An excerpt from
Wrestling with Rest:
Inviting Youth to Discover the Gift of Sabbath
The stories we hear when we’re young stay with us. They define us, tell us who we are. For good, and sometimes for ill, they inform the ways we live our lives. Sometimes we realize it. Sometimes we don’t.
When I was 16 years old, my youth group from First Mennonite Church of Pretty Prairie, Kansas, went on a service trip to Appalachia. (If the term “Mennonite” makes you think horses, buggies, and straw hats, then think again. Those are either Amish or a more conservative group of Mennonites than the ones I grew up with.)
We were a bunch of farm kids who knew our way around a hammer and a circular saw, and when we got to Harlan County in Kentucky, we did what we knew how to do best. We worked. We also knew how to eat.
At one point during the week, the people who ran the ministry had to make a choice. Our appetites were throwing off their budget. We were eating more than any other youth group they had seen. Should they try to make us eat less?
Ultimately, they decided not to attempt to curb our appetites. Why? As the story was told to me, the director of the whole ministry said something like, “I don’t care how much they eat. They’re getting more work done than any other group I’ve ever seen.”
We didn’t hear that story until after the fact, but when we did, we couldn’t have been prouder. You may have heard of the Protestant work ethic. I suppose it’s a thing, but I need to tell you a secret about Mennonites. Though most would never admit it, in their heart of hearts, many a Mennonite thinks the Mennonite work ethic puts the run-of-the-mill Protestant work ethic to shame.
This is a story I’ve been told. This is a story I’ve told. This is a story I’ve tried to live. This story shapes my deepest understanding of who I am. In other words, it shapes my identity. Who am I? I am a hard-working, Mennonite farm-kid from Kansas who knows how to get stuff done.
Most of the time, this sense of identity seems like a great gift. But not always.
WORK, REWARD, REPEAT
Look again at the story of our trip to Appalachia. It follows the contours of countless stories that play out in the lives of countless young people in countless places for countless reasons. Youth work hard, they do something special, and then they receive encouragement and affirmation. They feel the love.
Work hard. Receive reward. Repeat. We love this story. It empowers us. It defines us.
But there’s a problem with this story. It begins with us, it depends on our effort, and it leaves virtually no room for failure. In other words, it is a story devoid of grace. It is also a story devoid of rest. Rest actually cuts against the cycle of work, reward, repeat.
If I think about all of this in relation to my children, it shakes me to the core. It disorients me completely. Sure, I want my children to grow up and know how to work hard. I also want them to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that grace is real.
SABBATH TELLS THIS STORY.
OUR YOUNG PEOPLE DESPERATELY NEED TO HEAR IT.
I want my children to know that who they are cannot be reduced to any work they can or cannot do. I want them to know that they were loved before they existed. I want them to know they will always be loved, and I want them to know that love and grace are just part of who they are. I want them to know that love and grace are just part of who God is.
I need a different story, a story that plays out differently than work, reward, repeat. I need a story that makes room for work but insists that love and grace belong to me and my children no matter what work we can or cannot do.
In my work as a teacher, youth pastor, and parent, I’ve come to believe that I am not alone in my need for another story. Our world is short on grace. We’re also short on rest.
In the last decade or so, I’ve come to believe that the Sabbath provides us with just such a story. Through the Sabbath, God tells us another story. It’s a story that doesn’t do away with our work. It’s a story that puts our work in perspective. It’s a story of rest and grace, but it’s not always an easy story to hear.
Think about this. If you’ve been living your life by the work-reward-repeat cycle, and if that has gone relatively well for you, then rest and grace may upset the cart. Remember the story of the laborers that Jesus told (Matt. 20:1–16). The ones who started working at the end of the day received the same wages as the laborers who worked the entire day. Why? Because of grace. That’s not fair. And that’s the point.
Grace messes with us, especially if we’re hard-working types from anywhere who know how to get stuff done. Grace disorients us. But grace also provides us with an extraordinary promise: Before we existed, before we could do anything to earn it, we were loved.
Sabbath tells this story. Our young people desperately need to hear it.
Reprinted from WRESTLING WITH REST: INVITING YOUTH TO DISCOVER THE GIFT OF SABBATH. Copyright © 2019 by Nathan T. Stucky. Published by Eerdmans.