9/2/13 Labor Day

Labor. We must perform it. We must have it. It is the lot of men to labor.

Someone wrote about this a long time ago. Genesis 3:19 says:

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

We labor for our bread. We labor for our comfort. We labor for our lives. We labor until the dust from which we are formed reclaims us. Through labor, we tend our fields, nurture our crops as they grow, then harvest them, preserve them, and eat them for our sustenance. We must have labor. Unfortunately, there is no escaping it.

Capital? The land we till is capital. The plow we till it with is capital. The seeds we plant are capital. The barn in which we store our harvest is capital. Labor without capital is fruitless. We must have capital and labor, else, what do we hope to gain by our labor? The world is populated far beyond and in such a manner that being hunter/gatherers is completely beyond the scope of the mass of humanity.

Many an ancient fisherman no doubt said to himself, “If I could just get a bigger boat and a new net, I could catch a lot more fish.” Thus was born the business of finance, a necessary component of capital.  “With the increased amount of fish I catch, I will be able to pay off the loan for the new boat and net in just a year,” said the perhaps illiterate fisherman to himself. Though he was illiterate, he could count money just fine.

A year later, he had repaid the loan and was now able to keep more of the profits for himself, and soon enough, refitted his old boat, furnished it with a new net, and employed others to operate the boat, bringing more fish in every day. The fisherman prospered and he grew. The more he prospered, the more he reinvested his prosperity in his fishing fleet and the more employees he hired.

After having agreed to work for wages, his employees soon became disgruntled at what they perceived to be the prosperity of their employer. “Why should he live so fine when we work for measly wages. At our expense and labor, he grows fat and rich,” one among them said to the nods and acclamation of those gathered around him. “Let us demand our fair share of the harvest that would not be possible without our labor.”

Thus began the struggle between capital and labor. We cannot prosper without labor and labor cannot prosper without capital. It is a symbiotic, co-dependent, yet tenuous relationship. Even the most humble fisherman needs capital as much as the owner of a large fishing fleet. Even the most humble farmer needs seeds to plant.

Finance? Ah! This is the most despised portion of the triumvirate of capital, labor, and finance, for finance is capital in its purest form. It is the enabler; yet the image of greasy, greedy usurers is as old as any image we humans possess. The money-lender is mostly portrayed as the bad guy. Many times he was, but mostly not.

Many times, the capitalist has been the bad guy . . . but mostly not.

Many times, labor has been the bad guy . . . but mostly not.

We are all the bad guys when we demand something that we have not earned, something for which we have not labored, nor sweated, nor risked.

A very wise man once told a story about a certain man who owned a vineyard. The vineyard proprietor hired a laborer to pick grapes for an agreed-on dollar per day. The next day, another man approached the vineyard owner and asked for a job and asked for two dollars a day. The proprietor agreed to this.

Through loose lips, the dollar-a-day worker found out about the two-dollar-a-day wages being paid to the man next to him, performing the exact same task for twice the money. He was angry about this and went to the vineyard owner to complain.

“That fellow you hired last week is making twice the money I am,” said the dollar-a-day worker. “That is not fair.”

“What is not fair about it?” asked the vineyard owner.

“We’re doing the same work, yet he is making twice as much . . . that’s what’s not fair,” the peeved dollar-a-day man said.

“Did you not agree to work for a dollar-a-day?” asked the vineyard owner.

“Well, yes, but that’s not the point!” replied the dollar-a-day man.

“That is exactly the point,” said the vineyard owner.

That story brings me to this, which I learned from one of the most remarkable men I ever had the pleasure of meeting. As he showed me the thousands of acres of prime farmland he owned in Louisiana’s Red River delta, near where it joins the Mississippi, he said he had once worked this very same land as the poor son of his poor share-cropper father. He told me that as he was seated on a horse-drawn hay mower, he asked the Lord what is it that other men knew that he did not, for they knew how to make money and all he knew was how to sit on that horse-drawn hay mower and cut that grass. He said the Lord answered him audibly from heaven.

“I can make money even doing that,” said the Lord.

As I looked around at the fields of freshly planted soybeans which stretched for a couple of miles in every direction, the red, fertile dirt crossed here and there with drainage ditches and breaks of Cypress and Water Oaks, as birds flew in the evening breeze on a red-skied sunset in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, I asked him why he had driven us in his squeaky old farm truck to this exact spot to tell me that, which seemed to me to be an arbitrary place. He could have just as easily told me from his front porch where we had been sipping some iced tea prepared by his very gracious wife.

“The Lord was as good as his word. I bought all of this by cutting grass. I have cut grass all over the country. I have cut and baled hay when you couldn’t give hay away, and stored it and sold it when it was precious and dear. Everything you see here for six square miles,” he said with 360° sweep of his hand,” was paid for by cutting grass.”

I thought about this for a moment. I looked at him, sensing something else but not able to discern it completely.

“So, why bring me here?” I asked.

His right arm raised a slight downward less than perpendicular to his body, he pointed directly at a spot about fifty feet away, near a cypress break where the water from a drainage ditch passed through a culvert under one of the farm roads. He said, “That is the place where I heard the voice of the Lord. If I were any closer, I’d have to take off my shoes.”

The goose bumps went up and down my spine, for I was indeed looking at a holy place: if not holy for me, then certainly holy to my host. I would not violate it by taking a single step closer. We stood there for a minute in silence, looking at the spot, then we gazed at the deepening hue of the sky, shifting from red towards violet as twilight began to set in. We silently got in his truck and drove back to his house without saying another word, such was the magic of that place and the very personal spiritual experience he shared with me. The magic of that spot was unmistakable. Why he had brought me there was for my own benefit. What he shared with me has profoundly influenced me. What he saw in me that motivated him to share this with me is mysterious to me, but I am thankful he saw it and acted on it. Remarkably, though it has been years, I could drive straight to that exact same spot he showed me as if the GPS coordinates were permanently programmed into my head. It would be no less holy to me now than it was then, simply because of its holiness to him. If I dared to, shoeless would be the only way I could approach it.

I learned from him this poem at that very spot:

I bargained with Life for a penny

And Life would pay no more,

No matter how I cried in the evening,

When I counted my scanty score.

For life is a just employer,

She will pay you what you ask,

But once you have set the wages,

You must perform the task.

I bargained with Life for a penny,

Only to learn dismayed,

That whatever I would have asked of Life,

Life would have gladly paid.

You can take that or leave it. It is far older than my friend from whom I learned it. Many sources attribute it to the prolific ANONYMOUS. Some attribute it to Jessie B. Rittenhouse, who apparently published it in a book called The Door of My Dreams, in 1918. I have no basis for denying it to Rittenhouse. Some have attributed it to motivational speaker Napoleon Hill, but he most likely borrowed it. I think it is older, but then again, I am simply choosing to think it’s older. The words from the lips of my larger-than-life friend, there in that magic place, his phrasing, his meter, the cadence of his words, and their sanctity made it seem like the words were coming straight from his heart. Though they were someone else’s words, they had become his just as surely as the title to the land on which we were standing was in his name. Besides, this is my blog, and I intermingle fact and fiction at will; in fact, I am guaranteeing you no facts at all. This would not nearly be as much fun without the embellishments, though there are none here at present that I can think of. You have been warned.

Through labor, we can prosper. We can have increase. We can develop capital. Through that, we can serve our own needs and the needs of others, though anyone can see a need and work to mend it, no matter their circumstances. The same wise man who gave us the story of the vineyard also observed that the widow who put two pennies in the collection plate had given far more than the wealthy man who put in a fat check, because she had given from her need, not from her excess.

Another wise man once said, “…for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”

There. There in that one fraction of a sentence, is the real source of joy and peace in life, for without contentment, there can be no peace, but it is a hard lesson. I suppose that is why the Lord’s Prayer instructs us to ask for our daily bread, for forgiveness of our sins, and for us to forgive those who have sinned against us, for delivery from temptation and evil as we go through the motions of life until His kingdom and His glory claim us. Then, we will finally know real contentment and be free from our labor, for none of us escapes labor in this life, nor worry, nor pain, nor suffering. If we are lucky, we bear it with the admirable grace of Job, if indeed, it is possible to use the word “lucky” and “Job” in the same sentence; perhaps “wise” would be a better choice.

Happy Labor Day. Enjoy this respite, all of you who labor.

I certainly am.

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