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Monday, September 13, 2010

Labor Day Sunday

While on vacation this summer, I acquired a hammock. My neighbor was getting rid of hers and I’ve always wanted one, so I toted it into our yard and hung it between two trees. I spent quite a few of the remaining hours of my vacation rocking gently under a soothing canopy of mottled green with surprisingly blue sky in the background, a pillow under my head and, during this unusually cool summer, a light blanket across my lap. Since returning to work, I’ve still been stretching out in it on an almost daily basis, sometimes reading, often napping, frequently day-dreaming as my mind goes…well, I’m not sure where it goes, but it’s somewhere relaxing and renewing and different. I haven’t yet set up a mini-fridge and microwave next to it, but the thought has occurred to me!

There’s something about a hammock that makes very clear the boundary between rest and labor. Due to the shape and dynamics of one, it’s difficult to do anything that even resembles work except possibly talking on the phone. I can’t sit up enough to use my laptop or to write. I can read, but if it’s a book that taxes my mind, my brain goes on strike and promptly falls asleep. There’s not enough flat space to spread out papers for a project. Nope, hammocks were made for refreshment.

I fear that in our culture, we’re blurring the distinction between work and rest so much as to make them often indistinguishable. Cell phones, smart phones, Wi-Fi and 3G, e-mail and Facebook, iPads and netbooks have all helped turn work, being on call—whatever our work may be—into an activity that stretches from rising to retiring. When it comes to technology, you could categorize me as a “slow adopter”: I’m not the first on the block by any means, but I’m also not a Luddite. Part of that is a failure to see why I should upgrade something that’s functioning just fine. But another part is that I don’t want to be “on,” literally or figuratively plugged in, every single hour of the day and night. I know that sometimes I just need to rest, and when I do that, I return to work—at church, with my family, with other projects—better able to function effectively myself and with a greater appreciation for what everyone else is doing too.

There’s solid and explicit biblical precedent for getting our rest; even God thought it necessary to take a break on the 7th day, and honoring the sabbath as a day apart is right there in the 10 Commandments. But it goes deeper than that. Scripture reminds us, in today’s 1st and 2nd readings and many other places, of the honor of doing a job well, of the importance of using our gifts and valuing the contributions of others. But that takes focus, and I simply don’t believe that level of intentionality is possible 24/7; no one can keep going all the time.

Assuming that’s correct, then it’s essential that we be conscious of having some sense of dividing work from not-work, of creating “hammock time” for ourselves. Doesn’t have to be in an actual hammock, though I can certainly recommend that; you may find the same sort of separation from everyday demands in the garden or workshop or kitchen, in a bath full of bubbles or a hike in the mountains, reading a book—yes, even on a Kindle!—or taking a nap. However you do it, that kind of renewal creates pleasure in and of itself in the moment and it often restores joy to what we do with the rest of our time. Having some place in our lives where we clearly distinguish labor from rest honors both of them.

As we value our own work and its boundaries, I think we get better at extending that same respect to others, acknowledging the ways in which their labor enriches our life and supporting them in taking time for renewal. Looked at this way, it’s a variation of “love your neighbor as yourself.” Because of the interconnectedness of our lives, what I do for myself has an impact on you, and the support I give you affects my own life as well.

Perhaps that’s why Labor Day has persisted for 120 years, past its origins as a recognition of tradespeople and union workers and beyond its enjoyment as a Monday holiday. Celebrating this holiday is, in many ways, surprisingly counter-cultural, because staying busy is practically a national value, and leisure is often mistakenly understood to be a first step on the journey toward slothfulness. But for this one day, as a people, we realize that it’s appropriate to give thanks for the ways in which others contribute to our own life, and to give as many people as possible a day for relaxation, for distinguishing labor from recreation, re-creation.

So treasure what Labor Day represents, and enjoy…truly, enter into joy…tomorrow! No matter what your labor is at this point in your life, take some time to set it down if at all possible—even if it’s simply shutting your eyes for a few minutes and allowing yourself to dream about something different—and regain a sense of the border between work and rest and the value of each. Then, with thanksgiving, help someone else do the same, living out the opening phrase of today’s collect: “Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives…”

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