Happy Labor Day. I hope for at least some of you it is indeed a rest from labor. It has me thinking about the evolving nature of work in America, and our complicated relationship to it. A recent news story reported that since the mid 1970s, American workers have used less and less of their vacation time; in just the past 15 years, we have cut our use by about another whole week’s worth. On a similar report I heard a few weeks ago, callers weighed in on the radio, explaining why they didn’t take vacation this summer. For some, paid time off simply wasn’t an option. For others, paid time off still didn’t translate into enough funds for a vacation, and other workers felt that taking time off just meant a pileup of work would await them on their return.
Vacation may be a luxury, unfortunately, but rest still ought to be our right, and that too seems elusive for so many workers in our nation. A local church recently helped a family find emergency housing; they didn’t have the funds to secure a new place, even though the husband works seven days a week at Walmart. Minimum wage, even at maximum hours, isn’t enough to provide stability for this family, and they like so many working poor have been living in their car, still managing to drop their child off for kindergarten each school day.
The Sabbath rest commanded of us isn’t just for leisure and recreation, it’s also a decree for justice for those whose labor is fettered by unjust systems. We are caught these days in a growing tangle of needs for both rest and justice, same at Moses’ first hearers of the divine commandments. Today rest can escape us for a range of reasons, whether we are among those whose work is always just a login away, or whether we are those whose labor for a living hardly makes ends meet.
Lately I’ve been struggling to figure out what a decent day’s work should consist of during this strange season of dissertation writing. What does a day’s worth of productivity even look like against the whole looming project? I realize now that my impulse to assess whether I’ve done “enough,” and to figure out what “enough” even means, is mostly driven by a desire to not feel guilty when I do put my work down in order to enjoy other things. I want to feel like I’ve earned some time off. And so the call for Sabbath rest confronts me, because it is not earnable. It’s a gift, a summons. It invites me to put down the work that will always be there, to taste just for a moment or an entire day that rest which will someday be whole. It ties me back to creation, to the creation God declared on the seventh day to be good. God didn’t rest on the seventh day because of fatigue, or because the task list was finally complete. God ordered rest to be part of the rhythm of the good creation, designing a livable world for all the freshly made beloved creatures. It’s that livable world we are still grappling for, a world where just labor and restoring rest are available to all. Learning to gratefully embrace a good day’s rest as a gift may be a baby step, but it recalibrates us to perceive the Creator’s cosmic blueprint of shalom, and reminds us that this design is compelled only by love, not by anguished toil.