In a congregation I pastored in Southern California there was a lean, bearded brother named Dan. He was single, and lived in a mobile home on a rustic lot at the edge of town. Dan was an enthusiastic participant in worship and Bible study and a generous volunteer to our ministries, when he was in town. But his work often took him away to sites all over California and Nevada for weeks at a time. Dan was a skilled heavy equipment operator, and he went where the building was going on. When he was away, if you called his home you got a two word response from his answering machine: “I’m workin’ !” Dan was proud of what he did, and wanted you to know he was keeping busy.

Sociologists, preachers and dinner table philosophers often comment on the way that we are defined by our work. When we are fortunate enough to follow a vocation which engages our gifts and sustains our household, we are likely to be healthy, fulfilled and high in self-esteem. When we are trapped in a menial job or mired in chronic underemployment, we often put ourselves down and spill our excess misery on others. When we are unemployed, it not only threatens us with financial crisis, but also with crises of self-doubt and loss of meaning and purpose. When we retire, whether voluntarily and with great anticipation, or forced into an early and insecure retirement, we often cast about trying to replace the meaning and structure we have lost.

These issues are all the more pressing in an age when many of us – especially those of us in the baby boomer and subsequent generations – have felt we had both a birthright and an obligation to choose our vocations and career paths. (I once asked my Dad, who came of age in the great Depression, what sort of job he had sought when he graduated from school. “Anything I could get!” he replied.) In these days of vanishing industrial jobs, stagnant wages and a proliferation of part time and temp work, satisfying and secure vocational paths are becoming more elusive. Structural inequality, offshoring and downsizing are endemic in our contemporary economy.
We as Christians operate as both employers and employees in this challenging economic landscape. As employers we should be advocates for fair trade, fair wages and dignity in the work place. (And also, if we are investors we should put our resources into enterprises that exemplify these traits.) As employees we should be trustworthy, energetic and cooperative. If our Christian character is invisible in the work place, where so much of our time and energy are expended, how real can it be?

As we celebrate Labor Day this month, we also need to acknowledge that a just economy is not simply a function of good character displayed by individuals. All of us, even followers of Jesus, persist in looking at the world through self-colored lenses. Collective insight and effort are often required to effect change. Labor unions, good government and visionary business enterprises all have a role to play when problems are structural.
Work is fundamental to our being human. When God created this exquisite world, he put our ancestors into the Garden “to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Even the great skeptic who penned Ecclesiastes acknowledged that “it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil“ (Ecclesiastes 3:13). Even children know this. I’ll never forget one day when Micah was a preschooler surrounded by Legos. We called him to dinner, and he answered indignantly, “I’m workin’!” Whether at home, on the job, or volunteering at church, may we find joy in our work.

—Dr. David L. Wheeler