It was 1995, and he warned us. There was no smartphone then, not for 12 more years. Netscape, the first mass-market Internet browser, was barely ten months old. Facebook, Twitter… even MySpace were still a decade away. He frets over the now quaint-seeming fax and car phone. But he saw it coming. He knew. There is the dad, sitting and lamenting how improved technology just speeds things up, increases expectations, when the little boy bursts in crying, “Six minutes to microwave this?? Who’s got that kind of time?!” If only we’d listened more carefully to that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon back then.
The fact is, for better or for worse, we now live in a 24/7 society. What then to make of God’s old-fashioned notion of Sabbath: that our lives, instead, ought to include a weekly rhythm of work and rest? That we ought to be, at most, 24/6?
We know there’s a problem
I will never cease to be struck by the irony, first observed by Sideshow Bob that time when he seized control of a television broadcast in order to demand the cessation of television broadcasts. Then there are the viral videos spread by social media about becoming too absorbed in viral videos and social media. This week’s New York Times editorial on screen addiction, nearly all of us read on some kind of screen.
We know society is moving too fast. At some fundamental level, we know that something’s gotta give, that something has to change, that we are being depleted, that we are bled dry. When I was a kid, it was still common for businesses to be closed on Sundays. It was a collective, socially enforced day of non-productivity. It was inconvenient, because you couldn’t get things done, but it was nice, because you couldn’t get things done.
Some of us long for a return to those days. But then again, we still wanna hit Starbucks on our way home from church. Others are outright antagonistic to the idea of a slower paced society. I have a coworker who boycotts Chick-fil-A, not for the reason you mention, but because he is so offended by the audacity of their being closed one whole day a week. Every year, Black Thursday erodes ever further into Thanksgiving, and while I personally celebrate efforts by “the good guys” like Costco to hold the line, I can’t escape the feeling of a desperate rearguard action.
We know God’s solution
Cultural change is usually contentious and hard-fought. In the past few weeks, the warning that God will judge America has been a favorite topic among some commentators. As evidence of our decline, some have cited court-enforced changes to US marriage law; others, an Oklahoma court order to remove a monument bearing the Ten Commandments.
So it begs the question: why has there been no hue and cry as God’s fourth commandment, listed right there on equal footing with “have no other gods before me” and “do not murder”, has gone gently into that good night? I have written in the past about the error we make in drawing distinctions among different kinds of sin, about the still very real capacity of any sin to harm us. It seems to me that the frenetic pace of modern life is at least as corrosive and damaging as other transgressions that seem to enjoy the front row seats of our cultural awareness.
Our culture’s craving for peace and calm is as much spiritual as it is physical or emotional. It should be one uncontroversial place where we as Christians can spend our precious, limited airtime to reach out with wisdom and healing, doing genuine good in the world. In our failure to do so, Madison Avenue has long since filled the void, and as a result, people whose actual desire is for love, meaning, wholeness, belonging— whose actual need is to cry out to God— are crying out instead to the likes of Calgon.
The voices inside
Observing the Sabbath day is hard. It has always been hard. Scripture goes on and on and on and on about all the exceptions you might be tempted to make, all the loopholes you might be tempted to find. “OK, I can’t work. Can I make my kids work? Nope. Servants? Nope. Animals? Nope. OK, what about some foreigner I met on the street who doesn’t even follow our laws? I can put him to work for me, can’t I? Nope. But, at least I can still work when it’s super busy, right? Like certain SUPER busy times of year? Nope.” All of this is how we know there were workaholics back in agrarian times too.
Many excellent books have been written on the importance of Sabbath and how to practice it. My personal favorite is Wayne Muller’s Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found one that addresses the biggest obstacle that makes genuine Sabbath rest an ongoing challenge and a still-elusive commodity in my own life personally: dealing with the internal critic. It’s that little voice inside your head the moment you sit down to rest: what you should be doing. How much time you’re wasting. How your to-do list is so long you can’t possibly stop to breathe.
Lift your hands
I first discovered my internal critic during the Silicon Valley “dot com” heyday when I was working between 80-100 hours a week. It would be time for my Tuesday night bible study group, and I would think, “Well, I can’t go.” Then a part of my brain finally realized: if I stay here and keep working, my week’s work hours will go from 80 to 81: negligible increase. If I go to bible study, my hours of nurturing my soul and slaking my terrible thirst for human connection and fellowship will go from 0 to 1. How much of an increase is that? Well anything divided by zero is infinity.
It’s very common to believe that we can take a rest once “we’ve earned it”… once every single possible item is crossed off our to-do list. To see this attitude in its proper perspective, remember that the word priority just means “how soon you do it.” Your “high priority” items are the ones that precede other, lower-priority stuff you may or may not ever get around to. So now your Sabbath agenda looks like: “Let me do all this high-priority stuff like washing the car and depositing these checks and returning this spoiled cabbage, and then if there’s time left I’ll get to the ‘low priorities’, like investing time in my marriage and my children, and replenishing my depleted emotional reserves.”
Is that really how we want our priorities to be ordered? The fact is, work expands to fill the time you give it, and the universe will not suffer too much if that spoiled cabbage never does get returned. God’s intent is not that we get everything done and then rest. It is that, right there in the midst of our work, we lift our hands from the keyboard, push the chair back from the desk, and walk away.
The fields will still be there to plow in the morning.