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The Rest of God
By Mark Buchanan
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Mark Buchanan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWork: One Thing Before You Stop
You don't like your job.
It may be a good job. It may be engaging, rewarding, varied, with a fine balance of thrill and ease, intensity and serenity. It may be a job that calls for your creativity but doesn't overtax it, demands your vigilance but applauds it even more, requires your diligence but pays for it lavishly. It may give you a sense of power and virtue and importance and provide for you sleek cars and exotic rugs and handcrafted furniture and trips to warm places while everyone else is scraping thick rinds of ice from their windshields.
Still, you don't like it, at least not always. Some days you do, that's true. Some days you stretch out into it like a wild horse loosed after a tethering, thundering across open plain, gaining fresh strength with each stride.
But some days it's not like that at all. You're more like a wild horse haltered, corralled, backed into a stall. It's more like dressing in wet denim, like having a root canal without anaesthetic. You have more of these days than you like to admit-when the work is a fistful of thistles, and you dream of being someone else somewhere else doing something else.
I read it.
Not in something you wrote-I haven't snooped in your journal or intercepted your e-mail. Iread it elsewhere, in something God wrote: Genesis. Genesis is about origins, about how most things began-earth and earthworms, family and family feuds, liturgy and metallurgy. And it's the story of the origins of work.
And of how we hate our work.
It begins well, the work. God speaks a resplendent creation into being, a world he exclaims over, again and again, "It is good!" And then he makes a man, who is "very good"! And then: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (Gen. 2:15, emphasis mine).
The work is good, like everything else.
Then God sees one thing not good amidst all this goodness: the man's aloneness. So he makes a woman. Her God-given role is not first sexual or social. It's vocational: she's to be the man's helpmate. Her created purpose is to join the man in his work.
The work is good.
But matters go quickly awry. A serpent. A deception. A betrayal. A trespass. A concealment. A blaming. And in a twinkling, the party's over. God expels the man and woman from the garden. Many things are lost to them in this banishment: intimacy with each other and with God, nakedness without shame, the profuse abundance of Eden.
But not the work. There's still work to do, now more than ever. Only now this:
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground. (Genesis 3:17-19)
Sin makes the earth prickly. It entangles its beauty in brambles. Now, even the best the world has to offer-friendship, lovemaking, feather-down pillows, bluegrass music, Cajun shrimp-is affected in some way.
Including-especially-our work. Through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
Work doesn't work. It's broken. The Fall skewed what God created for good. Once-for one hour or one day or one month, who knows-there was a perfect fit between a man and a woman and the work they did. But ever after there's been a misfit. Now, doing our work is often like trying to build something with the wrong tool: sawing wood with a hammer, turning screws with a tape measure, pulling nails with a crescent wrench. Frustration is coded into the very structure of the fallen creation (see Rom. 8:18-21).
All this is to say: you can't help but not like your job some days. God made it that way.
There is no end of advice on how to endure work we don't like. The cartoon character Dilbert, lampooner of workplace politics, offers his counsel: "Eat one live toad the first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day."
Or there's this:
When you have had one of those take-this-job-and-shove-it-days, try this. On your way home, stop at your pharmacy and go to the section where they have thermometers. You will need to purchase a rectal thermometer made by the Q-tip Company. Be sure that you get this brand. When you get home, lock your doors, draw the drapes, and disconnect the phone so you will not be disturbed during your therapy. Change into something comfortable, such as a sweat suit, and lie down on your bed. Open the package containing the thermometer, remove it, and carefully place it on the bedside table so that it will not become chipped or broken. Take the written material that accompanies the thermometer. As you read, notice in small print this statement: "Every rectal thermometer made by Q-tip is personally tested."
Close your eyes. Say out loud five times, "Thank you, oh thank you, that I do not work in quality control at the Q-tip Company."
As funny as such advice is-and maybe, in a cockeyed way, as wise-there is a better way.
There's what God thinks about work.
Before we appreciate God's gift of rest, it is vital we appreciate his gift of work. We spend most of our lives working. And when we're not working, we spend most of that time thinking about it-complaining about it, fretting about it, preparing for it, recovering from it. We feel guilty when we don't do enough, resentful when we do too much.
One of the many books by oral historian Studs Terkel is entitled Working. It is a compilation of interviews with hundreds of people about their jobs. A common theme: "Most people ... live somewhere between a grudging acceptance of their job and an active dislike of it."
And yet most people, he found, are obsessed with their jobs. Work consumes them.
Most people deal with it, not by eating live toads daily or buying boxes of rectal thermometers, but by nursing a fantasy. It is the dream of being a man-child: escaping all obligation, all responsibility, but without losing a single shred of freedom. It is having ample money, time, health, power, and yet not one thing making a single claim on any of it.
My version of the dream is simple, modest even: a writing lodge near the ocean, within walking distance of a bakery that makes scones fresh every morning and serves strong, rich coffee, piping hot, with steamed milk and raw sugar. My lodge has a wood fireplace made from river rock, manteled with driftwood. It has a writing desk handcrafted from cherry or teak, set in front of a large window that looks out on rock and sky and water. In the morning, deer come and graze on grass tufts that bristle up among the stones. It has easy chairs, leather ones, and a matching couch where I can lie down a spell if needed. I spend my mornings writing, my afternoons walking, splitting wood, making bookshelves, reading poems. In the evening, my family materializes-magically-and we enjoy home-cooked food, games, ambling conversations. Sometimes we invite friends to join us. They always go home at a decent hour. We get plenty of sleep. I travel only to interesting places, when it's convenient for me, when I need a change of pace and scenery.
It's a lovely dream, an idyll, really.
But my suspicion is that it fits under the category of Isaiah's condemnation of Israel:
In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it. You said, "No, we will flee on horses." Therefore you will flee! (Isaiah 30:15-16)
A typical response to threat and burden is to want to flee it. It's evacuation as the cure for trouble. If only I could get away is our mantra. Then I would be safe. Then I could enjoy my life. But what we find is that flight becomes captivity: once we begin to flee the things that threaten and burden us, there is no end to fleeing.
God's solution is surprising. He offers rest. But it's a unique form of rest. It's to rest in him in the midst of our threats and our burdens. It's discovering, as David did in seasons of distress, that God is our rock and refuge right in the thick of our situation.
God, in other words, offers something better than our fantasy: he offers himself. "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28 NASB).
The argument of this book is that we uniquely take up his invitation by keeping Sabbath, both as a day and as an attitude. Those who remember the Sabbath and keep it holy don't need an idyll. They discover, in Rabbi Abraham Heschel's words, that they already "have heaven, and everything else besides." They learn the art of sanctifying time-making, in Heschel's words again, a "sanctuary in time"-and so possess all the freedom and time they need.
But let me return to work. In order to keep the Sabbath well-to embrace the rest of God-we need a right view of work. Without a rich theology of labor, we'll have an impoverished theology of rest. We'll find that both are hectic, sporadic, chaotic. We'll find no joy in either.
I talked recently with a retired pastor who had served in various churches for forty-six years. For the past three he'd been retired.
"What are you up to these days?" I asked him.
"Not much," he said. "I'm still recovering."
"Oh. Did you have an accident, or surgery, or ...?"
"No. I mean recovering from ministry. I guess I never learned how to let things go. I carried the church's problems always, everywhere. I got so bottled up with it. Then I'd go on vacation and fall to pieces. It was like lapsing into a coma, or trying to break a drug addiction. I got sick. I wasn't able to sleep, or I couldn't wake up. I got angry and depressed. I withdrew. Coming back, I was almost paralyzed. I begged God to let me go, let me do anything else but this. Only I had no motivation for anything. I'm still getting over that."
Before we understand God's rest, we must understand the Lord's work.
The church has done little to help people here. Generally, we have a rickety theology of work. I can prove this in ten seconds. If I say the phrase "the Lord's work," what comes to mind?
If you're like most people, your default image here is of a pastor or priest or missionary doing pastoral, priestly, missionary things.
But this is a shallow and narrow understanding of the Lord's work. The Bible has a much deeper and richer perspective:
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, he saw at the water's edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch."
Simon answered, "Master, we've been working hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets."
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus' knees and said, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon's partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, "Don't be afraid; from now on you will catch men." So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)
In some ways, this story reinforces our simplistic, one-dimensional view about "the Lord's work." It seems to indicate that workaday work-mending nets, patching boats, catching and lugging and gutting and selling fish-is beneath our dignity. It appears that Jesus demeans that kind of work-no more fishing for fish-and in contrast elevates the work of preaching and evangelizing. From now on, fish for men.
I want to turn that reading on its head.
The issue is not that Jesus values some types of work above others. That reading would destroy almost everything else the Bible says about work. The issue, plain and simple, is this: what has Christ called you to do? Has he called you to preach? Then leave the fish and the fishing boats, and go. Stop making excuses, seeking evasions. Dump it, and go.
But what if he's called you to fish? Or govern? Or fill teeth? Or collect garbage? Or grow cabbage? Someone has to do these things. This work can be a calling, a vocation-literally, the work that the Voice told you to do-every bit as much as a missionary's or a pastor's work can be (and, similarly, a missionary's or pastor's work is merely a job if the Voice isn't in it). When I have a toothache or a blown gasket or a hankering for fried chicken, I rejoice that not all are called to the work I do.
The passage from Luke 5 actually exalts honest work. Jesus goes onto the boat with these men. The boat serves as a makeshift pulpit from which Jesus preaches. But that's not good enough for Jesus, he wants to see this boat doing what it was designed to do. He wants to go fishing. A man after my own heart.
And next they're hauling up from water's depth a cornucopia of fish: so many, their tails and heads are like a thousand wriggling fingers half-thrust through net holes, their bodies sprawling wet and spangled across the boat's worn deck.
Here's the catch. (No pun intended. Okay-a bit of pun intended.) This is where we see that Jesus held honest work in highest regard-that far from brushing off the value of fishing in this instance, he was making a deliberate statement about its worth. (Besides which, Jesus had a hearty appetite for fish-he was always cooking or serving or gnawing on a piece of haddock or trout or whatever. Those fish had to have come from someone's nets, someone's hands. He could hardly have been out to shut down the fishing industry.)
Is it not strange that Jesus bothered to fill these men's nets in the first place? Their recent fishing expedition was a disaster, an exercise in humiliation and futility: up all night, casting and hauling, only muddy boots and rags of weed to show for it. And torn nets. That's how Jesus first finds these men, mending their nets. It's a bad day on the job when the equipment comes up both empty and broken. Before they can return home, draw a bath, take a meal, curl up in bed, they must do this finicky repair work.
They hate their job at this moment, I'm guessing. They want nothing more than a quick excuse to shuck the whole sorry enterprise, to tell the boss, "Take this job and shove it! I'd rather work at the Q-tip factory!" This is misery and drudgery. The pay is pathetic. The hours unholy. The benefits nonexistent. The conditions unsafe and unsanitary.
At it all night, and we haven't caught a thing. If Jesus wanted to make a statement about the relative worthlessness of mere fishing, he would have called them away from it while they still stood at the lakeshore, net mending. Listen, men. The work you're presently doing-it's useless. Wasteful. God's blessing's not on it, isn't that obvious? Why bother? You want real work? I'll give you the kind of work that God cares about. The Lord's work. I'll make you preachers. Yes, the world needs more preachers.
If Jesus had said that, we might reasonably conclude that he saw little value in fisherman's work. But he doesn't say that. He says, "Let's go catch some fish."
"Aw!" Peter whines. "Do we have to? This job's the pits. I'm tired-tired of this work, tired of failing, just plain tired. But all right. If you say so."
They push off. They cast the nets-and suddenly, it's Christmas morning. Suddenly, this is the best job in the whole world. I love my work. Peter breaks into a rousing rendition of "Thank God It's Monday."
Then he stops. He looks at Jesus, Jesus looks at him, and Peter cowers. "Don't be afraid," Jesus says. "From now on you'll follow me."
Excerpted from The Rest of God by Mark Buchanan Copyright © 2007 by Mark Buchanan. Excerpted by permission.
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