The Simple Honor of Labor

We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you.
2 Thessalonians 3:7b-9 (NIV)

As I’ve mentioned in recent weeks, my local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been digging deep into the book of Acts and the history of the Jesus Movement’s early years. As part of that, I have been reading and studying the life of Paul, the brilliant maverick who was transformed from the Jesus Movement’s staunchest enemy into its most powerful and productive advocate and member.

In my study of Paul’s life I’ve come to an appreciation of how Paul lived and labored. My whole life l’ve always pictured Paul as spending most of his time, day-after-day, teaching, preaching, writing letters, and preaching the gospel. I’ve come to learn that nothing could be further from the truth. Most of Paul’s time, day-after-day, was spent making tents.

As most people of his day, Paul was apprenticed into the family business which was the making and repairing of tents (and presumably awnings and other textiles used to block the sun). It was a trade that could be plied anywhere, and Paul carried his tools to ply his trade wherever his missions took him. In today’s chapter, Paul reminds the believers in Thessalonica that he and his companions labored “night and day” to provide for themselves.

Paul reminds the believers of his example because the followers of Jesus were proponents of generosity and giving to those in need, especially the poor and widows. Now, there were individuals who were happy to keep taking from the believers’ fledgling system of charity with no intention of contributing.

I was raised in a family with a strong work ethic. I also come from Dutch heritage, a culture historically known for its work ethic. I’ll spare you the litany of my labor history, which date back to my pre-teenage years. Suffice it to say that I appreciate Paul’s attitude. Other leaders of the Jesus movement had begun to work solely on the contributions of other believers. Paul accepted that this was an appropriate practice. He even helped collect money and deliver it to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he steadfastly chose to work to pay his own way. Today, he states clearly his intent. He wanted to live as an example to others. His message to the Thessalonian believers was consistent through both of his letters: Work hard. Be productive. Contribute to good of the whole. Be content.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday that we Americans will celebrate on Thursday. I recognize the blessing of living and laboring in the richest part of the world. I’m grateful. I’m also mindful and thankful for my father whom I watched struggle through multiple vocational setbacks, yet he always worked hard at whatever job he may have needed until he could get to a job that was more of what he wanted. I think of my great-grandfather risking everything to come to America, by himself, to eek out a living for he and his family as an immigrant. I think of one grandparent striving to make his way through college, the first member of his family to do so, and then working into his 90s. “The day I stop working,” he was fond of repeating to anyone who would listen, “will be the day I die!” I’m also remembering another grandparent (that’s him, first from the right in the featured photo of this post) taking the only work he could find in the Great Depression and laboring at that job for 40 years. Daily, he went about the simple task life selling and servicing tires. Not once did I hear him complain.

We live in a rapidly changing, complex world. Yet, along the journey I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of some things that never change: Work hard. Be productive. Contribute to the good of the whole. Be content.

Oh yeah. And: Give thanks.

Have a great week, my friend.

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