Working At Not Working
Posted on October 23, 2017

You know the cliché, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks"? It's not true. We old dogs can be taught, and sometimes the lessons are surprising.

For example, this morning I learned after all these years that I really do not understand the concept of Shabbat (Sabbath). I use the word "concept" intentionally because that’s what Sabbath is. It's not merely a day on the calendar. It's a principle of intelligent living.

I preach about self-care. I counsel people that unless they attend to their own needs they will burn out and eventually be rendered incapable of tending to the needs of anyone else. I preach sermons about the times when Jesus crossed to the other side of the lake to restore and refresh himself or went off into the hills to spend moments in silence and prayer. In those sermons I always lift up the stories to encourage my listeners to learn from his example. And yet, this morning I found myself realizing that no matter how much I may have preached that lesson, I probably have never truly learned it.

Today I took the day off. The full day. I do not have one thing on my calendar, not a single one. As I made my first cup of coffee this morning, I found myself asking, "So, Michael, what are you going to do today?" When I briefly pondered that question I realized that I was literally feeling a level of physical discomfort knowing that I have no plans whatsoever. “What are you going to do today?” indicates that I consider “doing” pretty much equivalent with “living.” Even if it's not entirely work-related, my days off always are replete with tasks to be done: everything from writing a new chapter for whatever book I am working on at the moment to simpler things like going to the dentist, taking the laundry to the dry cleaner’s, or washing off the terrace. Today there were none of those things to do. So, how did I begin my day? I began by doing an initial run-through of Sunday's sermon to determine how much of it I already know by heart and can proclaim without notes. All the while, I continued to wrestle internally with the issue of feeling inadequate or lethargic because my calendar is clear. That emotion felt like anxiety or maybe even guilt. After a while, I stepped away from practicing the sermon (which is usually a Saturday routine) and began to seriously reflect on why I am not comfortable simply being still, even though the book of Psalms clearly encourages us to "Be still and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10)

Hebrew Scripture’s concept of Shabbat was placed in the Ten Commandments for a reason, and the reason was not merely for religious observance. It was for self-care. And, in fact, the Bible doesn't wait until the Ten Commandments to teach that lesson. In the very first chapter of the Bible's very first book (Genesis), it clearly says that God created the world in six days "and on the seventh day He rested." The model was established from the very beginning: We do the work of faith and then step back from working, which is also a way of being faithful. Scripture begins by teaching the lesson that even God took a break after the hard work of creating. Apparently, if we would be godly, that's a lesson we old (or young) dogs are meant to learn.

Admittedly, churches have not always been very effective in teaching that message. When I was a boy there was an old song we loved to sing at Sunday night Worship or Wednesday Evening Prayer Meeting. It was entitled “Work For The Night Is Coming.” The song was all about doing good deeds and performing acts of service while we can because the time would come when those opportunities would be past, and obviously we would all be judged not by God’s Grace but rather by how hard we had worked and how much we had accomplished. The lyrics included the words, "Work, for the night is coming when man works no more." Those lyrics reflected a different age when we were not sufficiently aware of the importance of being gender-inclusive. However, they also reflected something else – the commonplace notion that being restful equals being lazy. I look back now and find it interesting that we usually sang that hymn during our Sunday or Wednesday night services. Our church would sing the traditional hymns on Sunday mornings and the older, more revivalistic ones on Sunday or Wednesday nights. I wonder why we wouldn’t have had a more Taize-type experience, focusing on the virtues of rest and restoration, instead of singing the virtues of working our way to Heaven. "Work, for the night is coming when we work no more."

My friend, Nunzio Gubitosa, asked me once, "What do you thoroughly enjoy? What helps you relax and restore?" I answered, "I love going to theater. It doesn't matter if it’s Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, or even the Fringe Festival. If I spend an hour or two in a dark theater lost in someone else's story, for that time all the burdens I am carrying temporarily disappear. I'm relaxed when I go to the theater." He wisely advised, "Then you will probably serve your church more effectively if you spend a little less time in the office and a little more time in the theater." He was talking about learning the lesson of practicing Sabbath. As I review my life, as recent as my feelings this morning, I realize it is a lesson I have yet to learn. Even my response to the emotions I experienced this morning when I realized I have nothing scheduled was to come into my study at the apartment and write a blog to be posted on the church website. My response was not to be still and meditate or to walk through Central Park or to read a novel or to take in a movie. My response was to go back to work – in fact, to create work based on my need to take a brief respite from it.

Carl Jung understood this tendency on our part, which is why he said that often God gets through to us most clearly in our dreams because those are the only moments when we are not too busy to listen to God. If we ever become so busy that God's voice cannot get through to us, then we are, indeed, “too busy."

I'm going to conclude this blog now. My intent is to spend the rest of the day doing something very important, which is basically nothing at all. My guess is, however, that before lunch comes that strategy will be abandoned and I will be working at something. There's still a lot for this old dog to learn, beginning with the concept of Sabbath.


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