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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Labor Day

Work & Calling | A summer trip to baseball games across the country provides lessons in how most believers pursue 'full-time Christian service'

Issue: "Warrior class," Aug. 28, 2010

The original impetus for Labor Day was not the death of summer but the death of 13 workers during the violent Pullman strike of 1894. President Grover Cleveland wanted to bind up the nation's wounds via a day of unity, and Congress unanimously complied: Cleveland signed a bill creating Labor Day only six days after the strike ended.

Cleveland was also shrewd in choosing the first Monday in September to be Labor Day. He fought off proposals to align the holiday with existing May Day socialist celebrations. Well aware of the class warfare advocated by Europe's early Marxists, Cleveland believed in American exceptionalism and thought a holiday celebrating the work of both management and employees could decrease social conflict.

The move from May to September made Labor Day the bittersweet holiday it is. Labor Day now announces that hazy crazy days are over and new challenges are coming: the beginning of football, the pennant drives of baseball, and often a more intense work schedule. So do we prefer ease or excitement? Holiday or work? Time off or time on?

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To a large extent, the answer depends on what we think of our work: Is it a calling or just a way to pay bills? Do we start the week Loving Monday morning, to quote the title of a book by one of our interviewees? Does Wednesday bring enthusiastic anticipation of new challenges? Or do we slog through our work and say at its end, "Thank God it's Friday"? Many of us, probably, have all three sensations at various times.

Baseball as well has that ambiguity about it. Note the title of columnist George Will's book about baseball: Men at Work. Umpires start games by saying, "Play ball," but those who play best are often the least playful. Will writes that "in most games victory is within reach of each team in the middle innings. Most games are won by small things executed in a professional manner. . . . For the men who work there, ballparks are for hard, sometimes dangerous, invariably exacting business."

This summer my wife and I drove from New York City to Kansas City in a week, stopping each evening (except Sunday) to attend a major league game in the company of six to 12 hard-working WORLD readers. We watched the men on the field working/playing ball and we talked sometimes about our own work. In the process, I learned some things that are worth contemplating as Labor Day, 2010, approaches.

Philadelphia brought my first lesson. Susan and I had our Phillies tickets. We wore our caps. We had a big bag of peanuts. Each of us could say, in the words of "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley, "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."

Not exactly. Man proposes, God disposes. It rained and rained. No ballgame, so nine WORLD readers joined us in a big hotel lounge area, munching on peanuts as televisions in the distance showed the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with cheers periodically arising from Flyers and Blackhawks fans.

Three different kinds of career paths were evident among this group. Heather Collins exemplifies the first: knew it all the time, needed some confirmation. She's a Ph.D. biochemist who runs a lab that performs measurements for scientists doing research related to diabetes. She said she had wanted to be a scientist since the sixth grade but didn't think she could afford grad school-and then the University of Pennsylvania gave her a terrific scholarship.

Joe Cerone, a hospital administrator, exemplifies the second career path: a radical change in worldview that led to a radical job change. He was a casino industry accountant in Atlantic City, but 25 years ago he came to believe in Christ. He went back to school and grew a management career that has had him at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for the past two decades. He gets to work at 4 a.m. and feels fulfilled.

Engineer Reed Gibson's degree in art and environmental design led him onto the third career path. He wanted to imagine and design new toys, but as his career progressed companies found he "had a knack for mechanical engineering" and made that his task. He then left that pursuit to become a church's full-time youth director, but "four years ago I went back to engineering when I realized I needed to make sure that I took care of my family."

Too bad? Maybe not. Reed's son O.J., 18, joined in the conversation. He's a pitcher (loving baseball since he was 4 years old) and a would-be historian who is alive with ideas. It's great for a dad to make it possible for a son to fulfill his dreams. It seems that God sometimes calls us early to a career, sometimes pushes us to make mid-course corrections when we've taken a wrong turn, and sometimes calls us to do something that doesn't perfectly fit us so that we can help others.

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