“Work and Play”
It was the second Friday of the month, and the late afternoon sun was beginning its descent. The cast iron Dutch oven full of some “one pan, vegetarian, potluck delight” was set on newspaper on the floor of the car’s back seat, my daughter safely belted in. We were headed off to join with other organizers who gathered in a rented house, shared by several folks living in what would now be referred to as “intentional community.” It was a Friday night like any other except that a working meeting was planned for after dinner. The T-shirts had been dyed earlier in the week by a smaller contingent of us – shades of goldenrod, raspberry and indigo – in the old ringer washer in the basement that was salvaged for just this purpose. They hung now on clotheslines strung from pipes and beams, dry and waiting for the latest message. The Mylar had been cut by nimble fingers and applied to the silken screen; the design agreed upon by late night consensus and drawn by artistic hands. The image was one of a guitar, the neck upright and the tuning keys fashioned in the shape of tools – a hammer, a paintbrush, a wrench, a wooden spoon – you get the idea! Above the guitar in an arched presentation the letters spelled out the words, “RE-CREATE YOUR WORK.”
The shirts, once screened and the ink dried, would be packed up for the annual May Day March where they would be sold for just enough to cover costs and buy more shirts for the next holiday or world event that needed to be addressed. It was a celebration for us of International Worker’s Day or Labor Day; a celebration of the working classes recognized by left leaning folks like us. May 1 st is International Worker’s Day, a day to pay tribute to the struggling working class which arose out of Chicago demonstrations in the late 1800’s, some consider it the birth of the American labor movement. And so here I am, 40 years hence, feeling the need again to honor this day in the face of rapidly shifting understandings of work.
Maybe I have shared this story with you before, I honestly can’t remember, but the part I wanted to get to was that last line – “Above the guitar in an arched presentation the letters spelled out the words, “RE-CREATE YOUR WORK.” An intentional play on the word which could be read re-create or recreate. The design speaks to me of an alignment between work and the very heart of the worker themselves, that work should evolve out of the values and desires and abilities of each person. “From each according to their ability to each according to their need.” Re-creating your work in the image and likeness of who you are at your core. Work as more of a vocation or a calling. This is my ideal for the world, but I am a realist also and recognize that this just isn’t going to be available for everyone, isn’t going to support everyone.
In reading up on generational differences in the workforce, I find I am a fully ensconced Boomer, as are many of you. I worked to provide security for my daughter and myself – lots of odd jobs until I found my way into state service and the assurance it provided of regular pay and benefits. And I stuck with it even though it was often not work that aligned with my ideals. It was a struggle to turn such circumstances into more of a vocation, but I managed to do so most of the time. A bit of dissonance there that I lived with in order to make ends meet. But
my rebellious spirit, my history of resistance to norms I found counter to my own, helped to shape how I did the work even when the work itself had expectations of conformity. It turns out that this is somewhat the case for my generation in general who came of age during a time of increasing individualism and self-expression. Influenced by the social and political movements of the 60’s and 70’s we are often committed to social justice. We tend to value hard work and career success. Coming of age in a time when gender roles were in flux, many women experienced that dissonance between expectations around staying at home with family or being a part of the work-a-day world. But as we have aged, we have turned our attention to more of a work life balance.
The bulk of the rest of us are what is known as Traditionalists, those born before 1945. This is sometimes called the Silent Generation, but I don’t experience you all that way! You have been loyal and dedicated workers, respectful of authority and hierarchy, disciplined and regimented in your approach to work life. The Great Depression and World War II figure prominently in your development and your response to the demands of life.
So, the more I have thought about this I have come around to settling on two streams (maybe three, to the consternation of my preaching professor). The first has to do with our theme for the month, this idea of the resistance – in this case of norms that are unhealthy for us. I am my own worst enemy when it comes to a work ethic, maybe you, too. No matter what my schedule formally is, I am never more than a phone call or an email away! The healthier thing would be to stick to a set schedule and have separate times for work and the rest of my life.
But when it comes to vocation, which ministry unquestionably is, there is a tug on the heart that can’t be denied. Other professions probably create the same thing – those who serve directly run the risk of a work centric life. It is not uncommon for folks in my generation to prioritize work over personal life. This is great for employers, but not so much so for the individual.
And I hear the call from the next generation in line who want flexibility and more of a balance in their work life, especially those who are returning to work from the pandemic and work from home and all the questions it raised about the meaning of life. They were primed for this, apparently, and now we are seeing its effect on the state of employment in our country. They are better equipped to take care of themselves, less fearful of resisting the status quo. And I am aware recently that the status quo includes the exploitation of young migrant children who labor in factories overnight and attempt to go to school in the morning. It’s a real problem in our country and some of our most utilized products are the culprit. Can we resist consumption of items that are produced using this resource? How many varieties of cereal do we really need to choose from? Stand up for the rights of immigrants? Or for fair wages and benefits for those jobs so that they are more likely to be filled by folks of age to work?
For most of us the world of work is in the rearview mirror, having settled into retirement at some level – whether we are pros at it or new to the game! So, we are no longer working for pay, for security. But we are not just sitting still either. There is much work to be done and it is the kind of work that might have been calling to us all along. We just couldn’t get to it until now. We are inclined to take up tasks more aligned with our values at this juncture, time now allowing us the freedom to act from the heart.
In Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life, he talks about life coming into alignment with vocation through the examples of well-known individuals and their journeys. In the chapter on Robert Frost he suggests that we can find out who we are and then do it on purpose. Frost made a series of courageous choices that supported his becoming. It was small decisions that eventually aligned him with his voice, committed to the gift inherent within, he took decisive actions to support it, even though each was a bit like jumping off a cliff according to Cope. But each step further served to ignite his power. He chose relentlessly, over and over again, in ways small and large. The result was a remarkable career. It wasn’t until his later years that he lived into this idea of being who he was on purpose. As we have let go of so much responsibility to external forces, we have come to a place more and more where we can do the same – truly discover what is most meaningful, choose into those values and live who we are on purpose, perhaps for the first time in all our accumulated years. Something to ponder – What is the great work of your life?
This leads me down the second stream – What is the great work of our collective life here at the Meeting House? What is our unfinished business? And how do these characteristics we bring based on our generational leanings bear upon that work? And then, if we want to grow and attract a wider array of ages and stages of life in our midst, how do we need to change our expectations of those who will follow us here on the hill? Big questions! All of this is grounded in part in our mission. The why of our existence here? Why must we do the things we choose to do? As largely Traditionalists and Boomers, we look at the work of the church similarly to any other work we have engaged in. According to the reports I read, we tend to value respect for authority, hard work sometimes at the expense of our personal lives. Gen Xers are skeptical of authority and institutions, seek fulfillment first, and look for flexibility in their endeavors.
How do we manage that dissonance, resist the leanings we have relied upon for most of our lives and make space for different ways of being in the world? What would need to shift here if our expectation included growing into the next generation? All pretty heady questions that we can’t possibly answer this morning, but I encourage us to take them up as we think about our future.
So, stream three (the Rev. Kim Crawford-Harvie is now looking upon this sermon with much disdain) moves us into the idea of playfulness, of the kind of enjoyable time with family and friends that Gen Xers seem to treasure. And the kind of work that is fun and creative as much as it is utilitarian. Coming together to feed our minds, yes, but also to celebrate together the things we say we value, including the Sources we rely upon as Unitarian Universalists.
Tomorrow is also Beltane, one of the quarter of the year observances in the Pagan and Earth-Centered traditions that we honor. It marks the beginning of the summer or the lead up to the longest day on the summer solstice in June, falling halfway between that and the Spring Equinox. In the Celtic tradition it grew out of an eagerness for the growing season and a way to bless the incoming crops that would support their lives. This was a time when agrarian culture ruled our work life, focusing on sustenance. Bonfires to welcome and beseech the sun’s warmth and as a symbol of purification to ensure fertility were lit the night before, early
morning brought the collection of flowers to decorate one’s home and oneself, and the spiral dance around the Maypole dating back to perhaps the Middle Ages, weaving bright ribbons around the pole, a symbol according to some accounts of fertility itself. It is a joyful time of sharing in community and calling down a blessing upon the season to come.
And so as we gather today around our own Maypole, may we too call down a blessing on our times together here in the coming season. May it be fertile ground upon which we seek together to ensure a bright future for the Meeting House. May the work of our hands and the love in our hearts be as one in the life of this beloved faith community.
Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, April 30, 2023