He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” —Mark 6:31
Those Lazy Days
As we approach the midpoint of summertime, it’s worthwhile to examine just what leisure time is and what it’s meant to be according to the Lord’s purposes. We don’t often connect “leisure time” with “spiritual growth,” and yet, shared with loved ones, leisure time is a foretaste of heaven. How, then, might we order our lives in ways that allow for more of it?
One immediately obvious response to that question is to point out that not all people have the luxury of having time away from work, especially the working poor. We’ve had periods in our lives when leisure was not even something we could think about wanting more of because we were struggling to make ends meet. So on one level, even the question about how to recover some leisure time is itself a luxury that not all people can afford.
The Point of Leisure
Yet there is a deeper level to this question: What makes leisure possible, and why is the ability of many individuals and families to find it so compromised? Our reflection on leisure, therefore, is far from being a how-to guide for people who have lots of money to spend on their vacations. Instead it . . . is rooted in a much more substantial grasp of what all our activity ought to be oriented toward.
More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle observed that the reason people work is so that they might have leisure. If the Jeopardy! answer is “leisure,” the question, Aristotle suggests, is “beyond the basic necessities of life, why do we work at all?”
Aristotle notes that the usual pattern of activity involves work and recreation or entertainment—a pattern that we certainly see in our daily lives. We go to work or school, do what needs to be done, then come home and do various chores like make dinner and clean the house. Maybe there’s time to watch a TV show or listen to some music, but soon everyone’s tired and goes to bed. It’s a pretty common cycle. What Aristotle notices, though, is that beyond the usual work-entertain-rest pattern is a deeper desire for leisure, which he describes in his Politics as the proper object of the best part of us—our intellect.
Focused on Self or God?
The opposite of the active condition of leisure is mindless inactivity, including those practices that flow out of desires that have become focused too much on ourselves and not enough on God. We are created for worship, and what we worship is that toward which we devote all our energies . . . [and so] the issue of worship affects our approach to work and free time. What are we working for? What is our attitude toward free time? Are work and free time creative and positive, or are they varying forms of drudgery?
Everyone must choose what to worship—what to make the central point of one’s life—and this is equally true of families. True worship means asking the fundamental question of what is worth living for. Failing to ask that question means handing over our freedom to the pursuit of whatever end the rest of the culture says is worth pursuing.
Real wealth is feast time: the willingness to simply be in the presence of people we cherish to celebrate the life that God has given us. Note that [this] is not simply resting up for work, “recharging the batteries” so we can get back to work. Instead, [it] is about stepping outside the very pattern of work altogether and living in a different mode. Leisure “runs at right angles to work,” . . . ; it exists for itself and not for the purpose of making us better worker bees in the economy.
Let us be clear: it is not that we dislike our work. . . . The issue is that even the best work is almost always about building something other than the family itself, whereas leisure can be understood as the time during which we build our families. In a rightly ordered life, we are convinced, leisure is not about distraction or entertainment but rather about the joy that comes from seeing our family grow more and more into a good society.
Leisure Depends on Worship.
Leisure, for a family, is like that. It is an interruption in the flow of daily life and a celebration of life for its own sake. And the reason that real leisure depends on worship is because only when life is understood as a precious gift of God can people simply stop and appreciate its beauty on its own terms and not as a means to various forms of emotional or intellectual stimulation. Recreation and entertainment may be fun, but they may not really be leisurely in this sense. We discern sometimes a tendency toward frenetic activity—the sense that every moment must be filled with some kind of activity so no one gets bored.
Now, we are practical people, so we must admit that there can often be a yawning gap between the ideal and reality. We are not trying to suggest that family life depends on frozen moments of heavenly grace shining around beatific smiles on our children’s faces as we gaze lovingly on one another in the family room. Quite the contrary: leisure takes work. There is a paradox here, but as we think about the times when we have been able to really enjoy family time, we realize that many of them have taken energy to make happen.
For us, a typical example is the day trip. We’ve become adept at taking advantage of good-weather days, especially during the summer breaks from school. With some flexibility in our work schedules, we’ve been fortunate to take advantage of beautiful days to head off to a beach or a mountain or some seaside town near where we live. Very often over the years, these day trips have been spontaneous: we take a look at the weather report and spring into action. Someone starts getting the cooler ready, packing lunch and snacks. Someone else will clean out the car (which is usually messy) so everyone has room to sit. Another person may gather up pillows or music to listen to on the drive. When it works well (not every time, but more often as the kids get older), we’re able to set off in about an hour and pick a place to go.
We’ll seldom have a specific goal in mind. Maybe it will be to sit at the beach and play in the waves. Depending on the weather, we’ll take a hike or go “in and out shopping,” as one of our daughters once described what you do among the shops in pretty New England towns. Other times, especially in colder weather, we’ll just head somewhere beautiful and find a restaurant that has a scenic view where we have lunch. Many of these day trips have required some research—what’s the weather? What events or festivals are happening? What’s the traffic like? How much will this or that cost? How long will it take to get there? And so on. With six of us (mom, dad, three kids, and Nana), there have been many factors to consider over the years—walking distance, kids’ needs for food or drink, stamina, and so on. Sometimes we’ve failed miserably, but more often we find that these kinds of day trips are refreshing and enjoyable. And they have yielded some wonderful memories.
Planning for a “Sabbath” Day
The happiness that comes from leisure time is not something magical that just appears and disappears. It must be the object of planning, thoughtfulness, and activity. A day sabbath takes a lot of preparation. We’ve never had lots of money, so the idea of going to an amusement park or some other expensive plug-and-play activity isn’t usually an option. Instead, we’ve had to scour coupons, look for free or cheap options like parks or beaches, and be creative. We have to take into account tolerance levels (who’s willing to walk or bike, for how long), diet (who will eat what, when), distance (how long it takes to drive there), entertainment (how kids will spend time in the car or in the activity), and so on. But more often than not, we have a great time, and so the kids have developed a pretty good sense that our shared leisure can be fun.
We’ve cultivated an adventurous spirit, and so our kids have learned to go along, get along, and be ready for some adventure. We’ve even gotten in the habit over the last several summers of posting a list on our refrigerator of the places we’ve gone for our day trips. Our hope is that preserving these summer memories will help our kids develop both a spirit of gratitude and a readiness to make shared leisure a priority in their lives.
What makes days like these possible? What factors allow us as a family simply to rejoice in the gift of our life together? One answer, we are convinced, is practicing reverence for the gift of life itself. We sense that fear drives many to prioritize work, such that any time for leisure appears to be a distraction from the demands of work. For us, though, work must be secondary to the gift of life itself. The weekly call to sabbath rest is fundamentally a reminder that work is not the center of life but rather that which supports what is central. Perhaps you’ve heard the adage that some people work in order to live but that others live in order to work. For us, leisure is the original state, the state of receiving God’s gift of life.
This is a selection from Reclaiming Family Time: A Guide to Slowing Down and Savoring the Gift of One Another, by Tim and Sue Muldoon (The Word Among Us Press, 2017), available from www.wau.org/books.