A Labor Day Meditation

"Prosper for us the work of our hands, O prosper the work of our hands!" -- Psalm 90:17

I've often thought of this verse from the psalmist as an almost greedy prayer, as if to pray for the prosperity of our works was too much self-interest and not nearly enough self-giving.

I probably also have a long-standing objection to anything with the word "works" in it, given my younger years as a Baptist. Works, we were told by way of the Apostle Paul, were opposed to grace. Occasionally, the preacher would let James speak of the value of works, but not before ushering him politely out the door of unmerited grace. Works had no place in the economy of salvation. Saved by grace through faith, not by works. And perhaps even now that's part of my religious constitution.

Yet now, with Labor Day approaching and, perhaps even more, as I contemplate my forty-fifth year of life, I think more often about whether the works of my hands -- my students, my scholarly efforts, my preachings -- whether or not they will prosper; or alternatively, I see them "succeed" and I rejoice or I grieve when they do not.

But even our "successes" -- the things that seem to leap off the page and into life, students who go on to achieve something of promise in the world -- these are short-lived things. We know that the work of our hands will eventually decay, will eventually lose its brightness and its vivacity. It may even turn on us one day and say, "You were no good!" And, of course, our ability to produce new things also fades: the hands that work lose their youthful vigor, become arthritic, less certain, more likely to release in weariness than to grip in strength.

And so our works, like the hands that fashioned them, decay.

Perhaps these are morose thoughts, but they are timely for me. The dining table in our house is a hive of activity, functioning as an all-purpose activity center for our children. Sometimes we eat there but mostly it's an art center. At present, it's covered with a now discarded rough draft of a book manuscript I've been working on, only now its once solemnly footnoted and carefully arranged arguments have been overlaid -- or eclipsed entirely -- with crayon scenes of colorful flowers, and birds, and flowing streams, and butterflies.

When my daughters saw it sitting on the floor of my office, they asked if they could have it. "Yes," I said, "I'm through with it, take it. . . ."

For a long time, it's been difficult for me to look at the manuscript, seeing its mistakes, hearing my voice to the point of exhaustion, knowing too well where the writing is strained, and all the other demons that haunt writers. Even though those feelings haven't left me entirely, the manuscript seems to have gained new life, almost like leaves do as they turn from green into reds, oranges, and yellows in the fall. In a way that I find suggestive, our children have added a "sacrament" of color to my otherwise "discarded" or "decaying" works.

Could this be a sign of sorts? That there is within all of our works the deeper work of the Spirit, the presence that undermines our work with something like laughter? Not cruel laughter, the laughter of scorn or derision, but something like the laughter of color, the way leaves, drained of chlorophyl's greening powers, finally surrender themselves to bright reds, and yellows, and oranges?

I read somewhere that some of the color we see in autumn is the actual color of the leaves, that it is only the chemistry of chlorophyll that makes them appear green, the sign of their vigor and youth. But their deeper color, this one we often mistake as a sign of their passing.

I would like to think that this is true for us all, as we rejoice in the productive seasons of our lives, that these manuscripts of labor can, by the gift of some ordinary sacrament, begin to bring into expression the deeper hues of our holy vocations, our labors surrendering to the joy and laughter that awakened our souls in the earliest moments of life.

Such surrender may seem like dying, and to the world it will always seem so, but perhaps for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear it will supply a foretaste of a deeper prosperity than merely the works of our hands.