Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Step Aside a Little While

Finally, the hectic schedule I've been on since May is showing signs of slowing. At least for a few weeks. I don't hold any delusions that I'll be able to move permanently into a twenty-hours-a-week, eight-months-a-year work schedule any time soon--nor would it be wise to seriously hope for that, considering the Biblical injunctions against laziness and the fact that when I was in elementary school, it took somewhere around ten weeks to get totally bored with summer vacation.

Nonetheless, we all need our time off. Even those who love their careers to the point of bounding eagerly out of bed on Monday mornings have times when they want to forget they ever heard of work. Four seventy-hour weeks in a row, fifteen clients simultaneously deciding they need rush jobs on eighteen hours' notice, or ten straight work days where Murphy's Law seems to have become a coworker could burn anyone out. As often as not, it's not the actual work that causes the stress so much as the constant reminders of everything else that has to be done after the work of the moment is finished. If you're anything like me, those reminders don't need the physical interruptions of an incoming e-mail or ringing phone; your multi-tasking brain comes with a special "don't forget this or that" beeper that goes off every five minutes. It's not enough to avoid worrying about tomorrow (cf. Mt. 6:34); things quickly get to the point where one's sanity is tested by thinking half an hour ahead!

One reason many of us have so much trouble relaxing on our time "off" is that we let this high-tension mentality permeate our brains to the point we never really leave our work behind. I don't mean just that we physically carry work with us everywhere, or urge the office to call us for every loosely defined emergency; the worst part is the "baggage" we carry in our minds. We think constantly about what we'll do next week back at the office; we worry about the work that's piling up in our absence; we turn every casual conversation into a discussion of our career plans. Or we just transfer the most stressful of our work habits to our leisure time: we try to squeeze in all the activities we can, we feel guilty about relaxing, and we fume and fuss when things go wrong. Patricia Fry's article, "Your Vacation for Body, Mind, and Spirit," offers an interesting take on how our minds often stay in high gear even during vacation--and on what to do about it.

The best approach, of course, is the Biblical one of focusing our full attention on God. Most commentators agree that the Mosaic commands to take days, weeks, and years off from work (e.g., Ex. 20:8-11; 23:14-16; Lev. 25:1-7), while they certainly included the concepts of straight rest and of play, had a strong "spend more time getting to know your God" element. The Hebrew phrase translated "be still" in Ps. 46:10, which is paired with that idea of knowing God, carries the sense of total relaxation, even surrender--the implication being that we must stop struggling with worldly cares before we can fully savor God for everything He is.

God does command time off partly because He cares about our physical and emotional health. But even more than that, He wants to give us a lasting closeness to Himself that can only be nurtured through regular time away from everyday bustle.

In this world of rush and noise,
Filled with glittering, gaudy toys,
Where the strivings never cease,
How can anyone know peace?
Step aside a little while,
Pause to seek the Father's smile;
Turn to Him a willing ear:
Listen now His voice to hear.

In this world where deadlines loom,
Crowding out each second's room,
"Hurry, hurry" is the rule;
All this rush can be so cruel.
Step aside a little while,
Pause to seek the Father's smile;
He commanded Sabbath rest,
He Who knows which path is best.

In this world of endless strain,
Driven by the lust for gain,
And the siren song of greed,
What is it we really need?
Step aside a little while,
Pause to seek the Father's smile;
Let your worries on Him fall:
He will be your All in All.