The first Labor Day celebration was observed in New York City in 1882. It was not intended to be the official end of summer. It was a movement to honor “the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” A bit more than a decade later, Labor Day became a National Holiday.
Not many years later, it became evident that the American worker was such an exceptional and efficient creature, that work hours would soon be reduced to mere shadows of their former oppression. For example, economist John Mayhard Keynes, in the teeth of the Great Depression, predicted that technological advancements would soon lead to a 15-hour work week.
In the mid-1960s, congressional leaders boldly predicted a two-day work week by the year 2000. That prediction has apparently only rung true for congressional leaders, as the average time workers spend on the job has ballooned over the years to nearly 50 hours per week.
Meanwhile, it is well known that our peers in Europe and other “developed” countries, enjoy bountiful quantities of leisure time (on average putting in 400 fewer annual work hours than Americans), while enjoying equal levels of productivity. Working more hours simply hasn’t translated to greater production or higher levels of satisfaction, and the predictions of “less work more rest,” is a farce for today’s laborers.
And while we mostly recognize the need to protect our health by eating right, staying hydrated, exercising, and the like, Americans are notorious for ignoring the body’s need for intentional times of rest. More so, we ignore our mental, emotional, and spiritual need for rest.
In the book of Genesis, the ancient writer says that on that final day of the first week, God rested. Was God tired? No, God set an example by abstaining from his creative work, and pausing to enjoy it. The word for rest, used in those Genesis accounts, can be translated “to soulify” or “to enhance one’s soul.” More practically it means “to catch one’s breath” or to “renew the spirit.” So when we pause to catch our breath, to renew our spirit, or recharge our souls, it is an imitation of God – it is worship.
Lettie Cowman, a devotional writer from a century ago, illustrates this so well with one of her stories from Africa. She wrote about an Englishman who was exploring the deepest jungles of the continent, traveling like British royalty. He had brought with him fine wines, his favorite foods, tons of books and parchments, furniture and clothing.
He had so much that he had to hire an army of strong men from the local villages to portage all this material through the jungle. On the first day of his grand safari he pushed the laborers at an exhausting, God-forsaken pace. He wanted to cover as much distance as possible, and he did exactly that.
As he lounged in his tent that evening, he concluded that if such a pace could be kept, why, he would see most of the continent, and his journey would be a quick one. But on the second morning, the hired Africans refused to move. They just sat there, and no amount of pleading, cursing, or bribery could make them move.
Finally, one of the young men explained that they were not especially tired. Rather, they had gone too far and too fast on the first day, and they had to “wait for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”
Ms. Cowman concluded her story with these words of reflection (and I remind you, her words are a century old): “This whirling, rushing life which so many of us live does for us what that first march did for those poor tribesmen. But here is the difference: They knew what they needed to restore life’s balance; too often we do not.”
So on this weekend that marks the official end of summer, don’t simply grill your burgers or down a few beers. Do less. Sit still. Take a nap. It will be an act of worship.