Keeping busy

There’s a great piece from the weekend by Tim Kreider, entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” which speaks into the cultural inclination toward busyness–something that’s particularly prevalent in cities, with Washington, DC being no exception. It gives an insightful look into one of the ways by which we try to give ourselves meaning:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

This is framed in non-faith terms but the truth remains (I’m in agreement with Aquinas and Augustine here that all truth is God’s truth, but this opens another discussion for another day), and it raises a whole lot of other questions about worth and value and purpose and meaning. And for Christians especially, it should give us pause; we shouldn’t simply be thinking about the external symptom of busyness–though many of us need to think about this, for starters!–but also about the deeper questions of what we’re about and who we are.

Now, I disagree with Kreider on one point; he says, “The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.” But Scripture tells us that God created us for work as well as rest and relationship–when humanity was made in the image of God, each of us was commissioned to have dominion and to bring order to the world he had created (Genesis 1:28). The outcome of the disobedience in the garden of Eden was that the work would be accompanied by toil and struggle, that the relationship between humanity and creation had been corrupted (Genesis 3:17-19).

Work is a good thing, but we have a way of making good things into idols (sex, power, relationships)–and I’d say that work has become, for many of us, an idol.

One of the things I’ve done recently is reach out to friends who’ve been or served in pastoral ministry for many years to ask what practices or habits they would recommend for a young pastor. Without exception, one of the things that everyone has said is, “Take a sabbath.” I talked about this six months ago–“In the beginning … rest.” Establish a rhythm of work and rest–of working from your rest. Remind yourself that it’s not you who’s in charge but God, and that even if you don’t do anything for a day, the world will still turn and things will still get done. Don’t be defined by your work. Don’t let work become an idol. Live out the gospel story, which says that, because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are no longer defined by what we do, how much we do, or even how we do it, but first and foremost by the God who calls us his own, who invites us into his family, and who asks us to join him in telling the tremendous story of grace with our lives.

So … take a break.

In the beginning … rest

On New Year’s Day, I preached at The District Church (and I did the same yesterday at Sojourners chapel) about sabbath and rest. Here are some excerpts:

This message is as much for me and a result of what God’s been doing in me as anyone. For much of 2011, when I saw something that needed doing, I did it; when I saw a need that needed to be met, I met it. There wasn’t a cohesive structure to it, and there wasn’t an intentionality to it. And so it shouldn’t have been a great surprise to me that by last month, having worked two at-least-30-hour-a-week jobs for 10 months and running from one need to the next, from one campaign to the next, from one person to the next, I was absolutely exhausted. I remember thinking that I’d actually never been more physically drained. Spiritually, I was ecstatic because I was in the place God wanted me to be and doing what I knew God had made me to do; but physically and mentally, I was exhausted because I wasn’t practicing sabbath. I wasn’t stopping, I wasn’t resting, I wasn’t recovering, and that led me to do those very things I felt called to do, poorly.

Can you imagine what it would be like for your work, your activity, your productivity to be your identity, your worth, your value, and for you to know nothing else?

Well, yes, of course we can. It’s not hard. We see it all around us. Maybe we even see it in our own lives. For us here in Washington, DC, in the twenty-first century, this same commandment can be a freedom. Maybe not from a life of actual bricks and chains. But from the bricks and chains of perpetual activity, from feeling as if changing the world depends on us and us alone, from feeling as if you are the only one who cares about this cause, or the only one who can make a difference in this person’s life. It is the freedom of God’s world.

If we’re to live lives of integrity in a world that tells us all sorts of messages that are contrary to the gospel and the kingdom of God, we need to be immersing ourselves, constantly and consistently, in what God says to us and about us: even before you did anything of value, even before you were ever productive in any sense of the word, even before you were born, I loved you, I accepted you, and I called you my own.

Jesus, the Lord of the sabbath, said, in John 10:10, “I came that they might have life, and life to the full.” Living life to the full isn’t the same as filling life to the full. A fulfilled life is not the same as a filled life. A fulfilled life is not saying yes to everything. It’s learning what God has called us to, saying yes to that, and saying no to other things. Not because we don’t want to do them—they’re probably great and wonderful and attractive things, otherwise it’d be easy to say no—but because we can trust in what God has called us to, and trust that God has things in hand.

And in living out the sabbath from one day into the rest of the week, we live out an alternative story for the world to see. It is the gospel story—the good news!—where our worth is not determined by our activity or our productivity, where we are not judged—by others or by ourselves—on the basis of what we do or how well we do it; but where the grace of God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ and liberates us from being enslaved to the stressed out, high strung, anxious, reactionary, workaholic lives that we see all around us, and maybe even in ourselves.

You can listen to the full sermon here.