Finding Balance in Work and Life

(My church recently asked me to write something for our community about “work/life balance.” This is what I came up with, and perhaps what I am learning from trial and error can be helpful to you in some way.)

The phrase “work/life balance” has always struck me as somewhat strange. Is my work somehow distinct from my life—and not a part of it? I try to think about the role of work as part of a larger “whole life balance.” I find myself asking: What does it mean to live a balanced life? How do I integrate my work into my life in a healthy way? What does God intend for the balance of work as part of my life?

It’s in the life of Jesus that we see a faithful picture of a life lived in balance. He shows us what it means to have meaningful work, to step away from that work when the time is right, and to find our balance in knowing who we are as God’s children.

Jesus shows there’s a time to stop working

Mark 6:30-32: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.”

Jesus’ disciples work really hard, ministering to many people, to the point that they end up working right through lunch. Sound familiar? And Jesus’ immediate response is to invite them to a quiet place, to rest, to get away from the hurry of their work. In a time with so much to get done, Jesus’ impulse is to rest.

Some ways I try to practice this (and often fail!):

  • My co-workers know that I am unavailable during non-work time. When I’m not working, I’m not working. They know I won’t read an email until the hours I have designated for work. If there is a true emergency, they can call.
  • I don’t email on my phone. No notifications, no access, nothing. I will see it when I return to my computer during work hours. (No personal email on phone either.)
  • I take at least one day a week as a Sabbath. I don’t work at all on that day.
  • I do my best to get outside and to exercise regularly. A regular schedule is helpful.
  • I prioritize good sleep.
  • I remember that relationships, family, rest, play, worship, and prayer all need to play a role in my daily and weekly rhythms.
  • Time spent with God is always a necessity. It is in God’s presence that we ultimately discover our priorities, find balance, and receive truth about who we are.

These are just my own practices. The best for you might look quite different!

Jesus shows there’s a time for meaningful work

Mark 6:33-34: “But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.”

This story takes an incredible turn. After calling his disciples to come away and rest with him, Jesus encounters a great need. Out of compassion, Jesus begins teaching–he goes back to work! He knows that work, rest, play, relationship, and more all need to live in balance.

When I am working, here are some helpful practices I try to use:

  • Even at home, I “go to work” — I put on “work clothes” and have a dedicated space where I work. Then when my work time ends, I leave it behind.
  • I set daily to-do lists that are less than I think I can accomplish. With the unexpected interruptions that come most days, a smaller list tends to be what I actually get done.
  • When I finish my work for the day, I thank God for the work I have been able to do, and prayerfully set aside the things I have not accomplished.

It’s all about knowing who you are

How does Jesus know when to work, when to rest, how to live in balance? While there can be any number of practical tools, ultimately it comes down to the reality that we, like Jesus, need to know who we are. That we are God’s beloved daughters and sons. That our work, whatever it be, is not ultimately what defines us. Regardless of how much we do or don’t accomplish, we are loved by God. When we overwork, there is grace upon grace. When we don’t finish what we need to, there is grace upon grace.

In our work and rest, in our worship and play, in our stress and joy, in our accomplishments and failures, in our life and death, we belong to the Lord. And out of this truth, we can begin to find a life of balance.

A New Year: Do It Again

A dear friend frequently shares a passage from G. K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, which I think about often. Chesterton writes,

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.

My friend shared this in the context of a kids’ summer camp, which he directs and for which I worked. Week after week we would eat the same meals, play the same games, sing the same songs, and after so many weeks, it wasn’t hard to be exhausted at the thought of doing it all again. So about once a summer, we received this encouragement from Chesterton, to believe that God looked down at our little old corner of redwood forest with great delight, saying every week and every summer, “Do it again!”

It’s now the time of year when people often ask about goals and resolutions, plans and dreams. And this new year, many of my hopes and plans are similar to those from the last. Certainly there will be some new adventures, new places, unexpected challenges and joys. But I don’t have any big resolutions or life-altering goals. I won’t graduate or move across the country or start a new job (that I know of!). At first I felt there was some sort of problem with this lack of newness—shouldn’t I set out to do something big and daring and life-changing? Yet this year, the opportunity feels less about beginning a new journey, and more about staying faithful to the work I’ve been given. This past year has been a beautiful one, with much that was good, much that was hard, and most something in between. I wonder if perhaps God is saying, “Good work. Let’s keep at it. Do it again!”

Brother Rich and his friend Beaker wrote a song based on these words from Chesterton as well as the story of the prodigal son.

We are children no more, we have sinned and grown old
And our Father still waits and He watches down the road
To see the crying boys come running back to His arms
And be growing young
Growing young

Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children, to those who know what it is to be safe in the arms of the Father. God calls us to approach him with the attitude of a child.

So, I think that’s my resolution for this new year: to enter each season with a childlike trust, to grow young, and to follow God’s call to do it again.

Sometimes I Think of Abraham

Earlier this fall I spent time in southern Utah, a place that, among other spectacular sights, often has a clear view of the night sky. Surrounded by a cathedral of stone, attempting to remember constellations and their stories, I couldn’t help but hear the echo of familiar words: “Sometimes I think of Abraham / How one star he saw had been lit for me.” And I trusted, though it felt like hoping against hope, that these words were indeed true—that I was part of a larger story.

I don’t remember when I first encountered Rich Mullins, the man who penned these words. Some friends become such constant companions that life without them seems a strange thing to consider. Some of his more famous songs I certainly sang in church as a kid, and their lyrics and melodies feel older than memory. Today, Rich is one of my spiritual heroes—his music, words, and prophetic life have shaped my sense of the Christian faith inestimably.

In many ways, Rich’s music and life have been an anchor for my own journey of trusting in Jesus. In every season, while more and more people choose to stop walking in the Way, saints like Rich keep calling out: “Stay the course. Follow the ancient paths.”

Rich sings,

Sometimes I think of Abraham
How one star he saw had been lit for me
He was a stranger in this land
And I am that, no less than he
And on this road to righteousness
Sometimes the climb can be so steep
I may falter in my steps
But never beyond Your reach

The road to righteousness is steep, lonely, narrow, and rarely fashionable. Yet Rich and his music remind me that it is also beautiful, good, and true. That a life committed to following after the God of Jesus Christ is not the easiest, but the best. Not at all lucrative, but absolutely beautiful. Not popular, but true. Rich helps me see that there are many faithful companions on the journey, saints who shine like stars in the heavens, who have walked in obedience and faithfulness.

The lives of these saints—Abraham, David, Mary, Francis, Romero, Elliot, Nouwen, Mullins, and so many others—spur me on in this journey of faith. Because these are not merely distant characters or dead musicians, but because they are brothers and sisters in faith, whose stories we inherit, whose faith strengthens our own.

Nearly any time I see the night sky I hear, “Sometimes I think of Abraham….”, and I marvel at the fact that one of these stars—the same stars Abraham saw—has been lit for me. We are children of the promise, and God is faithful to his word. The old, old story is true.

Rich Mullins has helped me to keep to the old roads of faith. I thank God for my old friend Rich.

I will seek You in the morning
And I will learn to walk in Your ways
And step by step You’ll lead me
And I will follow You all of my days

St. Peter: Called and Born Anew

I used to own a boat
But then one day this man
Showed up and asked
If he might use the boat
As his pulpit and there wasn’t time
For me to say no
And before long he was teaching
Me how to fish and that
Was the last time I saw that boat

I think that some people
Would say that this was my “call”
That the day I began to follow
Was the beginning of a new life
And it was indeed the beginning
Of choosing much that I
Never would have chosen
Had my boat remained mine

I used to own my life
But then one day this man
Showed up and asked
If he might take my life
Up into his own and there wasn’t time
For me to say no
And before long he was sprinkling
Me with something like blood and that
Was the last time I was my own

I think that some people
Would say that this was my “new birth”
That the day I began to change
Was the beginning of a new family
And it was indeed the beginning
Of places and people that I
Never would have chosen
Had my life remained mine

So I say that you are “born anew”
And “called” because you have
Not only died and left your nets
And come out of darkness
But you have been called into light
And born anew into something
Called eternal life