We were talking about a Christian leader who had to leave a position of leadership because of some personal problems. My friend said two things. First he said, “We should have seen it coming. Why didn’t we see it coming?” Then he said, “I could be next.” He talked about his own flirtation with burnout. As we reviewed his life, we saw that he was committed on many fronts. All his commitments were important. He couldn’t see how he could pull out of any of them. He then said, “We are all like that.” He said that all his colleagues were tired and lonely. Nobody knew how anybody was really doing. People showed up at the office and did their work. Everybody was committed and working hard. But they were essentially strangers to each other.
You may be trying to guess whom I was talking to and what institution we were talking about. There is no need. Listening to my friend, it suddenly hit me that what he described could apply to many Christian churches and organizations in town. I suddenly had a vision of pastors, parachurch staff, seminary teachers, etc., all faithfully working hard, all tired and lonely. I suddenly saw this huge group of Christian workers, running on relational empty, unable to share their lives with the people they ministered to — or with their colleagues. I am not implying that they do not want genuine friendship. It’s just that everybody is pressed for time, and when choices are made about time allocation, work always comes first. Relationships become nonessential by default.
The late Henri Nouwen described this situation well. His friends, Bart and Patricia Gavigan, remind us that:
. . . Henri . . . catalogued with deadly accuracy in his many books: that frenetic world where the urgent eclipses the essential, where being busy and being lonely often coincide, where we are filled but unfulfilled, physically satiated yet emotionally and spiritually hollow. (“Collision and Paradox,” Befriending Life, editor Beth Porter, New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001, 56.)
Most of us live in that “frenetic world” that Nouwen described.
Sometimes the first clue that someone has been running on relational empty for too long is when that person undergoes a personal collapse. Such collapses could take the form of physical and emotional collapse. (Is it my imagination or are more of my friends and colleagues suffering from/dying from heart attacks, strokes and cancers?) Sometimes it takes the form of some moral collapse. It seems that every other day we hear of some christian leader falling into the sin of money, sex, or power, or some combination of the three. Sin has to be acknowledged as such. Those who have sin must confess and repent in any journey to restoration. But I often wonder if people are more vulnerable to temptation when they are tired and lonely, and that when they finally fall, it is akin to the appearance of a sinkhole in the road that reveals long standing underlying emptiness.
I like to believe that the picture is not all that bleak. Sometimes things have to get worse before it gets better. Human nature being what it is, we wait until the pain is unbearable before we embark on any real journey of change. (As someone who worked for a number of years as dentist I am fully aware of this phenomenon.) Recently I was talking with a leader of a seminary. He felt that for too long, his school had focused on knowledge — ensuring that their students believed the right things, and skills — ensuring that their students know what to do to be effective in ministry. But he felt that they had not been intentional enough in spiritual formation, helping their students grow into Christlike maturity. We were having a chat as to how their school could improve in the area of spiritual formation. I find myself having more of such chats with more and more people. Cynics will say that spiritual formation is just the latest trend in church life. Maybe. But I believe there is a true work of the Spirit here as well.
Is there a way back from this frenetic, exhausting, lonely life that many of us are living? I am suspicious of simplistic answers. Yet I suspect that the beginning of an answer lies in returning to a proper understanding and practice of the Sabbath. I suspect that many of us function with nine commandments, the decalogue sans the fourth one on the Sabbath. Perhaps we are not quite sure how to apply the Sabbath command to the Christian Sunday since strictly speaking, Sabbath is the last day of the week while Sunday is the first day of the week. We need the help of saints like Marva J. Dawn who have worked hard at helping us apply the Sabbath command to the church. Dawn reminds us:
. . . one of the principal goals of Sabbath keeping is to set aside time for feasting on the presence of God. By spending a day enjoying the company of God, we learn more and more to delight in his character and the gifts of his grace. Furthermore, the growth of that relationship inevitably leads to a deepening of our relationships with others of his people. This frequently used image is true: our relationships are like spokes of a wheel — the closer we draw to the center, which is God, the closer we are to the other spokes. (Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989, 190.)
Tired? Make time to feast on God and the gifts of His grace.
Lonely? As we draw near to God, we draw nearer to His people to feast on the community we need.
As is often the case, the solutions to our deepest problems are simple. The difficulty lies in our struggle to hear and obey.