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Listen to Lesslie: Don’t Waste Your Summer

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We all know the feeling.

We approach the end of the summer and wish we’d spent it differently. Sure, we did some good things. But there were other tasks we never got to. Some of us wish we’d played more. Others of us wish we’d worked a little harder. Either way, we feel like we’ve wasted our summer.

How can you avoid that post-summer letdown? What tips will help you live a summer without regrets? Let’s learn from the remarkable example of a remarkable man, Lesslie Newbigin.

Wisdom from a Cross-Cultural Missionary

Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) served as a missionary to India and leader in the ecumenical movement for most of his life, but he’s most known for what he did in the final years of his life. Upon retiring to England at the age of 74, Newbigin became burdened over Western culture’s tough paganism and called the church to engage its local culture like missionaries.

Newbigin was acquainted with busyness. He theologized and wrote on the run as he pastored villages, envisioned the future at ecumenical gatherings, lectured at universities and rested with his family in the countryside. Despite his demanding life, he insisted on finding time to rest. In fact, he tucked within his writings a series of reflections about the relationship between the task of theology (his work) and the health of the religious life (his rest).

Many Christians (especially pastors and students; I know because I’m in both categories) feel the unique tension of aspiring to take time for personal refreshment versus working a little harder to get ahead. Others, though, don’t experience this tension. They devote themselves wholeheartedly to either work or rest, which demonstrates a warped view of life.

A Christian vision of summer should include a balanced vision of work (studying about who God is so that we may love and worship him) and rest (activities that refresh our souls). Newbigin’s insights can teach us much about striking this balance. He’ll teach us how not to waste our summer.

Watch your life. Watch your doctrine. And don’t waste your summer.

Newbigin’s Big Idea

Newbigin believed that theology shapes your religious life, and your religious life shapes theology. In other words, work and rest feed off each other. You need both, not one or the other. Newbigin explains,

The study of theology, like all study, is both intimately bound up with life as a whole, and also distinctly separated from it. Study is a part of our whole effort as living beings to live in a true relation to our environment, to come to grips with reality; but it itself involves a certain standing back from life, a certain withdrawing of ourselves from the immediate grip and pressure and struggle of life in order that we may become more fully aware of what we are dealing with. Study is therefore in itself an incomplete thing: it is one movement of a rhythmic process by which life seeks its end. And the right relating of study to the rest of life, while it is a condition of health, is never an easy achievement.[1]

Many people want to distinguish between sound theology and a vibrant inner life. Newbigin disagreed. He believed that the two were necessarily related to one another: theology shapes the religious life and the religious life shapes theology. In every part of his own life, Newbigin was focused on maintaining a vibrant spiritual life as well as updated, contextual and meaningful theological explanations of the gospel.

Let’s consider these two topics individually and then think practically about what this means for our lives and our summers.

Theology Shapes the Religious Life

Newbigin believed that we need theology to preserve the religious life from confusion from within and corruption from without. To combat both dangers, Newbigin emphasized the importance of God’s people engaging in theological reflection. He said,

Unless the process of active and systematic reflection is also present, religion will begin to take leave of reality, and will deceive us instead of saving us. We need to know what we believe and why we believe it, so that we may know what we deny and why we deny it.[2]

Newbigin believed that we need the back-and-forth relationship between the true story of the Scriptures and the cultural story of the world. Simply, if we’re going to live for Jesus in this world, then we need to know the Bible (and theological articulations of it) in order to make sense of God’s world. We need sound theology to live well in God’s world, no matter how vibrant our spiritual lives are.

The Religious Life Shapes Theology

So the work of theology is vitally important. But Newbigin also believed that our religious life is just as important because religious life informs our theology. In his life, Newbigin believed God was at work in ordinary and everyday experiences. Thus nothing took priority over the 30-40 minutes he spent alone with his Bible every morning before breakfast. He even treated each week like a holy week, thoughtfully remembering those most important days of Jesus’ life in his own life.

These daily reflections gave his theology their strength and vigor. As a result, Newbigin’s theology was not only focused on communicating the Scriptural story to the cultural story, but it did so in a way that arose from aspects of his own experiences with God and resonated with human experiences in general.

The workaholics among us need to rest this summer.

Don’t Waste Your Summer

What does all of this have to do with how you spend your summer? Newbigin believed that the religious life and the task of theology were necessarily related to one another. Holding these two important issues in balance with one another has everything to do with how we spend the rest of our summer.

A wasted summer would be a summer spent doing nothing but theology (work), or a summer spent only on refining the religious life (rest).

Practically, then, the workaholics among us need to rest this summer. We need to put the books away, close the computer, cut off the phone and devote ourselves to things we normally “don’t have time for.” In doing this, we revive the religious life that is necessary to doing good theology.

So read something you wouldn’t typically read, and do something you wouldn’t typically do. This summer I’m reading When People Are Big and God is Small and Release The Power of Prayer, two books to help revive my personal life.

Others of us need to do some theological work this summer. We need to read about church history, understand contemporary events from a Christian worldview and dig into podcasts on topics we normally “don’t have time for.” In doing this, we engage in deeper theological reflection that will serve to sustain and fortify our witness for Jesus in the world.

For example, you could read some Newbigin for yourself. I recommend Proper Confidence (an accessible read) and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (which is more challenging).

The End of the Matter

Newbigin’s wisdom on balancing work and rest, theology and the inner life wasn’t entirely original. Paul, near the end of his life, had a similar message for young Timothy:

Watch your life and watch your doctrine, for in doing so you will save yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:16)

Paul is saying that a gospel-centered life is passionate about both grace and good works. The tasks of deep soul rest and sound theological reflection don’t earn our salvation. Instead, striking the right balance between work and rest evidences our salvation.

So this summer, listen to Lesslie Newbigin: Rest by caring for your religious life, but also work by give yourself to sound theological reflection.

Watch your life. Watch your doctrine. And don’t waste your summer.

This article originally published on May 8, 2017.

[1] Newbigin, “The Relation of Theology to the Religious Life” – Archive Paper. Page 1.

[2] Newbigin, “The Relation of Theology to the Religious Life” – Archive Paper. Page 3.

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Thomas West

Thomas serves as the Discipleship Pastor at Providence Baptist Church. He holds a PhD from Southeastern Seminary. He's passionate about bringing Lesslie Newbigin's thought to bear on today’s life and ministry. He and his wife Elizabeth live in Raleigh with their two children.

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