>“Establish the work of our hands for us–yes, establish the work of our hands.” —
The heat waves this summer reminded me of a particularly dreadful spell of hot weather in the summer of 1995. In Chicago that year, scores of people died of the excessive heat, with most victims being the homeless as well as the elderly who lived in squalid apartments without adequate ventilation. An even more tragic dimension to this was revealed six weeks later when Chicago of- ficials reported that they still had fortyone unclaimed bodies at the city morgue. Since it was obvious that no one was ever going to step forward to lay claim to these people, the city buried them in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Something here strikes a chord of fear in us. Because the thought that we, too, might one day be forgotten chills us. Ever yone dies twice, someone once obser ved: first we die physically, and then we die a second time when the memory of us winks out, too.
Does what we do in life matter? During the summer we often take time away from our work for at least a little while. In the United States, the official end of summer comes on Labor Day, a day that refocuses people on their work. We probably don’t need the reminder, though. Most people spend an average of just over 2,000 hours per year at their jobs. We work hard, we work long hours, and for many of us, a good deal of our identity is bound up with our work.
When we meet new people, we ask “What do you do? ” in the same breath as we ask “What’s your name? ” Jean Bethke Elshtain once told the stor y about a friend who threw a cocktail party for a bunch of upwardly mobile professionals. At one point the hostess, engaged in a conversation, was interrupted by her four-year-old daughter who was suddenly tugging at mommy’s skirt to get her attention. The woman apologized for the interruption but then introduced her little girl to the other man: ” This is my daughter Jennifer,” she said. Without even realizing what he was saying, the man responded: “Hi, Jennifer. So what do you do?”
That’s just the way we think and operate. Sur veys reveal that although people often complain about work, 71 percent say they really want to do well at their jobs. But we’re anxious that maybe we are not doing well. We worr y sometimes about whether we are even in the right field. Comedian Paula Poundstone once obser ved: “I’ll tell you all a little secret: adults don’t really know what they want to do for a living. That’s why we are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up–we’re looking for ideas!”
Psalm 90 is a Hebrew poem that thinks long and hard about human life, and about the f leetingness of human life in particular. The psalm pummels us with Ecclesiastes-like commentar y on the vapid, f leeting nature of our lives. Yet even that psalm ends with the well-known line, “Establish the work of our hands for us–yes, establish the work of our hands.” At the end of our days and at the conclusion of our vocational strivings, we ask God to make something of our work–we want God to do something with our labors that will go far beyond anything we could ever accomplish ourselves.
If fame, glory, or the pursuit of the almighty dollar is all there is to work, then who can fail to despair many days? A few years back someone noted that the actor Kelsey Grammar got paid more for one 26-minute episode of Fraser than most teachers get paid over the course of seven years! If we labor only for the compensation, if our assessment of work is limited to just what we can see or the achievements we can tote up, then there is no end to the ways and the reasons why we may eventually throw up our hands in frustration and disgust. But if we can release what we do to God’s good graces, then some lasting joy may emerge after all. Even when no one else remembers what we once did, God will remember and will “establish” and use our work in ways far beyond our comprehending.
The missionary H.C. Morrison spent his life working in China in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A fter retiring, he returned to America on board the same ship carr ying former President Theodore Roosevelt home after a hunting safari in A frica. As the ship steamed into New York harbor, large throngs of people gathered to cheer Roosevelt. But no one was there to greet Reverend Morrison. A nd so as he watched bands play and fire boats spray water into the air for Roosevelt, Morrison quietly fumed. “What a lot of fuss for a man who recently did nothing more than shoot tigers in A frica! What kind of homecoming do I get after decades of work for God in China?! ” His lifetime of work began to look insignificant, garnering no reward or renown. There was no justice in this homecoming, he thought. Until suddenly a still small voice inside his heart whispered, “Yes, but you are not home yet.” Indeed.