Andrea Palpant Dilley: Slacking off and the call to Sabbath

Man watching television

Fotolia/Brian Jackson

For overstressed, overworked Christians trying to save the world, watching TV and other squandered moments are not a sign of laziness or complacency but a fitting response to the call to Sabbath.

At a conference I attended last year, Richard Foster, the Quaker spiritual writer and author of "Celebration of Discipline," spoke on the perils of modern technology and media. Afterward, Nathan Foster, his son, interviewed him onstage and, between gentle, repeated proddings ("come on, Dad"), drew out a confession that only a son could: Richard Foster, spiritual sage, likes to watch "M*A*S*H" reruns on television.

For the audience, the news wasn't shocking but humanizing. We were relieved to know that the man who champions spiritual discipline doesn't spend every night meditating. Moreover, he might actually celebrate the discipline of slacking off.

If Richard Foster watches "M*A*S*H," then maybe Ann Voskamp relaxes with "Grand Theft Auto" and a shot of whiskey. Maybe Rick Warren plays "Donkey Kong," N.T. Wright rides a dirt bike on the Scottish moors, and Lauren Winner puffs a cigar. Surely, the leaders who spend their lives preaching and writing about Christian purpose deserve a break, right? And what about the rest of us, the ground troops carrying out their calls to action?

Today the cry from some pulpits is that Western Christians are complacent. They supposedly lack vision. They have no sense of how to live, how to spend their time or how to serve the world around them.

But even if some churchgoers are not living missionally, many others are, and they face a very different problem. I see them all around me -- people who feel stressed out, overworked and underplayed. The moments they squander are not a sign of laziness or complacency but a fitting response to the call to Sabbath.

It's taken me years to learn this lesson and apply it in my own life.

I grew up as the child of Quaker missionaries to Kenya. When we came back stateside, my parents carried their missionary zeal right into suburbia. They fostered kids from all over the world who came to the United States for medical help, opened our house to others as a space of counseling and community, and sent us on mission trips to Mexico.

When I went off to college, I carried the torch. I taught Sunday school to junior high kids from broken homes and journeyed with a suicidal sex-abuse victim who lived in my dorm. I worked consecutive summers with children whose families were on welfare, Latino kids from low-income homes and babies with AIDS in the slums of Nairobi.

Then in my early 20s, I hit a faith crisis, and suddenly all my acts of service felt pointless. The world itself seemed like an empty expanse left behind by a careless God. Why try?

I left the church and spent two years distancing myself from anything that smelled of Christian meaning. Frankly, I felt tortured the entire time. Somewhere in the recesses of my heart I knew that doing absolutely nothing of ultimate purpose wasn't the answer either.

When I returned to the church at age 25, I swung back to the same extreme I'd started with in college. As if doing penance for my two wasted years, I slept on a hard cot in the church choir room as part of a homeless ministry and stayed up past midnight for months editing a documentary about the civil war in Sudan. I was determined to save the world.

Now, as a 30-something wife and mother, my life is not nearly as interesting as it used to be. Instead of sleeping with the homeless under a church roof, my husband and I do ministry out of our home by welcoming the disenfranchised in our lives, especially my husband's college students.

They send text messages asking, "What do you do when you feel forgotten by God?" In the evenings, they come to our house for coffee. We listen to their questions about faith, and then at bedtime bow our heads in prayer, hand them their leather jackets and walk them out the door.

For us, the tough question has not been identifying how to serve but how to stop. Fortunately, we're working out a response, day by day.

We practice Sabbath on Saturdays. We balance nights of activity with "down" nights. Many evenings, we turn off email and phones and do something that I -- like Foster -- am embarrassed to admit: watch TV. I'm embarrassed, I think, because somewhere deep down I think my life is purposeful only if I'm slopping gruel into bowls for hungry orphans or doing something comparably dramatic.

For the most part, I'm still the same person I was at age 22 -- hopefully more mature, but still at heart a radical who's desperate for restoration and doesn't trust God to get the job done. The Sabbath, then, is the only thing between me and madness. It's a safety net catching and cradling me above the mile-deep canyon where I could easily find myself in free fall, dropping into the very darkness that I'm trying to rid the world of.

This year, we'll start taking our 5-year-old, Madeline, to serve at Church Under the Bridge, a worship service for the homeless and others. She's the kind of child who'll beg to bring everyone back to our house for a sleepover. She'll want to give them doughnuts and crayons and old coats, and in her face I'll see a nascent compassion that terrifies me because I know that someday it might catapult her into a faith crisis.

Why don't they have houses, mom? she'll ask. Where are their mommies?

My daughter, like me, will someday be susceptible to the well-meaning rhetoric of the New Radicals and other Christian leaders who call us to do more, sacrifice more and give more. Their call is justified. But for overzealous college students, overworked clergy and even those of us with mediocre service records, the call to ministry should be balanced by a countercall to the spiritual discipline of rest.

For some, the Sabbath may not make for a soul-stirring message. But I need to hear it preached from the pulpit and see it modeled for my kids and for me. I need to be reminded that on judgment day we are more likely to be held accountable for thinking too much of ourselves and our modest accomplishments than for squandering time.

In my own day-to-day routine now, I'm trying to rest. Trying to practice Sabbath. Inhabit it. Enjoy it. Commit to it as part of holy living.

On any given night when I turn on the TV, Richard Foster may be watching "M*A*S*H" in the mountains of Colorado. In some strange way, he and I are affirming the sovereignty of God. We're taking the long view. Balancing the Great Commission with Ecclesiastes. Trusting that God alone is capable of redeeming the world to shalom.