The Good Work of Rest

“O, this faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing! It is impossible that it should not be ceaselessly doing that which is good. It does not even ask whether good works should be done; but before the question can be asked, it has done them, and it is constantly engaged in doing them.”

-Martin Luther

I don’t know about you, but I find this quote intimidating. Is faith really like this?

It is impossible for it to not be doing good works.

It is ceaseless in its pursuit of good works.

It is constantly engaged in them.

This seems like a heavy burden, especially for those of us with busy schedules, lots of responsibilities, children, classes, work, and friendships. It seems like the pursuit of righteousness means exhaustion, late nights, no sleep, and denial of your own needs.

Could this really be the vision that Christ has for our lives? For us to just pour ourselves out over and over again until we collapse into bed, at the end of our rope every single day? I used to think that way, and it would certainly seem like our church culture can promote that kind of lifestyle, but I think we need to recapture the idea of rest as good work. Because if we see resting as a part of the good work we are called to do, then we can truly live up to Martin Luther’s vision of ceaseless good works.

There’s a fascinating article on the website for the publication Fortune called “How Much Should You be Working?”. The writer, Laura Vanderkam interviewed a number of professionals working in business and law fields and asked them how many hours a week they worked. On average they clocked in at around 60-70 hours, with some young professionals in emerging fields going higher. Most of them mentioned the “point of diminishing returns”, the number of hours which, if they worked past it, would see a decrease in the overall quality of their work. Many of them feared they were working past this point, but were afraid to work less for fear of missing out on business opportunities.

Here’s the point I’m trying to get at:

None of them worked 168 hours a week.

All of them had to rest, whether they liked it or not.

Most of them worried they were working too much.

God did not design human beings to exist in a constant state of work. Work is a good thing (look no further than Genesis chapter two, where God assigns work to Adam in a perfect world), but it must have limits. Even good work cannot be done ceaselessly, unless resting is counted as part of the whole system that makes good work possible.

So how do we rest well? I often find that if I go home, lock myself in my room, and watch Netflix until I pass out, I don’t feel very rested. Usually the opposite, in fact. I feel drained, I feel like I wasted the time of rest that had been given to me that day. I don’t think we can just kick back and do whatever we feel like doing and expect to be filled by God for tomorrow’s good work. So how do we do it?

Mark 1:35 tells us “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he (Jesus) departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” Again in Matthew 14:23 we read “After He (Jesus) had sent them away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone…”

Jesus found rest in solitude and fellowship with God, and I think we would do well to follow his example. Why not remove yourself from the business of the everyday grind, depart to a solitary place, and wait quietly for God to meet you there? You have access to him! You are his child and he is a father who knows how to give good gifts! He will not turn away a son or a daughter who is looking for comfort and fellowship, and God will be faithful to give rest to those who ask for it.

This is truly a good work of faith because it brings the person closer and closer to God, who will provide them with peace, comfort, knowledge, wisdom, and the power of his own spirit. None of us can go out into the world expecting to do good works if we haven’t first got down the discipline of resting with the one who gives us the strength to pursue the works that he has set up for us.

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Behind Enemy Lines

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”

Hebrews 11:13-16 (emphasis mine)

Have you seen the movie The Warriors? I’m a bit hesitant to recommend it, but if you’re a fan of 80s action movies and aren’t the squeamish type, it’s definitely worth a watch. The basic premise is that a gang (The Warriors) in a dystopian New York City are framed for the murder of a rival gang leader and must make a 30 mile journey from the north end of the Bronx to their home turf in Brooklyn.

The movie is actually based on an ancient story called the Anabasis written by a man named Xenophon in the early 3rd century BCE. In it, Greek soldiers have to fight their way through almost 300 miles of Persian occupied Asia Minor back to their homeland after their army is decimated by the opposing forces. It’s one of the greatest adventure stories in human history.

There’s just something captivating about characters trapped behind enemy lines.

I think stories like this speak to the human experience on a deeply spiritual level (and yes, I did just call The Warriors deeply spiritual). They reveal a cultural belief that is buried in our psyche, something the psychologist Carl Jung would call the “collective unconscious”. That belief or memory says this:

“I live a life behind enemy lines.”

“This world is not my home.”

“I am a stranger and an exile on this earth.”

I believe this is one of those times that the narrative offered by Christianity provides an unparalleled answer to a cultural question. If the question is “why do I not feel at home in my life, body, relationships, job, etc.”, the answer that Christianity gives is:

“Because you were made for a better country.”

“Because you actually do live behind enemy lines.”

Crash course in Biblical narrative:

God creates everything, and it is capital G Good, but human beings decide to indulge in the one thing he has set apart, showing their disobedience and bringing sin into the world. Sin is the corruption of God’s capital G Good creation, and it spins out of control until murder, rape, violence, warfare, and all kinds of injustice are everywhere.

God is not content to just sit aside and let his creation destroy itself though, so he makes a covenant with a man named Abraham. He tells Abraham that he will restore the world through Abraham’s descendants, bringing back the shalom (a Hebrew word for peace that envisions a world where everything functions correctly and there is no sin) that once existed before sin came in to the world.

Eventually, way, waaaaaaaaaaaay down the line, a man named Jesus is born to a descendant of Abraham. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, Jesus is how God is going to restore the shalom, Jesus is how God is going to solve the problem of sin. Jesus (who is also God, Christianity is full of these mysteries) lives a sinless life. He never once brings corruption into the world, he always follows the will of God.

Jesus is killed because of his radical teachings on God, life, women, sex, money, politics, justice, non-violence, and the list goes on and on. You name it, Jesus had something radical to say about it. As he is dying, God pours out all of his wrath for every act of sin that has ever been committed or ever will be committed by human beings onto this perfect man, onto himself, so there is no more wrath left for human beings.

So that humans can be friends with God.

So that there can be shalom once again.

Also Jesus comes back from the dead, proving his power over all things and abolishing the fear of death for everyone who follows him as the ultimate authority in their life.

phew.

The rest of the New Testament (Acts-Revelation) is just various authors writing about and expounding on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and how it changes absolutely everything, but one thing they keep running up against is this idea of “Already/Not Yet”.

Jesus already saved the world, right?

So why does all this bad stuff keep happening?

They affirm the work of Jesus and the saving power of his death and resurrection, but they’re quick to remind us that even now, things are not yet how they are supposed to be, because God left us work to do.

That’s right, God wants us to be his partners.

We are still living behind enemy lines in a world sick with sin because God has entrusted us with the antidote and set us loose in the trenches to do some healing. I’m talking Civil War, bite-the-bullet, pour some whiskey in the wound, spiritual field medicine. Could God have done it another way? Sure, but what we’re left with is this:

Jesus is the founder and the finisher of our faith. He set the pace, he gave us everything we need, and now we have the privilege of acting as God’s representatives here on earth. The flourishing and healing of the world is our responsibility, and God has gifted us with his spirit and his power to do the same work that Jesus did.

We live behind enemy lines, but the enemy just doesn’t know he’s lost yet. Our victory is assured because of the one who tasted death to make us alive.

So if you don’t feel at home in this world, you’re in good company, and what you feel is true and wise. It’s time to join the resistance, the men and women working deep in the enemy’s territory to bring light to the darkness, healing to the sick, shelter to the poor, and life to the dead.

Here and Now

Here at Renew Church we just started a sermon series on the book of James called “Faith Works” that explores the relationship between, well, faith and works.

James was the half-brother of Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph. His letter, written to “…the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (the audience of this letter is so important, we’ll get to it in a second) is somewhere between the letters of Paul and the wisdom literature of the Proverbs. It’s full of practical exhortations and seems entirely focused on the here and now. There is no mention of heaven, the resurrection, or the afterlife; no visions that would require a seminary degree to understand. It’s all pretty straightforward.

And that’s where the beauty of it lies.

Scholars generally agree that James wrote this letter near the end of his life, probably around 62AD, some 30 years after the death and resurrection of his brother Jesus. Life in the areas now known as Israel and Palestine was dangerous, so dangerous that many Jews and Jewish Christians fled their homeland in search of better living conditions where they would not be so heavily persecuted by the increasingly unstable Roman government.

James is writing to refugees fleeing violence and political turmoil. That’s who would have read this letter first, that’s who the “Tribes in the Dispersion” are.

So how does James encourage these refugees? What do you write to people fleeing violence, moving from place to place, never sure of their safety or the safety of their loved ones? How do you encourage people suffering like that?

He doesn’t tell them to attend temple regularly.

He doesn’t tell them offer better sacrifices.

He doesn’t tell them to be “more religious”.

He tells them to “Count it all joy” when they face trials. He tells them to ask God for wisdom and to make a habit of thanking God for every good gift they receive in life. Later in the book he tells them to watch how they treat the poor around them, and how they honor the rich. He warns them against making a show of their faith but never backing it up with works. He tells them to be careful how they speak, because the quickest way to perpetuate a cycle of violence is to make a habit of violent speech, even when you’re speaking against your oppressors.

He reassures them of their status in God’s eyes, as blessed children who are being made stronger in faith through their present trials.

He tells them that even in their suffering, God has not abandoned them.

James’ heart shines through in the verses pastor Josh taught on Sunday morning. He lays all his cards on the table at the very beginning. This letter is about how to wake up in the morning and follow Jesus, no matter your circumstances.

It’s about the here and now because God cares about the here and now.