Many of us Protestants are infected with bad cases of the Protestant Work Ethic.
The PWE can be a helpful nudge that gets us off our chairs and into the necessary movements of life. But it also can turn us into mindless centers of activity that is neither redemptive nor productive of anything but more activity.
Which is why, as I write this, I'm looking forward to spending a night at the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center on the edge of Pomme de Terre Lake in Missouri -- a facility I wrote about in this space five years ago.
At the request of our resident director, a Catholic priest and Trappist monk, I joined the HSRC board in 2010, and the experience of attending our annual board meetings slowly has been nibbling away at my PWE and replacing it with an appreciation for simply being as opposed to doing.
But it's a hard lesson. It's one I've been kicking against much of my life, perhaps even from the first time I read these words of Jesus in Luke 12:27 (as the Common English Bible has it): "Notice how the lilies grow. They don't wear themselves out with work, and they don't spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn't dressed like one of these."
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To which my PWE-afflicted brain would retort: "Of course the lilies don't work or spin clothing. They're lilies, for heaven's sake. But what about us humans? If we don't work or arrange for our basic necessities, we're in trouble."
When my brain kicks in that way now, I try to think of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center's purpose, and I try to return to the opening of the Westminster (or Shorter) Catechism, one of the several statements of faith found in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA). It begins this way (in old gender-exclusive language):
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
What might it mean to enjoy God? It might mean taking ourselves less seriously. Or not imagining that the world is anxiously waiting for us to complete whatever work we've taken on. Perhaps it means sitting on a rock at the edge of Pomme de Terre Lake and, while wondering why anyone would name it Potato Lake, feeling the rhythms as the wind corrugates the water's surface. Maybe it means lying still in my HSRC bed at night and listening for the stirring of night animals on the grounds around the buildings.
And then giving thanks for the opportunity to hear and feel such signs of the creation, which God called good, according to the biblical witness -- a witness that also described humanity as "very good" before any of us had done a lick of work, met a deadline, fixed a meal, prepared a strategic plan, balanced our checkbook or painted a picture.
What author and political scientist Glenn Tinder calls the "spiritual center of Western politics" is the idea that each human being is of inestimable value and deserves respect because each of us is the handiwork of a loving God. We cannot add to that exalted status by working 16 hours a day to maximize profits for corporate headquarters. We can do nothing to merit God's love by making sure our kitchen cabinets are in order or that the oil is changed in our cars every 3,000 miles or that we earn enough to buy the most expensive version of the Apple Watch.
No. Our task is quite different. Our task is to "glorify God," which I think mostly means recognizing the one who is God and expressing gratitude for the divine gifts showered upon us. Our task is to "enjoy" God forever, which I think mostly means noticing how the lilies grow. And responding with: "Wow."
[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. E-mail him at email@example.com.]
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