VJN has invited Elizabeth Lawton, a member of the Society of Vineyard Scholars, to enrich our conversation by offering her insights on the relationship between leisure, worship, and pursuing God’s justice. Elizabeth is a graduate student in moral theology and Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in international politics from Georgetown University. This is the first of a 2-part series.
For Christians seeking justice for those suffering under poverty, human trafficking, and environmental degradation, the way we worship can deeply impact the way we work. Especially within the Vineyard, an awareness of what it means to submit our minds to God opens the door to being loved into the kind of humility that can make our work richly fruitful.
When we come together on Sundays, we do so acknowledging our need for the Lord, and inviting God to enter our imaginations and change how and what we see. In hearing the Word proclaimed, we welcome formation in the biblical narrative: creation by God, fall into sin, and redemption in Christ. What a humbling story.
But in my experience the Word of God does not just challenge our pride because of its content, but because receiving it requires a certain posture. German philosopher Josef Pieper called this posture “leisurely,” and his description can be helpful for those who struggle with idolizing their vocations.
Leisure as Pieper defines it is not the same as play or entertainment. Pieper’s leisure is more akin to humility, the peace that comes with comfort at being who one is, a beloved creature of God. Leisure rejects the state of “total work,” in Pieper’s parlance, which has no place for anything that is not productive. When our professions involve the pursuit of justice, especially on behalf others, it can be very easy to justify a total-work perspective.
In this state, even rest and relaxation are believed to be good only insofar as they prepare us to return to work. One in the state of total work must always be making something, shaping the world, defining herself. Things–and worse, persons–are in some subtle way presumed worthless until they are turned into something valuable through work. It is a state that almost demands idolatry as we take ourselves or others as the producers of our human value, rather than accepting that value as a gift from God.
However, Pieper notes that the church–with its observance of Sabbath rest and worship, and its focus on the beauty of loving sacrifice–insists on unproductive practices. In our Sunday gatherings, we recognize God-given goods as ends in themselves. Though our motives may never be entirely pure, we should seek to enter into those times less and less for the psychological and social benefits of communal worship. Instead we should simply seek the face of God, knowing that we are receiving–rather than achieving–whatever graces God might share with us that day.
An understanding of the humble leisure of worship can be deeply important for those working in justice ministries. It provides a theological framework to help us understand our work both as a gift from and a gift to God. Humble participation in the worship service trains us to see a little more like God sees, to love a little more like God loves, and to more richly imagine what it might mean to live in a world that honors every person’s human dignity. In leisure, we trust that God has gone before us and envisioned a fullness of justice we can’t fathom, and accept God’s invitation to partner with providence, rather than believing ourselves the most important agents of personal and social transformation.
Because of the way leisure enables us to hear God’s voice more clearly, embracing it is also valuable for those who are not sure they feel any sense of calling to the poor. The Bible is rife with cries for justice on behalf of the oppressed; consider Micah 6:8, Isaiah 58:10, or Matthew 25:31-46. Therefore when one approaches the God of the Bible with the kind of leisure Pieper envisioned, she will be drawing near to the one whose heart breaks for human sin, and its effects on others. Should we be surprised to find that in those meetings a sense of conviction about the pursuit of justice–a calling to serve–should start to grow in our hearts?
Whatever our struggles in work and worship, there is one thing of which we can be sure: the Christian tradition consistently teaches that humility before God is utterly crucial to fruitfulness. And whoever we are when we enter our churches this Sunday, a leisurely posture before God will mean we are someone a little bit different when we walk out.