Anxious Graduates, Work and Rest, and a Pastor Who Got Paid with 250 Gallons of Wine
Recently, a group of educators conducted a survey of graduating high school seniors. Promising anonymity, the survey asked just one question: “What is one thing that you wish your parents knew about you right now?”
Several seniors answered the question positively, expressing gratitude for a good education, unconditional love, parental attentiveness and provision, and more. But in reading through some of the other answers, a different theme also began to emerge: These young men and women are overwhelmed. Here are a few, heartbreaking things that the graduating seniors said:
“I’m making mistakes, but I’m also working hard to be independent and successful.”
“I’m working as hard as I can to please you.”
“I am so overwhelmed.”
“I am really stressed and you need to back off.”
“I’m scared that I’m not athletically prepared for college.”
“I wish you knew how hard I am trying to finish strong.”
“Stop making me take the ACT when I’m already in the 98th percentile.”
“Sometimes I need rest and to know you appreciate my hard work.”
“I tried my best.”
As the father of two daughters, one of whom just graduated from high school, reading the survey responses was a wake-up call for me. If our kids are finishing high school as stressed out, tired and afraid as these answers reveal, it begs some important questions: Are we pressuring the next generation to become restless images of ourselves? Are we raising them to be disciples of a driven culture, or to be disciples of Jesus, who invites them into his rest?
In 2014, Carolyn Gregoire wrote a critique in The Huffington Post called, “Cadillac Made A Commercial About The American Dream, And It’s A Nightmare.” In the commercial, the luxury car company unapologetically celebrates the materialistic driven-ness of American culture, also revealing a not-so-subtle elitism expressed through disdain for other, more “restful” societies. Ms. Gregoire writes:
The opening shot shows a middle-aged man…looking out over his backyard pool, asking the question: “Why do we work so hard? For this? For stuff?”
As the ad continues, it becomes clear that the answer to this rhetorical question is actually a big fat YES. And it gets worse. “Other countries, they work,” he says. “They stroll home. They stop by the cafe. They take August off. Off.”
Then he reveals just what it is that makes Americans better than all those lazy, espresso-sipping foreigners.
“Why aren’t you like that?” he says. “Why aren’t we like that? Because we’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers, that’s why.”
God have mercy on us.
A MORAL IMPERATIVE TO SAVE US FROM OURSELVES
In a world where a seventy-hour workweek has become normal and a forty-hour workweek “lazy,” where kids’ academic and extra-curricular lives are programmed to a point of heavy-eyed exhaustion, where junior sports leagues schedule games on Sunday mornings because the rest of life is so packed out, and where unplugging from screens feels like death, Sabbath has become a lost art. The Cadillac culture, rather than being the exception, has become the norm for us.
As one of my pastoral colleagues has said, you know we have lost our way when we start rewarding people for breaking Sabbath and looking down on people for keeping Sabbath.
According to Harvard economist Juliet Schor in her book, The Overworked American, we have lost the life-giving work-Sabbath rhythm of our ancestors:
Most (of our ancestors) did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed. Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance…there is good reason to believe that working hours in the mid-nineteenth century constitute the most prodigious work effort in the entire history of humankind.
In other words, the “espresso-sipping” people scorned by the Cadillac commercial are actually much better off than “crazy, driven, hard-working believers” will ever be.
Sabbath, that moral command of God—still one of The Ten—is so much more than a moral command. Sabbath is a lifeline that reconnects us to God, our true and most healthy selves, the sacraments, community, and a rhythm of life that tired, hard-worked bodies and souls need like our lungs need oxygen. As Anne Lamott has said:
Almost everything will work again if you unplug it.
Because he loves us, our Heavenly Father wants us to take one full day out of every week to worship him, give and receive love in community, and rejuvenate as we disengage from our usual work. God lovingly and sometimes forcefully imposes on us the gift of rest because he is committed to our flourishing, not because he wants to hold us back. He gives us the Sabbath “holy day”—a true holi-day—a day of Thanksgiving every week, a day of rest and gladness—to un-burden us from our daily burdens. And because God neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:3-4), he will keep the world spinning as we stop spinning our wheels.
When God was getting ready to create Eve, he caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep. Then, after Eve was formed, God looked at his work and declared, “It is very good.” Adam then woke from his slumber and voiced his agreement:
This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man (Genesis 2:23).
Adam is so overwhelmed by Eve’s beauty that he composes history’s first poem and sings history’s first love song, and then he sings it to her. It is as if Adam is saying to God, “Until now you have done some great work…but her? She is your very best work, your most life-giving work, your most lovely and magnificent work. In finding her, God, I have finally found myself. Because you made her, I am now made complete.”
And so God’s best, most life-giving work was done for Adam…while Adam was sleeping.
Pastor and Author Eugene Peterson once said this in an interview:
If you don’t take a Sabbath, something is wrong. You’re doing too much, you’re being too much in charge. You’ve got to quit, one day a week, and just watch what God is doing while you’re not doing anything.
Just watch what God is doing while you’re not doing anything. Are we ready give this a try?
AN INDICATOR OF WHERE OUR TRUST LIES
What we do (or do not do) with the Sabbath is an indicator of where we are placing our trust. It reveals our true feelings about who really is, and who really should be, in control of our lives. Like the tithe, the Sabbath tests and strengthens our faith by leading us toward scarcity. As we give back to God the first 10% of our material increase, the tithe reduces the amount of money we are able to spend. As we give back to God the first full day of each week, the Sabbath reduces the amount of time we are able to work and produce. Both require faith, yet both also come with a promise. As we trust and obey, God promises to grant us 100% provision for our needs on 90% or less of our income. He will also grant us seven days productivity on six days of work.
The Sabbath is especially challenging and counter-culture to American sensibilities because it applies to every season of the year, including the busiest ones. In Exodus 34:21, the Israelites are told that six days they shall labor, but on the seventh day they shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest they must rest. Because so much of the Israelite economy and livelihood centered around farming, it took extraordinary faith to unplug during plowing and harvest. These seasons were “crunch time,” with eighteen-hour workdays and deadlines and zero margin for error. These were the seasons where faith in the wisdom of Sabbath was tested the most, in the same way that Sabbath is tested today for an accountant in early April, a writer facing a manuscript deadline, a student facing final exams, a pastor heading into the holidays, or a musician during touring season. Our belief in any command of God, the Sabbath being no exception, is confirmed in those times when obedience to the command seems most risky and foolish to the Cadillac culture and to our own instincts.
In short, we show trust in God’s wisdom and care when we build our budgets around our generosity, and our productivity around Sabbath, versus the other way around. Because when we do it the other way around, generosity and Sabbath will both be lost.
Aim at Sabbath, and you will get productive work thrown in. Aim at productive work, and you will get neither.
Fortune Magazine released its annual report on the “100 Best Companies to Work For.” For the sixth time in nine years on the list, Google ranks number one. Few would disagree that Google, which now generates approximately $55 billion in annual revenue, is one of the most productive companies of all time. Their approach to web surfing, email, calendars, global communication, file sharing, travel, and scores of other services has proven second to none—and they keep getting bigger and better. As aware as we are of these things, many of us are less aware of a workplace feature that sets the stage for Google’s amazing innovation and productivity—hard work combined with the encouragement to rest. When an employee has a baby, Google gives a full twelve weeks of paid parental leave. Google provides three delicious meals per day for its employees, free of charge—for the purpose of fostering community among colleagues. When a worker is tired, the company provides “sleep pods” for napping. Physical health and hygiene are promoted through an on-site, free of charge, state of the art exercise gym and shower facilities. Schedules are not micromanaged by supervisors. Instead, workers are given freedom to fulfill job responsibilities within agreed upon time frames, but in a way that best fits each employee’s unique work style and life situation.
Google is not a religious organization, and yet a huge part of its success flows from Sabbath principles and practices embedded within its culture.
In the meantime, so many inside religious communities have lost Sabbath. The result? A highly-driven, immensely productive, wildly successful Fortune 500 company is practicing Sabbath better than many Christians are. Many Christians, ceasing to live as disciples of Jesus, have instead become disciples of a restless and driven Cadillac culture.
FROM WEEKLY SABBATH TO EVERYDAY SABBATH
God created the Sabbath to be a respite, a sanctuary from the daily grind of work. It is a weekly holi-day for worship, community, rest for soul, mind and body, and, when there is opportunity, for loving deeds of necessity and mercy. But since the coming of Jesus, Sabbath has become not only a weekly invitation, but a daily one.
The writer of Hebrews speaks of a newer and fuller understanding of Sabbath when he talks about a certain day that God has appointed called “Today.” Because the work of Jesus is finished, and because we are beneficiaries of his work every day of our lives, the day he invites us to enter into and enjoy his rest is Today—the day we are living in right now—whether it’s Sunday or a workday or any other day (Hebrews 4:7). In other words, God is inviting each one of us toward an orientation of the heart that sees all of life, not just part of life, as an occasion for Sabbath rest.
When we read in Genesis about how in the beginning God created everything, there is a striking sense that work, in God’s experience, was playful. For God, work was a dance, not drudgery. It was satisfying, not frustrating. It was climactic, not anticlimactic. It was invigorating, not exhausting. And then, after the day’s work is done, God stops to contemplate and enjoy the work he has done. Whatever the day, God looked at his own work and “saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10).
But is it possible for us to dance as we work? Is it possible for us, as those who bear the image of this Creator-God, to reflect and experience joy even as we gut it out in our work? Is it possible for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to work for Google to taste some of the Google experience in our own work? Is it possible for us to say from an honest heart, along with the Chariots of Fire athlete Eric Liddell, “When I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure?” Is it possible for us to say from an honest heart, along with the Apostle Paul as he wrote from prison—from prison!—“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!?” (Philippians 4:4)
When I see Paul’s heart busting open with joy from prison, I start to wonder if Sabbath is just as much about perspective as it is about a day.
As a pastor, I am inspired by how John Calvin, a pastor of centuries past, approached his work. On the one hand, Calvin was one of the most hard-working, productive people to ever grace the office of ordained minister. His signature work, Institutes, is a carefully thought out masterpiece still referenced by scores of ministers and Bible scholars today. His Commentaries cover almost every line of the entire Bible, representing the exemplary, enduring hard labor of a faithful student of Scripture.
And yet, on the other hand, in the midst of all that hard work, Calvin had an uncanny ability to find joy, wherever it could be found, inside the life of his work.
A student of the Reformation once told me that Calvin negotiated 250 gallons of wine into his annual salary, so he could enjoy it regularly with his parishioners as he served them. John Calvin may have worked hard, but the man also knew how to raise a glass. If there’s anything that echoes what the writer of Hebrews meant when he wrote about resting in the day that is called Today, I think that 250 gallons of wine might be it.
And the reason why Eric Liddell and John Calvin could take themselves less seriously, even as they took their callings and contributions seriously? They had both discovered that deep down, in ways that many of the graduating high school students had not been taught by their parents, that their approval was conditioned on their existence, not on their performance. In the end, God loves us because we are his kids, and simply because of that, not because we produce or perform for him.
The Gospel comes to us through Jesus, who is also Lord of the Sabbath. And the Gospel tells us that we are not called by God to be driven, but to enter his rest. We are not called by God to be awesome, but to be forgiven and free. The Gospel tells us that yes indeed, we are saved by works—but never in a million years will be saved by our works. We are saved by the finished work of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath who lived the perfect life we should have lived but couldn’t, and who died the shameful death we should have died but will never have to—all on our behalf and in our stead:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Do you know what this means? As far as God is concerned, through Jesus you get your performance bonus before you ever perform anything. You get his pat on the back before you even start to work for him. This is what Jesus meant when he extended this generous, hope-filled invitation to weary graduating seniors, weary Cadillac commercial makers, weary Olympians, and weary ministers:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
And do you know what? Just like the fine folks at Google, when you start to inject Sabbath into the rhythm of your work, your work will get better and you will get better in your work. It’s how the universe works.
Because almost everything will work again if you unplug it.
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