It seems the Swine Flu epidemic scare has thankfully passed. Many around the globe took extra precautions against the notorious H1N1 virus. Merriam-Webster defines epidemic as “affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time.
Congestion accompanies colds and flu. Yet this congestion is the result of a cluttered lifestyle, filled from dawn to dusk with the noise of a demanding schedule, electronic toys designed to ensure one is well connected and communicating 24/7, and the acquisition of stuff. The expectations and demands placed upon self and accepted by many around us block our breathing passages, blur our vision, and clog our ears. Believers who are congested by busyness find it difficult to see the grace of God at work in and around them and are plagued with difficulty hearing His word; its sounds and meanings are distorted and missed all together, often seeming impotent.
Another symptom of busyness in our communities is high fever. All around us there are people in and outside our churches burning up and burning out due to the pace of life accepted and even applauded. Years ago Dr. Erwin Kolb defined burn out as “the disease of the overcommitted.”1 He listed such characteristics as cynicism toward others, anger turned inward (or outward!), loss of idealism and optimism, and self-deprecation. In 2005 Michael Zigarelli polled 752 Christian leaders (not just church workers). He found 75% say the “busyness of life gets in the way of developing my relationship with God.”2 The high fever of burnout due to over commitment and stress continues to stymie our developing relationships with our families, friends, and Christ.
A third symptom of this busyness bug is fatigue. This breakneck pace which we accept and even seek out is leaving us spent and depleted. One in three of the above poll said they hurry even when they do not need to hurry. It becomes a habit! Fifty-two percent said they eat quickly. Are you taking Rolaids, TUMS, Zantac, Mylanta, Pepsid AC or any number of the myriad of these medications related to such eating warning signs? And three out of five admit to being exhausted at the end of the day. We are a community of the walking sick, showing symptoms and even infecting others.
This virus is highly contagious, being passed on from parent to child, from pastor to parishioner, from boss to employee, and from teacher to pupil. People actually brag about their disease of busyness, delusionally thinking it is a badge of honor and importance, all the while spreading the germ. Such buzz words as “efficiency” and “production” are carriers within which hide this insidious infection. Eventually one’s own identity adheres to this disease. Gordon MacDonald, in his book Ordering Your Private World, describes the process this way, “A person begins to reason that if one accomplishment resulted in good feelings and the praise of others, then several more accomplishments may bring an abundance of good feelings and affirmations…. This is the kind of person who sees life only in terms of results.”3 And less you and I think the church is immune, MacDonald points out, “We can be driven toward a superior Christian reputation, toward a desire for some dramatic spiritual experience, or toward a form of leadership that is really more a quest for domination of people than servanthood.”
The widespread prevalence of this busyness bug is at epidemic proportions! What is the prescription for such a sinister illness? Just as grandma understood that rest and chicken soup would cure most ailments, Sabbath rest and chicken soup for our souls is the divine cure for this soul sickness.
Sabbath (shabath) means to cease. It first appears in Gen.2:2: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (ESV). God ceased from his work of creation and rested. It is interesting to note that the first people, Adam and Eve, were created on the sixth day, the last day of the six days of creation. This means their first full day of existence was a day of ceasing, resting. It is also noteworthy that this is all before the Fall of Gen. 3. We get a few glimpses of life before sin ruined it all! We also gain a sense of the rhythm of life in those pre-Fall days. The words, “And there was evening and there was morning,” occur six times like the rhythmic beat of a drum (Gen.1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). The day begins at evening! Our day usually begins in the morning after we are rested (or trying to rest) from the previous day’s stress-filled busyness. Yet, in the created rhythmic pulse, the evening rest comes first, while God is at work. Then we rise in the morning, God having already been at work, while we slumbered. We rise to join His work. It seems from these insights that the rhythm of people is first rest, doing nothing, then join in the divine work of the Lord–vocation.
This rhythm of one day of rest and six days of work is divinely embedded into God’s community by command. Twice is this command given along with the other nine.
The Sabbath is a gift to an infected people. In Ex. 20:8 we read, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” A few verses later Israel is told why, “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” It is as if to say, Remember your first day of existence, it was not a day of producing. No need to be more efficient, no expectations from others. It was a day of just being. You are first human-beings, and from this posture of resting you go and do, human-doings.
It is insightful, in our fast-paced culture, to remember God first blessed, hallowed, and set apart time before place (Ex.3:5, Nm.7:1) and before people (Dt. 7:6). Ours is an age when time is more valuable than money. Ours is also an age when the misuse and abuse of time infects us as well. This command to remember that God worked for six days and rested is a weekly rhythmic balm to keep in check the busyness bug.
The second place this command is given is in Deuteronomy 5:12: “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy as the LORD your God commanded you.” And again a reason is given a few verses later, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” Observe the Sabbath day as a remembrance. This time it is not his creative work, but rather His redeeming work which is remembered. It is as if He is saying, “You were slaves, working feverishly, under tyranny, everyday for 400 years. Now the Lord has freed you. You are no longer to live as slaves, but rest every seventh day as the freed people you are and observe a regular day of ‘holy convocation’ or ‘sacred assembly'” (Lev. 23:3). Gather together to remember and observe the Lord’s creative and redemptive work. Then from such a posture of resting join Him in the work He has given you to do. This is our vocation as children in the divine rhythm of the Father; He acts first, then we respond, by resting then doing.
The Sabbath rest, first observed and set apart by God at the end of creation week and given to His people for remembering and observing is chicken soup for our souls which have been infected by the busyness bug. All the symptoms of this virus–congestion, high fever, and fatigue–are symptoms of individuals and whole communities focused on self. We are a people whose identities are overly connected to results, production, and efficiency. The subtle, and not so subtle, temptation is to either make myself seem important and validate my existence by being busy or easily acquiesce to someone else’s demands upon me. This is the posture of placing value upon what I do–human doing. Our Lord, who is “Lord of the Sabbath,” combats this by inviting us into his rest. It is His work, He will accomplish it. We simply join Him in this work. And when the burden is heavy His invitation is, “Come to me all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). And ultimately in Him is our eternal Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:9-10).
Now that we have been freed from slavery of the tyranny to do ever increasingly more, our identity is in Christ, not what we do. How shall we live in this Sabbath rhythm? To remain healthy and grow in strength we can exercise our freedoms in Christ. Sabbath living is not a rigid obedience to laws, but attention to the lessons of Sabbath grace.
We live Sabbath moments. These are rests in our day which help us “remember” and “observe.” These are daily moments for such things as prayer, devotional reading, music listening, meditation, Christian conversations, etc.
We establish and live a weekly rhythm: “There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD” (Lev.23:3 NIV). We cease from weekly routines of work for gathering, worshiping, re-creating, to infuse a different routine which reminds us of our life in and with Christ and His people.
We acknowledge Sabbath seasons, less frequent opportunities for re-creating; vacations and retreats can be valuable if they are not infected by the busyness bug, for enjoying the gift of Sabbath rest. These help us to focus and our souls to feast on a foretaste of our eternal Sabbath rest yet to come in Christ.
1 Kolb, Erwin. Burned Out, The Lutheran Witness, March 1992, 1.
2 Zigarelli, Michael. The Epidemic of Busyness Among Christian Leaders, ChristianityToday.com; available from http://www.christianitytoday.com/workplace/articles/issue16-epidemicofbusyness.html; Internet; accessed 3 March 2005.
3 MacDonald, Gordon. Ordering Your Private World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003, 33.