I suppose that with the beginning of summer comes changes to routine. In this particular instance, I fully embrace the change. With anything else, however, I struggle with disruptions to routine. I’m a perpetual preschooler in the sense that I prefer to know what’s next. If you don’t know what I mean by that statement, ask a preschool teacher to explain it. Better yet, ask a substitute preschool teacher. Such a person will likely have experienced what happens after accidentally introducing an unexpected change to a classroom regimen. My guess is you’ll hear the nightmarish tale of having been tied to the craft table and circled by a mutinous band of rage-filled three-year-olds chanting, “It’s music time at nine o’clock, and then we have our morning snack. You skipped music time! You skipped music time! You skipped music time!”
Since I appreciate routine, you probably guessed I’m not a big fan of surprises, either. One example worth sharing as it meets with my job as a pastor: I don’t like cryptic requests for future discussions. In other words, I get a little worked up when people approach me saying they have something very important they need to discuss but they can’t tell me what it’s about. That usually leaves me in a psychological dead space that can (and likely will) be filled with just about anything.
“Maybe she’s angry with me about something,” I begin thinking. “I wonder what I did.”
“Perhaps he’s going to corner me with a big investment opportunity,” I ponder uneasily. “Doesn’t he know I’m pretty much broke?”
“I’ll bet they’re aliens,” I guardedly wonder, “and they’re planning to get me alone in a room so they can eat, digest, and then mimic me.”
Now before I free-think myself too far away from any of this being even a little bit worth your while, when it comes to surprises imposing upon routines, ironically, I was actually pleasantly surprised to identify a particular routine occurring in my life that I didn’t know about. I recognized it when Jennifer observed, “You can’t just sit still and relax, can you? You always need to be doing something.”
A minute or two after her remark, I realized she was right. (Of course, I didn’t tell her she was right. Every husband knows to limit how many times a day he admits such things.) I was surprised by the realization that much of the gratification I get in life is found in the process of doing rather than actually reaching the destination of completion.
Don’t get me wrong. The joy that comes with a completed project is nice. But as a person whose primary task is to minister to people, the hard truth is that I rarely enjoy a series of completed projects. Almost everything I do is an on-going process, which is why I rarely complain about tasks like mowing my lawn or repairing things around the house; or why I’ve even been known on occasion to mop the floor of the church or scrub a carpet stain in the narthex. Seeing something actually begin and end provides occasional fulfillment. But strangely, just as Jennifer inadvertently suggested, the fulfillment achieved by completed tasks is often short-lived for me, which is why when a project is done, I’m almost always on to something else. I can’t sit still and relax. I must get about the process of doing.
The point I think I’m making is that I realized one of my fundamental routines is to exist in a perpetual state of pursuit. The more I think about this, the more I realize the good and bad aspects of it.
A good side to this is that I’m never bored enough to ask, “What’s the use in living?” I’m too busy mining life for its gems to be worried about asking what life has in store. Look around. There’s plenty to keep any and all of us busy.
Another positive aspect to such a routine is the strengthening of determination and the gladness that eventually ensues. The more I experience obstacles to my aspirations, the more I feel the need to find ways to break through, occasioning an even greater measure of gladness when I finally arrive at the prize. Success is certainly sweetest when all along it seemed impossibly out of reach.
But there are negative aspects to this routine, too. It can slowly boil you into false narratives.
To dwell in single-minded pursuit of anything has the potential for seeing a person distracted from far greater blessings happening on the periphery. This can be detrimental to family, friendships, and so much more. The typical example of this can be found in the parent who’s always working and never has time for the children. Such a person misses out on a lot, much to the injury of those they love. Another real-world example that comes to mind involves my wife’s grandfather who spent most of his days building a seawall at his home in Florida. While Jennifer’s grandmother (wheelchair-bound) passed the time doing various things indoors, my thought was that he was missing valuable time with her as he worked on the wall day after day, adding layer after layer of concrete. I’m guessing he died preparing to mix another bag of cement, convinced that just one more day of laboring on his seawall would result in its perfection.
Stepping from this particular image, I suppose another dangerous aspect to a routine of always doing and never resting is the prospect of human effort becoming the sole determiner for success not only in this life, but also for the life to come.
When it comes to eternal life, we would never want to be deceived into thinking God is recording a tally sheet of our good deeds. And lest you think that’s the point of Jesus words in Matthew 25:34-40, take another quick look:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
Consider the word “inherit” which occurs right at the beginning of the King’s proclamation. An inheritance isn’t something you earn. It’s something you receive because of who you are in relation to the giver. A son does not inherit from his father because he worked hard, but rather because he was his son. By faith, we are sons and daughters of the king (Galatians 3:26), and as such, we are inheritors of the kingdom.
So, why then does the King recall the things the inheritors have done?
Because these are the naturally-occurring proofs of family membership. These are the customs—the traditions and culture—of the citizens of the kingdom. Notice that the inheritors don’t really even remember what the Lord is describing. And why? Because they weren’t performing the deeds in a calculated way, one intent on seeing them worked into some sort of divine ledger used to tally their credits toward the forthcoming reward. Instead, they simply did them because of who they were by nature of faith.
This is not a text teaching works righteousness, but rather an accounting of the eternal reward given to those who trust in Christ for salvation.
Martin Luther weighed in on this, saying things like, “If the saints did their good works in order to win the kingdom of heaven, they would never win it. Rather, they would be counted among the wicked, for they would be considering with evil eyes their own good…” (On The Enslaved Will, 163 f.).
In particular, and because we’re heading into the new routines of summer, this takes aim at one very important theme behind God’s mandate regarding Sabbath rest. Being the gifted Old Testament exegete that he was, Luther explains the mandate very simply in his Small Catechism:
“Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
In other words, an important thrust of the Third Commandment is to keep us connected to the source of God’s perfect labors on our behalf. We can work all we want at so many other things in life, and we’ll likely experience a multitude of successes as we do. But when it comes to considering human effort as an all-encompassing factor in the narrative of Man, we should stop and take a contemplative breather. We should understand that we do not deserve nor can we even begin to earn our place in God’s presence. It’s by God’s grace—by His work—that we take our place before Him, whether here on earth or in heaven. Here in this sphere, He reaches to us by His Word both in worship and study. That’s Sabbath rest—a time set aside for God to engage us in some extraordinary ways. This is one reason why Lutherans (at least LCMS Lutherans) refer to holy worship as the “Divine Service.” The tendency is to think that Christians gather for worship simply to praise God, but it’s really the other way around. God is gathering us in order that He might serve us—that He might care for us. We rest in the arms of God’s wonderful love in worship as He serves us with His abundant mercy and wonderfully rich grace through Word and Sacrament ministry. He speaks and works, and by the nature of faith, we listen and reply with thanksgiving and praise. Keep these things in mind as the new summer routines take hold. Spend the extra time in the summer sun doing and then doing some more. But then be sure to stop doing and relax. Go to church. Rest in the arms of your Savior in worship, recognizing there’s nothing you can do for Him that He needs, but instead, you need everything He has promised to do for you.