April 27, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
ON FIRE, NOT BURNED OUT
Today is our oldest child’s 29th birthday. I know some people have multiple 29th birthdays, but this is Kelsey’s first and only. She was born in Medford, Oregon. I was 29 when she was born, come to think of it, so we have a little symmetry going on today. I was on staff at the time at MedfordFirstUnitedMethodistChurch where my primary responsibility was youth ministry.
So in October of 1984, as Helen was pregnant with Kelsey, I traveled to a big training event for youth workers in Portland. I don’t think I recognized any of the names of the speakers. Several of them ended up becoming pretty well-known. Tony Campolo, one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard; Louis Smedes, who had just finished his classic book on forgiveness; Eugene Peterson, best known today as the author of the Bible. That’s a slight exaggeration, but he did write The Message, which has become a very popular paraphrase of the Bible. It’s the one we used today.
Also at that youth worker’s conference they introduced something that got mixed reviews. Several Christian rock bands performed. Christian rock was fairly cutting edge back then. Especially in churches. “Too loud!”, was the comment I heard repeatedly. Some things never change.
But the reason I mention this conference is one particular talk I heard. The speaker was a Presbyterian pastor named Earl Palmer. He gave a talk that saved my life. His title was “Long-term Youth Ministry”. With a title like that, it’s a wonder I didn’t go to the workshop with the catchier title. I took one page of notes. That’s all. But I practically memorized those notes. I internalized just about everything he said. It’s meant so much to me, I just thought it might be helpful to you.
What Earl Palmer was talking about was “burn-out”. That was a popular topic through the 80’s and it hasn’t gone away. People get tired of doing what they are doing. Maybe because you’ve worked too hard. Maybe because you’re just bored. Maybe because your work lacks meaning. Youth workers often burn out. That’s why this subject was addressed at a national convention for youth workers. But the principles we’re going to be looking at apply to more than just youth workers. In fact, I think this applies to everyone here today.
Sometimes we get way too busy. We are overcommitted. We have a hard time saying “no”. Our lives are out-of-control chaos. We feel like we’re on the verge of crashing and burning. Other times we aren’t busy enough. The hands on the wall clock move so slowly. Our lives feel so empty. We feel worthless. We ask ourselves, “Isn’t life supposed to be more than this?”
Either way, we aren’t functioning the way God designed us to function. Too much stress, not enough stress, either way we feel distress. God also designed us to know when something is not quite right with us. And God gave us the design for how our lives are meant to function. It’s called the Bible.
Today we read one of the Ten Commandments. It’s the fourth one. It’s the one about remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy. It’s a commandment that has gotten a lot of bad press. The Pharisees were always using it to set traps for Jesus. And modern-day Pharisees still use it to judge others. But it doesn’t have to be used that way. It’s a good commandment. It’s there for our good. As Jesus kept saying, “The Sabbath was made for us; we weren’t made for the Sabbath.”
The fourth commandment tells us to think of life in terms of a week. The week is the basic unit of life. Not the year or the month or the day, but the week. And within that week, there is to be a rhythm of work and rest. Don’t work seven days. And also don’t rest seven days. Remember the model God set for us, who worked a six-day week and rested on the seventh.
This was the first point Earl Palmer made in the talk that saved my life. 1) Think of your life in terms of a week and then make your week rhythmic.
Here’s where people get themselves into trouble. Every day is the same. Every day you throw yourself at whatever needs doing that day. You begin with as much enthusiasm as you can muster. You work as long as you can stand it. The next day you do it all over again. Every day the same old same old. And you tell yourself, if I can just keep going until my summer vacation, then I will finally get to enjoy life. Then I will re-charge my batteries. You invest all this hope and all these impossible expectations in a faraway event that, of course, cannot possibly live up all that. So you end up disappointed, distressed, and burned out.
God tells us in the fourth commandment that we need to have something to look forward to every week. A Sabbath. A mini-vacation. A day to get away from your day-in day-out routine. And don’t wait any longer than a week. Who says? God says.
Some say the Sabbath has to be a certain day. Sunday for Christians. Saturday for Jews and Seventh-day Adventists. I don’t think God cares which day it is. But there has to be a day. For me, Sunday is the one day a week I actually work. That is a joke. I hope you realize that was a joke. So I can’t take Sunday as my Sabbath. I take Friday. Friday has been my day off for 33 years now. Ever since back in Medford when the senior pastor took Mondays so that day wasn’t available. I’ve been in the rhythm of a Friday Sabbath for most of my life.
And I’ve learned to guard it. Recently a couple of church events got scheduled on consecutive Fridays. They were important things I needed to attend. But I looked at my calendar and saw that meant 20 straight days of work. So I quickly penciled in a Wednesday one week and a Thursday the next. I’ve learned how important this is. Now please, don’t hear me saying not to call if you have an emergency that happens to fall on a Friday. I am on call, 24/7. That just goes with being a pastor. But I’ve learned I’m a better pastor, I’m a better person, if I keep my weekly Sabbath appointment.
The rhythm of a week should be more than just a day off. I try to live each week with a balance between work and play, hard and easy, high stress and low stress, physically demanding and mentally demanding, time with people and time alone, things I enjoy and things I just have to do whether I enjoy them or not. But always, I’m no more than six days away from another Sabbath!
Before I go on to the second principle, I want to emphasize that all of these apply to retired people and well as to people who are still working. The Bible, by the way, has no doctrine of retirement. We were designed by God to keep a Sabbath as long as we live and to fill the rest of the week each week with a rhythmic balance of work and play.
2) Growing people tend to be happy people. God wants us to keep on growing, even after we’ve grown up. Especially after we’ve grown up. And there’s something about growing that creates its own energy and excitement that keeps life enjoyable.
We should be growing physically. This one applies to all ages. It can be discouraging as we grow older and we can’t measure up to what we used to be able to do, but I still get a charge out of running a time that is better than the time I ran on that same course a year ago. Even though it’s way slower than it would have been 30 years ago. Lefty Gomez was in the twilight of his career as a baseball pitcher. His manager said, “Lefty, I don’t think you’re throwing as hard as you used to.” He said, “I’m throwing as hard as I ever did, but the ball’s just not getting there as fast.”
Work your body. Take care of it. Keep it moving. Don’t worry about what you can’t do. Do as much as you can do. It’s going to make you feel better and enjoy life more.
And of course, there are other ways in which God wants us to be growing. We grow intellectually. There is so much to learn and life is so much more enjoyable for life-long learners.
I was impressed the other day when I loaned a book to Pati Sweet, not a small book, and she returned it to me five days later. She’d already read the whole thing.
And keeping current with what’s happening in the world. That’s what kept one of my two grandmothers going in her later years. I think she could have won a debate with her Congressman when she was in her 80’s.
God also wants us to be growing spiritually. We just had a whole sermon series on this one. I want to emphasize once again that, as we’ve discovered in our “40 Days of Community” groups, we need each other for encouragement and accountability if we are serious about growing spiritually. Do you have a group you pray with every week? If you don’t, you need one. And they need you.
If we’re growing as we were designed by our Creator to be growing, we are going to be looking forward to each new day.
3) Do most what you do best. This is nothing more than the Bible’s doctrine of gifts. We all have gifts. We don’t all have the same gifts. So obviously, we want to accentuate our gifts. No point making our weaknesses any more obvious than they already are!
Dale Dixon is from Homedale and now lives in Meridian. He writes a newspaper column in our local papers. He has a book out about how he overcame his fear of public speaking. It’s called Sweating Bullets. Here’s what he says:
I was sitting at the anchor desk of a local television station. I remember it vividly. I had an epiphany. After several years of anchoring the news and reporting more stories that I could remember, it hit me. “All I have to do is be me.”
We put so much unnecessary stress on ourselves by trying to be somebody we’re not. And in churches, this goes on way too often. We talk someone into doing something that they hate doing but they feel pressured into saying “yes”. They have a miserable experience. It’s made worse because it’s obvious, at least to them, that they didn’t do the job very well. And the tragedy is that there is another person who is gifted in such a way that the very job that was torture for the one would have been pure joy for the other!
Of course there are times when we simply have to suck it up and do things that need to be done whether we do them well or not. And sometimes we surprise ourselves by discovering a hidden giftedness we didn’t know we had. But so far as possible, do most what you do best. Life goes so much better that way!
4) Benign neglect is not as bad as it sounds. I mentioned earlier that Earl Palmer’s talk saved my life. I was being a little overly dramatic when I said that, but this is the one I was talking about. Benign neglect. Benign means good. So this is “good neglect.” There is such a thing, and it might save your life, too.
Pastors can run themselves ragged trying to meet everyone else’s expectations of what they should be doing. You want to do a good job. You don’t want to let anyone down. But the reality is that you could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and it still wouldn’t all get done. And in the process you would be exhausted, discouraged, ready to quit, with a family life that’s falling apart, and — here’s the main thing — ineffective. Because when you try to do it all, you end up doing nothing very well. In order to choose to do certain things well you have to choose not to do certain other things at all.
I’m just using that example because that’s the life I live as a pastor. Or I should say, that’s the life Earl Palmer saved me from living when I attended his workshop 30 years ago. But I think many jobs are like that. And life itself is like that. Again, I think everyone here can relate. There is so much you could be doing and should be doing and the harder you try to do it all the more you fail to do anything at all very well.
So, you need to get clear on what matters most and attend to that first. And you need to learn to ask for help to get those things done that need to get done but that don’t need to get done by you. You learn to delegate. And after you delegate, you don’t hover. You learn to trust your helper. And then you are free to focus your attention on those things that are important and that only you can do.
That’s the principle of benign neglect. Good neglect. There is such a thing as bad neglect. Bad neglect is just not caring. And that’s the whole point here. If you really do care, you will care enough to invest your time wisely, where it will do the most good, and you won’t try to do everything all by yourself.
Earl Palmer, by the way, is 30 years older than he was when he gave that talk 30 years ago. He’s been retired a number of years. But he is practicing what he always preached. There is no such thing as retirement in the Bible. He is living in Seattle, Washington and he is the director of EarlPalmerMinistries. You can find it on the web. I think I just might send him a copy of this sermon. Along with a thank you for saving my life.
Moses received those Ten Commandments from God on Mt.Sinai. Including the one about the Sabbath. The one we ignore at our own peril. But I want to close by recalling another episode out of the life of Moses. A much younger Moses met God in a burning bush. It was the strangest thing. This bush burned. But it never burned up. It was on fire. But it was never consumed.
I leave you with that image of the Christian life. On fire, but not burned out. Passionately in love with God, and discovering that the more we love God the more we are in love with God and the more we feel that inner fire that only God can kindle.
When we getting tired, God, whether it’s from working too hard or not working hard enough, kindle that fire in our soul. Keep it burning. Keep us alive in you. And teach us these simple lessons that are so simple and so obvious that we often miss them completely. May we function as you designed us to function, and may we keep at it as long as we live. Living to your glory. In Jesus’ name, Amen.