Similar to CS Lewis’ description of Jesus, I will be the first to confess that this summer of sabbatical hasn’t been safe, but is has been good. I wasn’t safe from challenging insights, difficult experiences, or God’s Word cutting to the core. Yet, it has been good in that I am stronger, healthier and renewed because of it.
One major insight from this sabbatical is that it is ok to love my work, and to love productivity. I needed to hear this Word from God because I had been carrying around this guilt. Many of the voices around me for some time have suggested work is an idol, and a distraction from which we need to be freed. The gift of sabbatical caused many to assume I needed it because of exhaustion or risk of burnout (as ministry often does to people).
I was good about staying away from the church campus, and engaging in any programmatic events. I worshiped elsewhere. I did socially and psychologically get out of the First Pres bubble, which is good for any pastor. I truly disengaged.
And yet, I will admit that I sent about two dozen emails and made a few phone calls in the immediate weeks after sabbatical began, and in the week prior to reentry. A number of colleagues and friends called me out and told me, “Rest! Quit engaging with ministry!” They certainly were acting out of care for me and interest in my rest and renewal, for sure. Yet, the question lingered for me, “Why does work renew me? Why do I find energy and closeness with God when doing my job rather than eschewing it all and laying on a beach with no cell phone?”
Now, let me assure you: I did plenty of beach lounging, mountain trail climbing, biking, reading, traveling, and pilgrimaging…even to Orthodox monasteries in such a remote part of Greece that it is only reachable by ferry with government documents! Oh, Case disconnected, and Case got away from the day-to-day stress of daily labor. And for this gift I am incredible grateful and blessed. FPCO loves its pastors, and that is a special, blessed thing. And yet, and yet…work brings me to God. Why?
Prior to this sabbatical I fell into the trap of some evangelical voices that have reacted too severely to the workaholic nature of our culture rather than promote a holistic understanding of work and sabbath. Richard Foster and his seminal work, Celebration of Discipline, has shaped a generation of evangelicals in a way that I now see needs correction. His adulation of the monastic, ascetic life romanticizes the idea of sabbath in a way that isn’t Biblical.
This Fosterian view sees an appreciation or love of work as worshiping the idol of fierce capitalism that exhausts the soul, the environment, relationships and more. I do believe this prophetic corrective is needed as American culture in the 21st century is skewed. Yet, the swing towards a romanticized monastic-like vision of spiritual disciplines, prayer, and disconnecting from technology. It is too much, too far, and too unrealistic for everyone.
Work is not drudgery, and that’s the more important corrective that this sabbatical taught me. I knew it theologically, now I know it existentially. Work is worship, for when I work I participate in the everyday liturgy of living, creating, and honoring my God who is a creative, producing God. As I create and produce, serving myself, my family, my church and community I dwell in and with the very nature of the God who begins time with productive creation (Genesis 1).
Worshiping through my work is very different than worshiping my work. Far too many people, men especially, find their identity in their work, and use the idol of work to satiate their further idols of money, power, dignity and place in society. All these idols need to be called out. Yet, the answer isn’t a romanticised monastic peace, but a balanced, holistic understanding of work in which sabbath is part of the well-lived life, not an escape from it.