The Gift of Leisure to a Hustling World

Doing nothing is precisely the point.

Guest Contributor / 3.21.22

This article is by Peter Severson:

Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Mt 11:28)

Before the onset of a global pandemic ground everything to a temporary halt, you would have been hard-pressed to find a better word to describe the American ethos than “hustle.” It carries multiple valences befitting the frantic, unstable cultural mood of a nation: it’s what you need to rise above economic precarity; it’s the act of getting one over on somebody else; and, when paired with “bustle,” it’s the unceasing flow of people and noise and movement that defines the pace of our rapidly urbanizing technological, political, and cultural life.

Is it any wonder everyone’s exhausted all the time?

The pandemic-era slow-down was only temporary, of course, and things seem to have resumed their inexorable pace. After those initial lockdowns came the wave of racial justice protests and civil unrest across American cities, followed by a dramatic virus surge in the fall and winter, continued school shutdowns, a deeply contentious election and widespread conspiracies about the result, then the Capitol riot, then the delta variant, then the fall of Afghanistan, then the omicron variant. And now, just as the omicron spike has dramatically subsided, Russia decided we weren’t all anxious enough about more conventional potential global catastrophes and declared war on a sovereign European democracy. The relentless pace of everything happening in the world — to say nothing of the impact of instantaneous gut-reaction social media platforms to which we’re tethered like Prometheus — is enough to prompt us to wonder whether we’ll ever sleep well again. If Madeline Kahn’s character from Blazing Saddles, Lili Von Shtüpp, was alive today, you can bet she’d be constantly tweeting “Y’all, I’m so tired.”

The hustle of contemporary American life and its concomitant anxieties invite us to think of rest as both an unattainable luxury and an unconscionable privilege. “How can you think of rest at a time like this?” one might ask. If you’re not showing up and doing the work — in short, hustling — what good are you to your neighbors? What good are you to yourself? Aren’t you squandering your precious time on earth? At least you should have the decency to have your ‘rest’ be productive, too.

I am no more immune than anyone from this temptation to hustle in response to the world’s urgencies. I fill up my schedule with activities; I spend time in work meetings with anyone who asks for one; I let myself get busy and allow that be reason I don’t have enough time to see my family, or my friends, or go on dates, or write or play music or be present in worship.

It was in the middle of this seemingly endless hustle that I received the gift of sabbatical.

My time of sabbatical was, naturally, plotted well in advance. I knew I would qualify for it after six years at my present church employer — even as a lay professional — but didn’t manage to fit it in until after my seventh anniversary. Even sabbatical had to conform to the higher exigencies of the calendar. When I told family and friends about my plans, the responses were often a mix of jealousy, admiration, and skepticism, sometimes from the same person. “Good for you, man!” “Three months off? You slacker.” “I wish I could do that.” “You’re getting paid to do nothing!?” “Summer vacation, that’s gonna rock.”

Practically speaking, sabbatical was part of my employee benefits — company policy, as it were. It turned out, though, that qualifying for something because of policy didn’t necessarily translate into a confident sense of deserving. In fact, I spent a lot of time in the months leading up to my late June start day feeling thoroughly undeserving. I hadn’t hustled enough. I was getting something a lot of lay people who work at churches don’t get. How could I think of extended time off at this moment in history? And perhaps most radically, I didn’t even have to come up with some sort of proposal about how I would “use” the sabbatical to benefit me professionally.

The corporate analogue to a sabbatical, often called a “leave of absence,” is more often shorter, unpaid, or deliberately constructed so as to build one’s value as an employee. In academia, they are often premised on undertaking a significant research or book-writing project. Even in the church world, though, where longer paid sabbaticals are more standard, they often come with strings attached. These demands are shaped by contemporary cultural and economic norms and church councils who have come to expect “return on investment”: one must have a “project” in mind, a “goal,” a “study plan,” or the like.

This radical detachment of rest from utility was perhaps the most revelatory piece of my experience — and the hardest to communicate. It surprised people that I wasn’t required to do anything in particular while I was away. In short, I didn’t have to keep hustling during my time off. Instead, the church instructed me to lean completely, fully, marvelously, into the possibility of rest and restoration which sabbatical offered. In a way, stepping outside work for three months — long enough to truly, radically, disconnect — was intended to remind me that I am a person apart from my job title or the work I do. It might be one of the most grace-filled gifts I’ve ever received.

I learned quickly that true rest demands a defiance of structure. In the months leading up to it, I had created a spreadsheet with each week of my sabbatical plotted out, with lists of ideas for places to go, people to see, and things to do. But I realized that blanketing my calendar with plans — just as I had learned to do throughout my life — would rob the time of its joyful spontaneity, its liberation from utility. Rest could not be instrumental, and few things are more instrumental than the plans we make and calendars we keep. In the end, I did some planning ahead when it came to plane tickets. But most of the time unfolded as gracefully and extemporaneously as I could manage. When I came back, of course, people were eager for a rundown of all the things I did. But it quickly became clear — and remains so, even six months on — that the things I did were beside the point. The whole point was, in fact, to do nothing. To rest.

The Gospels are rife with accounts of Jesus taking time away to rest. In Mark 1, Jesus goes off to a deserted place to pray alone, leaving Simon and the disciples to look for him. This is paralleled in Luke 4, where the crowds come searching after him. But perhaps the purest distillation of the phenomenon is in the calming of the storm. Amid a furious tempest on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples find Jesus to be, somehow, asleep. The disciples wake him and Jesus’ first reaction is to be bemused, and perhaps a little annoyed. “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” he asks them.

Calming the storm was God’s work. The disciples could do nothing, yet they feared perishing even with the Son of Man there in the boat with them. How much more do we today marinate in fear, anxiety, exhaustion? How much more do we convince ourselves that God’s work is actually ours to do, justifying for ourselves a personal regime that categorically precludes resting?

Over 40 years ago, Pastor Eugene Peterson wrote this for Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, in an article titled “The Unbusy Pastor”:

The metaphors Jesus used for the life of ministry are frequently images of the single, the small, and the quiet, which have effects far in excess of their appearance: salt, leaven, seed. Our culture publicizes the opposite emphasis: the big, the multitudinous, the noisy. [Thus,] it is far more biblical to learn quietness and attentiveness before God than to be overtaken by what John Oman named the twin perils of ministry, “flurry and worry,” for flurry dissipates energy and worry constipates it.

Jesus invites all of us, especially those who are addicted to “flurry and worry,” to find true rest in him. To be sure, even a sabbatical is a poor earthly substitute for this kind of rest. But it can reflect some dimensions of Christ’s invitation. Amid our cultural worship of hustle, rest is a reminder that God has called us, claimed us, and received us beyond any self-justification which our job would claim to offer. Amid our cultural obsession with outcomes and achievements and repeated admonishments to “do the work,” rest reminds us that Christ has done the work already, freed us by accomplishing the one thing that truly matters. And amid our cultural addiction to endless novelty, rest reminds us that God’s boundless love flourishes in the deepening of our relationships with others, including those who are most familiar and beloved to us. Rest, therefore, is revealed in its truest form: a pure gift from God to her anxious, busy, beloved people.

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