Thinking Christianly about vocation, work, and leisure

 

Leland speaksProtestants traditionally demonstrate an active work ethic, but many—perhaps particularly within Dutch Reformed circles—have more difficulty viewing leisure appropriately.

At the annual fall conference of Covenant Reformed Church in Pella, IA, Leland Ryken, long-time professor and prolific author, guided attendees in developing a biblical view of vocation, work, and leisure.

He addressed each of those subjects in three lectures on November 6-8, 2015, attended by between 100 and 200 people.

A native of Pella, Ryken has taught in the English department at Wheaton College for over 40 years. He was an editor for The Literary Study Bible: ESV and has written numerous books on a wide variety of subjects, including Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure and Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective.

The conference began on Friday evening with a survey of foundational principles that apply to work and leisure. Dr. Ryken explained the biblical concept of vocation as having a general calling to live the Christian life and particular callings to fulfill the roles in our lives.

Because God is sovereign over every event in our lives, everyday activities can be viewed differently than mere duties or annoying distractions. He said, “Thinking of them as callings instead of tasks gives them significance.”

He demonstrated from the Bible how God has assigned people their daily work and how we can be exuberant about it when we put God at the center. We can relate to God and respond to him through our work, and we should reject attempts to separate life into sacred and secular compartments.

“Time is the arena in which we live,” he said. “Work and leisure compete for it, and we cannot add hours to one without subtracting from the other.” He encouraged listeners to “plug into the flow” of time, rather than being tyrannized by it. Ecclesiastes, “the most famous poem on the subject,” can guide us to accept and understand that “everything is beautiful in its time.”

Dr. Ryken urged attendees to “discard activities that do not seem like callings,” but concluded by asking, “Are you granting the same importance to your callings that God has?”

Soup supperFollowing a soup supper on Saturday evening, Dr. Ryken spoke about work. He described problems with it, including tendencies to overwork or undervalue or misvalue it. He advocated a Christian view of work as a solution to the problems.

“Work is rooted in the character of God,” he said, pointing out that work or works is mentioned 200 times in the Bible. “God is pleased when people perform the work he gives them. God wants the heart that loves him and wants to please him.”

He explained that the purpose or goal of work for the Puritans was to glorify God and benefit humanity. God works through Christians who serve him in service of people. He said, “Serviceableness is key to vocation.”

While work is a moral duty and a healthy work ethic requires self-denial, Christians ought to rise above mediocrity in their occupations. He said, “Christians are called to excellence because the God they serve is excellent. Achieving excellence in what we do is a virtue.”

During the church school hour on Sunday morning, Dr. Ryken appropriately addressed the subject of leisure. He explained that the two-fold etymology of the word includes license and learning. He noted leisure’s link to the Sabbath, speaking of it as “a state of being” and “a growing time for the human spirit” through “rest and restoration.”

Many within our circles exhibit a strong sense of obligation and duty, tending to consider free time as unworthy. “The Protestant tradition has elevated work at the expense of leisure,” he said. “But in our hearts, we know that leisure can be something very good indeed.”

Stating that the Bible provides just as much data on leisure as on work, Dr. Ryken led listeners through specific references. The seventh day was part of the creation week, not separate from it. Jesus did not reduce life to endless work and evangelism, but took time for fellowship and leisure. The Bible provides warnings against abuses apart from God and prescribes times for leisure. Regarding biblical festivals and feasts, he said they were less like worship experiences and more like a modern evangelical equivalent of summer camp. The festivity and feasting resembled Thanksgiving Day.

“We do not simply have a right to leisure,” Dr. Ryken said, “we have a need for it.”

He explained the concept of “semi-leisure” as appearing midway between work and leisure on the time continuum. He encouraged listeners to “make creative use of semi-leisure.” It is possible to rescue activities from the realm of work to that of leisure simply by changing one’s attitude.

The challenge to practice leisure appropriately can be more difficult for Christians who often shortchange themselves through church work. But we should heed Christ’s injunction to come away and rest.

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6 & & of the December 9, 2015, issue of Christian Renewal.

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On TASC: RMS reports on work done and projects to come

up a treeIt was a busy year for Reformed Mission Services (RMS). Volunteers participated in activities ranging from the biggest ever TASC group, to a first VBS event, to new TASC sites, and a house construction trip.

The summer began on June 21-28, 2014, with the largest TASC in the history of RMS, when Trinity URC in Caledonia, MI, hosted 55 students and sponsors. According to RMS Director Rob Brinks, calculations for that number of participants over four work days equals one year (52 weeks) of labor for one person at 40 hours per week.

“Such a large event carried with it many challenges,” Brinks said. “The first was finding enough work for such a large crew, and another was fostering fellowship among so many individuals. Despite these challenges, it was a success due to the organization of the host church team and the spirit of the group.”

Volunteers cleaned and repaired a barn, fencing, and tack at HUGS Ranch, which matches needy youth with rescued horses. They also erected a shed and painted at New City Fellowship, the OPC church plant in Grand Rapids. Other tasks included installing fencing, weeding, and sealing a driveway. Crews assisted Love, INC (In the Name of Christ) and the Alpha Women’s Center with sorting, cleaning, organizing, painting, and landscaping.

This summer RMS launched a new program of pairing an established church with a church plant to provide resources needed for a VBS outreach.

VBS Sioux Falls Group Picture“The idea is for a larger established church to provide most aspects of a VBS program (lessons, crafts, skits, promotional items). Members of this church work with volunteers from the smaller church to hold a local outreach event,” Brinks said. “This not only strengthens the churches by working together, but it also gives the smaller church the opportunity to reach out with the gospel to its surrounding community. This additionally creates awareness of that body of believers and its worship services.”

Faith URC of West Olive, MI, came alongside Sioux Falls URC in Sioux Falls, SD, for a VBS project from July 18-26. Rev. Spencer Aalsburg of Sioux Falls URC said, “It is like VBS in a box. You open it up and find everything you need—the volunteers and the complete VBS program.”

RMS hopes for more participation in this new program during 2015.

The TASC program continued its successful history with a repeat performance in West Sayville URC (a previous host in 2012) from July 26-August 2. Construction projects ranged from installing closet shelving to building planting tables to roofing and renovating homes. TASC volunteers painted, power washed decks, and cleaned a garage. They washed walls and windows, pulled weeds, and trimmed bushes at a Christian school. They also served Christ through their work at a youth mentoring facility.

Two TASC sites were the first hosted by their respective churches: Covenant Reformed Church in Pella, IA, and First URC in Chino, CA.

slapping floorFrom July 26-August 2, thirty volunteers stayed in Covenant church and worked at six south central Iowa locations, including a Christian school, a Christian camp, and a home for young women who have been incarcerated. Their work ranged from moving rock and digging a trench to wiring and plumbing. They built a porch, installed windows, and stained a shed. They weeded, cleaned, and painted. Then they painted some more.

Organizer Sara Runner said, “Although our youth weren’t too excited about staying home for TASC instead of going somewhere new, with a little encouragement, they all agreed to participate. After the event, they all admitted that it was so great to see how God can use them in their own communities. It was also encouraging for those of us  who planned the event to watch the church surround us in prayer and support prior to and during the week.”

Although it was the church’s first effort, seasoned TASC participants called it their “best TASC yet.”

The Chino TASC from August 2-9 was smaller than most groups with only 24 students and sponsors, but that contributed to closer fellowship and increased camaraderie.

Like other groups, these TASCers did lots of cleaning, landscaping and painting at several locations. Unlike most other groups, however, these volunteers spent a big day preparing and serving meals to homeless men, women, and children in Los Angeles. They even walked the streets and interacted with homeless people in what they called “an eye-opening experience.”

“The unique aspect of this event was going down to Skid Row in LA, and serving at the Union Rescue Mission,” Brinks said. “I think all the participants will remember that day for the rest of their lives. I know I will.”

During 2015, RMS hopes to have five TASC sites, many new. “It is our prayer that we will also have new participants in this program so that many lives will be touched and the Kingdom of God will grow both numerically and spiritually,” Brinks said. “To Him be the glory and honor.”

house-broken treesIn addition to the TASC service trips for teens, RMS also organizes service trips for adults. From August 16-23, a group of volunteers worked in North Carolina, rebuilding the home of the Mark & Carla Van Essendelft family.

“The one thing that I took from this trip was the attitude of the Van Essendeflts,” Brinks said. “They basically lost all their possessions in a tornado, however, everyone’s life was spared through God’s providence. They are in awe about the love, prayers, and support that they have received from all over the world (even from the brothers and sisters in Uganda where Carla’s brother, Eric, serves as a missionary).”

Eleven volunteers from Vermont, Indiana, Michigan, and New York stayed with families of Covenant URC in Pantego, NC (pastored by Rev. Cal Tuininga, father of Carla Van Essendeflt). According to Brinks, this housing arrangement allowed volunteers to “see the hospitality of Christ overflow,” in addition to experiencing fellowship with each other.

sign-familyThe fellowship of believers was additionally evidenced in a gift of over $11,000 from OPC brothers and sisters to assist in the rebuilding of the Van Essendelft home. The family hoped to return to their home in time for Christmas.

A further aspect of RMS is its foreign focus. A team was being assembled to travel once again to the Mount of Olives Children’s Village (orphanage) in the Baja California region of Mexico from January 17-24, 2015. More details are available on the RMS website.

RMS has been sending volunteer teams to Peru since 2010 and another trip is being planned for May of 2015. Previous trips have been to Cuzco, but this team will travel to Lares, to assist a small church planted by the Cuzco congregation. The group has outgrown its meeting place in a small room of a home, so the RMS team will assist in constructing a building for worship and outreach to the surrounding villages.

Rob says, “We pray that God will provide 8-10 men to travel there and that the necessary funds will be donated to complete this project.”

RMS is developing a couple of evangelism programs involving persons from high school age to adults.

Mr. Brinks notes that Canadian churches have had difficulty contributing to US organizations like RMS, but that Trinity URC in Lethbridge, AB, is working toward setting up a non-profit charitable corporation in line with the Canadian Revenue Agency regulations. RMS has already made provisions for one Canadian church to become a member of Reformed Mission Services. For more information, contact Rob Brinks at rob@rms.org or Rev. Hank Van der Woerd, pastor at Trinity URC of Lethbridge, AB.

The above is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared on pages 12 & 13 of the December 17, 2015, issue of Christian Renewal.

AMOS on sale!

AMOS coverAmazon is currently selling my A Month of Sundays: 31 Meditations on Resting in God for only $7.20! What a bargain! At that price, you should buy several for Christmas gifts.

UPDATE: Reformation Heritage Books is offering it at half price! Only $5!

Measuring Days, Psalm 39

A bit over two years ago, I blogged on Psalm 39 under the title, “Carpe Diem!” That Latin phrase means, “Seize the day,” which still seems an apt title. But in revisiting the psalm today, I’m struck by the ESV heading, “What Is the Measure of My Days?”

In this personal lament that conveys the brevity of life, David displays impatience as well as repentance and submission while he waits on God’s will.

He initially determines not to complain:

I said, “I will guard my ways,
    that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will guard my mouth with a muzzle,
    so long as the wicked are in my presence.”
I was mute and silent;
    I held my peace to no avail,
and my distress grew worse (Psalm 39:1-2, ESV).

David doesn’t want to give unrighteous people an opportunity to criticize him or the Lord. But while he holds his peace, his distress increases. He speaks, but he speaks to the Lord (verses 3-6, ESV):

My heart became hot within me.
As I mused, the fire burned;
    then I spoke with my tongue:

“O Lord, make me know my end
    and what is the measure of my days;
    let me know how fleeting I am!
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
    and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
Surely a man goes about as a shadow!
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
    man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!

David’s prayer begins with a petition that God will make him more aware of the brevity of life. He seems to have a good grasp of life’s transience and futility, but he asks God to increase his concept of measuring his days.

He knows that the days of his life measure a few hands, like one might measure a pony or horse, and that his lifetime is nothing compared to God’s infinity. Every day, billions of people breath in and out countless times. Yet the sum total of all the breaths of all people who have ever lived and who will ever live is like a mere breath to God! We think our lives are so substantial and important, but all our actions are like fleeting shadows. Why are we so concerned about obtaining and keeping stuff? What will happen to it when we’re gone? Our children will have to sort through it, perhaps keeping a few meaningful mementos, but selling much of it at an auction or giving away whatever has a little value or tossing more than we care to know.

David recognizes life’s brevity and wants to become even more aware of it in order to make each day count. But he also wants to guard against running ahead of God’s will. He waits on the Lord and hopes in him.

“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?
    My hope is in you.
Deliver me from all my transgressions.
    Do not make me the scorn of the fool!
I am mute; I do not open my mouth,
    for it is you who have done it.
Remove your stroke from me;
    I am spent by the hostility of your hand.
When you discipline a man
    with rebukes for sin,
you consume like a moth what is dear to him;
    surely all mankind is a mere breath! Selah (7-11, ESV)

While David waits, he asks God to keep him from sin. He doesn’t want to dishonor God by giving unrighteous people an opportunity to mock him and God. As David reverts again to silence, he recognizes the sovereignty of God over his afflictions, he repents from his sins, and he reiterates the brevity of life.

Psalm 39 concludes with a cry to God (12-13, ESV):

“Hear my prayer, O Lord,
    and give ear to my cry;
    hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
    a guest, like all my fathers.
Look away from me, that I may smile again,
    before I depart and am no more!”

In this cry, David begs God to see his tears and act. He confesses that we are all sojourners as our ancestors have been (and as our children will be). He seeks relief from distress so that he may smile again before God calls him home.

We have only a limited number of days on earth. When we’re young, they seem to stretch out like an endless road before us. As we age, we begin to sense how close we’re drawing to the end of our journey. The older I get, the more I feel an urgency about working for the Lord. I want to accomplish what he wants me to do while I’m here, and I realize I don’t have all that much time left.

What is the measure of my days? None of us knows the answer to that question. But an awareness of their limit leads to a better perspective of how we use each one as we work for the Lord and wait on his will.

 

God speaks

Sometimes God speak so directly we can almost hear his whisper in our ear.

For several weeks, this blog has been primarily in silent mode while I work hard to complete a devotional manuscript. [I’ll post more specifics about that when appropriate.] With my intense writing schedule, the most I’ve managed is posting the occasional Christian Renewal article. And I’m pretty far behind on that!

This morning I’m working on the devotional for Day 29 from Hebrews 13:5-6. Taking a brief hydration break, I heated water for tea and pulled from the cabinet a package my husband bought for me some time ago: Scripture tea, which is Chai green tea. I held the package in my hand in amazement. The photo on the front of the package depicted a cup with a tea bag string draped over its edge, whose tab proclaimed, “I will never leave you nor forsake you. Hebrews 13:5”!

As if that wasn’t enough, I took out an individually-wrapped tea bag with this verse on the wrapper, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Proverbs 3:5,” which is my Day 15 focus!

I felt compelled to share these clear evidences of God’s presence with me in this project and began typing this blog entry. Only now do I see that the actual tab dangling beside my mug says, “Yes, every man is a fool who gets rich on earth but not in heaven. Luke 12:21 TLB.” You guessed it–Luke 12 was the subject of Day 19’s devotional!

What am I that God is mindful of me? That he cares for me? (Psalm 8:4)

The two-edged sword of promotion

On this wonderful Wednesday, I’m wondering about promotion, which is a two-edged sword for the Christian who writes. One side of the blade cuts with the necessity of self-promotion, while the other side slices with the desire for kingdom promotion.

I write to glorify God. When I begin thinking about my name on the cover of a book, I try to resist the siren desire for personal fame and remember that it’s all about glorifying God’s name.

Because that’s my basic philosophy, I’ve resisted securing an agent. There may be a time when I feel called to do that, but for now I attempt to rest in God’s sovereignty.

God is my agent. But the reality is that if the things I believe God calls me to write are to be published, sold, and read by anyone, I must actively market them myself. Too few Christians, especially in Reformed circles, support and promote fellow believers who are authors, poets, and artists—even those whose work they admire.

Few things scream “Self-promotion” as much as book proposals. Essentially, a book proposal requires selling yourself and your book idea. And if that sounds a bit like prostitution, it may because a few vague similarities exist.

Writing involves vulnerability. One peels away layers of protection and exposes private thoughts to the harsh gaze of critics.

I’d hoped to submit three book proposals before the end of October, but that appears increasingly impossible as November 1 looms. I’d appreciate prayer if the Lord brings me to your mind over the next few weeks.

What is your view of book proposals? How do you view the division between self-promotion and kingdom promotion? What kinds of things do you do to promote your work in Christ’s kingdom?