A Theology of Vacationing

This summer has been no different than those which proceded it. At this time of year, you are possibly continuing to see references to the usual litany of 'Summer Reading recommendations for Pastors.' As end-of-summer vacations loom, men in the ministry feel the need to catch up on those weighty tomes of theology that have been gathering dust somewhere but which a guilty conscience tells them ought to be read. (Though their wife and children may have other ideas!)

Despite the title, these paragraphs are not intended to add to this ministerial guilt trip; but, rather, they are intended to relieve it! Instead of offering yet more theology to take on vacation, I wish to offer a theological justification for viewing a vacation as being a good thing - and this, not just at 'vacation times' when they happen to occur.

The rationale behind this comes partly from some well intentioned, but significantly misguided ideals I held in the early years of my ministry. Namely that it was somehow a mark of sanctification to not take my full allocation of annual leave. And it was only after some wise and gentle persuasion from my dear wife that this theological aberration was put right.

However, a more direct factor that made me think about the Bible's teaching on this issue came from a verse from the Gospels that seemed to find its way into my mind on an annual basis - always as the Summer holidays drew near. It was the verse in which Jesus says to his disciples, 'Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest' (Mk 6.31).

It is one of those almost throwaway remarks that Mark includes in his record of our Lord. Not unlike the detail in Christ's calling of the Twelve, that he chose them in part in order that 'that they might be with him' (Mk 3.14) - to provide companionship for him. So even though this verse about rest may seem incidental, it actually has much more to teach than we might imagine.

At the most basic level it says a great deal about the genuineness of Christ's humanity. He was not, as many Christians subconsciously imagine, some kind of Superman in ancient Near Eastern garb. He was real flesh and blood with a real human psyche. He knew hunger, he had to expand his knowledge base, he could not be everywhere at once. But he also knew fatigue. The fact that a few chapters earlier Mark tells us that he was fast asleep in a boat that was taking in water during a storm says it all in terms of how exhausted he must have been (4.38). So here, having just welcomed the Twelve back from their first solo missions trip (6.6-13), he identifies with their weariness, because he himself shared it. In the words of the author of Hebrews, 'he has been tempted [tested] in every way just as we are' (He 4.15) - to the point of exhaustion.

Tied in with this, Jesus' invitation for his disciples to rest gives us a glimpse of his sympathy. What Jesus experienced in his humanity was not isolated in some hermetically sealed container for his own benefit, it shaped and colored how he relates to all whose humanity he came to share. That is why Hebrews also adds that he is not someone 'who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses' (He 4.15). He was not detached or protected from the everyday experiences of ordinary human beings. As he read his disciples that day, he saw the tell-tale signs of fatigue that were showing; but he did not brush them aside. There was no 'Once more into the breach for the sake of the Kingdom!' But, rather, 'Get some rest!' Too often, especially for pastors, we can subliminally regard Christ as a relentless taskmaster - always calling us to do more than we feel he can do. But that is not the case.

Another strand in this glimpse of Jesus in Mark is the way it displays him as the embodiment of the 'Wisdom' [hochma] found in Proverbs. It is the God-given 'skill for living' that goes far beyond the number of tertiary degrees we may have after our name to the sanctified common sense needed for daily life. (The sort of knowledge/wisdom many a pastor's family wished he had!) Jesus knew when to call time. He showed there is no shame in thinking, 'Now for something completely different!' Our functionality intellectually as humans is bound up with a life-balance that is somatic as well as psycho.

Flowing out of this we can't help but notice Jesus' appreciation of the rhythm of life. Built into the fabric of the created order, God has embedded the principle of Sabbath. It is the cycle of a 7-day week that cannot be explained by planetary or lunar alignment; only by the words of Genesis. (How astonishing that this has shaped the entire history of a humanity most of whom have never read it.) The Bible makes it clear that Sabbath matters (even those most evangelicals seem think it doesn't). But the ramifications of Sabbath go further than just the days that bookend our weeks. They spill over into the rest times and vacation times that are needed to provide the longer rest than a single day can give.

Perhaps a more tenuous, but nevertheless related dimension to what Mark is observing in this verse has to do with human responsibility. That is, our duty, in light of the sixth Commandment to look after our body with all its different needs. The disciples would do the cause of the Kingdom no good if they worked themselves into burnout before it had barely begun to get a foothold on earth. Yet, strangely, those involved in the ministry, missions and many other forms of Christian work, seem to think nothing of pushing themselves so far that they end up being able to go no further. How many would have spared themselves unnecessary angst and pain if they had listened to these words of Jesus?

The greatest of all elements in what Jesus says on this occasion has to do with salvation itself. Arguably the loveliest articulation of the gospel's invitation ever heard is when Jesus says, 'Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest' (Mt 11.28). His use of 'rest' as a synonym for 'salvation' is more than just a word picture. It is intimately bound up with the very heart of the Sabbath rest we mentioned already. Again it is in Hebrews we see this so clearly as the author interweaves the language of 'Sabbath', 'rest' and 'salvation' (4.1-11). All of which leads us to the eternal rest of salvation consummated in the world to come. The very real joy and pleasure of getting a break from the routine duties of life should not be disassociated from the joy of our salvation.

The final detail in this little glimpse of Jesus from a different angle has to do with our own humanity and how we are divinely wired to find the very best in life. It is the fact Jesus includes the words 'with me' in his invitation to take a break. Rest times and vacations are not meant to be an opportunity to get away from Christ - especially if we feel 'he is our work' day in and day out - but, rather, to enjoy him under different circumstances and in a different way. Pastors easily fall into the trap of relating to Jesus only on a professional basis. But he wants us to know him as our Friend - one who gives us theological warrant to enjoy our vacations!