This poem,“Pilgrim’s Conflict with Sloth,” brings together three things that I am facing and loving: one is poetry, another is work, and another is this transition in my life that some people call retirement, as I step away from being the senior pastor of Bethlehem. So I set myself to ask how I feel about stopping. Am I stopping? Am I going to keep working? What’s the right view of work? Why do I love poetry so much?
All of this came together in a poem in which I encounter sloth as an enemy on the road. And the way it works out is that the poem is my wrestling. It’s the way my mind works. I wrestle with: Who am I? Am I a workaholic? Am I not? What’s a right theology of work and theology of rest? And what does it mean to come to junctures like this in your life?
So, if you wonder about work; if you love poetry; if you’ve ever come to transitions in your life and felt like you’ve met enemies along the way, this poem may be helpful for you. This is “Pilgrim’s Conflict with Sloth.”
My name is Pilgrim. Yesterday
At dusk I met along my way
An enemy. His name was Sloth.
He tried to lure me, like a moth,
Exhausted, to his idle flames.
As always, he used other names:
Relief and Respite and Repose
And Rest, and Leisure. These he knows
Are worthy seasons in this age—
Worthy names to make a sage
Out of a scoundrel.
“Look,” he said
To me, affecting praise, “you've led
Your church for thirty years. And I
Am glad that you at last comply
With my advice. I'm willing still
To help you rest, though my goodwill,
I must admit, has withered from
All your unwillingness to come
When I've invited you before.”
But I replied, “I still deplore
Your ways and your deceitful snares.
What makes you think that all my cares
Would suddenly transform your mirth
And your amusements, as if worth
Were made of ease and emptiness?
My urgent prayers do not express
Compliance with your old advice.
No more today does it entice
Than it has ever done.”
Said Sloth, “do you retire? Should I
Not hear this as a knocking at
My door? Come now. My welcome mat
Is out. Are you not standing there?”
“No,” I replied, “I’m not. And where
I stand you cannot comprehend.
I do not aim with you to spend
A single hour, though I confess
You are a subtle cheat, and dress
Your house with promises your name
Can never keep—Sloth! To my shame,
I visited your rooms enough
To know—you are not Rest. You bluff
Your way into the lives of drained
And weary men, with pity feigned,
And promise life—as if the soul
Of man were made to sit and roll
The dice until some happy pair
Make him a champ or millionaire.
You cannot understand my aims.
I do not live for wealth or games.”
Sloth felt the sting and said, “I know
Your kind, a workaholic. O,
Sleep not, play not, throw to the wind
God’s gift of leisure days. Rescind
The work of Christ who bought your rest.
O, yes, I know your kind: invest,
Invest, invest. And never take
Your dividends on earth. You make
Your way to heaven by your work,
Your precious work. O, do not shirk
A moment from your service of
This holy god, your life, your love.”
“Perhaps,” I said, “had I not heard
This censuring before, conferred
From better lips than yours, I would
Just thank you for the warning. Good
And useful outcomes flow from such
Rebukes, when love is in the touch.
But you have never loved. Along
With wrath and greed and pride and strong
Desires for sex and food and eminence,
You seven deadly sins dispense
Destruction everywhere, and then
You cover treachery again,
And smile as you condemn the heart
That wars to quench your flaming dart.
You cannot grasp in part or whole
The glory of a Christian soul
At work and rest.”
The sun had set.
And sloth said, “Night comes, Pilgrim, let
Me now keep your book while you sleep.
Will not your tireless Jesus keep
Your going out and coming in?
Come, Pilgrim, rest, it is not sin
“That’s true,” I said, “but it
Is sin to sleep for Sloth. I will not sit
Or lie while you are near, but stand
And take this book in my right hand,
And in my mouth, until you are
No longer in my way, nor bar
My path of industry in this
Next season of my life. You miss
The mark, Old Sloth. You do not know
What Jesus bought.”
“O yes, I’ll show
You,” Sloth replied, “Come unto me
All you who labor now and see
The rest that I have bought for you—
That’s what he bought.”
“Quotes that are true,”
I said, “do not make truth. Old sins,
Like heretics, build vice on spins
From true, half-cited texts. How gives
The Lord this rest? As my God lives,
I’ll tell you, Sloth: he gives his rest
Under a yoke—his sweet bequest,
Blood-bought, and suited to the back
Of every weary saint. The knack
Of all our plowing: Jesus makes
The weighty burden light, and takes
The yoke-beams in his hand, and lifts
And carries us. Our works are gifts.
And Jesus is the giver. Grace
Bought and powers every pace,
And every enterprise. Sloth, we
Were made, and made again, to be
Co-makers with the Maker of
The world—to see the world above
And then to make the world below
More beautiful, to learn, to know,
And then to make, to shape, adorn,
Compose, produce, and turn a thorn
Into an etching tool—to write, to say
What never has been said that way,
To sing, to draw, to paint, to build,
To stitch and weave until we’ve filled
The world with truth. For this God spoke,
And Jesus died. This is our yoke.
Our happy yoke. You will not take
My work. Sloth, we were made to make.”
“So, Pilgrim,” Sloth replied, “you’ll earn
Your heaven with your arts? Go learn
Your Bible better. Saved by grace,
Not works, the book is clear. Go chase
Your heaven, laboring. That’s not my taste.”
“My heaven, Sloth” I answered, “chased
Me long before I found my way
To it. Grace, to be sure! The day
Will show again the half-text you
Left out. Sloth, we are made to do:
We are his workmanship in Christ,
Made for good works. He sacrificed
His life that we might live in them.
He the vine, and we the stem,
And they, the fruit. Is not the fruit
Of love our life?”
Sloth muttered to himself. He turned
To go, and said to me, “You’ve spurned
My offer of sweet rest. Go waste
Your life. You are a fool. You’ll taste
Your sorrow. Mark my words.” And he
And so, one victory
Obtained, my weary soul was kept.
And I lay down my head and slept.