When I was a child, I hated mowing the lawn. I had to add gasoline to the greasy engine, I had to pull start the mower, and pull again, and again. Prime it, pull, pull, pull, finally it would start. I would spend half a day mowing our lawn. It was hot, grass made my eyes water and made me sneeze, and I would get sweaty and dirty. It was miserable.
However, I have been spoiled by renting, and all of our landlords have taken care of lawn maintenance. I have not mowed a lawn in several years, and I was loving it. However, that came to an end today. The church lawn has been looking like a jungle after our spring came quite early. I was putting it off, and putting it off, and today I could not take it anymore, so I mowed the grass.
I didn’t just use any lawn mower, however, I bought a reel lawn mower for the church, you know, the old-timey type with the spinning blades and no engine? Yep, that type. So I didn’t have to worry about filling it with gas, nor did I have to worry about pull starting it, or priming it. I didn’t have any grease, no loud noise, and no grass (or twigs) being thrown out with immense velocity. It was just me pushing this simple manual lawn mower and all I could hear was the sound of the blades spinning and the “swish-swish” of the grass being sliced so cleanly and evenly.
At the very beginning I was frustrated. I was frustrated because I did not go to seminary to mow the lawn. But as I got into the task, it was blissful. There are few things that are better than meaningful physical work.
One of the things that is so difficult about being a pastor is the lack of visible progress for my labor. I write a sermon once a week, and I try to write here most days; however, the rest of my time is planning worship services, talking with people, going to meetings, decorating the sanctuary, and writing letters. While it is true that I do have something to show for my efforts, I never have a day that I come to the end of the day, and I feel content with the fruit of my labor. I never have this feeling of, “What a great day, and look at what I’ve accomplished, I can feel good about all that I’ve gotten done today.”
However, that was radically different today when I was mowing the lawn. I could look over what I had done and see very visible and very tangible fruit of my labor. It looked much nicer after the grass had been cut so evenly and so uniform. My arms were a bit sore after pushing the mower over the uneven ground, but that too is the fruit of labor. At the end of my task which I began reluctantly, I simply wanted to keep going.
I have had this experience several times over the past several weeks. I’ve replaced shower heads in the showers at church, I’ve fixed a faucet on one of the sinks. At first I was frustrated that I had to do these tasks which seemed to be meaningless and not fitting for my calling. However, I have come to view it very differently. I actually enjoy some of the maintenance tasks around the church. At times, it can get burdensome when I have a worship service and sermons weighing down on me, but it gives me a welcome break from the day to day of my time here.
After being called to a position that typically does not have many physical labor tasks involved in it, and renting where my landlord takes care of the maintenance, I have been able to understand again, not only in my head but also in my heart, the value of human labor. The real tragedy of modernity is not that we have to work, but it is that we have to work in ways that dehumanize us and divorces us from our understanding of labor as good for the soul. Likewise, one of the tragedies of unemployment is not just that people lack a sufficient income, but in many instances, it deprives people of their ability to expend labor in a meaningful way.
Work is something that was given to us by God even before sin entered the world. “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15, NRSV). Humans were created from the very beginning to work, not to be exploited, but to work and reap the benefits of that work. Adam tended the garden so that he could eat from his labors. However, sin perverted this order and in many instances, we must do meaningless work for someone who treats us poorly so that they can reap the real benefits of it. However, despite this, work still remains crucial to humanity.
Interestingly enough, even the visions of the arrived Kingdom of God include work, Isaiah 65:21-23 includes labor: building houses and planting vineyards. However, the difference is that those who build the houses live in them, and those to tend to vineyards eat its fruit. This is the order that we were created for, and this is why we were created for work, not the twisted version that we have now.
However, twisted as it is, work continues to be important for people, and there must be opportunities for people to work. Pastoring a church in a low-income neighborhood, I often have people tell me that what poor folks need is a job, not more government money. I could not agree more. The folks who are financially or materially poor do not need more assistance, they need smarter assistance. We need to make our safety net one that honors and respects the value that work has and the dignity that work can provide.
I have also had people tell me that the Bible says that if you don’t work, you don’t eat, which of course, the Bible does not say. However, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 does read, “…Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (NRSV). The difference here is that unwilling and unable are two different things. Someone who is not able to find a job is in a much different situation than someone who does not desire to find a job. Work has a value in it that nothing else can provide. Work was given to us by God, but was twisted after the fall. Our hope is not that we will one day be delivered from work, but rather that we will be be able to work in such a way that we can see it as a meaningful expenditure of human energy.
As for me, if I don’t answer my phone at church, perhaps I’m mowing the lawn. Perhaps I’m fixing a faucet or patching up a wall. One day I look forward to the new heaven and new earth, when I can simply bask in the ability to mow the lawn with my reel lawn mower.