Life, Limits, And the Pursuit of Happiness
If you would like a genuine spiritual experience, here’s a suggestion.
Next time you’re out and about on a Sunday afternoon—let’s say you’re coming home from church—and you stop by the local supermarket or big box store to “pick up a few things,” do this: When you enter the store, pause for a moment and take a deep breath. Then, pay close attention to the nearest end-aisle displays and all the nearby signs with the word “Sale” on them (preferably the insistent ones with exclamation marks). Listen to the background music. Look at the hoards of shoppers pushing carts and paying more attention to what’s on the shelves than to each other. And, if there are neon signs, pay close attention to them too. Realize, as much as you can, that everything you see, except for the other shoppers, is designed to manipulate you. Then, having become fully aware of where you are and what’s going on around you, slowly repeat to yourself the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Keep repeating it for a few moments; mull it over.
Your spiritual experience will begin when this question begins percolating in your mind: “What on earth am I doing here?” What happens after that is between you and God.
The point here is not feeling guilty about picking up a gallon of milk on the way home. The point is, becoming aware of how easily and completely we have been assimilated into the warp-speed, 24/7, media-saturated, over-connected culture we live in. Sometime, spend a day paying attention to how many times you’ve been asked to buy something—commercials on radio or TV, internet pop-ups, billboards, signs—even video commercials on some gas pumps! Or, spend a day paying attention to how often you’ve become impatient because you’re not moving as fast as you want to—in traffic jams, long lines at banks or stores—even the traffic jam of shopping carts at your favorite bog box. Or, finally, spend a day paying attention to how much of your mind is enveloped in information that doesn’t matter. Our thoughts and memories are clogged with Tweets (“I’m going to Petco to get a new cat box”), FaceBook posts (“Sally Jane likes English muffins”), or baffling text messages, such as “ : – )= ” (which is a happy face with fangs and has something to do with being happy like a vampire).
While you’re at it, pay attention to how much advertising has to do with breaking limits. When I’ve paid attention to this, it seems like every third ad has something to do with ignoring limits, and I think these ads have the unintended consequence of describing what’s wrong with so much of modern life. We’ve forgotten that limits help make us happy.
Take food, for instance. All-you-can-eat buffets are great, but not when you regularly approach them as a more-than-I-need-to-eat buffet. To eat just what we need to eat is to be healthy and to experience the happiness that goes with health. Wine is good too, as Jesus demonstrated at the marriage feast in Cana; but, again, what happens when you over-do it? Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher and ethicist, recognized the importance of limits. He defined “virtue” as behavior at the mid-point of extremes. “Courage,” for example, is midway between cowardice and recklessness. There are limits to the virtue of courage: Go too far one way or the other and you miss it. The same is true of another virtue, “Wisdom.” Too much wisdom leads to “paralysis by analysis”; too little of this virtue, and you end up a reckless fool. Virtue knows its limits, and life works best when you live within them.
This is what’s behind the Sabbath day, which God thought was so important that He commanded the Israelites to observe it weekly. God gives us six days to take care of business, but the seventh day is off limits for business. Wisely, God puts a lid on how busy we can be. The Sabbath day limits human striving and the fears that drive this striving. The Sabbath day is God’s way of giving us time to remember that our life and work, no matter how important they may be, exist completely in the context of His Creation, purposes and plans. No matter how big we may be and no matter how important our plans may be, the Sabbath is an opportunity to remember that we are part of something much, much bigger than we are. It is the day when our grandiose plans get put into a heavenly perspective. As a result, it is very hard to take God’s Sabbath rest seriously and burn-out at the same time. For ministers, it’s a whole lot easier to love God when we put side the work of ministry to spend time with Him in order to do so.
One day a week is intended for two things and two things alone: God and rest. This doesn’t mean that the Sabbath is nothing more than one long church service. God intends it to be a quiet, restful, and enjoyable day. A day set aside to remember that we are created in God’s image, and that our identity is not based on our job title or level of responsibility. When we remember that our primary allegiance is to God’s Kingdom, and that allegiance is our true citizenship. God’s Sabbath rest not only puts limits on human work and striving, it puts limits on all the worries, fears, and anxieties that motivate our striving or are the results of our striving. The Sabbath, however we observe it, keeps us from being assimilated by our surroundings.
But there’s more to the limit of the Sabbath day than avoiding burn-out and being at peace. For many, being busy, living beyond “limits,” is a sign of success, importance, and status. “This Week” magazine, citing an article by Joan C. Williams of the Harvard Business Review, notes how a 50-60 hour work week has become an “unspoken job requirement.” She notes, “Within companies and in upper-middle-class culture, workaholism now serves as a badge of manly heroism and as proof of elite status. Today, when men say how ‘slammed’ they are at work, to the point of sleeplessness and physical exhaustion, they’re bragging, not complaining. “It’s a way of saying, ‘I am so important.’” (Joan C. Williams, “This Week,” June 14, 2013, p.12). Busyness is a sign of self-importance, and that is a symptom of pride.
Ministers and church workers aren’t immune to this. One’s importance can just as easily be based on how busy one is (or looks) in a church setting as in a business setting. Like anyone else, ministers can live without limits so they—or “their” ministry—can be “big,” as in big churches, big influence, big book sales, and big TV or radio presence.
For pastors, maybe a better spiritual experience can be had in their offices instead of in super markets or big box stores. Maybe, in the middle of a ministry fantasy of big crowds, big book sales and good Nielson ratings, we self-consciously push the pause button on the ministry fantasy and say over and over again until we get it, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The odds are pretty good that you’ll have some sort of spiritual experience if you break the fantasy’s spell by meditating on this almost forgotten commandment of God.
Whether we like it or not, we have limits. When we ignore them, our lives and relationships suffer. Preachers who ignore limits come to a place where they can talk at length about joy or peace or even God’s love, but they are not doing so from personal experience. They are like people who write travel guides without going to the place they’re writing about. The facts may be correct, but there’s something missing. Sermons are powerful when they’re rooted in the preacher’s personal experience of Christ, not when they’re merely eloquent. Leadership techniques are all well and good, but apart from regular Sabbath rest where we get a sense of God’s presence and priorities, our spiritual sense of direction is suspect, and so is our leadership.
The point of the Sabbath rest is to insure that we can talk about joy, peace and God’s love from experience. To regularly enter God’s Sabbath rest is to grow not only in our sense of God’s presence, but in our sense of God’s goodness, and that is to expand our capacity for happiness. I’m not necessarily advocating here for a traditional Old Testament-style Sabbath or for a Christian Sunday version of the same thing. I am advocating, though, that a weekly, personal Sabbath is crucial to growing in grace, especially for pastors. Sunday may be a work day for pastors, but any other day of the week doesn’t have to be.
A good way to begin observing your own version of a Sabbath is to get away for a few days on a retreat. Breaking away from your routine in this way makes it easier to re-order your life and schedule when you come back. The first real retreat I took twenty-five years ago resulted in a commitment to setting aside Sabbath time. For me, that was a commitment to making Monday mornings off limits to everyone and everything except the Lord. I’ve been doing it ever since.
Why not give a Sabbath rest a try? Get away for a few days to rest, relax and connect with God in the quiet place of your heart. Forest Haven exists to help you connect with that quiet place. Give us a call and schedule a few days for an extended Sabbath rest, (603) 938-2964. We’d love to see you.
If you would like to pursue the Biblical concept of a Sabbath rest further, I commend to you Marva Dawn’s wise and stimulating book, “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly.” Likewise, if this talk of a Sabbath rest has touched your heart in some way and you’d like to get away for a few days, contact us to reserve some time with us.
Blessings, Randy & Jill Thompson, Forest Haven.