Labour and Wait
As a child, no doubt like a number of others in the congregation, or so I suspect, I went to Sunday School regularly most Sunday afternoons.
In our Sunday School the men in overall charge – in those pre-war days I don’t think it was ever considered that such important posts could be held by a mere woman – as I was saying, the person in overall charge each Sunday was one of four men who officiated in rotation over a four week cycle. I believe the office in most Sunday Schools went under the title Superintendent. But ours was different. For reasons I know not, our leaders had a much grander, if more pompous, title – that of Director.
Each of the four Directors had his own idiosyncrasies. I won’t go through them all, but Mr. Harrison was nick-named the “shush man” (he had a boring, monotone delivery and as people became restless and chattered he punctuated his delivery by saying “shush please”), and then continued without a pause. At other times he was referred to as “old Labour on”. Let me explain. At the opening of Sunday School we all assembled, the Director for the day standing on the front of the platform, for a hymn and a prayer before dismissing us our classes. Similarly, the Director closed the school after the notices with a final hymn. Mr. Harrison’s closing hymn was invariably the same one, with the possible exception of Christmas time, when we might sing a carol. The hymn? “Come, Labour on”. (not in our hymn-books, quote the first verse) Hence his nickname. Easter, Whitsuntide, Autumn, Winter, February snows, Summer sunshine, Harvest festival, no matter the season or the weather, we still laboured on in the harvest field, the field which was wide and in which the labourers were few.
Why this hymn was such a favourite of his I don’t know. Was it the rousing tune, the sentiments expressed in the verses, or a feeling that we were a slack lot who needed to be exhorted to become more industrious? “Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain?” the hymn asked The reason for his choice remains a mystery. Whatever the explanation he obviously liked the hymn. And once a month we sang it. The fact that we sang in Sunday School in a cotton mill town during the depression of the 1930’s, when mills were closed, unemployment rife, labourers plentiful and work in short supply, only struck me as ironic some years later.
Whatever lay behind our Director’s choice, the sentiments in the hymn are and were widely shared. The true Christian is a worker. After all one of the seven deadly sins is sloth. The Victorians warned that the Devil finds work for idle hands. We noted as we sang that our hands would not be unoccupied, for there was “No time for rest ‘til glows the western sky.”
Like many others of our generation, I still find sitting idly induces a feeling of guilt. If we are busy and occupied, curiously we are at peace. Whether it be bustling around with household chores, weeding the garden, earning a living toiling for others or self-employed, undertaking voluntary tasks, or completing many other duties which fall our way, to have work to do is satisfaction. Work may be tiring, and sometimes boring, but idleness is sinful, or so we suspect.
In my boyhood my companions and I were surrounded with exhortations to toil. Latin mottoes abounded with labour as a central feature (I’m not describing a political party but referring to the sweat of the brow). “Work conquers all”, translated our school motto. “Without work, nothing” proclaimed the Latin text under the town’s coat of arms.
My grand-father’s dressing gown was passed on to me when he died. Too good to throw away for it was nearly new, thick and warm. Its quality was assured for it had been purchased from the London Co-operative Society, and their motto was displayed on a label inside it. Some years later my wife borrowed the gown when she went into hospital to deliver our first child. It caused some amusement on the ward for the motto read, “Labour and wait”. The labour went on for several hours, and the waiting became more and more tedious.
It comes then as a bit of a surprise to read in the New Testament those words of Jesus, “Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”.
Then again, Jesus defended Mary when Martha chided her for sitting idly talking when she, Martha, was up to her eyes in the kitchen preparing a meal for the guests. Or again, industrious fishermen are told by Jesus to stop working, drop everything and come with him wandering round the countryside.
Do we not feel sympathy for the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son, who complained that there seemed to be no justice in the world? He had, so to speak, flogged his guts out working the farm, whilst his younger brother had gone swanning off enjoying himself, spent all his money, then returned to be rewarded with a banquet in his honour. Honest work had been given no such reward.
Again, there are the oft-quoted lines of the tramp poet, W.H. Davies, who envying the cows in the field as they looked around doing nothing in particular, wrote
“What is this life, if, full of care
We have not time to stand and stare.”
Is then all the emphasis on work and labour right , or have I got it wrong?
A thought which occurs is that perhaps we need to ask, labouring for what? Possibly we need to differentiate between toil and service.
Years ago prisoners could be sentenced to hard labour. This would consist of physically exhausting, but purposeless tasks. They walked round the treadmill, they broke up large stones into smaller pieces, they dug holes and filled them in again and so on. It was as if work in itself, for whatever purpose, or for no purpose at all, could have some power to elevate a person, to make them better citizens.
Another of our Directors in that Sunday School had a favourite prayer. It was the one which contains the lines, “We come not to ask him to make our way easy for us, but rather that he would teach us to endure hardness.” I suppose that if hardness is inevitable, we ought to endure it with fortitude, but why should the way not be made easy where possible? Hard work, or suffering surely has no inherent value for its own sake. My mother felt no guilt, as far as I recall, when she ceased hanging the carpet on the clothes line after we finally bought a Hoover on the never-never.
In our Sunday School hymn the toil in the field was not work for the sake of it. The hymn was a metaphor. The farm labourers worked that their families and others might be fed. They toiled to a purpose; their harvest was life-giving and life-preserving. We too should labour doing what some describe as the work of the Lord. The metaphorical field in which we are called to labour is a call to service; service which eases, elevates and enhances the lives of the community. In real fields the sustenance required for life is produced. From the fields of the hymnist came the wherewithal to sustain a purposeful life of the soul.
A reason for working is to serve, to give a service to others. A third Director of our Sunday School would pray “Teach us …. to labour and ask for no reward, save that of knowing that we do thy will.”
Those Victorian forebears who spoke of the dangers inherent in idle hands would also remark that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.
It’s the balance that is all important. Labouring to better the lives of others, to serve the needy, to assist the helpless, to succour the weak, to harness the strong, is right and proper. Nay more, it is essential and an obligation we should fulfil.
But a Christian is asked not only to work to serve others. He or she must find time to reflect, to contemplate, to stare, to rest. It is in moments of so-called idleness that the spirit is renewed. This is a time of stillness, to renew strength prior to once more rising up as eagles and rejoicing as a strong man to run the race.
There is nothing valiant in working, however hard, if to no purpose. To love one’s fellows is to wish to serve them. That is true labour, a labour of love as a common phrase has it. There is no Christian virtue in working purely to satisfy a yearning for self esteem. Mere toil without an element of service is as barren and worthless as is self-indulgent sloth.
Nevertheless, he or she who labours without pause lives Davies’ “life … full of care”. There is no time for contemplation and spiritual refreshment. No time to stand and wonder. No time to reflect, no time for awe. No time to experience a feeling of smallness in a universe which is infinite. The fable which is the story of creation has God labouring hard to create the world throughout the week, but he took time to rest at the end of it. Time to look upon what he had achieved.
A Christian way of life includes becoming what is often described as a whole person. And what do we mean by that? Surely, in part, that is balancing work and rest. Ensuring that labour has within it that element of service to others. Toiling inspired only by acquisitive greed sours the person and warps the vision. The fruits of labour are to be shared with others.
Conversely, never taking time to see, as the poet Whittier says, “The stars shine through his cypress trees” is to stunt the growth of an essential component of the whole person. “Labour and Wait” counselled the worthies of the London Co-operative Society. The waiting is the resting, not in pure idleness, to wonder at the miracle of the seed which holds the secret of life, at the interdependency of life upon life, at the grandeur of the heavens canopying above the harvest field, and reflecting upon the mystery of creation and the creator.
Yes, the secret of the good life is getting the balance right. The story of Noah and the flood ends with the words of the covenant, the promise to keep the balance of seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, on which life depends. And so do we need to keep the balance between labouring in service to others, and standing and staring. “Labour and Wait” as the motto said.
And the reward? to quote finally from Mr. Harrison’s favourite hymn,
A glad sound comes with the setting sun –
Servants, well done!
C.J. Rosling 24 April 1999
Hucklow 25 April 1999 21 November 2004
Fulwood 20 June 1999
Stannington 26 June 2005