The Blessing of Peaceful Sleep

April 1st, 2017

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” — Attributed to John Wesley

Most pastors experience the curse of knowing we’ve never done enough. We Methodists are both blessed and burdened by the example of our founder, John Wesley. Apparently he was tireless and driven by the Spirit. For fifty years he traveled forty-five hundred miles a year and preached an average of twice a day. By the time of his death at the age of eighty-seven, he had covered more than a quarter of a million miles, mostly on horseback. He had preached tens of thousands of sermons. These are the sorts of statistics that still today delight church bureaucrats and pepper the pages of countless year-end reports.

The doing, the striving, the relentless sense of more to be done, more people to be reached, more of God’s work to accomplish, permeate his writing. Never mind that his interpersonal relationships, especially with women, suffered terribly. I think Wesley would have liked to have a Tikker watch. Created by a young Swedish inventor, the Tikker uses an algorithm like the one used by insurance companies to determine a person’s life expectancy based on age, country, smoking habits, and gender. Then it counts down, clicking away the seconds toward one’s predicted time of death. Some see it as morbid. But its creator calls it “The Happiness Watch,” intended to remind the wearer to cherish each remaining moment. Wesley might well have been driven by his Tikker to do more and more and more as the minutes, hours, and days of his earthly life sped by.

Admittedly, the work of ministry is never done. Daily to-do lists duly completed can never encompass the ever-present awareness of pastoral calls that would/should/could have also been done. The additional time that would have made that sermon even more effective. The too frequent experiences of showing up without being fully present, distracted by more and other nagging responsibilities.

Early in my ministry, I was mentored by a beloved older pastor. He was a gifted preacher and an early advocate for civil rights, risking pulpit and reputation to stand for what was right long before it was popular. He was also funny, gentle, and self-effacing. He was a loving father and a trusted friend. To me, he seemed perfect, just the kind of pastor I longed to become.

Around the time of his retirement, we had a long conversation about his years of ministry. He confessed something I would not have guessed—that he never felt satisfied that he had done enough. In all his years of ministry, he said, he’d never found a way to let it go, to stop and let what he had done be enough. He battled it every night, the knowledge that he could have done more. He had never come to peace with that awareness.

The balance between complacency and acceptance is a tricky one. Having a job where, for large chunks of time each day or week, no one really knows what we’re doing, brings with it the temptation to do less than our best. The relentless pressure to achieve impossible benchmarks of numerical success can foster resignation rather than zeal. The lure of a junk-food fix of relentless frenetic activity and busyness is ever present. The prodding of one’s own self-critical awareness can wear like a hair shirt but also serve as a prod to deeper faithfulness.

Where is peace to be found? Perhaps, circling back around to Wesley, we hear it in his dying words: “The best of all is, God is with us!” The God who is endlessly creating and the God who rests. The God who looks on creation and calls it good. The God who comes not to condemn but to bring life. The God of whom the psalmist sang, “At day’s end I’m ready for sound sleep, / For you, God, have put my life back together” (Ps 4:8 MSG).

Besides, it turns out that Methodist historians now claim that Wesley never said that “Do all the good you can” mantra. Give it a rest.

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