Monday, November 18, 2013

Idleness, Margin, Overlaod, & Sabbath

There was a priest who preached long, rambling sermons.  One Sunday the Senior Warden had enough.  Twenty minutes into the sermon, he stood up, walked to the back of the church, and left.  Forty-five minutes later he returned just as the priest was wrapping up.  In front of the entire congregation the priest asked the warden why he had left.  The warden replied, “I went to get my hair cut.”  Incredulous, the priest responded, “Why didn’t you get a haircut before the service started?” “Well,” said the warden, “I didn’t need one then.”  I rewrote today’s sermon five times in order to avoid a moment like that!

This morning’s New Testament reading features one of Paul’s most down-to-earth pieces of writing.  It addresses a concrete problem and a specific issue in the life of a particular faith community:

“You are to avoid believers who are living in idleness…  If you will not work, you will not eat… We hear that some are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” 

Now, let me just say this: it is nearly impossible to hear this passage and not think about those people who (at least to our way of thinking) are abusing our country’s social programs.  Are there people collecting benefits who could work, but don’t?  Absolutely.  Do these verses have something to say about it?  Definitely.  But if we only focus on this aspect of the passage, we will miss what Paul would say to us, not them. 

The core of his thought is contained in his own example:

“You ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not be a burden to any of you.” 

Elsewhere we learn that Paul supported himself by making tents.  While it did not make him wealthy, it made it possible for him to be self-supporting.  It also enabled him the freedom to do the missionary work God called him to do: planting churches, preaching, teaching, and writing letters.  In addition, it gave him the time he needed to pursue the spiritual dimension of life: praying, worshipping, gathering in fellowship with others.  Paul presents his life as a model of balance: labor, service, and rest all in right relationship.  It is this balance that he holds up against the extreme of idleness.  If Paul were to write a letter to you in which he lifts up his witness, what would he attack in your life that is out of balance?  For most of us it would not be idleness, but the other extreme – overload.

I draw the word ‘overload’ very intentionally from two books by Richard Swenson, M.D. titled Margin and The Overload Syndrome.  There is an old Finnish proverb that teaches, God did not create hurry.  Each of us here knows what it is like to have ‘more on our plate’ than we can handle.  For some of us it is a chronic condition.  By driving ourselves to the edge of our limits and beyond, we find ourselves in a constant state of motion, but ultimately not getting any place we want to be. 

Swenson writes,

“If you are travelling from Chicago to New York and instead find yourself in Houston, the sensible thing to do is to stop the car, consult the map, and turn in the right direction.  In the same way, if we have travelled down the road of progress and now find ourselves in a situation where relational, emotional, and spiritual pain are pandemic, where stress and overload rule our daily lives… we do not need to apologize for stopping and redirecting ourselves.”

Swenson’s method of redirecting is to create more margin.  The margins on a piece of paper prevent the writing from consuming the entire page.  This open space actually makes reading easier.  “Margin,” writes Swenson, “is the leeway we once had between ourselves and our limits.”  An example of overload is “being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were twenty minutes late dropping the children off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station – and you forgot your purse.”  “Margin… is having breath left at the top of the staircase, money left at the end of the month, and sanity left at the end of [the day]”.  If overload is your reality then margin is the remedy.

Do you ever get the feeling that there is no time to think, no place to heal, and no room to breathe?  Does it ever feel like what is good in life is being peeled away by the sheer velocity at which we live and move and have our being?  “The conditions of modern-day living,” says Swenson, “devour margin.”

These conditions place such a high value on technology, material acquisition, educational accolades, and personal notoriety that there is little room left to develop those things which are essential in life, but much harder to quantify: things like emotional contentment, right relationships, and spiritual awareness.  As margin erodes from our lives the time we have to invest in these essential areas diminishes with it. 

It doesn’t take much imagination to translate Swenson’s thinking into the Biblical language of the Sabbath.  I find many people have little understanding of what the Sabbath is and why it is important.  When asked, most people say that the keeping the Sabbath means going to church on Sundays.  When asked, most people say you should keep the Sabbath because God wants us to stop and remember God.  Neither response is grounded in Scripture.  The Bible gives two primary theological reasons for keeping the Sabbath: one is rooted in the story of creation, the other in the experience of captivity in Egypt. 

The first few chapters of the Book of Genesis paint a wonderfully rich picture of God’s nature.  God creates.  God allows what is created to respond, to develop, and to grow.  God interacts with what is unfolding.  God reflects on it before naming it.  God evaluates before pronouncing its goodness.  God shares a mandate to create with the human race.  And God rests.  The Creation story does not describe so much a series of chronological events as it reveals a set of Divine personality traits.  Creating, reflecting, evaluating, sharing, and resting are intertwined throughout the story because they are essential elements of God’s nature.

And because we are created in God’s image, they are essential human traits as well.  Resting, Sabbath, margin – whatever you want to call it – is not something we do for God, it is something we do because it is an essential component of who we are.  It is not an hour we ‘sacrifice’ on Sunday morning; it is something that needs to be built into our daily round with added emphasis one day of the week.  It is a mistake to think that God is pro-exhaustion for six days, with one day of pause at the end.  Our lives, like the letters we write on a piece of paper, need margin… open space that allows for personal time, social growth, and spiritual enlightenment.

The second biblical reason for observing the Sabbath comes from Israel’s enslavement in Egypt where they were forced to work seven days a week.  Slavery deprived them of the opportunity to worship God, to observe Sabbath, and to have margin in their lives.  Once freed, God reminds them (and us) to observe the Sabbath as a sign of our freedom.

More and more it seems that people do not come to church on a regular basis because Sunday is their only day to sleep in, to get things done around the house, or just plain to relax.  The effort to get to church, especially for parents, feels like the same kind of work they have to do every other day.  On one hand, people (and parents in particular) are desperate to find some margin.  On the other hand, could there be a clearer sign that once again God’s people are in slavery, only this time it is a voluntary bondage to the demands of the cultural climate in which we live. 

Today’s lifestyle demands so much of our time that we opt out of regular worship so that we have some semblance of margin in our lives.  It demands every ounce of our financial resources so that our Sunday contribution more closely resembles a tip to a friendly waiter than a biblical tithe given in gratitude to God.  It takes so much out of us that worship feels more like a gathering of the emotionally drained than a community of faith victoriously celebrating our Lord’s glorious Resurrection.  It is a lifestyle that gives back less than it takes from us.  It creates a kind of bondage that would have caused our enslaved ancestors in Egypt to cry out to the Lord for deliverance.

I think if Paul were writing to us today his message would be this:

“You ought to imitate us; we were not overloaded when we were with you.  We worked as much as we needed to get by.  We ministered to those in need.  We had time to do God’s work and we had time to rest and pray.  We hear that some of you are in constant motion, pushing yourselves well beyond human limits in order to have it all.  You need to stop and consider what it costs you and those you love.  You are pursuing a lie.  It is not worth it.  Consider again how we lived.  Follow our example.  Be who God created you to be, not who the culture says you ought to be.”

Swenson says the benefits of margin include a deep sense of joy, the ability to serve others, better health, time to nourish relationships, and a sense of being available to moments of unexpected and unplanned grace.  If you find these things to be in short order in your life, then perhaps you might consider how you ended up in Houston when you were trying to get to New York.