A Day To Mock Despair

21 06 2011

Reflections on the book Sabbath by Dan Allender. Chapter 8: “Sabbath Play: Despair Surrenders to Joy.”

Fourteen years ago, this verse LANDED on me:

“Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

That verse has done something to me. I have chewed on it, cried over it, and written it out on so many different things (journal, hand, bathroom mirror, napkins, post-it-notes, letters, emails, cards). I have thought it, said it, discussed it, dreamed it, wrestled with it, retreated from it, welcomed it, shared it and I have tried to figure out how to live it.

Just recently, I came to realize something about that verse and the word “labor.”

How do we articulate the difference between labor that gives life and work that extinguishes hope? It may be as simple as saying all labor is done to create something that goes beyond the completion of a task – it seeks a connectedness to someone for something greater than mere compensation…

Labor calls us to risk our dreams without much control to create something that goes beyond what we can imagine… (133-134).

Work and labor are two completely different things. Work involves tasks that are achievable, for the most part, and a labor is something where the outcome is not controllable. Work is physical but a “labor” is something I hope for and therefore the thing I can come to fear or even hate because what I labor for involves a vision for what could be, but might not happen. Labor is the thing that calls me, but that I must risk so much for, and may only see a little return. Work is 1+1=2 but a labor is the equation with a solution that is possible but improbable.

A labor is a passion but passion puts me “out there,” identifying something that really matters to me and leaving me vulnerable to appearing foolish or just being disappointed. A labor is not “effort equals reward;” a labor, I have found, can feel like very little progress. Accompanying me along the path of my labor is the nagging presence of despair which, “in large measure, is the killing of hope because there is no rest from accusation and emptiness” (135).

This is the chapter, the one that begins with a discussion on labor, and moves easily into the topic of despair and regret; it is the most natural partnership in the world. Labor has called me to make choices along the way and choices inevitably lead one to evaluation, and especially the question, “why.” Why did I say that in that way? Why did I make that decision? Why did I think that was the right call? Why did this lead to that? These aren’t so much questions as accusations which lead to the “burdensome rumination that we call regret” (135).

Regret returns us to the burned-down remains of the past with sorrow that has no end or point. We walk through the charred house and remember how good it once was and how we failed. Regret will often prompt a replay of all that happened with the illusion that only one small thing needed to happen to have kept the tragedy from occurring. And then our thoughts wander to Why? And If only… (135).

Regret is fatalistic, binding me to a moment where nothing can be done about it: “regret drinks despair as a solace against true hope. But its drinking buddy, worry, is almost always nearby to offer peanuts to increase the thirst for more despair” (135). Worry obsesses, creating a tangle in my thinking so that I can’t learn from what I have walked through and move on. Both “regret and worry assume there is no God, or at least one who loves and pours himself out for his children” (136).

One day a week, the Sabbath, God calls me to a new viewpoint; to refresh me in my labor. The Sabbath is meant to be an interruption to the endless replay of despair and regret; to see the whole story of Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The Sabbath calls me to anticipate again; to dream; to relax my braced stance; to stop wondering when the next “bad thing” is going to happen. The Sabbath is a day of hope, a day of redeeming dreams.

  • The Sabbath reminds me that there is no room in one’s labor for cynicism; the dark, everything’s broken, kind of thinking.
  • The Sabbath reminds me that nothing about a labor comes pre-packaged (conventional), or in some kind of handy kit. There will always be the draw to live life neatly “rather than getting dirty in a game that requires deep-rooted hope to play” (138) and one’s labor in the Lord is anything but neat.
  • The Sabbath reminds me that though I might try to escape my labor through empty pursuits and consumerism, these are things that can easily be worked for, without any kind of real dream or labor. These are attainable things that are only putting off what I am actually being called to. Purchases lead to “boredom rather than gratitude” (139). It is the most natural thing in the world to flip from a “labor” to “work” when the well seems dry or the road appears long; when I am disappointed, when nothing about my labor is fun or particularly rewarding. It is such an obvious compromise to move towards what I can actually DO; what I can actually accomplish and succeed at with my own two hands.

Despair and all that comes with it “is like an endless drive in a cul-de-sac. One sees the same terrain again and again with no hope or anticipation of anything new” and it “robs the heart of imagination” (140). That is why the Lord of the Sabbath comes and offers not just a day of redemption, but redemption itself. As I come with a posture of gratitude, Jesus is able to open my heart once more to wonder again, to see that “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” and my heart can soar once more on the wings of gratitude.

Allender writes, “there is a burden of gratitude that, if it is not returned, will crush our spirits or splinter them” (141). That line just makes me pause. It isn’t just that I need to pour out my hurt and fear to God and find release from worry; there is a burden, like a debt, of gratitude as well. I am designed to worship, to express gratitude to God and when I live in despair, when I cannot thank, I am wearing myself out long before I was meant to expire.

Experiencing joy, while at the same time experiencing a labor that may feel like suffering, is what Allender describes as a conundrum: “Do you want joy? Then open your heart to suffer. Suffering involves the ruthless paring away of all that will keep joy at bay” (141).

On my weekly Sabbath I can whine about my “wretched luck” or I can choose instead to remain in the labor God has called me to and find joy as that “sweet madness that comes when we sense God is closer to us than our own heartbeats” (142). Such joy has little to do with how great things are going for me at the moment, how much success I am experiencing, how much people like me, or whether anything I do is even recognized at all. When I meet with Jesus on that  Sabbath day, He never promises that I won’t feel like death during the week, but on that day He teaches me “how to act before death as if it has no ultimate power” (142).

Sabbath is, as Allender writes, a day to mock despair. It is the day “we catch the glimpse of the greater story of our lives and get to tell and hear the director, God, bless us with His delight” (145).

My labor in the Lord…it’s not in vain.

“Meet me on the Sabbath”, Jesus says. He will “clear away on this day all the debris from the past week and the week ahead” (145). He will help me to see what I saw before and what I need to see again. Am I listening? He has something to say to me about the labor He has called me to.

You turn my wailing into dancing; you remove my sackcloth and clothe me with joy (Psalm 30:10-12)

— Teresa Klassen

Afterword: I can’t write a post like this and not confess that more times than I care to admit I have been plagued by “burdensome ruminations” as Allender calls them, where I see the same terrain again and again and feel the cold fingers of despair and feel hope lag. Not that I have this all figured out, but I feel so grateful to Christ for always giving me a light to look at, some reminder, a face, a word, a something…enough to keep me moving forward.

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