“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”)