I had a fairly robust conversation with my mother the other day. She was puzzled that all of her children seemed to work so much and she couldn’t understand how work had seeped into every nook and cranny of our lives. Now for those of you who don’t know that much about me, my parents were both poor farmers who did have to work very hard to make ends meet. Growing up on a farm meant that there was always something to do. It’s a habit that defines my brother and sister as well- we’ve always been people who have place a great deal of value on work.
But as I pointed out to my mother that one of the enormous differences now is that in those blissful days there was no internet, no such thing as a mobile phone and mail that only arrived a day or two a week, with the postman who also delivered bread at the same time from the local baker in the village of Pilliga.
My point to her, that she struggled to understand is that working hard as no doubt that they did, there were times of rest as well as times of hard work. In many ways periods of rest and work were fairly sharply defined- for example if we were outside and in work clothes we were working. If we were mustering cattle for example , we were able to use language that would have got our mouths washed out with soap if we used the same words inside. There were clear spheres of work and rest.
What she struggled to understand is what internet and mobile phones have done have blurred these spheres between work and rest. To her the internet is a bit of a mystery and her mobile phone is only there for times when she isn’t near her landline. She really struggled to understand working people’s reality about how emails pinging all times of day and night and the office being only a phone call away. Couldn’t you just switch things off? She asked irritably.
A good question that I think that we rarely ask.
Of course, it is not that simple as we’d like it to be. Technology has somehow wormed into our lives and the one device blends aspects of our lives and even something like Facebook , twitter or Instagram may be part work and part play and we don’t sometimes are not sure which is which. And the problem is we’ve normalised this.
While our lives are enriched by being connected, they are also impoverished. The simple “I know where I am” because I’m dressed to do what I’m doing doesn’t work when you’re doing work emails in your dressing gown at 7am in the morning.
So, what does this have to do with our reading?
We need to recover the concept of a sabbath.
Where did the sabbath go?
The best explanation is from a sociologist called Max Weber in the early 20th century who advanced a theory called the Protestant work ethic. It’s all a bit complicated but here is the bare bones of it..
The followers of John Calvin believed in the idea of predestination. This meant that your eventual destiny was marked out from the beginning of your life- that you were either going to be one of the elect who went to heaven (and those were rare) , or you were destined to be one of the dammed in hell.
This became a bit of a preoccupation for them as they tried to work out who were the elect and who were not. One of the things they decided was that those who God favoured were likely to be special in some way- so they might be good looking, rich or lucky. And of course, these sober Calvinists who worked hard, wasted nothing indulged in few fripperies many actually were successful and richer because of their work habits and abstemious lives. Basically they worked hard and spent little.
So people noticed was that people who worked hard, saved and lived sober lives seemed to be more successful and therefore they were more likely to be the elect. Weber suggested that the reason why northern Europe surged ahead in the Industrial revolution was because the protestant countries had equated hard work and thrift with godliness and had accrued savings to invest in new technology. And this became a virtuous cycle hard work and thrift were seen to be as godly as church attendance. While to be honest this is now a bit simplistic there is a grain of truth in it.
Of course, these sober Calvinists had sabbaths. Their Sundays were filled with long church services and little else. And this tradition continues long into the 20th century where Sunday is a sabbath- a day set aside until recently . But over the past 40 years or so sport, shopping and general socialising has meant that those puritanical, proper and very sober Sundays have gone.
And with it that defined day of rest.
The point I am making is that societal trends and also technology have created lives where often there is little rest. We can feel like a hamster on a wheel.
One of the great gifts I think Christianity could give to our world is the idea of a Sabbath- a day of rest where we just stop. A day when we can just switch off and relax.
But to do this we may have to adjust our thinking.
I think one of the things we might have to consider is that idleness sometimes is a good thing. That having downtime that does not involve a screen or doing something productive is beneficial and relaxing because it lets our bodies and minds recover. Until our minds are uncluttered we are preoccupied with getting through the here and now rather than having time to consider anything beyond what’s in front of us. This means more than just sitting on the couch watching TV or thinking about what we are going to be doing next.
We may also need to unlearn some of the pesky work ethic’s values. That having things aren’t a mark of God’s favour but perhaps instead that a mark if God’s favour is about living a balanced happy life this involves down time as well as work. That our greatest goal is happiness which is a balance between having enough and living life on our own terms. Indeed, I think we need to preach the accumulation of too much stuff and vast wealth is the sign of selfishness and a world where wealth is hoarded by a few people is morally disordered. When you start comprehending that a billion minutes is just over 1900 years does anyone really need a billion pounds – it’s a ridiculous amount of money for one person to own.
I think it also involves some social comment from us- what sort of society have we created when there is no time for anything but work, consume and die? Ecologically, spiritually, and socially it’s a bit of a disaster. There needs to be time for introspection and the spirit if we are to have healthy lives.
Of course, the irony is that as a church that we also are part of this. Church can be another job on top of our own jobs. And as I observe as someone whose drug of choice is work that sometimes I need to tell myself to stop and that sometimes I set a bad example on this. That our church life can be as unbalanced as any other lifestyle.
The passage from Isaiah is part of the prophecy of the restoration, after the destruction of the temple, after the Babylonian exile the people will return to a ruined homeland but will live abundantly again. The passage about the sabbath reminds us that the restoration is holisitic- it isn’t just about restoring the physical but also the spiritual.
I can’t help but wonder what 5 months of enforced rest will have done to our busy and frenetic society. I’m wondering if we can glimpse this by the rise on online church attendance-maybe a change will come as those who have had more time for leisure realise it’s benefits and try to change how they live their lives. Or maybe it is a continued blurring where work and home become even more blurred and that this worrying trend continues.
As we begin to begin our own tentative steps back to whatever the next stage of our very strange journey, let us remember that this means rest as well as work. While there needs to be effort, there also needs to be rest and fun and time to be as much as doing. That we can only truly be people of faith if we are also people of rest and relaxation -of being as well as doing.