Sunday, October 7, 2012

When Working is Not Working

It was called the Great Disappointment. A Baptist preacher named William Miller, using Daniel 8:14, announced that Jesus would return somewhere between 1843 and 1844. Eventually specific dates were announced by Miller and others  and a large number of his followers gave away all their possessions and waited for Jesus to come in the clouds. When a date would pass without the Second Coming taking place, Miller or his followers would recalculate. When the final date, October 22, 1844, passed uneventfully, it was the last straw for many. There were riots. Millerite churches were burned and vandalized. Some followers of Miller were attacked, tarred and feathered. Most were mocked and criticized. And a lot of his followers were simply crushed by the disappointment. Some went back to their old churches. Some became Quakers. Others reinterpreted the event theologically and became the Seventh Day Adventists.

The oldest book in the New Testament is usually thought to be 1 Thessalonians, written about 50 AD or within 20 years of Jesus' execution. In it Paul comforts Christians who were worried about the fate of those who died before the Lord's return. He assures them that they will be resurrected just as Jesus was but not until his return. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul deals with an unexpected complication derived from a reaction to that teaching. Apparently, as the Millerites would do almost 2 millennia later, some people expected Jesus' return to be so imminent that they stopped work and were just waiting. In addition, they were living off the generosity of others and becoming busybodies. In response Paul tells them that signs will precede Jesus' return. He also reminds them that though as an apostle he could ask for support for his work, he followed the tradition of most rabbis and had a trade he worked for a living. He was a tentmaker and bi-vocational priests are called tentmakers to this day. And in this context Paul writes: "For even when we were with you, we used to give you this command, 'If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.' For we hear that some among you are living an undisciplined life, not doing their own work but meddling in the work of others. Now such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and so provide their own food to eat."

It is clear in the context that Paul is not talking about those who cannot find work or cannot work because of disability. He is not talking about those who would be working if it weren't for a bad world economy or for companies which are laying people off rather than hiring. He's talking about members of the church who are using their expectation of Jesus' Second Coming to avoid work and who seem to be relying on the generosity of other Christians for food. Paul in the very next verse encourages Christians to help the poor and unfortunate; he is simply not including those who can find work but choose to take advantage of Christian charity instead. Later the church would call that sin "sloth."

This comes from our sermon suggestion box but it is not the sole focus of the request. It asks me to couple 2 Thessalonians 3:10 with the commandment which tells us to rest on the seventh day. And it asks "which part of [the] commandment's most [often] broken?"

The unique commandment to rest every seventh day and to make sure your animals and immigrants and even slaves do so as well set the Hebrews apart from other cultures. Various reasons for doing so are given. In Exodus 20, we are to rest on the Sabbath because when God created the world, he rested on the 7th day. We are created in the image of God. As he ceased work, so should we. More than that, we are to "remember the Sabbath to keep it holy." Holy means "set apart for God's use." This idea of remembrance is expanded upon in Deuteronomy 5:15 where it says, "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." We are to remember on this day God's mighty acts on our behalf: not only his creation of the universe and us but also his liberating his people and making a covenant with them and revealing his law to them. It's not enough to simply stop working and goof off. We are to remember and be thankful to God.   

In Exodus 31, the Sabbath is to be a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. Circumcision was a sign that an individual was a party to God's covenant but the Sabbath was a sign that all the people were aware of being included in God's covenant. It is to be a day of complete rest and refreshment. The Hebrew word used for refreshment literally means "to take breath." The Sabbath is when you stop the busyness of everyday life and get to catch your breath.
I'm not 100% sure why our sermon suggestion linked this Old Testament passage with the New Testament verse but it is inspired. Because they represent the 2 opposite errors we make towards work and rest.

Most virtues lie between 2 contradictory vices. Bravery lies between foolhardiness and cowardice. Patience lies between lethargy and haste. Love lies between indifference and obsession. Wise living means finding a balance between the two extremes that foolish or undisciplined people tend to fall into.

We have a culture that is pulling us in both directions when it comes to labor and leisure. On the one hand people keep inventing labor-saving devices. Some of these are quite sensible but some are ludicrous. Someone invented a recliner with a toilet in it. I guess you wouldn't have to get up during the game. There are ottomans that are mini-fridges and prism-glasses that allow you to watch TV while lying flat in bed. Even the useful labor-saving devices have bad side-effects. The fact that I can simply press one button or say a name to dial a person means that I don't remember my wife's phone number. I don't need to. Until I forget my phone and have to call her from one that doesn't have her in its memory. We can pay our bills online, and order merchandise online and even get the latest bestseller sent to our e-reading device in seconds. No wonder 2/3 of us are overweight! Wall-E's tubby humans who float everywhere in their comfy chairs with their oversized drink cups is looking less like satire and more like prophesy.

On the other hand, our culture is going 24/7. You can watch TV all night, you can shop or eat out at certain places in the wee hours and of course you can surf the internet anywhere, anytime. There is no flagging of the constant hustle and enticements of our up-all-night culture. And that means more people have to work all night. Not just people who keep our utilities running or our cops or medical care personnel, who must work the Sabbath for the common good. People who work at convenience stores and fast food joints and gambling establishments and who keep track of foreign stock exchanges must work now night shifts, despite what we know about their connection with insomnia and weight gain and high blood pressure and diabetes and cancer and depression.

It's a sad sign that we do so little physical activity these days that we must now set aside time just to exercise. And it's a sadder sign that we are so driven and pre-occupied with work and activities and amusements that 74% of us don't get enough sleep at night, 43% have trouble with daytime sleepiness and 37.9% report falling asleep during the day unintentionally. 62% of Americans report driving while sleepy and 37% admit to dozing off while behind the wheel. Drowsy drivers cause 100,000 crashes a year, 40,000 injuries and 1500 deaths.        

Add to this the fact that 73% of us report great stress on a weekly basis. 48% say the stress in their lives has increased over the last 5 years. The number 1 stressor for most people is money. 50% of people worrying about supporting their family. Work is a big source as well with 45% worry about job insecurity. And worry and sadness are doubled and stress is even greater among the unemployed and they increase the longer people can't find a job.

Stress causes your body to release cortisol and dampens your  immune system, digestive system, reproduction system and growth. It makes sense when the stress is short term, like your need to fight or take flight from a threat and everything non-essential can shut down temporarily. But chronic stress will damage these systems. Increased adrenaline, another response to stress, can cause chronic heartburn. Constant stress can lead to allergy attacks, tremors, teeth grinding, unexplained weight gain or loss, sleep disturbance and high blood pressure.

When you look up ways to relieve stress you first find the big 3: good diet, daily exercise and plenty of sleep. Pets are good stress relievers, too. When I was working at the nursing home in Plantation Key we had a woman who brought her dog in simply so residents could pet and interact with him. Studies have shown the physical benefits of having a pet.

Mirth, music and meditation are another 3 vital ways of relieving stress. Meditation is mentioned often in scripture. In Psalm 143, David writes, "I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done." The writer of Psalm 104 says of God, "My meditation of him shall be sweet; I will be glad in the Lord." Meditating on God's love and grace is a good way to counteract stress. We need to find time every day to get with God and meditate on him.

Of course, that is what the Sabbath is for. It is a gift from God. It is his day but he commands us to…rest, refresh, catch our breath. It might not be a bad idea to unplug the computer and turn off your phone. Meditate on God's gifts and grace instead.

Does that mean if you meditate by yourself, you don't need to go to church? Well, not only is meditation good for stress but so is connection with other people. Supportive relationships help people deal with stress. To paraphrase the old saying, when you are part of a group of people who care about you, it divides up your sorrows and multiplies your joys. In fact, attending church regularly has such a strong effect on people's mental health that scientists, loathe to attribute such benefits to God, attribute it all to the social aspects of church. And I don't think they are entirely wrong.

But a recent study found that religious people are less anxious when performing stressful tasks. The stronger their faith, the more calm they are,  the less mistakes they make, and the less rattled they are by the mistakes they do make. These were individuals whose brains were being monitored as they did the tasks. So individual faith appears to buffer one from anxiety. And one of the many roles the church fulfills, besides social support, is that of strengthening faith.

Of course, observing the Sabbath is most effective if you have work to stop doing. As one comedian pointed out, the problem with doing nothing is that you can't take a break from it. Those that are idle will get less from the Sabbath than those who are active. Unless you are fired or laid off. Most people who have lost their job work hard at finding another. It's very stressful to lose part of your identity (in our society, what you do for a living is a large part of who you are). It's very stressful to not be able to support your family and yourself. It's very stressful to scramble to make sure you have food and can keep your home. And it's very stressful to be viewed by others as lazy or a loser. Supporting and helping those without work through no fault of their own is expressing Christian love.

There is a virtue between being unwilling to work and unwilling to stop and that is observing the Sabbath, Spending time with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ in meditation, prayer, praise and communion is a gift from our Father and we would be ungrateful to ignore it. Life is hard and God knows it. As one rabbi put it, the Sabbath is where we regain Eden. Once again, we enjoy a taste of paradise, walking with our God in the cool of the day.

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