At the beginning of last week, Pastor Walter Mitty decided that on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, he was going to preach on work. His problem was he wasn’t sure what to say about it.
Lots of voices were swirling around in his head. Some were pushing everyone to go to college, while others were promoting the trades. Lots of people with 20/20 hindsight were blaming Bill Clinton and his signing of NAFTA for the loss of good jobs for working people.
And the Bible didn’t seem to be of any help. In one passage Jesus said, “Don’t be anxious. Look at the birds of the air. They don’t work and God takes care of them.” But then in another place the Bible declares that if people don’t want to work, they shouldn’t be able to eat.
Unions, welfare queens, the income gap, dream jobs, glass ceilings, workplace discrimination, a living wage, billionaires on Wall Street, the Prosperity Gospel.
Pastor Walt’s brain was overloaded, so he decided to take a walk.
“Hey Rev, how you doin’?” Affectionate informality from the attractive young owner of the Retro never failed to embarrass him.
“OK, Zaphne. How’s business?”
Zaphne’s smile disappeared and her forehead furrowed into a frown.
Mitty searching for words, finally said, “Wrong question, huh?”
“Rev, they kept telling me to follow my bliss and if you do what you love, you won’t work a day in your life. But last month I had to let go two of my part-timers, and I’m using my own savings to pay the rent. The way it’s going is not sustainable.”
Pastor Mitty shook his head and sighed after giving Zaphne a hug. He was the one who was supposed to find the right words to comfort people, but he hadn’t been able to think of anything to say.
As he walked on from the Retro, he thought of his dad who worked at Oriental Milling, loading and unloading 100 bags, 10 hours a day. Unlike many from the Great Generation, he was mystified why his older son wanted to go to college and then to seminary after that.
“It’s because I want a job that I like, Dad. That’s fulfilling.”
“You’re not supposed to like work,” his dad had replied. “That’s why they pay us to do it.”
“But Dad, you keep telling us that you’re proud of the hard work you do.”
“Proud, yes. But not happy. What makes me happy is being able to support you, Herman and your mother.”
“Was Dad right?” Pastor Walt asked himself. Then for some reason he made a word association. Work segued into labor and that led him to think of women having babies. “They call it labor,” he told himself. “You’re not supposed to enjoy the process. You do it because the end result makes the pain you go through worth it.”
The pastor of Poplar Park Community Church had to admit that pursuing his calling these last 20 years hadn’t exactly been fun. Meaningful at times. He laughed ruefully, “Being a pastor would be fulfilling if it weren’t for the people.”
Mitty found himself at the door of History/Herstory and decided to ask Bernie what he thought about work. After saying, “Hi, how are ya?” to each other, he got right to the point. He told him about his conversation with Zaphne, what his father had told him about work, and his intention to talk about work in his sermon.
“In a way, I’m like Zaphne,” Bernie began. “I graduated with a degree in history and was making decent money teaching. But I kept hearing the voice of Karl Marx in my head.”
“Yeah, the father of communism. See, that’s why a liberal arts education is dangerous. Because it forces you to deal with ideas that challenge the culture in which you’re immersed. Marx contended that the work you do actually creates who you are.”
“If I remember correctly,” Mitty added, “that’s why he believed workers like my dad were alienated, whether they knew it or not, because in capitalism they work for money and not to be fulfilled.”
“That’s right,” said Bernie, laughing. “You remember a lot from your college years … for an old guy.”
“But you’re doing what you love, aren’t you?”
Bernie paused and carefully chose his words. “In a way yes, and in a way no. If I could sit around all day and read the books I’m selling to my customers, that would make me happy. But I’m running a business, Walt, and that’s where Marx had his head in the clouds.”
As he sat down to write his sermon last Saturday, Mitty wondered if it were possible to have your head in the clouds and feet on the ground at the same time.