September 4, 2012

Claiming Work, Claiming Sabbath

My daddy was a letter carrier for 42 years.  My brothers and I regularly embarrassed our mother at school by saying she thought we looked like the postman.  In our day, it is unusual for a person to remain in one position for most of one’s working life; it was much more the norm for one who worked between 1934 and 1976.
Robert Truman Marshall, born in 1901 in Brown County, Texas, would have preferred to do something other than deliver mail, but lacked the educational privilege he helped afford his daughter and sons.  He once told me he would have liked to be a journalist.  This fit him.  I recall that in the early 30’s he took off for Europe, spending three months traveling and sending back his observations about the rise of Nazism, some of which got published as brief columns in the Muskogee Daily Phoenix. 

While he persevered in blue-collar work by sheer dint of effort, he found dignity in it, especially as he provided for his family.  It mattered to him that his three children go to college, something he had not been able to do.  He supplemented the family income with an afternoon paper route and a large garden.  My mother worked hard, too, though not outside the home until I went to college.  She had completed her teaching degree as I was completing high school.

Work claimed my family, but not without Sabbath.  My father was an Epistle of James kind of Christian.  He thought that “being doers of the word,” (1:22) mattered more than those who hear but never hit the ground in practical application.  When the re-settled Vietnamese landed in Muskogee, his ministry was to help some of the men gain a driver’s license.  Mother helped them learn English.

Sabbath was the gift after the garden went to sleep for the winter.  More time to read, more time to look at seed catalogues was renewing and restful.  Spring rains extended sabbatical; he enjoyed thinking about the garden without having to till it, at least, not yet.  As the Song of Songs puts is: “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (2:12).

Work is not a curse, as some have misinterpreted the Genesis story.  It allows us to pursue community and culture.  It can become unwieldy burden when the claims of work and rest are out of balance.  Sabbath is about learning to balance these claims.  As Wendell Berry put it: “The field is tilled and left to grace.”

As the percentage of unemployed Americans hovers near 8.3, the opportunity to claim remunerative work as a basic expectation of adulthood is waning, and new policies must address this.  For those who find most of their identity in work, this lack of opportunity is a diminishing reality.  And for those who justify themselves solely through their work ethic, they (we) must hear the ancient call to Sabbath: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

Molly T. Marshall

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