Resting in the Work

August 13, 2015 at 1:40 pm

take-a-rest-220907“Most Christians make the mistake of trying walk in order to be able to sit but that is the reverse of the true order. Our natural reason says if we do not walk, how can we ever reach the goal? But Christianity is a queer business. If at the outset we try to do anything we get nothing; if we seek to attain something, we miss everything. For Christianity begins not with a big DO but with a big DONE.” – Watchman Nee

I was in my late 20’s when I found myself lying flat on my back in bed for the second week in a row. I was planting a church, serving as a chaplain of a local college, finishing my Masters, and virtually ignoring my wife and 2 young children. I was a workaholic and alcoholic, addicted to nicotine and searching frantically for meaning and purpose in the adoration of others. One doctor thought I might have leukemia, but I was far sicker than anyone really knew.

There are two types of people who can speak about rest, balance and our need for Sabbath;  those who practice it voluntarily, and those who are forced to practice it because of self-destruction. I am in the latter group, and the lessons I have learned about the limits of my humanity have come by way God graciously allowing me to crash and burn.  

One of the most important of these lessons has come by way of author and pastor Eugene Peterson who points to creation itself as a model for the gift of rest. In the business of our contemporary society (where our second question after meeting someone is almost always “what do you do?”) we are often tempted to view our need for rest as evidence of a broken world and mans’ fall from grace in the garden. And yet when we read the opening chapter of Genesis we find a strange order of wording that removes this option.

And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. 

 And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

 With our post-enlightenment minds we have grown convinced that the work of each day begins with me. The work starts when I get to the office, fire up my computer, make the phone call, show up on the site, meet with my first client, teach my first lesson, diagnose my first patient, or write my first paragraph. I am the initiator of activity. But to the ancient Hebrew, work is always initiated by God and entered into by man. The real work starts when we go to sleep. Peterson writes,  

This is the Hebrew way of understanding day; it is not ours… Day is the basic unit of God’s creative work; evening is the beginning of that day. It is the onset of God speaking light, stars, earth, vegetation, animals, man, woman, into being. But it is also the time when we quit our activity and go to sleep… The Hebrew evening/morning sequence conditions us to the rhythms of grace. We go to sleep, and God begins his work. As we sleep he develops his covenant. We wake and are called out to participate in God’s creative action. We respond in faith, in work. But always grace is previous. Grace is primary. We wake into a word we didn’t make, into a salvation we didn’t earn.

So we are called into rest on a daily basis by this pattern, but we are also given a weekly pattern as well. Watchman Nee (quoted at the beginning) notes that not only are we invited to recognize God’s creative work daily, but the story in Genesis reveals that mankind is created on the final day of creation, after God had already done the work. Adam and Eve wake on their first day of life to a day of rest. ‘Sit back,” God encourages them “pull up a seat and enjoy what I have done here.” This gives definition to our days of weekly worship where we gather collectively as a group, pull up a seat, and recognize all that God has accomplished throughout the week. We worship him and remind one another through the word that he is faithful to do it all over again next week.  

It is a beautiful picture of the way in which God invites us to partner with him, not primarily as equal co-laborers, but as a fully rested second string emerging from the bench after the starter has already clearly won the game. Our pride may not like to hear that we are less necessary than we hoped, but our souls delight in the freedom that the world was not built on our shoulders, nor does it stop spinning when we lay our heads down onto pillows tonight. In fact, that is precisely when the real work begins.