Work and rest

 

This last month was a strenuous one in my youth ministry. It involved back-to-back weekend events, and I found myself putting in tons of extra hours and working for a 21-day stint with only a single day off. It involved late nights and early mornings. It was hard, tiring work.

Work & rest
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

During one evening of this labor I found myself murmuring. I was reciting facts of my overwork to myself in my head but in that whiny, grumbly, self-pitying voice that we all have at times when we think we’re being put upon. “Poor me. Working so hard. Does anyone notice?” Pout … pout … pout.

Tired of working (and feeling lazy and aimless) I did what any normal American millennial would do: take a quick break for some Facebook browsing. As I clicked and browsed around, I noticed that a similar complaint was being made by a number of my Facebook friends—but in entirely different tones of voice.

One friend was just finishing up a huge project, but was pleased with herself and her team’s accomplishments and reveling in the large bonus she and her co-workers had received as a result of their success. A different friend had just completed a master’s thesis and another had finished a doctoral dissertation; both were celebrating the completion of well-written study and the reward of new degrees they’d receive as a result. Yet another had just finished laboring over a piece of art, and was now wearily showing off the completed work of her hands.

All were tired, all were fatigued, and yet they were leaning against their shovels and smiling. All had taken hits and suffered sacrifice, but were pleased because the task was worth it. And here I was, working in the vineyard that I chose and to which I believe God called me, and all I was doing was grumbling.pull-quote

We were made for work. Work has dignity, and it calls us to be co-creators in this world we have been given. But if you listen to a lot of talk about ministry these days, it seems like the biggest fear facing us as ministers is the possibility of working too hard. Set boundaries on your time and space; limit yourself; be careful; and, whatever happens, don’t burn out. The world is on fire with fear and despair and loneliness yet it’s putting in some overtime that worries us.

I am not saying there isn’t some real truth in avoiding overwork. We live in a world that is obsessed with busy-ness and work for work’s sake; that has forgotten the meaning of the word Sabbath and the importance of rest. We need to believe in a God that is bigger than our efforts, and to avoid the idolatry of self that believes we are the world’s savior and it’s all up to us. We do need to take time to stop, to breathe, to rest, to recover.

But in avoiding the one extreme, we must avoid falling into its opposite. In order to truly rest, we must truly work first. It is good to wear ourselves out, and there are few things holier than falling into bed at night after fully exerting ourselves in the labor of a task worth doing. And if we must always count on Christ to fulfill our shortcomings and complete our labors we must also remember that, until he comes again, Christ is counting on us to be his hands and his feet in this world.

I frequently recall that, after a presentation all about avoiding burn out, a religious sister once said, “Yes, we should avoid burn out but let us not forget that, in order to burn out, there needs to have been a flame burning in the first place.” If we are tired from our work, perhaps the salve for our souls is not less work, but to remember why we started working in the first place. Conspiring with God is so much easier when we are inspired by Him. Keeping our eyes on the goal—remembering for what purpose and for whom we work—makes yolks easy and burdens light.

 

The backwards blessings of being busy

A little bit after my Christmas break began a couple weeks ago, I realized something was wrong with me.

Here I was, entering into days that were meant for rest and rejuvenation, and I totally felt stressed out about all I had to do. Sure, it made sense. The end of the year and the holidays are a busy time for most of us. Maybe procrastination had gotten the best of me. I do know that during those hectic weeks between Thanksgiving and the start of my Christmas vacation, I moved several things on my to-do list into those big gaps of “free time” on my calendar around Christmas.

But even though it may have made sense that I felt stressed, it didn’t seem right. I couldn’t actually relax and just take pleasure in the things I needed and wanted to do. I even found it difficult to actually focus on the work, because my anxiety about it all felt so intense. A sudden abundance of “free time” strangely seemed to put extra pressure on me to achieve, accomplish, produce. Whew.

I couldn’t help but to wonder: Am I addicted to being busy? 

My heart was deeply pondering that uncomfortable question. My body was desiring some real rest. And, my mind was longing to actually accomplish some necessary tasks. So, I couldn’t help but to pause and immediately read this article when it came across my Twitter feed:

Why is everyone so busy? The Economist

I took a break from the anxiety about the work and delved right in. Then, I totally calmed down. It was an incredible and interesting read, not something I could skim. In fact, the article actually stirred up some good personal reflection for me. The article contained particular insights that I found to be so striking that they lingered with me during the rest of my break (especially whenever I was tempted to feel shame for not being productive.) Here’s a few quotes:

  • Nowadays professionals everywhere are twice as likely to work long hours as their less-educated peers. 
  • Lunches now tend to be efficient affairs, devoured at one’s desk, with an eye on the e-mail inbox. At some point these workers may finally leave the office, but the regular blinking or chirping of their smartphones kindly serves to remind them that their work is never done.
  • The rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all.
  • The endless possibilities afforded by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it.
  • The struggle to “have it all” may be a fairly privileged modern challenge. 
  • The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.
  • Leisure time is now the stuff of myth. Some are cursed with too much. Others find it too costly to enjoy. Many spend their spare moments staring at a screen of some kind, even though doing other things (visiting friends, volunteering at a church) tends to make people happier.

It wasn’t news for me to know that I am an experience junky and that I am over-ambitious. And, I know I have some bad habits. I’ve been aware for a while that more mindfulness and intentionality about how I use my time would benefit me. But the real striking and fascinating, thing I learned from the article is that part of the reason I feel such a pressure to be productive is that I am a well-educated and privileged American. There’s a backwards blessing in being busy mixed into all this.

As a Franciscan Sister, I find that my life really is an awkward dance of service and contemplation, of solitude and community. I have chosen this lifestyle/God gave me this vocation, because the life really does offer much potential for balance. With balance comes health and happiness.

As a disciple of Jesus, I continue to learn and re-learn that what matters most is not what we do after all. God doesn’t necessarily call us to be productive, but to be present. (I recently came across another brilliant piece of writing that deeply explores this dynamic of our busy lives.) The kingdom of God is build through relationships and love, not goals and accomplishments. What matters most is how we are with each other.

In the end, I did have a restful and rejuvenating Christmas break, with a good balance of leisure and work. I’ve been back to teaching for a couple days now and in the classroom with my students I feel lighter and more grounded than when my vacation began. The balance of my break has had healthy impacts. I am so thankful that I was able to fill my time with stronger doses of human connection and celebration, contemplation and rest, as all of it helped me be a better teacher and servant.

Now, the question that I felt challenged to confront at the beginning of my Christmas break lingers: Why do I allow myself to be so busy? I am not sure what the answer is. But, I don’t think I am addicted to being busy after all. My new years resolution is to remain balanced, intentional, to move slow. Then, maybe, I can enjoy the blessings of being busy.

The Transfiguration

“Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here!  Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’” (Mark 9:5).

When I went hiking with a group of junior high students, we were going up a pretty steep mountain and we were having a hard time finding a place to camp.  Finally we came upon an old railroad grade.  It was the only flat land we had found.  So we tied up our tarps and settled in to sleep.  In the middle of the night, it started pouring rain.  The rain came right down the side of the mountain, across our flat railroad grade like a river, and straight down the mountain again.  We spent together a long sleepless night, fortunately, with a lot of laughter and good humor.

I get Peter.

Can we just stop for a moment and pitch a tent?

In this crazy 4G-speed world can we rest and stay and be?

I’ve been tired lately,  Bone tired,  Take-a-nap-on-my-lunch-break-cause-I-cannot-keep-my-eyes-open tired.  My friends and parishioners have noticed my tiredness and told me to take it easy.  So right now I am in the middle of a five day retreat.  I am finding restoration.  And I am reflecting on being tired.  

I think a lot of us are tired: from justice work and daily work, school and jobs and family.  The speed is relentless and the expectations are never-ending.  I remember making a list of Holiday stressors and writing down, “existence.”  Sometimes, just this living wears us out.  

Jesus,

Show me the things

That lumber up my heart,

So that it cannot be filled

With your life and power.

–Evelyn Underhill


What lumbers up my heart? 

Lord, show me the logs of attachment and self-criticism, of pettiness and envy, of over-analysis and just pure flight that keep me from filling with your love.  Help me, my Jesus, to rely on you.  To rest in you.  To be wholly in you.  Help me to find a little more interior space to be who I am just as you made me, and to be okay with that.  I cannot do it without you.  I cannot do anything without you.

 


Peter came down from the mountain.  He asked to put up a tent, but he followed Jesus back into the daily healing work of the world.  Eventually, he picked up his own cross. I think maybe it is okay to be tired for a while.  It is okay to rest.  And also I know that the greatest rest will not come to me on my own.  Jesus is my rest.