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Resting in an Always-On World

Updated: May 1, 2019

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, How to Disconnect from “Always On” Work Culture, states:

Today “always-on” is the default work setting for most of us. Ubiquitous smartphones, slim computers and innovative apps make every response a snap—quicker, easier, seemingly less painful. It just takes a second, right? But those rapidly accumulating seconds are just technology’s version of death by 1,000 cuts, expanding the workday’s boundaries until it seamlessly blurs with the rest of civilian life.

This is the reality most of us live in: an “always on” existence. Whether it’s the multitasking lifestyle we take on to accomplish more and more, or the absence of times and places in our days where we are simply “unreachable” on our Slack channels and smart phones, we live in an increasingly non-stop, always-on culture.

A Day in the Life

Last week, I had one of those days that was scheduled to the minute. As a bivocational pastor and primary stay-at-home parent, my calendar often looks like an eruption of colored boxes, each box representing a different person or task in need of my attention, calling out for more of my time. I often begin my morning by pulling up iCal, Asana (a work management app), and my “needs response from you” Gmail folder to create a to-do list for my day to ensure that nothing is forgotten or overlooked that will make tomorrow more difficult.

On this particular day last week, I flew through my to-do list as the day wore on, checking off tasks with a growing sense of accomplishment as I moved from meeting to meeting, using commuting time in my car for phone calls that needed to be made, and responding to texts from parishioners as I grocery shopped for the week. I juggled helping the kids with homework while furiously highlighting paragraphs out of my Gospel of John commentary for sermon prep while cooking supper. As it neared dinner time, I realized I was ravenously hungry, snapping at my kids, and absolutely running on empty. I had forgotten to put “eat lunch” on my to-do list. And because it was not on the list, it never got done.

If I’m being honest, even though I am aware of the stress this kind of multitasking, always-on life produces, there is a part of me that cherishes this busyness. It’s like a soothing voice playing in the background, saying gently to me, You are important. You are doing so much. So many people need you.

Henri Nouwen says in his book, The Way of the Heart:

Just look for a moment at our daily routine. In general, we are very busy people. We have many meetings to attend, many visits to make, many services to lead. Our calendars are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects … Why is this so? Why do we children of the light so easily become conspirators with the darkness? The answer is quite simple. Our identity, our sense of self, is at stake … “Compulsive” is indeed the best attitude for [this] false self. It points to the need for ongoing and increasing affirmation. Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated, or despised. Whether I am a pianist, a businessman, or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by my world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy … The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failing and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same—more work, more money, more friends.

I am a compulsive minister. In my ongoing need to do more in the hope that I will (finally) be loved and appreciated by others, I throw myself into non-stop work. And even when I “rest,” it’s more like a swing of the pendulum to the other extreme, where, rather than tending to my malnourished and fatigued soul, I look for ways to check out and numb myself with a never-ending stream of Netflix distractions or food (typically of the chocolate variety).

Another Way

Yet Jesus says: “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). In a world of our own compulsive making, where we are overstretched from our non-stop, always-on lifestyles, Jesus invites us to retreat with him.

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun writes in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us, that the purpose of a retreat is “to make space in my life for God alone.” It is for quiet listening to God, for delighting in his company, and for reprieve from the daily battles so we can instead be refreshed, retooled, and renewed.

I remember attending a silent retreat with members of my church, Life on the Vine, on a beautiful seminary campus in Mundelein, IL. My co-pastor, Ty, was leading the retreat. Gathering us at the beginning of the weekend, he said: “This weekend, let go of the pressure to make this weekend into something you think it needs to be. This time is not for getting things done, or proving something to yourself or to God. Instead, give yourself permission to waste time with the Lord. Simply delight in being together.” As I walked out of that orientation and into the silence of that weekend, I felt a weight lifting from my body that I wasn’t even aware was there to begin with. I felt joy. I felt a sense of childlike curiosity and wonder. I was reminded: Jesus wants to be with me. He delights in simply being together.

This is what accepting Christ’s invitation to retreat does. It opens up space for us to experience God’s delight in us when we are doing nothing. It gives us the opportunity to hear the voice of the Spirit saying, “You are beloved already, not because of what you are doing for me, but simply because you are my child.” It provides a quiet place to become aware of what other idols have been driving us … things that often lie below the surface and can only be seen in the stillness of solitude and silence.

And when our sense of our belovedness is renewed, when our identity is joyously, surprisingly untethered to what we are doing or achieving “for God,” our relationship to our work also changes. Released from the compulsion to bolster our identity in how busy we are, we are no longer driven by the relentless need to find ourselves in what we do.

Instead, we are free to find rhythms of work and rest that honor our humanity. We are free to discover the easy yoke of partnering with God in new creation, rather than shouldering the heavy burden of “I am alone and I must do everything or the world will fall apart.” We are free to sing with the Psalmist, “Be still and know that Yahweh is God.” (Implied in that Psalm is the statement: and I am not.)

Practical Ideas

How might the Lord be inviting you to come away and find rest with him in retreat? Here are a few ideas:

  • A mini lunch retreat: One thing I’ve begun practicing is a mini lunch “retreat” on days where I don’t have an appointment or meeting during lunch. I eat lunch at a table (rather than on-the-go). No multitasking is allowed. No scrolling through Facebook. No work. Instead, I imagine Jesus there with me and “waste time” in his presence.

  • Once a month or once a quarter, mark on your calendar a day or two for a retreat. If you like the idea of structure-free time, just bring a journal, a Bible, and a pen and give yourself permission to do whatever is needed to slow down, rest, and find companionship with Jesus. (For a bit more direction, check out upcoming retreats from The Perch.)

  • Explore practices like contemplative listening, prayer of examen, or lectio divina that help you become present and aware of God’s presence with you. (Check out our next Contemplative Prayer Practice for ideas.)

  • Take a memento of your time with the Lord at the end of each retreat, perhaps a rock, a doodle from your journal, or a photograph of the place. Keep it in a place where you can be reminded of your time with the Lord.

Whatever form your retreat takes, may you be reconnected to the presence of our loving God, grounded in your belovedness, and refreshed by the living water of the Holy Spirit. Trust that in meeting God, we allow him to do important work in our lives:

When we are rested, we listen better. When we are rested, we notice desires as well as lies buried in our souls. We may feel that nothing really big or noteworthy happened on our retreat … Go away and trust God with what happens in your soul” (Adele Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook).

Juliet Liu is a co-pastor at Life on the Vine, a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.

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