Establish the work of our hands, prayed Moses in Psalm 90. “May the favour of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us.” That’s in the New International Version.
Another translation says, “Let the beauty—or sum of His gracious acts, in their harmony—be illustrated in us, and favour our enterprise.”
What might it mean, for the beauty of God to be illustrated in us, and establish the work of our hands?
I wasn’t happy with many of the commentaries I found, about this text. Overall, they seemed to imply that, really, human work is pretty shoddy. Most assumed an interventionist God, an external Source of beauty or favour that—if we work really hard or believe very hard, or if we’re lucky—might reflect well on us and what we do.
For this Labour Sunday, there were other themes I could have developed for this reflection. And yet, these words stuck in my mind. “Establish the work of our hands.” What might we make of them?
So, here’s Moses, not even allowed into the Promised Land—when reaching it has been his life’s work.
Think of all he’s been through:
The miraculous rescue from the Nile by the Pharaoh’s daughter, and being raised in the palace;
escaping into the desert after murdering an Egyptian slave master;
hearing the Word coming from a burning bush: “Pick up your rod, Moses. Use your power—speak to Pharaoh!”
His struggle with a speech impediment, calling on his brother Aaron for help—but finally getting the words out: “Let my people go!”
The triumphant dance with Miriam and Aaron on crossing the Red Sea;
then wandering through the wilderness for decades, with those undisciplined ex-slaves now wanting to go their own way, wanting golden idols and fatted calves and quail and sweetmeats instead of manna, wanting wine and roses instead of water from the rock…
After all this, where does Moses end up?
A hundred and twenty years old, buried in Moab; no-one knows where his grave is—and Joshua got to cross the River Jordan and trumpet Israel’s victorious invasion of Jericho!
There’s a Rabbinical tradition about these final verses of Psalm 90: that they were the original prayer that Moses recited as a blessing on the work of making the Tabernacle and its ornaments; and that afterwards he used them as the formula of benediction for any newly undertaken task, whenever God’s Glorious Majesty was to be consulted for an answer by Urim and Thummim1—the stones on the high priest’s breastplate2.
Some time in there—between sorting out inter-tribal rivalries, and making sure only the purest lambs were used for sacrifices, facing his family’s disapproval of his mixed-race marriage, completing the Tabernacle in the wilderness, with all its ornaments, keeping an eye out for that pillar of cloud by day and fire by night—Moses has time and energy to sit down and write, or perhaps, stand up and pray:
“For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night… Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands, establish thou it.”3
Perhaps Moses truly appreciated and understood his life’s work.
Perhaps he took a long-term view—a hundred years or a thousand are like a day gone by, or like the nightwatch; it seems long, but how quickly it is done.
With the succession planning taken care of, he may have been happy to lie down at the end of the very long day, and let Joshua take over. Maybe Moses knew how well established the work of his hands was, and didn’t need to see it through to the very end.
And what did Jesus have to say? When questioned by legal experts about the law—and much of the law involved what work you could and couldn’t do, who you could and couldn’t work with, and when; how particular tasks were to be done down to the last detail – Jesus responded:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Sounds relatively simple, doesn’t it?
Provided, of course, you’ve learned to love yourself, to love that of you which is God, to see and love the God in your neighbours—
even the noisy ones, the messy ones, the ones who play their music too loud or mow their lawns too early in the morning;
the neighbours who paint their homes in ghastly colours or have mates around who, really, aren’t quite who you’d expect in your neighbourhood, with their rusty cars and their tinnies and their bizarre language;
or who wait at the bus stop, mumbling and dribbling; or take your seat when your feet are tired and you’ve got umpteen shopping bags;
or whose inner beauty didn’t get much chance to shine, from years of neglect as children or domestic abuse as adults;
or those neighbours who just whine a lot: the incessant writers-to-the-editor, the ones we wish would get a life; the doom-sayers and gloom merchants; the office whingers; the ones who try to take the shine off others’ achievements…
Love them with all our hearts and with all our souls and with all our minds—that’s one way to establish the work of our hands. Or maybe, we should get on with loving through our actions first, in faith that our hearts will catch up.
While thinking about this service I was reading Tim Farrington’s novel, “The Monk Downstairs”.
A man leaves a life of contemplation after some twenty years in the monastery, and confronts what “real work” might be. He gets a job at McDonalds, and forms a relationship with the single mother whose basement he rents, and with her daughter, who he helps care for when his new friend’s mother has a stroke.
Some of the plot’s predictable but what made the story unusual is that it’s interspersed with letters this former monk writes to a friend and sparring partner who’s still in the monastery—quoting Thomas Merton and Brother Lawrence, John of the Cross and the prophet Jeremiah.
In these letters he explores his changing feelings about the lives of contemplation and of paid work, of the effort that goes into relationships, and his discovery—as we heard in the contemporary reading—that “the life fulfilled in love” isn’t lounging in a soft chair, that “we do not serve that larger Love” by giving up on the grittiness of life, of human love.
“We are born to love as we are born to die, and between the heartbeats of those two great mysteries lies all the tangled growth of our tiny lives”, he discovers—the tangle of priorities and commitments and energy and sacrifice involved in loving our neighbour.
While he realises that, his busy new friend and lover finds unexpected meaning in the quiet times, the contemplation and silence and enforced “Sabbath rest” of sitting with her mother, by a hospital bed, for long hours.
In a way, they’re changing places, like Martha and Mary. The value of work, of occupation; the value of listening and contemplation—which is the better part?
Or, as the lawyers asked Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment?”
The character in the novel finds, with John of the Cross, that we must go forth and behold ourselves in divine beauty:
To the mountain and to the hill, To where the pure water flows, And further, deep into the thicket.
Not either/or, not acting or listening, not rushing or resting, but both/all.
In “Thoughts for the Inner Life,”4Jessie Coombs commented on Psalm 90. The language assumes an external, all-powerful and interventionist deity, but her response is one we can hear with 21st century ears. In 1867, Coombs wrote:
“Our work and Divine Beauty, at first sight, how different; yet, on deeper insight, how truly one, how inseparably united. There is light so beauty-giving, that nothing it touches is positively ugly… Who of us has not marvelled at an unexpected light, in what we had always thought an uninteresting face? Who has not beheld a light divine irradiate the human countenance, giving joy, and prophesying perfection, where we had least thought to find beauty?…
“You know what the natural light can do for material objects; you know what mental and moral light can work for human faces; rise from these, and know what spiritual light, Divine Light, can do for immortal beings and immortal works.”
There’s the God-beauty in us, when we see “a light divine” irradiate another human countenance, where we had not expected to see beauty. The way goes not just past the still waters, but through the valley of shadows, into the deep thicket.
In Universe Is a Green Dragon, Brian Swimme writes:
“This is the only time you have to show yourself. You can’t hold back or hide in a cave. You can’t waste away in a meaningless job, cramming your life with trivia… What we bestow on the world allows others to live in joy… We ignite life in others… We become beauty to ignite the beauty of others… We work to enchant others, to ignite life, to enhance the unfolding of being…”
And in Tomorrow’s God, Lloyd Geering reminds us that,
“The meaning of human existence will increasingly become one of caring for the earth… caring for all life on earth and caring for one another…
“This imperative to take care must take precedence over lesser loyalties and over all differences of race, nationality, gender and personal beliefs. It is the kind of love which is ready to sacrifice self-interest for the greater good of the whole. We shall be required to limit our own early pleasures and expectations in the interests of generations yet to be born.
“Like Moses of old on Mount Nebo looking to the Promised Land, we need to show our concern for a future world that we ourselves shall never enter. This calls for the kind of self-sacrificing love which has long been affirmed in the Christian tradition and symbolised as the way of the cross.”5
These are the great commandments for our time: “Love the earth and all that it contains; Love your neighbour—as you love yourself—with everything that’s in you.”
As Moses knew and Jesus taught, and as Albert Einstein wrote—“True religion is real living; living with all one’s soul, with all one’s goodness and righteousness.”
Thus the work of our hands is established—recognised, justified—when we work “to enhance the unfolding of being…”
In these ways, our enterprise is favoured, and the divine beauty shines in us.
Blessed be the work of our hands.
1 Exodus 28:30: “Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the LORD. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the LORD.”
2 Lyranus, R. Shelomo, and Genebrardus, quoted by Neale – http://eword.gospelcom.net/comments/psalm/spurgeon/psalm90.htm
3 King James Version
4 Jessie Coombs, in “Thoughts for the Inner Life”, 1867
5 Tomorrow’s God, Lloyd Geering (p235)
“Nearly everything you do is of no importance, but it is important that you do it”—Mahatma Ghandi
“So do your work in the world that others may do their work better.”—Felix Adler
“We do not have to wait until we are excellent before we can do excellent things.”— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”— John Muir
Quotations from http://www.uua.org/worshipweb/wayside/action.html