Labored Day

Michael Metzger

No Labor Day.
If you love Labor Day you might not enjoy heaven that much. But don’t worry. Anyone can acquire a taste for eternity. The key is unpacking the origins of Labor Day, work and holidays. It also requires changing the way we imagine heaven.

Samuel Gompers is the man behind the inception of Labor Day. The Industrial Revolution of eighteenth century England and nineteenth century America forced thousands of farmers from working in fertile fields to filthy factories. They toiled in demeaning and dangerous conditions. English factory workers went so far as to describe this kind of work as a “job” – from the old English word meaning “criminal or demeaning activity.” Robbing a bank is sometimes still called a “bank job.”

Gompers led the American labor movement that demanded better working conditions. He organized an unpaid day off in September of 1892 for New York City union workers. With national elections on the horizon, Congress and the President sprung into action and Labor Day was signed into law in 1894. Gompers called it “the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed…”

When was the last time you discussed rights and wrongs on Labor Day? Uh huh. It’s more about drinking than debate. That’s partly because Gompers viewed work as toil. It wouldn’t exist in a perfect world. Labor Day became more about getting away rather than getting more out of our work. And that’s why some of us might not enjoy heaven that much. According to an ancient faith tradition, work is good and lasts forever.

In the ancient “four-chapter” gospel, work was designed in creation as good and enjoyable. That’s Chapter One. But our default is to view work as toil or a job. That’s because of Chapter Two – the Fall. When Adam disobeyed God, the Lord said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.”1 Toil is the same Hebrew word for “the pain of childbirth” that women suffer. Ouch. Chapter Three – redemption – tells us what we can do about today’s toil. We can begin by returning to a dignified view of work rather than retreating from work altogether. Holidays are a good time to pursue this, since “holiday” comes from “holy day.” Holidays are supposed to help us see our work and our rest as sacred.

Finally, a great many people are surprised to learn that those destined for eternity with God will work. Forever. This is Chapter Four – eternity. Of course, it’s not the kind of work we imagine. It won’t be toil or a job. There won’t be office politics. It will not exhaust us. It’ll be fun. Eternity’s chefs will be better than Bobby Flay. Lawn maintenance workers will surpass Augusta’s greens – and without the battle against crabgrass and chickweed. Transportation will be intergalactic yet not consume nonrenewable resources. Heaven, in other words, is more than harps. The “new heavens and new earth” will faintly resemble our earth (there might even be a new New York!). And those most qualified will become mayors and governors, yet not have to deal with crime and injustice. Remember, Jesus did say, “Well done, good slave, because you have been faithful in a very little thing, be in authority over ten cities.”2

Imagine this: Flight attendants will no longer be surly. Teachers will educate engaged and eager students (gasp). We’ll still enjoy holiday breaks but they will be to appreciate and discuss good work. And to appreciate rest. Our work in eternity will no longer pollute the environment or eradicate animal species. In fact, we’ll get along with all the animals.3 Isaiah looks forward to a time when violence and cruelty will vanish, even between the animals. Hosea’s promise for what happens in eternity affects even the birds and animals and will ultimately abolish weapons of war.4

This is why if you love Labor Day – but see it only as an escape from your job – you might not enjoy heaven that much. “Heaven is an acquired taste,” said C.S. Lewis.5 It means enjoying work… forever. The Labor Day holiday in eternity will help us get more out of our work. It won’t resemble today’s celebration where we’re simply trying to get away.

If you’ve never heard of this view of work, start with the “four-chapter” gospel and imagine work as one of the most fantastic experiences in the universe. It’s all part of an eternity that is unimaginably good: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”6 See if this whets your appetite for eternity and helps you acquire a taste for heaven.

1 Genesis 3:17-19
2 Luke 19:17
3 Isaiah 11:6-9
4 Hosea 2:18
5 Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis (Harcourt Brace, 1966), p.164
6 I Corinthians 2:9


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