and the voice inside is there to make sure that we don’t measure up.”
Matt Galenta then connected our labors to our spiritual and religious beliefs, explaining that the current times were also a theological if work is the thing that gives us worth. He concludes: “Oh sure, there’s work to do,” Jesus tells the disciples, as he so often does, using the image of sowing and reaping in the fields. Jesus tells them, “Oh sure, there’s work to do: the harvest is ready and it’s happening and that’s where I’m getting my food and you could be out there harvesting, too.” “Oh sure, there’s work to do,” Jesus says, hinting at the mission that still lays before them. But he doesn’t just answer the question on their lips. He also answers the question in their hearts – ‘if we can’t even buy food, why are we here in the first place?’”
Are we here simply to labor? Is there a hierarchy that allows one class to stand idle while the other lower classes toil from sun up to sundown? Faith would have us believe that we are not only called to do but first to recognize our job is to be. By that, we are to recognize that we are from love and are to love. Our greatest value is in being the spiritual beings we were created to be, not in the accumulation of the most “toys”.
We are more than our jobs, though those jobs are important and serve many purposes. We are more than our schedules, our attire, and our leisure activities. We need to start laboring the task of love and peace, of protecting the wonderful creation of life and nature given to us. Our value is in what we pass on to future generations, not how much we can utilize now. We need to seize the day and live in peace, respecting all. As Borthwick’s hymn says, “Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie, And a glad sound comes with the setting sun, “Well done, well done.”
My Psalm 86
Dear Lord and Creator,
Help me to work this land,
Live this life,
Glorify your graciousness.
Alone I have nothing;
With you, I have everything.
Help me, O God, to work my faith,
To live your teachings,
Follow your examples.
May my life be a mirror of your goodness.
Thank you for the mercies given to me.
You hear my plea and answer my prayers, O Lord.
My life’s work is to live in thankfulness and peace.