Colossians 3:23 – “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.”
It was late. Really late.
My husband and I were running—literally running—through the airport to make a connection that would land home before midnight. We had just delivered talks at a conference for clergy and church leaders out-of-state as part of our co-ministry, McNuttshell Ministries. My plenary talk, which featured my latest research, was enthusiastically received, but I was feeling the toll of the effort required.
A 48-hour trip away from home demanded elaborate scheduling of three kids with different schedules while also arranging my undergraduate and graduate level classes to keep moving ahead with our content and assignments despite my absence. Finding the time to pack myself for the trip and to pack the kids to stay with my parents was challenge enough. Fitting in the preparation for the talk was something else entirely. It was grueling, and I was rushing home not for rest but for a full day of teaching, meetings, and after school pickup.
Was it worth disrupting the rhythms of home and work, which were already so carefully calibrated to manage the demands of our family’s life? As a mother in the academy, I am constantly weighing the cost, value, and investment of my time as I grapple with the experience of running against the clock of conflicting demands. As one who understands the outworking of my training and work as a vocational calling to family, academy, and church, this question is never far from my mind.
“Run, Mama, run!” may aptly represent the life of the mother in academia, but to be busy for the sake of busyness misses the point. How do we direct our gifts for the sake of the Lord? How do we run to flourish?
THE THREEFOLD CALLING AS MARATHON
During the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, I was in the process of finalizing my chapter for IVP Academic’s newly released Power Women book, edited by Nancy Wang Yuen and Deshonna Collier-Goubil. The unanticipated challenge of overseeing the remote teaching of our kindergartener and managing our preschooler while also working at Wheaton became the backdrop for much-needed self-reflection about the true tensions that women who are mothers face in academia. The book is filled with vulnerable, beautifully complex, and even heartbreaking accounts of the joy and the cost that comes with the academic journey, which takes many forms. Each chapter at some level is a testament to the struggles of human finitude and all that is required in order to flourish (or simply tread water) by drawing from one’s inner character, the support of others, and reliance on the Lord above all. In my chapter, I strove to offer an honest evaluation of how and why I pursue a threefold calling to family, academy, and church. It feels like a race for sure, but how do I run the marathon rather than a sprint?
As a former track and field sprinter, I resonate with the New Testament’s image of the Christian life as a race. In 1 Corinthians 9, the Apostle Paul employs the metaphor to convey that not only does our every step matter, but we are called to win the race. And yet, the prize we seek isn’t a trophy for the shelf, a diploma for the wall, or a promotion. No, we are running for the imperishable wreath, the ultimate telos of our lives, though the race takes place in the everyday moments of each minute.
At first glance, it may seem like Paul’s words could justify the overworked mother to run herself ragged, which is why I so appreciate the boundary that he provides in verse 26. Paul writes, “I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air.” If every moment counts and the load is immense, then there must be discernment in how best to commit a finite supply of time, energy, and talent. To run “in such a way as to win”—in Paul’s words—is to take careful stock of our pace by weighing commitments wisely in prayer and consultation with those who know us best so that we can count the cost and direct our energy with intentionality. Running the marathon means creating boundaries (as best as we can), rather than just “beating the air,” to protect our flourishing for the sake of longevity not at the expense of our obligations to others but because of them. These limits of energy and ability should not drive us to despair but remind us that running a marathon demands endurance, and according to Heb. 12, that endurance is impossible apart from fixing our eyes on Christ. Clarity of purpose and grace upon grace awaits us when we foster a focus that reminds us that we are not our own; we belong to God each step of the way.
But let’s stop here. Though the tropes of our culture will prescribe finding a so-called “life-work balance” at this point, I am drawn instead to the parable of the talents as leading me to embrace a Christian mindset of stewardship (Matt. 25:14-30). If every good gift comes from the Lord (James 1:17) – my time on this earth, my abilities, my family and community, etc. – then none of it belongs to me in the first place. How do I steward my time, energy, and talents in such a way that allows me to pursue love of God and neighbor? That is the true measure of our time on earth.
In my experience, life is a juggle that demands nimble re-ordering and even imbalance in different moments and seasons of life. Sometimes our families will sacrifice for our work, and other times we will sacrifice work for our families; sometimes our work is a sacrifice for our families. This is less about balance and more about the right stewardship of our calling to God and neighbor.
By viewing our vocation through the lens of stewardship, we are reminded that the marathon is not actually about what I am gaining—since Christ has already won the race on my behalf (Heb. 12:1-2)—but about how I am sharing what I have received to the glory of God and for the good of others.
STEWARDING COMPASSION IN IMBALANCE
Christianity does not make it easy to sort the imbalance of our lives out. To follow Christ is to grapple with the inherent tension of a faith tradition that maintains a high expectation of Sabbath rest (even Jesus took naps!) and simultaneously a command to be ready for the imbalance, the unexpected, and the interruptions that God may bring into our lives (1 Peter 3:15). The reality is that life cannot be perfectly portioned out. There are moments to sit in the muddle, to handle the imbalance, and to endure the interruptions that are outside of our control. Jesus himself experienced this ebb and flow in his own ministry.
Consider Matthew 9, which reads like what the film industry calls a “long take” or a “one-er” shot. We move with Jesus through a sequence of encounters like one continuous scene. In the middle of teaching, he is “suddenly” interrupted because a sick daughter is in need (vs. 18), and he immediately leaves. “Then suddenly” a bleeding woman needs healing (vs. 20), and after his encounter with her, two blind men begin to follow him as he goes on his way (v. 27). Rather than being annoyed by the demands on his time, the scene culminates in verse 36: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Obviously, none of us is Jesus, but this passage challenges us to recognize that sometimes what seems like endless distractions, interruptions, or imbalances are opportunities for stewarding compassion towards students, congregants, and especially one’s own family. If Jesus’ decision to heal on the Sabbath (a time and work boundary) teaches us anything, it should lead us to recognize that the call to steward compassion does not always fall within prescribed boundaries.
RUNNING TO SIT DOWN
I am the daughter of a working mother (now retired), so I have observed and experienced these dynamics from many different directions. Before I embraced the threefold calling myself, my Rev. Dr. Mother used to manage the demands of her time as mom, professor, and pastor by placing an empty chair next to her desk at home.
No matter what time it was, no matter what kind of pressure she was under, we kids were welcomed there to share our thoughts, to cry, to laugh, and to listen. At that age, I had no idea that every minute I sat there had consequences on her time. Our conversations pushed her to work into the waking hours to finish that lecture, sermon, or women’s retreat well after I was asleep.
Was it worth it? Was I worth it? That empty chair told me that I was.
I think a lot about that empty chair now that I sit on the other side of the desk. I see it as an expression of love and an invitation to connect despite the pressures of the day-to-day. The empty chair is a nod to the opportunity that comes with “imbalance” since ultimately our time is not our own (Ps. 31:15). To me, the empty chair is a model of compassionate stewardship reminding me that as I run this race, sometimes I need to sit down. And then, rested and renewed with my eyes on Christ, I put one foot in front of the other.