Post Presbyterian Church
June 24, 2007
How often do you hear your friends, your spouse, or yourself cry out in exasperation and despair, “There is not enough time for me to get everything done!” There is so much to do: earn a living, fulfill a vocation, nurture relationships, care for children and aging parents, get some exercise, clean the house, etc. Moreover, we hope to maintain our sanity and good humor while doing all this, and to keep growing as faithful and loving people at the same time. We are finite and the demands seem too great, the time too short.
In a review of the surprise best-seller of a few years ago, The Overworked American, the author, economist, Juliet Schor emphasized that those of us who feel time’s pressure have lots of company in this society. Professor Schor, reports that for all classes of working Americans, “Stress and work hours are up and sleep and family time are down. Wives working outside the home return to find a ‘second shift’ of housework awaiting them. Husbands add overtime or second jobs to their schedules. Single parents stretch in so many directions that they sometimes feel they can’t manage. Simultaneously, all are bombarded by messages that urge them to spend more (and so, ultimately, work more) to keep their homes cleaner (standards keep rising), and to improve themselves as lovers, investors, parents, or athletes. Supposedly to make all this possible, grocery stores stay open all night long, and entertainment options are available around the clock. We live, says Schor, in an economy and society that are demanding too much from people.
A USA Today article a few years ago featured a story about the new Sprint Communications Center in Vail which is designed to meet an urgent need Americans have to keep working while on vacation. The feature story was entitled, “Up to Their Laptops in Packed Powder: When Vacations Mean Business” and pictured a skier, in full ski regalia, sitting at a computer in an office overlooking the slope at Vail. The ad brochure urges skiers to “conduct business without leaving the mountain.” It says, “Skiers lose very little time on the slopes while maintaining business productivity.” The man in the picture, a New York stock-broker, was quoted, “I feel like I’m at a loss without a machine in front of me. I get antsy—I’m addicted to checking my stocks. When I found out there was a terminal up here I was elated.” (USA Today, 2/21/97)
Strongly engrained in many of us is the admirable work ethic that urges us to be productive and to fill every minute. We have allowed our identities to be shaped mostly by what we do and by how successful we are that we simply can’t let go of our obsessive drive to work because then who would we be, how would we measure our worth, and what would we replace our compulsions with? As a result, we tend to respect, admire, and hold up in high esteem those people who work all the time. We wonder how they do it all and we admire their dedication and energy, and success. Would we ever look up to someone and say “He is my role model. He only works 40 hours a week and I really admire his balance of work and family and leisure. I want to be like him.”
While most European countries give their employees at least four weeks of vacation a year, the standard for many Americans employees is just a measly two weeks of vacation and I heard recently that we don’t even use all of the days off we are given. We define our worth by our productivity and we feel guilty if we take too much time off. As Kyle and I were planning our trip to Santa Fe a few weeks ago and I was making the case for us to take the whole week off, I reminded him that I have never met a dying person who was looking back over his or her life and wished he or she had spent more of their days at work!
At the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly Meeting in 2000 a report from the Committee on Physical and Spiritual Well-Being entitled “Sabbath Keeping” was approved. It was filled with very thoughtful reasons for our need for leisure and for Sabbath. In sections 21.134 and 21.135 the report says that, “as a society, we know well the statistics that outline a particular form of progress: the ideal economic growth rate is 3% to 5% per year; adjusting for inflation, United States citizens spend more that twice as much for material goods and services as they did fifty years ago; we buy homes almost three times larger than we did following World War II and fill them with twice as many things; we work longer hours, more of us hold multiple jobs, and we now live to the full what some decades ago was proclaimed as ‘the gospel of consumerism.’
Yet these same statistics give rise to questions, the report states. “For an increasing number of us the questions themselves articulate the need for leisure and Sabbath. Can the finite resources of the earth sustain the economic growth our culture demands? Can persons and can families survive the drivenness of a life that finds its ‘good news’ in ever more rapid consumption? Are fundamental elements of justice sacrificed as people work longer and longer hours just to keep the system going, and as the gap between those who have the means for leisure and those with no means at all grows wider by the year?”
Dorothy Bass is a wonderful Presbyterian scholar who directs the Project on the Education and Formation of People of Faith at Valparaiso University. In her first book, Practicing Our Faith, she says that “overworked Americans need rest and they need to be reminded that they do not cause the grain to grow and that their greatest fulfillment does not come through the acquisition of material things.” Harsh but very true.
In her second book, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the gift of Time, Dorothy Bass shares how important leisure and Sabbath are to the balance of work in our lives and how we so lightly dismiss God’s commandment to observe the Sabbath and to do everything in our power to keep it holy. She said, “I remember very clearly the moment when I first glimpsed the possibility that my Christian faith might be a source of guidance through the time crunch that was my life. It was a Saturday night, and a few teachers were sitting around a dinner table. Tomorrow, we complained, would not be a happy day. Great piles of papers needed grading, and we had promised our students that we would return them on Monday. And so we whined, and as we whined our complaints gradually shaded into boasts. Someone listening in might have thought that we were competing to see who had to grade the most, who worked hardest, and who was most put upon by the demands of his or her job.
“That’s when it hit me,” she said. “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” This was a commandment, one of the ten laws in the basic morality code of Christianity, Judaism, and Western civilization, and here we were, hatching plans to violate it. I could not imagine this group sitting around saying, “I’m planning to take God’s name in vain”; “I’m planning to commit adultery”; or “I think I’ll steal something or murder someone.” Yes, we might occasionally break one of the other commandments but if we did, we would hardly boast. Our approach to the Sabbath commandment was very different. We had become so captivated by our work, so impressed by its demands on us and by our own seeming indispensability that it had simply vanished from our consciousness. I began to wonder what keeping the Sabbath holy really meant and why it mattered.
The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And Jesus said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
One time Jesus invited his friends to a small Sabbath. He had sent them out for the first time, two by two, to the villages of Galilee, to teach and to heal and to preach. And now they had returned, exhilarated, exhausted, glad to see one another, hungry, eager to talk and to tell him how it had gone, to share travel stories and to laugh together. And Jesus says, “come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” Mark adds, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Jesus and his disciples needed down time, time to debrief, to reflect on what they had experienced, time to eat and drink together. It was not luxury. It was, in a very real way, Jesus attempting to save the sanity, stability, energy, productivity, the very lives of his dearest friends.
The Greek word for leisure can also be translated “opportunity” or a “well-planned experience”. When it occurs at the right time, the time of personal need, leisure means an opportunity for renewal. Leisure can restore our souls and wind us up again. When Jesus invites his friends to a time and place apart where in their inaccessibility they could rest in peace and quiet and simply be for awhile, he invites them to a time of silence, a time out to experience a small Sabbath. (Some ideas and excerpts from a sermon by John Buchanan)
In the section entitled, “Silence” in Kathleen Norris’s book, Amazing Grace, she relates what elementary students had to say about their class experiment with times of silence. She said, “What interests me most is the way in which silence liberated the imagination of so many children. A little girl in a tiny town in western North Dakota offered to me a gem of spiritual wisdom that I find myself returning to when my life becomes too noisy and distractions overwhelm me. This little girl said, ‘silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.’”
John Buchanan says that keeping the Sabbath is one of the basic ideas in the Bible. It has been legalized and trivialized almost beyond recognition, but Sabbath and Sabbath-keeping are very close to the heart of the Biblical tradition. It shows up in the foundation of Israel’s law, the Ten Commandments: the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” The reason is that on the seventh day of creation, God rested. And God’s rest became part of the magnificent mystery of creation. Creation requires rest to be completed. John Buchanan relates that an artist friend told him once that the most important brush stroke is the last one: that a good part of creative genius is knowing when to quit, that a lot of great paintings have been ruined because the artist didn’t know when to stop and kept dabbling at it, trying to improve it. God knows when to stop. God knows how to step back, take a deep breath and enjoy what God has created. The work of creation includes the stopping as well as the enjoyment.
The following story from The Song of the Bird by Anthony de Mello beautifully illustrates our need for leisure and for Sabbath:
The rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find the Southern fisherman lying lazily beside his boat, smoking a pipe. “Why aren’t you out fishing?” said the industrialist.
“Because I have caught enough fish for the day,” said the fisherman.
“Why don’t you catch some more?”
“What would I do with them?”
“You could earn more money,” was the reply. “And with that you could have a motor fixed to your boat and go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Then you would make enough money to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats, maybe a fleet of boats. Then you could really enjoy life.”
“What do you think I am doing right now?”
The Southern fisherman seems to have a healthy work ethic and knows something about the importance of balancing work with resting and enjoying the gift of this good life. In a Christian Century article about the necessity for leisure and Sabbath, Martin Marty quoted a Jewish scholar, Arthur Waskow, head of the Shalom Center. “In Jewish life, Sabbath is the time when you stop doing—you study Torah, you sing, you dance, you celebrate and you reflect on what the previous six days have been. If there were a single piece of Jewish wisdom that was most important to impart to the human race at this very moment in history, it would be the importance of Sabbath. I mean the genuinely profound sense of pausing to be, to reflect, to break the addiction to working, producing, making and inventing. I believe that Waskow is on to something very important: stopping is essential to our being. Ceasing to do is necessary in order to be.
In the little book, Plain and Simple, Sue Bender, an artist and family therapist in Berkeley, California shares the lessons she learned about life from her Sabbath with the Amish people a few years ago. She left her fast-paced, high-tech, fragmented lifestyle and entered a world without televisions, telephones, electric lights, or refrigerators; a world where clutter and hurry are replaced with inner quiet and calm ritual; a world where a sunny kitchen glows and no distinction is make between the sacred and the everyday.
Sue Bender has this to say, “This isn’t a story about miracles, instant transformations, or happy endings. My journey to the Amish did not deliver a big truth. I’m not radically different. No one has stopped me on the street and said, ‘Sue, I don’t recognize you. What happened?’ She said, “I had hoped for a clean slate, imagined the old me magically disappearing and a totally new me in its place. That didn’t happen. Nothing of the old me disappeared. I found an old me, a new me, an imperfect me and the beginning of a new acceptance of all the me’s. To follow a path that has heart, to take it wherever it leads, is not an Amish value, but it is a way I’ve come to value. I set out on an unfamiliar path toward an unknown conclusion and although I didn’t know it at the time, I was hoping for answers. Instead I kept finding my way back to the question, “What really matters?”
I believe that we need our leisure and Sabbath times to enable us to step back and re-evaluate our lives and the balance we maintain between work and play and honestly ask ourselves the difficult, life-changing questions. “What really matters?” “Does my life reflect what really matters?” “Do I truly live as though I belong to God and not my work, or my possessions or my perfectionism and compulsive striving or my desire for power and control?” “Do I remember to take my soul with me wherever I go?”
I know that I am open to the rest and enjoyment that leisure and Sabbath provide but if I’m honest, I wonder how open I am to the redemption and transformation they also provide if I allow myself to ask these hard questions and then be open to the changes that come in discovering the answers.
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest for awhile.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
Loving and Faithful God, we gather on this day with an awareness that we need to stop and pause and listen for your still small voice that comes to us in unexpected ways. It is not until we sit and make ourselves stop working and doing so much that we realize how exhausted we are. We are thankful that you commanded us to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy and yet we don’t even think twice about breaking this commandment. We are also grateful that Jesus invited his hurried and harried disciples to come away by themselves to a lonely place and rest for a while. And yet with these pretty heavy reminders of our need for leisure, for Sabbath, and for rest in our lives, we often literally blow You off O, God, as we continue on with our addiction to work and perfectionism and striving and control and power and busyness. Somewhere on down the road, we realize we have allowed our lives to become more fragmented and our souls more tired and yet we don’t know what to do and we don’t know how to stop our doing. We have become so captivated by our work and our success, so impressed by its demands on us and by our indispensability that we ignore our basic need for rest, for enjoyment, for Sabbath and for renewal and transformation on God’s terms rather than ours. Help us O God to risk stopping and resting and allow us to sit and simply be for a while. Remind us again that we are saved not by what we can do and accomplish but by your grace and love that seeks to give us all the many essential things we can never get from working more or doing more. We ask that you would be with our loved ones who are sick, grief stricken, depressed, lonely, hospitalized, or have too much time on their hands. Fill them and us with your love and grace in ways that bring healing to their brokenness and peace to their chaos. In the name of the One who invites us to lonely places and encourages us to rest, we pray, Our Father, who art in heaven…..