My husband and I are working on some small home maintenance projects right now, little things that slid through the cracks during our younger child’s first year of life and our perpetual sleep deprivation. It’s good and generally satisfying work, but my husband gets peeved every time a Lowe’s commercial pops up with the tagline “Never stop improving.”
There’s an assumption in the slogan: spend more, do more, be more — as if our house exists only for its resale value and not as our home. It’s not that either of us opposes home maintenance (or even home improvement) or the desire to make our surroundings comfortable and beautiful. It’s more that we can get swept away so easily by a relentless drive to improve our houses (or our bodies or our bank accounts or our wardrobes, etc.) that we miss the purpose and the joy of the original blessing.
The path to perfection is illusory and unending, and the more we strive to be better, the more we see flaws all around us. As certifiable perfectionists and relentlessly self-improving people (though not boulangerie owners), my husband and I know all too well that “never stop improving,” when applied to life or Lowe’s, is a trap.
This column springs from a conversation we had during a 9-mile run disguised as our date for the week. I love running with my husband, but on this particular day it was 90 degrees and humid, and I was nursing an ankle injury. Somewhere on the rail trail, it occurred to me that we were not actually having fun, making this excursion kind of a crummy date. We stopped running and redeemed our remaining date time, but it also led to a serious conversation about keeping the Sabbath — or really any Sabbath.
The problem is that our jobs never really end; we’re both academics who could always read more or write more. Never stop improving, right? We’re also parents, and that’s a constant shift, more about attrition than improvement. So where does our Sabbath happen when it feels like we never get a day off?
Somewhere in the depressing silence after that question, my husband started quoting Puritan poet George Herbert’s “The Pulley.” In the poem (short and more than worth reading for yourself in full), God pours out a glass of blessings on mankind but ultimately decides to withhold the blessing of rest. This divine decision stems from the realization that if we were given everything, we’d worship the gifts instead of the Giver:
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.
Instead, God withholds rest, acknowledging:
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.
Perhaps, Herbert muses, we’ll perform the spiritual equivalent of stopping mid-run because it’s hot and humid and we’re basically broken, so that pain and exhaustion will drive us from the rail trail to the place of rest God maintains for us. It’s just that I think that’s true for me too often, and that’s not the way God wants it to be.
He made the Sabbath for me — as a gift and a tool to make the rest of time easier, just like a pulley helps us move heavy loads. I don’t get time off from parenting, but I still often get to choose between a Sabbath and “never stop improving.” One helps me to see and value the blessings of my life, while the other fixes my perspective on fault finding.
I need to choose a Sabbath more because it is good for me and God’s desire for me. And living the life of God’s desiring will always be an improvement.