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Labor Day

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

Labor Day

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

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?

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.

So one thing to remember about callings: God calls, and He gives us what's good for our families and ourselves, not always what we want most.

Washington brought lessons 2A and 2B: the importance of paying attention to our heritage and minimizing distractions. Before going to Nationals Park we visited the Pentagon, which is huge but also humble, particularly along the utilitarian Army corridors. Exhibits and paintings or photos of legendary leaders provide a strong sense of history. So does the chapel with its photos of Pentagon personnel who died on Sept. 11, and the corridor with magazine covers and newspaper headlines from times when journalists were thankful for the protection they and the United States received.

The new Nationals Park, though, doesn't take advantage of the landmarks that would be visible past centerfield-the U.S. Capitol or the Washington Monument-if the park were correctly angled. And those who run the scoreboard apparently think that fans, especially young ones, cannot be expected to pay attention to baseball, so they need bells, whistles, and lights for constant entertainment.

Those mistakes leave us with an amusement park that could be anywhere, rather than a rooted ballpark. If baseball teams don't teach kids to relish baseball, they relinquish their futures. If we don't teach the meaning of citizenship to both the young and those who are new to America, we relinquish our nation's future.

At least the Washington Nationals played with discipline and defeated the anarchistic Pittsburgh Pirates, 4-2. The importance of disciplined striving within our callings: that message emanates from the pictures of generals at the Pentagon and all-stars at the ballpark. Christians throughout medieval times heard that the way to get closer to God was to pile on hardships such as penance, fasting, and self-flagellation. The Protestant Ethic was different: Reformation leaders celebrated not artificial disciplines but the productive discipline that is essential for earning daily bread and helping others.

Cincinnati's aptly named Great American Ballpark was next on our agenda, and to get there we eschewed interstates that rapidly chew up mileage but also miss a lot. We drove instead on older highways and were able to see beautiful scenery and also great signs like "Bank of Clarke County: Not Accepting Federal Bailout Money since 1881." West Virginia featured hills, hollows, hardwood forests, and signs like "Abortion stops a beating heart" and "ARE YOU LOST? JESUS SAID I AM THE WAY." (The GPS device in our rental car thought we were lost and wanted always to move from the narrow path to the broad freeways.)

The Great American Ballpark has a view of the Ohio River past centerfield and an emphasis on baseball. The game's class struggle was absorbing: The Royals (of Kansas City) beat the Reds (of Cincinnati) 6-5 in 11 innings. In each of the last three innings the Reds had a runner on second with no one or one man out, but-like U.S. socialists in the 20th century-could not score. Among the WORLD readers who joined us were a chemist, an environmental waste manager, a pastor, and two young would-be writers, one of them fresh from two tours of duty in Iraq.

The chemist is one of the expanding contingent of Ph.D. scientists who have not bowed the knee to Darwinist materialism. The environmental expert is one of a similarly growing platoon of rebels against the established religion of global warming. The two young men listen to podcast sermons by passionate pastors like John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, and others, and they may be involved in starting churches, but neither plans to become a full-time pastor.

That's important. Young Christians sometimes hear that a pastor or missionary is engaged in "full-time Christian service," with the implication that other service is part-time or second-rate. But Protestant Reformation leaders emphasized that all honest labor, not just that within churches and monasteries, glorifies God. We take this for granted now, but for centuries those engaged in ordinary life had heard otherwise. I like the way John Calvin, in a sermon on chapter 3 of Matthew, envisioned God as "beckoning with His finger and saying to each and every individual, 'I want you to live this way or that'": Each person has a God-given vocation that is "good and profitable for the common good."

Milwaukee's Miller Park has a retractable roof and fans who haven't retracted their loyalty despite many losing seasons. In one ballpark conversation concerning work, Lutheran pastor Don Thompson described a Midwestern work ethic: "If you say you'll do it, you'll do it. If you say you'll be there, you'll be there. If you bid a job and it takes long, you'll do the job at the price agreed on." Kids traditionally have to work to save money for their first car, instead of having parents give it to them. (Financial free grace for teens is not grace at all.)

Susan and I saw determination even at the ballpark: Some older people could barely walk up the stairs, but the Brewers were so important to them that they still attend games. We also noticed a baseball work ethic: The prime slugger of the visiting Texas Rangers was Josh Hamilton, once a top draft choice and then a drug addict who fell out of baseball for three years. But, as Hamilton testifies, Christ changed his heart: He dropped drugs and got himself back in shape. That put him in a position to hit a homerun that was important in a game his team won 4-3.

Less sensational Ranger efforts also made a difference. George Will's Men at Work has a good reminder about the mundane: "In baseball, everyone cheers the batter who knocks in the winning run in the bottom of the 9th. But just as important to the win was the player who laid down a perfect bunt to move the man to scoring position, or even the guy who dutifully backed up a throw and prevented the other team from scoring an extra run earlier in the game."

The Brewers' top hitter in past years, Prince Fielder, had that chance to knock in the winning run. Fielder, a first baseman with 260 pounds of official weight who looks even larger, had already struck out three times. He came up with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the 9th-and he popped up. Maybe much of the weight is genetic-his dad, Cecil Fielder, was also enormous-but if he's not in the best shape he can be, he's stealing from his team and from the fans. Even in the Garden of Eden Adam did not lie around.

St. Louis's new Busch Stadium has a great view past centerfield of downtown buildings and the Gateway Arch. Among those who sat with us were Steve and Anessa Odum, parents of four children (see "Foreign relations," July 17). The game wasn't tense-the Cardinals drowned the visiting Seattle Mariners, 9-3-so the chatting was easy.

Steve Odum has been in the Air Force for 17 years and has flown 200 combat missions over Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Balkans-although he modestly doesn't like to call them "combat" because he was flying transport and cargo planes (still seems extraordinary to me). I asked him whether he felt "called" to this activity, and he responded, "In our culture 'calling' has such a ring of finality. . . . Until God tells me otherwise, I believe this is where He wants me right now, and thus it is my calling."

Major leaguers play with thousands and sometimes millions of eyes upon them. Even so, small details under­appreciated by most spectators-for example, a batter advancing a runner on second by hitting a ground ball to the right side of the infield-make a big difference. Odum noted that people in the military also learn the importance of not blowing off small things: "We use checklists heavily [because] failing to have attention to detail can be so costly. A few years ago, an F-15 crashed on takeoff because a mechanic crossed a couple of wires in the flight controls."

I quoted to him the comment by John Updike about those who play on losing teams before small crowds toward the end of the season "when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill." Odum replied, "We call it 'attention to detail' and it's tied in to concepts of professionalism, responsibility, and even integrity. It means caring for every small detail of a task while not losing the big picture; doing a job right and making such a habit of it that you do it that way every time even when no one else is watching and there is no chance of being found out."

Odum noted, "In the Air Force the best pilots I know do nothing brilliantly, but they do everything right. We have a saying, 'Superior pilots use their superior judgment to stay out of situations requiring them to demonstrate their superior skill.' Top Gun is a movie about Navy pilots, but it provides a great case study. I'd take the steady Ice Man over the mercurial Maverick character any day."

And what about those who serve at home? Hear Anessa Odum: "As for my calling . . . that would be raising and educating our four kiddos. The things that make the difference are the responses I make to the day-to-day happenings in our household: Do I lose my temper when I step on another misplaced Lego block, or when I find my 3-year-old dipping toilet paper into the toilet for fun?" Moment-by-moment responses make or break a home: "Do I fail? Often! . . . My children have wills of their own, which I pray God will bend to His will. And they are most times very gracious to their imperfect mama. And God is in control of all. My faith and hope are in Him and His perfect will for those who seek Him."

Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, newly renovated but still with fountains and waterfalls beyond the outfield fence, is another great ballpark-and we again met great WORLD readers, including oncologist David Lee. His wife Ellie explained that in his work with cancer-stricken people he asks about their spiritual history-and often God gives him the chance to talk with them about his faith and to encourage them to re-explore their own. He's been able to point people, some at the end of their lives, back to a relationship with God.

One reason Dr. Lee, in practice since 1988, can do that is because he went solo for 16 years, and now has just a partner and a partner-to-be. He hasn't had a platoon of officials overseeing his every move. He wonders whether an Obamacare future will make things difficult. Like many small businessmen he is concerned about tax increases and an economic environment that discourages entrepreneurship.

Lee's work, of course, is intrinsically important. What about those who are not in daily contact with life or death decisions? What are the satisfactions in repairing toilets rather than people, or in taking on a cancerous workplace environment?

It struck me that Christians often have four levels of understanding about work. Level 1 sees work as something that gets us our daily bread but has little value beyond that. Level 2 also grudgingly supports work because cash thus acquired can go to support ministries and missions, with some becoming an inheritance to pass on to children. Level 3 sees work as an opportunity to witness to co-workers.

Those are all good reasons for work, but shouldn't we also push on to a level 4, in which work is more than a means to an end? Since we spend more of our waking time in our workplaces than anywhere else, shouldn't those be places where individuals gain dignity, grasp freedom, and employ creativity?

When Susan and I began our driving trip on the New Jersey turnpike, we listened to Simon and Garfunkel's "America," first recorded in 1968. The last stanza is filled with angst: "'Kathy, I'm lost,' I said, though I knew she was sleeping/ I'm empty and aching and I don't know why/ Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/ They've all gone to look for America." Why are so many Americans empty and aching?

I know why-or I think I do. Many of us have turned away from God, and in doing so many have suffered the desacralization of work. In terms less grand, that means the loss of a sense of purpose and calling. This is not a new phenomenon: The elder brother in the prodigal son parable thinks of work as tedious obligation, and the younger brother avoids work until necessity forces him into feeding pigs. But unless we develop a sound theology of work, millions of us will be empty and aching from 9 to 5.

To hear Marvin Olasky discuss this topic further click here.

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Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.