“How ya doin‘?” “Keeping busy.” Noting how often we hear and say this, a visiting friend and I explored how easily we let busyness pose as virtue. Being busy means you’re doing well, maybe even doing good. But, even leaving out busy people who are up to no good, busyness may not gauge how we’re doing.
If it did, we could invent devices to measure how fast we’re spinning our wheels or how much we’re cramming into our lives. Maybe a Cram-o-Meter. Or a Spindex. If “keeping busy” misses the mark, though, we might think of ways to avoid falling into its trap. I’ve been thinking about three ideas that might help.
The first idea is “margin.” I first learned this term from Richard Swenson’s book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. He writes in part from what he has seen as a physician and argues that we all need some margin between ourselves and our limits. That margin creates space for emergencies, for surprises, or for Murphy’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.” (I’ve checked and can confidently declare that this is not named after our Bruce Murphy.) Margin also breathes in availability to follow God’s unexpected nudges.
The second idea comes from Richard Foster at Northwest Yearly Meeting sessions last summer. Annoyingly enough to me, he spoke of sleep as a “discipline.” It’s a way of noting our limitations, he said, a way of recognizing that we can never get it all done. Obviously that’s quite meddlesome, even beyond calling some of us to better habits in sleep. Who says we can’t get it all done? But I think about it.
The third idea is keeping Sabbath. I’ve thought about this very old idea for a long time and have experimented with it in a variety of ways. Simply put, Sabbath is taking a day each week to celebrate God and God’s steady presence in our world and our lives. It’s a day to step back and relish the gift of life, of love, of family and friends, and of our wondrous world. It’s a day to live our trust in God. Abraham Heschel calls it a “sanctification of time,” a time set apart, a holy time. In contrast, it’s not a “day off” when we rush around doing personal chores, shopping, cleaning, and managing all of the personal work we have to do. That’s not Sabbath rest.
Of course, Christians widely neglect Sabbath, and sometimes churches schedule so many Sunday meetings that it nearly wears you out. Our larger culture pressures us in many ways to live in 24/7 compulsive ways, pursuing consumption, achievement, fame and fortune, etc., or at least lots of gadgets and trinkets for body, home, and hovel . This is one of the reasons I like Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. The key word is resistance. Sabbath resists the lies of culture.
I connect this particularly with the version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5. In verses 12 through 15 God requires keeping Sabbath as a way of remembering the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt, where they had to work as slaves 24/7. But it’s not just remembering; it’s living in the reality of a wonderful gift. God rescued them from Egypt with God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm,” and they are now to live boldly, knowing that God will continue to deliver them and provide for them.
The challenge of Sabbath is to learn to rest and rejoice in God. It is to act like we believe that God can and will care for us. It is to imagine that God might capably manage the world even if we’re not working 24/7 to make sure it all runs right. This will challenge many of us who are “keeping busy,” but I believe we can find creative and joyful ways forward to enjoy the freedom that God offers us.