Rob finds me in the kitchen, passive-aggressively slamming dishes into the dishwasher. I am thinking dark thoughts about the injustice of it all: how I am the one who takes care of everything around the house. I say none of this out loud, however, because it is utterly unfair. Rob has spent the evening mowing the grass, giving Harper a bath, running to the grocery store. It is 10:30, and neither of us has stopped moving since we got home from work. We are weary.
He can read my mood, because we’ve been married six years and have played out this scene many times, so he approaches cautiously. “Can you be done?” he asks.
He doesn’t mean my pouting. He’s asking—kindly, really—what else I need to do before I can be finished for the night, before I can sit on the couch for a few minutes and watch the news or put my pajamas on and crawl into bed. But there are still clean clothes to fold, food to prepare for tomorrow’s dinner, and I’m not prepared for my morning meeting.
I long, most days, to be done.
I watch other parents dash from one activity to the next, from office to school to baseball diamond, gasping for breath, and I am occasionally shocked to discover that I am one of them. Harper isn’t even old enough to be involved in activities, and still, we always seem to be rushing. When I leave the office at the end of the day, there is always another phone call to make, another e-mail to send, another article to read. At home, the dishes pile up faster than we can wash them. We’re amazed at how many dishes three people can use in the course of a day and how many times the floor needs to be swept. There is always a load of laundry to be done, another bill to pay, a bathroom to clean.
There’s also an expectation that somewhere in all this, we’ll find time for rest from our labors. “Pamper yourself!” all the parenting magazines command, urging me to get a pedicure, take a walk, go out with friends, or hire a babysitter and go to a movie. But there are still unwashed dishes, unfolded laundry, and unswept floors, so even those rare moments of quiet are tainted by the pressure of all those unfinished tasks. I would never rest if I waited for the work to be done.
The command to rest is one of the most ancient in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s right there in the Ten Commandments, given to the Israelites in the wilderness as they were learning what it meant to be God’s people: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work” (Exod. 20:8-10a). A whole day of rest, without any work. For centuries, faithful people have practiced sabbath-keeping as a way to put aside the worries of the world and commune with the Divine.
The sabbath commandment itself is rooted in God’s own day of rest after six busy days of creating the world: “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” (Gen. 2:2). That word finished glares at me from the page, and I search desperately through other translations, but it’s there in nearly every English version. The hard part about Sabbath-keeping, it seems to me, is the stopping—especially when the work isn’t done. Must I really fold all the laundry before I can sit down? Must I cross off every item on my to-do list before I go home? Must I really finish all the work before I rest?
“God,” I think irreverently, “did not have a toddler at home.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, an American rabbi who wrote eloquently about the sabbath and its importance in the Jewish tradition, calls the sabbath a “palace in time.” The seventh day, he suggests, reminds us that the world has already been created and will get along without us for a while. Heschel notes that rest—or menuha in the original Hebrew—means “much more than withdrawal from labor and exertion, more than freedom from toil, strain, or activity from any kind. Menuha is not a negative concept but something real and intrinsically positive.” He quotes the ancient rabbis: “What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose.”
I don’t know many families with young children who use the words tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose to describe their lives.
I know that quiet time spent with God is important, and I adore that image of Heschel’s “palace in time.” I know my life can get overrun by all the tasks of the day. Carving out and protecting sabbath time helps me pay attention to my relationship with God. I’ve always loved the idea of an early-morning prayer time, when I sit with my Bible and my coffee in my quiet kitchen and look out the back window and ponder God’s goodness. About twice a year—usually just after New Year’s and again in early September, when school starts and the church program year begins—I decide I’m really going to do it. I pick out a devotional book, get the coffee ready the night before, and set my alarm early. I usually stick with it for a day or two, and then something happens: Harper gets sick and we’re up all night, or I have an early meeting, or I sleep through my alarm and am lucky to get out the door on time. I always feel vaguely guilty when my morning prayer “habit” fades, because, I suppose, it’s yet another thing on the should-do list. But I don’t feel disconnected from God when I stop. As good as that quiet time sounds, it’s been my experience that God is found not only in the still moments but also in loud, busy, never-ending days.
Rest is important, and so is quiet time in the presence of God. It’s important to stop sometimes and be reminded that we are not indispensable, that the world will go on without us. But the work is important, too. It occurs to me that maybe the most important word in the Genesis creation story isn’t finished. It’s good. At the end of each day, God looks on all the work and declares it good. Maybe it’s not just the creation but the very work of creating it that is good. And maybe the work that God has called me to do—the holy work of tending to a congregation and caring for my children, even the mundane work of washing the dirty cereal bowls—maybe there’s goodness and wholeness in that work, too.
After all, even after God closed up shop on the sixth day, the work wasn’t really over. The work of creation continues as God’s grace forms and re-forms our lives. I need look no further than my daughter, making “worms” out of orange Play-Doh and singing to herself, to believe that God is still at work. Harper is so busy all the time—exploring her world, learning new words, creating, imagining, discovering. That is her work right now—all that learning—and she delights in it. It is very good work. And while Rob and I don’t always delight in mopping the floor or folding the laundry, I’d venture to say that that’s good work too, and that God is at work even there, forming us into the parents our kids need us to be. So, sure, the work doesn’t ever get completely finished; the to-do list never fully crossed out. But maybe it’s not the finished-ness of our work that gives us reason to rest; perhaps it is the good-ness—the God-ness—of our work.
This article is adapted and excerpted from Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People by Bromleigh McCleneghan and Lee Hull Moses, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People
by Bromleigh McCleneghan and Lee Hull Moses
Bromleigh McCleneghan and Lee Hull Moses have written a book about being not-perfect parents in a not-perfect world. The result is a joyous celebration of child-rearing in which any parent—no matter how perfect—can share. Hopes and Fears is neither a “how-to” book nor a mere meditation. Rather, the authors seek to find the beautiful and the spiritual in the sometimes mundane activities that parents have performed since the beginning of history, while at the same time allowing beautiful and spiritual insights of the past to inform and shape the activities of modern parenting.
Practicing Balance: How Congregaitons Can Help Support Harmony in Work and Life
by David Edman Gray
Work-life imbalance is a problem that has personal, national, and religious implications. Millions of Americans sense that they are rushing through life and that their work and non-work lives compete with one another. Many of us are harming our health through overwork. David Gray’s Practicing Balance demonstrates why congregational leaders should take work-life imbalance seriously.
Beating Burnout in Congregations
by Lynne M. Baab
What is burnout? What causes congregational volunteers to burn out? How can congregations become oases of peace and nurture while still carrying out their mission and ministry? After reflecting on these important questions and dozens of interviews with congregational volunteers, Baab suggests, “We must not fear burnout; instead, we need to do a better job coming alongside people as they experience burnout and help them figure out what they are learning.”
The Spiritual Leader’s Guide to Self-Care
by Rochelle Melander and Harold Eppley
The Spiritual Leader’s Guide to Self-Care is an ideal companion for clergy, lay leaders, and others who would like guidance about how to make changes in their personal life and ministry. Readers may work through one of the fifty two sections each week or adopt a more leisurely pace. The guide includes journal-writing suggestions, personal reflection questions and activities, guidance for sharing the discovery process with another person, an activity for the coming week, and suggested further resources .
A long, fruitful relationship between pastor and congregation is not a matter of chance.
This perennial favorite is a wealth of information, reflection, and skill-building that will help you extend and expand your capacity for long, effective ministry with your congregation.
Leader: Ed White, Alban Consultant
April 9-11, 2013, Simpsonwood Conference Center, (near) Atlanta, GA
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