In NYC a couple of weeks ago, we held a reception for Paul Zahl’s Festschrift, Comfortable Words (more details here), edited by Jady Koch and Todd Brewer. The work honors Paul Zahl’s life-giving influence upon academics, pastors, laypeople, and everything in between. Among many extraordinary essays, Dylan Potter’s “Ministry as Leisure” struck a note with its insight and empathy into a commonly neglected problem with ministers, one which easily extends to lay Christians, too:

One indication that a clergyperson has come under the law’s heavy hand is that they begin to eschew leisure in order to pursue what are perceived to be any number of sacred duties, aspirations, and ambitions. They fight rest because they are convinced that exhaustion in the name of a worthy cause is a sign of orthodoxy. However, clergy like this always die the death of a thousand cuts as they try to motivate themselves and their weary congregations to put a bit more effort into being a Christian. It takes years sometimes, but many of them, not to mention their spouse and children, implode emotionally and physically as they try to cope with the stress of juggling an endless number of responsibilities. The phenomenon of the burned-out pastor is so commonplace that the New York Times featured an article several years ago entitled “Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work” [link here], which revealed that clergy “now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”…

The African Queen

Having given themselves over to Christ and his church, a minister’s year is a blur of sermons, new members, website updates, visitations, meetings, baptism, building programs, confirmations, weddings, divorces, fundraising campaigns, funerals, church growth strategies, counseling sessions, Easters, Advents, and Christmases. Who is sufficient for these things? No wonder some pastors begin to view sermons as opportunities to exhort the laity to do a better job in the week ahead; they are merely reflecting their own experience…

It’s a dark picture. The fixation on work is something that we all share, if we take the Bible’s anthropology seriously – but certainly to greater or lesser degrees. One common reaction against this tendency has been a fixation on rest in some of the more theology-minded American churches, especially the right, or life-giving, kind of rest – Lewis-esque nature walks, not angry birds, for example. Unfortunately, the language surrounding “Christian rest” can make it sound, stylistically and tonally at least, a lot like work. Or it treats the symptoms – not enough (structured) leisure time – rather than the causes, this sense of mingled busyness, time value, law, and proving to oneself that one is the right kind of Christian. Indeed, the medical metaphor pervades Potter’s essay, and he inveighs against “churches that prescribe the law as a curative agent”, which risk “poisoning those they seek to help.” If an oxymoronic Law of Leisure isn’t the way forward, what is? Zahl’s insights, and Potter’s use of them, point us toward hope:

elvis-1

I am aware that some readers might find my appeal for rest to imply that if one was just to try a little harder to have some leisure, then all would be well. That is not the impression I wish to give. As has already been suggested, spiritual leisure precedes physical leisure, where spiritual leisure is defined as living by faith and grace alone. As Luther pointed out in his Commentary on Galatians, spiritual exercises never produce true leisure: ‘Various holy orders have been launched for the purpose of securing peace of conscience through religious exercises, but they proved failures because such devices only increase doubt and despair. We find no rest for our weary bones until we cling to the word of grace.’…

Even if after experiencing grace, a Christian remains restless and wanders into prodigal territory in search of a better grace, they will return – sometimes not until they rest on their deathbed – to the only one who ever held them in the unblinking gaze of acceptance. After all, God could never snub restless prodigals without snubbing himself, since there is nothing more profligate than the cross…

This sort of sacrificial grace shocks souls who have been conditioned to think of Christianity as a prescriptive faith, but it is simply the counterintuitive fact that one has been living under an enormous umbrella of sola fide for nearly 2,000 years now. If Jesus was right that “it is finished,” and he was, then we who enter God’s rest may also cease from our labors just as God did from his.

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