A Story of Limitations

“Because there are more people than we have time or strength to see personally and care for, it is imperative to remember that it is not sinful to be finite and limited.” (Edith Schaeffer, quoted in Making Room, p. 132)

These past few weeks I’ve come right up to the hard wall of my own limitations. I may have even banged my head against it once or twice.

It began on a Monday night, when I joined the Boiler Room community for a night of prayer and worship. As people sang and danced around me, rejoicing in the joy of the Lord, I curled myself up in a corner of the room and tried to cry out a weighty ball of frustration and anxiety.

I had spent that morning babysitting the kids, forfeiting my quiet time for a constant stream of activity. I love being with the kids, but that day I just felt drained. Then there was a last minute scramble to find another babysitter to take over when I left for work because the one who was supposed to come couldn’t find her keys. And then work that afternoon was…chaos. Kids throwing crayons, beating each other up, cussing (my preschoolers use more profanity than I do….), and even pulling down their pants to show off their underwear to the class (one boy started it and the next thing I knew, five more had followed his example). I did a fair amount of yelling and left feeling like a pretty crappy teacher.

But as bad as that Monday was, the real problem was that it perched precariously on top of several weeks of packed days (snow days and all). My weekends, when I usually take time to rest, were particularly crammed with activity, filled to the brim with good things – time with friends, creative projects, prayer meetings, hospitality, community gatherings, and meals with people – but filed nonetheless, with barely an hour anywhere to sit down and breathe.

After about four weeks in a row of this, I began to wear thin. I felt starved for real rest, longing for days and days on end with nothing scheduled. Even when I found myself with some time to potentially sit down and be quiet, I was so wound up with everything that needed to happen, that I felt an inability to wind down enough to rest, much less to really go deep with the Lord.

This wasn’t a new place for me. I hit a similar spot when I lived at Lewis House. When I moved into Lewis House, I left my job to do ministry “full-time” and threw myself in with everything I could muster: time, resources, passion, everything. I knew that a missional lifestyle required sacrifice, so I set my heart to give give give until there was nothing left to give. I wanted to be fully devoted to what I was doing with the ministry, so I felt guilty if I took time for myself. In that process I set aside a lot of things that I enjoyed – reading, writing, art, and even many of my friendships (and just ask Derek how fun it was to be in a relationship with me during that season). As it turns out, it didn’t take that long until I reached that point where I had nothing left to give and increasingly withdrew from truly engaging with the people around me.

Since then, God has taught me a lot about learning to rest and finding my identity in Him rather than in all my doing, but now that I’m back in a place of ministry and intentional community, that temptation to cram my time full of doing is back. I don’t want to run hard and then burn out again so I have to withdraw for months. I want to live a sustainable life, not just sustainable as far as physical resources go but also emotionally and spiritually sustainable. I want to pace myself to run for the distance.

So following that Monday night, I closeted myself away in my room for a good portion of the week, skipping out on several corporate gatherings and trying to hash out what boundaries I needed to set for myself. I read ahead in Making Room by Christine Pohl (a book on the Christian practice of hospitality that I’ve been working my way through) to the chapter on the limits, boundaries, and temptations of hospitality. It reminded me that this need for boundaries is common in the practice of hospitality and that “Boundaries help define what a household, family, church, or community holds precious” (Making Room, p. 136).

I still wrestled with it, though, because I didn’t want to set so many boundaries that I was no longer open to the opportunities to meet the Lord in the midst of this life. God has challenged me, in the past and especially more recently since Shelby and the kids have moved in, to be available, to be fully present where I am. There’s sacrifice in being present and a constant temptation to hold myself back, whether literally or emotionally, and only give so much.

And yet, if I’m overbooked, rushing from one thing to the next, how can I hope to be fully present in any given moment? When I burn myself out, my capacity to love or even just my ability to be with people is diminished. If I don’t take time for adequate rest and renewal, time to nourish my own life and spirit, the quality of what I do is weakened.

So I have been reflecting on where I’m called right now and what specifically I’m called to do, trying to set some boundaries and cut things from my schedule where I can. In particular I’m trying to guard a place of Sabbath rest.

In all this, though, I’m realizing that what I really want is to live out of the presence of God, not out of a string of frenzied activity or simply following good principles. Ultimately, I want my boundary to be that I’ll do when He says to do and rest when He says to rest, that all that I do will come in joyful obedience to the prompting of God. Because it’s only in God’s will that I can truly rest in freedom. I’m not free simply because I’ve set all the write boundaries or opened up space in my schedule; I’m free in relationship with my Abba.

I am also reminded of the chapter in Punk Monk that talks about the ancient art of breathing, the balanced rhythm of time with God and time ministering to others out of that place. In it Pete Greig writes:

“As we seek to establish a life-dynamic that balances prayer and action, receiving and giving, being and doing, we must remember that the priority is always the inward breath. Adam was mere dust until God first breathed into his nostrils. Likewise, a newborn baby cannot cry until she has taken her first great gulp of air, a breath that unfurls her lungs like a sail and begins a process that will last as long as her life. The midwife knows that nothing else is more urgent than that first breath – everything else in life will flow from there. In just the same way, as we seek to develop a rhythm of life, we cannot breathe out God’s life and God’s dreams through the kinds of hospitality, mission and justice described in this book, until we have first breathed them in by being with Him….We are called to be fruitful (see John 15), but only by being rooted in Jesus. We are commanded to go and preach the gospel (see Matt. 28), but first we must come to Jesus’ side.” (Pete Greig, Punk Monk, p. 93-94)

So right now I’m stepping back, becoming more acquainted with my limitations and learning to breathe in God’s presence and the deep grace that meets me in the midst of my weakness.

“Because this is, perhaps, part of what sets us apart from “the world”: that we don’t knock ourselves out, but are people able to be still and know our humanity.” (my blog friend Brooke, in “the obligatory new year reflections”)

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8 Comments

  1. maggie

     /  February 28, 2011

    Rebecca,
    I’ve been thinking a lot about limitations as well, in a similar vein to yours. For me, I’m suddenly realizing how very much I’m an introvert trying to live socially open, and it doesn’t feel so graceful.
    Anyway, I want to share with you some of Wendell Berry’s thoughts about limitations (his are centered around soil) because sometimes it helps to remember that God set this pattern of boundaries and limitations into what he made. This is from the essay “Two Economies,” which is well worth a read:
    “…The proprieties of soil husbandry require acts that are much more complex than industrial acts, for these acts are conditioned by the ability not to act, by forbearance or self-restraint, sympathy or generosity. The industrial act is simply prescribed by thought, but the act of soil building is also limited by thought. We build soil by knowing what to do but also by knowing what not to do and by knowing when to stop. Both kinds of knowledge are necessary because invariably, at some point, the reach of human comprehension becomes too short, and at that point the work of the human economy must end in absolute deference to the working of the Great Economy. This, I take it, is the practical significance of the idea of the Sabbath. To push our work beyond that point, invading the Great Economy, is to become guilty of hubris, of presuming to be greater than we are.”

    Reply
    • Yeah, I think I’m also coming to a realization that being an introvert means I need more of that space than some of the extroverts around me, but also learning to embrace that rather than feeling guilty about it (or at least working towards that :-D)

      I love that excerpt from Wendell Berry and the parallel to gardening. So good. Was that from the same essay you read from yesterday? I think I may need to look up some of his stuff….

      Reply
  2. Wendy Kennedy

     /  February 28, 2011

    Becca- I can so relate to this struggle! I think your stress on carving out a Sabbath rest is perfect- God’s “intentional” rest! :-) For me, I’ve also learned that I must also have some small space every day, even when things are crazy, or I crumble. I have specifically refused to “work” once I’m home from the last run in the evening (also recognizes the limits of this old morning person!)- no more phone calls, no more house chores, no more projects. What hasn’t gotten done by then waits ’til the next day. Quiet time at that point in the day hasn’t worked for me, though (I fall asleep once I stop moving), so it means I have to work hard to get time to pray early on in the day before it gets away from me.

    There is only one messiah- we are not it!

    Reply
    • Yup, I have to stop at some point in the evenings, too, which for me sometimes (often) includes going to bed, even when there’s still people over and skipping out on some evening activities altogether because I’m so drained after work. I’m also trying to guard space in the morning for quiet time since that’s when it’s most likely to happen (in the evening I don’t have the energy to go deep in much of anything)

      Reply
  3. “I want to pace myself to run for the distance.”
    i just wanted to say amen to that.
    blessings on you as you reevaluation, reorder, and rest.

    Reply
  4. Becca thanks for sharing this …I know how you feel about limitations and not stretching yourself to far, this has been a struggle for me because I love community so much…but there is just a time when you have to say no and consider your needs in Christ, which I know must be a challenge for you sine you have a big heart for serving. In this time continue to let him direct you in the paths and roads He wants to take you down during this Journey…better things are yet to come for you and Derek.

    Jeff

    Reply
    • Becca, thanks for sharing-felt like I was in the room with you talking-love reading your posts. I think God has really been teaching me a lot about my own boundaries and limitations too. How you feel is sometimes how I feel being a mom, so much is give, give, give, and little time to myself. I have also learned about how important it is to rest and take time for myself and not feel guilty about it. I agree about living a sustainable life, you don’t want to burn yourself out until there’s nothing left of you to give but an irritable, tired mess (well that’s how I feel when I don’t take time for God to refuel me and being rooted in Him and for rest.) Sounds like you are learning and growing a lot! Thanks for sharing!
      Kristina

      Reply
      • “An irritable, tired mess” — yup, that sounds about like me when I’m doing too much :-). But yeah, I’m learning more and more the value of rest, even as I learn to meet with God in the midst of activity and community.

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