19 July 2015

Stop!

Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

8th Sunday after Pentecost/ 19th July 2015

“Come away to a deserted place,” Jesus said, “all by yourselves and rest awhile."

Come away. Rest awhile. It’s a command, an imperative, no less important than, “Follow me” (Mk 1:17) or “Love one another” (John 13:34).  “Come away.  Rest awhile.”  We generally don’t hear this as a command.  We hear it as a suggestion or good advice, perhaps a luxury, if we can find the time.  We’re so busy, we tell ourselves, there’s too much to do.

You can sense the frenetic activity in this text. The disciples just returned from their mission activity and they’re eager to report.  Jesus sent them out to the surrounding villages, two by two, to announce the good news of the kingdom.  They were “coming and going,” Mark tells us, that “they had no leisure even to eat.”

Coming and going; forgetting to eat. No time for leisure.  Sound familiar?  We’re coming and going 24/7 and not all of it kingdom work.  In our age we’re coming and going and coming and going and at times we’re not even sure where we’re going or why or for what purpose. 

The frenzied, feverish pace of our frenetic lives is one of the deep illnesses of the soul and of our age.[1]  People are working more and more.  Even with the overall wealth of our society and technological advances we’re still pushing ourselves harder than ever.  “Time-off” or “down time” or “leisure time” are becoming increasingly more difficult to find—and enjoy. And when we do take the time, we soon discover it’s not enough.

Are Americans overworked?  Are we too obsessed with performance and output? When do we take the time to rest?  Americans get the least paid vacation time in the world.  Most Europeans, for example, have about thirty days of vacation each year: six weeks in Switzerland, twenty-five days in France; thirty-four days in Germany; thirty-seven in the United Kingdom. From my time in Europe over the years it appears that Europeans have a quality of life, an approach to life, a far healthier balance between work and leisure than we Americans do.  Perhaps you’ve observed the same.  While it is true that many of the churches are empty on a Sunday morning, many stores are closed and people are spending time with family and friends, sharing a meal, playing in a park.  For such a secular society they are, in many ways, keeping the Sabbath and making time to rest.

Thanks to the formation of unions in America—“the people who brought you weekends”—most Americans don’t have a ten- or twelve-hour workday or a six-day work week (although those in upper management in corporate America certainly do).  Since 1850, the average workweek has been reduced by thirty-one hours.  During the Depression, in the 1930s, there was a move to shorten daily work hours.  Henry Ford (1863-1947) believed that shortening the workday would allow workers to consume more in their free time.  Today, vacations, time off for maternity (and paternity), and even “family leave,” are standards parts of a benefits package.  With all this free time, why are we busier than ever?

The amenities of modern life don’t necessarily enhance our experience of leisure.  A community of Amish people was once offered a television set.  Here’s what they said: “If we were to add television to our lives, what would we take away?  Conversation with our children?  Reading?  Praying?”  They graciously declined.[2]

The average American works close to fifty hours per week.  But it’s really higher.  It’s higher for those that hold down more than one job.  Then add the commute time (sometimes an hour or more in each direction).  Then with the ubiquitous phenomenon of email and text messaging and Blackberries following us around, many of us are working even when we’re away from the office.  People are always in work mode, it seems, rarely, truly detached or distracted from work.  It’s always there.

This means there’s even more pressure to make the most of “free time.”  Eight hours for work; eight hours for sleep; eight hours for recreation.  That’s how Robert Owen (1771-1858), social reformer and early founder of Socialism, hoped to carve out the day for those who lived in his communal experiment in New Lanark, Scotland (near Glasgow), Scotland, back in 1817.  In 1836, crowds marched in the streets of the U.S. to demand an eight-hour workday (which didn’t come until much later).  For many today it’s ten hours for work; six hours for sleep; maybe eight hours for everything else—grocery shopping, chores, community work, answering emails, helping children with homework, preparing meals, doctor appointments, worship, prayer—the list just grows.  It’s not surprising that people have stopped coming to worship on Sunday because, as I hear (and at some level, thoroughly understand), “It’s the only day I can really rest.”  Saturdays are filled with chores; Sunday is the only day to sleep in, I hear.

Even prayer gets shortchanged because we feel we have to make the most of the “free time” we have, that we have to be productive.  Sometimes prayer seems like an inefficient use of one’s time, for how can one judge its effectiveness?  We have to be productive we’re told.

Then when we do take time for play or for leisure, it’s rarely an end in itself. We’re driven by results.  When we’re exercising at the gym is it for the sheer joy of exercising or are we doing it only because we want to lower our heart rate or bad cholesterol count?

We can blame our Puritan forbears for this.  “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.”  We can also blame our Scots-Presbyterian forebears. In his classic text on economics, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1725-1790), born in Scotland, known as the father of economics, and a staunch Presbyterian, believed that “activity is only truly productive if it takes raw material and makes it into something useful; the idle produce nothing.”[3] When we are idle or engaged in activity that doesn’t produce measurable results, such as prayer, meditation, reflection, worship, or sleep, we soon feel guilty.

And so we work more and more, sometimes because we really do love our work—and work can be a blessing.  However, more often than not we work hard because we are driven, because we have to:  to improve our standard of living, to increase our wealth, to get out of debt, to provide for our families, to pay college tuition, or to prove to others or ourselves that we matter.  But at what cost?

Sleep deprivation is pandemic in our society.  In an article in Psychiatric Times entitled, “Sleep Deprivation, Psychosis and Mental Efficiency,” Dr. Stanley Coren, head of the Human Neuropsychology and Perception Laboratory at the University of British Columbia, writes that insufficient sleep takes a considerable toll on our bodies, on our mental health, and is potentially disastrous for others. The invention of the light bulb is partially to blame for this. In 1910, before the electric light bulb, the average person slept nine hours each night.  Have you ever noticed, perhaps when you’re camping or when the power goes out at night, and it’s very dark, you’re ready for bed around 8 or 9 o’clock?  We have a sleep deficit in our society, sleep debt. Coren found “our societal sleep debt is so great that simply losing one additional hour of sleep due to the spring shift of daylight savings times can increase traffic accident rates by 7 % and death rates due to all accidents by 6.5%.”[4]

“Come away,” Jesus said. “Rest awhile.” Into the frenetic, crazed rush of our lives come these words, this gracious imperative:  

STOP!

Come away.  Rest awhile. Even the Lord of the universe, heaven-bent on the work of the kingdom, who commissioned his people to work, to serve, to follow, knows that in order for us to do the work God calls us to do, in order to be fully human—as Jesus was fully human—we need to step away from it all and rest. 

Chart Jesus’ movement through the gospel of Mark and you’ll find a gracious rhythm here: work, then rest, in order to work, in order to rest. The rest wasn’t devoid of activity, doing nothing, because it included time for prayer and worship.  With compassion Jesus is saying to his over-worked followers, “Come away.” You need to get away from the crowds and the endless expectations of others to a lonely place, a deserted place, or, literally, a private place. 

There’s some resistance on their part, they seem to be extra-earnest in their endeavors. Read the text carefully.  “Come away to a deserted place—all by yourselves—and rest a while.”  All by yourselves.  In other words, Jesus says to them, “Hey, I mean you.” I’m talking to you, not to them, not to the crowds pressing in. You need to rest. The literal meaning of “rest” here means, “to cease.” STOP.  It means to cease, to rest in order to gain strength.  The word was used to describe soldiers at rest and of land being allowed to rest so that work, so that the bearing of fruit can take place at a later time and place.[5]

Did you notice that the lectionary reading skipped about twenty verses?  In these verses Jesus fed at least at least 5,000 people, and walked on water (!), and then in verse 53, healed the sick; wherever he went, people begged him for healing, eager just to get a touch of his cloak.  Jesus packed a lot into a day.  Even though he commands the disciples to rest here—and they had some time away together—the work of God continued, the work of compassion continues. Even though Jesus doesn’t rest much here, we know he took time away to rest, to pray, to reconnect with God, to be grounded.  Without that connection, that grounding, Jesus, too, would have been consumed by the needs of the people he would have succumbed to compassion fatigue.  If Jesus took rest seriously, then we have to all the more. 

The needs of God’s people are enormous and never ending; we have to be prepared.  We have to carve out time to rest—to sleep, to care for our bodies, but also to pray, to worship, to do those things that feed our souls, that open up and bring joy to the heart, that ground us, that remind us who we are and whose we are—and who we aren’t and whose we aren’t.  We have to do this because no one else is going to do it for us.

The psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) said, “Hurry is not of the devil; hurry is the devil.”  Why?  Because hurry takes us away from the things that matter and distracts us from the things of the heart—it takes us away from God.  It’s difficult to listen to God when we’re on the go all the time. 

Hurried lives usually point to hurried hearts.  I think contemporary pastor and writer John Ortberg is on to something when he makes this crucial connection.  He says, “Hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart.”[6]  We all suffer from a chronic condition that plagues us from time to time: hurry sickness.  And the “most serious sign of hurry sickness is a diminished capacity to love.  Love and hurry,” Ortberg says, “are fundamentally incompatible.  Love always takes time, and time is one thing hurried people don’t have.”[7]  If we’re hurried, sleep deprived, in need of rest—when we’re grouchy, cranky, whiny, and angry when we’re sleep deprived—our hearts are disordered and then it’s tough to be compassionate or loving or caring toward the people who are right in front of us, or all around us, it’s also difficult loving God, and loving ourselves.

Come away.  Rest.  It’s not a luxury in God’s kingdom; it’s a command. It’s required. Like keeping the Sabbath, it’s a law designed to give us life. It’s a word of wisdom and grace for our souls.  Jesus knows what’s best for us.  There’s no indication in scripture that Jesus was ever in a hurry to get anywhere. He knew the proper rhythm of life. And he invites us to follow him in this way, “because, by definition, we can’t move faster than the one we are following.” Jesus calls us to stop, cease, slow down, rest, eliminate hurry. Sometimes, just sometimes, the single most spiritual thing we can do—is take a nap or get some sleep.[8]





[1] See also Omid Safi, “The Disease of Being Busy,” On Being with Krista Tippett, November 6, 2014. .
[2] Story told by Jim Rice, “Why Play: Contemplation, freedom, and the spirit of leisure,” Sojourners Magazine, January-February 1997. Rice’s extremely insightful article provides the contemporary social context for my reading of the Mark text.
[3] Rice’s summary of Adams. The complete title of this text, the first modern work of economics was, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published March 9, 1776, Edinburgh.
[4] Stanley Coren, “Sleep Deprivation, Psychosis, and Mental Efficiency,” Psychiatric Times (March 1, 1998), Vol. 15, No.3. 
[5] Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 80.
[6] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 84.
[7] Ortberg, 84ff.
[8] Ortberg, 88.