I came from a home where my dad built custom homes that my mom would design. He didn’t own a construction company, but actually framed, plumbed, wired, landscaped and finished the homes with his own hands. He usually employed one journeyman carpenter and an occasional subcontractor. Dad did everything from laying out and pouring the foundations to putting on the final trim. I can remember sitting in the back seat as we would slowly drive by the latest project, Dad eyeing it from all angles, evaluating the progress, planning the next phase. He taught us to appreciate a finished product. Building homes gave a sense of completion, of accomplishment.
You could tell when you were done. One of his favorite parts was the landscaping, because he had also been a nurseryman. He and his father had owned a wholesale nursery before he went into building. There, too, one could see the actual results of the skill and work. Gardening and building shaped the textures of my sense of accomplishment. To this day my three brothers and two sisters and I all have an eye for quality construction and landscaping, and most of us do a bit of both, at least as hobbies. I consider this fatherly legacy to be a blessing, a good view of life that my dad bequeathed to his kids. However, there is a subtle byproduct of this ethos of accomplishment: It is the indelible intuition that one can truly rest only when the job is done. And as Shakespeare famously wrote, “There’s the rub.”
When Are We “Done”?
One of the most difficult things about pastoral work, for me at least, is the lack of feeling of accomplishment, of being truly finished. Which means that true rest is illusive on its best day and impossible most of the time. We pastors do nourish spiritual growth and “build on the foundation” of course. The Bible uses gardening and building metaphors to teach us about spiritual formation. But there are some obvious differences between the metaphors and the realities. The primary one is that in pastoral work you never really know when the spiritual growth is complete or how good a job you’ve done (See 1 Cor.4:1-5). This is because you’re not actually doing the job on your own; the Lord is doing it through you (Phil.2:12-13). And he alone has the definitive blueprint, the final plan, the ultimate evaluation. Plus, the people in whom the Lord is working (us pastors included) are growing in a fallen world through fits and starts, with many setbacks and failures along the way. Chuck Swindoll wrote a book years ago called Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back. He was getting at the frustration we all feel in our spiritual journey.
Many ministers deal with this frustration by simply turning pastoral work into something that will produce the same feeling of accomplishment we seek in physical construction projects. If we can’t measure spiritual growth like we measure physical growth, then let’s create something quantifiable that we can call “growth” and measure that. The religious terrain is strewn with the wreckage of supposedly spiritual work done with completely carnal metrics (money, physical buildings, numbers in attendance). Fortunately even our bumbling in this regard produces some fruit because the Lord skillfully uses even our mistakes.
What Resting Is
What the Lord gives us, instead of the ultimate feeling of “accomplishment” (a feeling we will not experience until we share it with him at the Feast) is Sabbath. This is counterintuitive, but as with so much of what we learn from the Lord, it is the reality that gives new perspective to everything it touches. Sabbath was a law given to Israel, an agrarian culture where “gardening” was everything. And since in farming the work is quite literally never done, the Lord did not wait for humanity to be “finished” in the same way he had been at the creation. He gave a cycle of short term achievable goals (planting, harvest) where a modicum of accomplishment could be achieved. But the rest, he insisted, his people must take at regular intervals whether or not they felt the work was “finished.”
Why does the Lord tell us to rest before our work is finished? Two reasons. First, because our work in a sense is finished in light of Christ’s finished work. He said “It is finished!” on the cross. Our work is based on his, proclaiming the truth of this great proclamation. Do we believe that or not? If we do, then we should rest when he tells us to, whether or not we see what we call “completion” in the observable project before us. Second, by resting on command and before the work is done, we live by faith. It takes faith to believe that we can and should rest even though there are still people to visit in the hospital, research to do, sermons to prepare, meetings to schedule. When we take a real break regularly we are affirming that we, our talent, our blood, sweat, and tears are not the crucial ingredient in God’s program. We are living out the thing we preach to everybody else: that nobody is indispensable in but the Lord himself. Is that not what we tell our congregations? So, why are pastors notorious for not resting? Why do so many of us feel guilty for being off the grid and unreachable for a period of true Sabbath? Time to practice what we preach and what the Lord commands? Consider this: It might be truly disobedient and faithless of us pastors to not relax and enjoy the time off that the Lord supplies.
Just a Thought,