Genesis 1.27-31, Luke 10.38-42
I heard a programme about rest and relaxation on the radio recently and it set me thinking because, down the centuries, the Church has been a champion of rest, constantly reminding people that Sunday is the Day of Rest - modelled on the first Sabbath, when God rested after all the hard work of creating the universe. I even heard of one church council which recently tried to ban Brownies from having a fun day on a Sunday because it’s the Day of Rest, and that despite the fact that the Brownies were planning to start the day by having fun in all age worship!
We might think that’s going a bit too far, but - be that as it may - the Church has talked endlessly about quiet times, prayerfulness, meditation and retreating from the stresses and strains of the world. We’ve set up - I use the word ‘we’ somewhat loosely here - contemplative orders of monks and nuns. And whether we’re contemplatives or not, we’ve focused in on the still, small voice that cannot be heard in the whirlwind and the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Of course, rest is not the same thing as relaxation. We’ve not been quite so keen on that. When Christians have rested it has generally been for a purpose, for re-creation, to recharge our spiritual batteries, to listen to God, to gain new strength for the fight. We haven’t talked so much about resting just for fun, like the Brownies, or even about recreating and recharging our physical selves. But we have emphasised the need for people to find health and wholeness. We’ve advocated a daily rhythm of work, rest, mealtimes and prayer.
Alongside the emphasis on rest, there’s another contrary impulse within Christianity - the restless impulse to be up and doing. Perhaps it’s particularly prevalent in Protestantism, although that perception has been exaggerated sometimes. As the story of the Brownies illustrates, Protestants have believed in contemplation, prayer and stillness, particularly on Sundays, just as fervently as anyone. But Christians have also talked a lot about vocation, about doing God’s will, about being productive and useful members of society. Idleness has been elevated to a sin.
In a 24/7 society it can be more easy than ever for Christians to overlook the need for rest, to have the aspiration - as one minister put it to me - to wear out rather than to rust out. Alongside the contemplative orders of monks and nuns there are the active orders of people eager to go out into the world after they have prayed, to teach, to preach, to care for the sick and to engage in all kinds of mission.
In the Gospels, Jesus sometimes seems hectically busy, but that’s not always his own fault. People come after him. They intrude on his rest and he is too compassionate to turn them away. Yet he’s also driven to seek rest and time for contemplation and prayer, and he makes a point - in his stories and in his own actions - of talking about - and making time for - relaxation over meals, for what is sometimes called ‘table fellowship’. And if he doesn’t go jogging or play squash for recreation, he does do an awful lot of walking and fishing.
Mention of fishing raises one of the dilemmas about rest and relaxation. One person’s work can be another person’s way of chilling out. When I was a hospital porter one of the most miserable assignments was to work in an evening on A&E. It wasn’t especially miserable because of the accidents and emergencies. What really made the job frustrating and tedious were the volunteers, who came in on a regular basis to get practical experience of dealing with trauma victims. They insisted on doing all of the work because for them it was a form of leisure activity. They were enjoying themselves and finding fulfilment. I had to be there in case they didn’t turn up, but if they did, my shift would pass very slowly. It was a case of enforced rest, which is never quite so much fun.
Sometimes when the first disciples went fishing they were doing it - as they did after the first Easter - to give themselves a break from the stresses and strain, the uncertainty and fear, of their day-to-day existence. But more often they went fishing as a job of work.
And this plays into a wider questions which has troubled Christian thinkers. Is rest ever a waste of time or does it always have a recreative purpose? If we use it to build up our physical strength, or to increase our grasp of knowledge, or to broaden our skills and experience, or to deepen our insights into life, or to pray and reflect on what is going on around us, then - as we have seen - rest itself can become a form of work. Even the most unrepentant workaholic can then embrace it and celebrate it, like the minster I once worked for who claimed that he worked a 90 hour week.
When you unpacked this preposterous claim it turned out that he was including reading the newspaper and novels and poetry, and watching “News Night”, in his working week. That’s fair enough, so long as we’re upfront about what we’re claiming. But we’re back to fishing - one person’s recreation on a beautiful summer’s day is another person’s back breaking toil on the high seas. Reading - for instance - can be both rest and work, depending on whether we’re a professional academic, or a book editor, or a clergyperson or an ordinary member of the public.
Was God really resting when he stopped work after creation, or was he absorbing and reflecting upon all that he had made? Was Jesus resting when he went away to a quiet place to pray, or was he wrestling with his own doubts and fears and strengthening his relationship with God? Was this, in fact, a vital part of his work? Are the members of contemplative religious orders retreating from the world or bringing all of its problems and dilemmas to God in prayer?
Modern medical practice has turned its back on the idea of rest cures and bed rest and is now encouraging patients to be more active, to get out of bed as soon as they can and to come to terms with any pain or discomfort they might feel. There are even Active Patient programmes, where patients take charge of their own therapy and condition management. Recreation has been medicalised. It has been turned from a form of joyous escapism, down-time if you like, into something we must engage in if we want to stay healthy, live longer and ward off a whole range of hideous diseases.
And the Church, as we have seen, has always found itself balanced uncomfortably on the horns of this dilemma, urging us both to take rest and to work if we want find life in all its fullness. So where should we go from here?
My grandmother had a catchphrase, ‘Be still, bairn.’ It was an admonition against all forms of fidgeting and unnecessary noise. It was, however, bairns who had a peculiar duty to be still. I never heard her encourage adults to embrace stillness. We live in a society that needs to be still, but instead, the pace of life is incessantly speeding up. It’s not easy to resist. Church leaders encourage us to switch off our mobile phones sometimes, to refuse to be distracted, even while bemoaning that we haven’t yet picked up and read their latest email urging us to do this or that before the sun goes down.
The definition of a good church member or a good minister is often assumed to be the same as a tireless worker. We ask older people to do more and more as retirement becomes a distant dream for younger people, and we invent a ceaselessly round of extracurricular activities for those who are still working. When I stopped working fulltime for the Church I realised how burdensome this must seem. We need to foster a better balance between work and rest, to promote activity only when it is essential, to encourage rest wherever possible, and to cut down on old activities if we really must make room for new ones.
We need to campaign for the end of a culture which, by keeping wages low, forces people to work long hours in order to make a living, prevents them from volunteering, or studying, or caring for their family and neighbours in whatever spare time they have left, and prevents them from reflecting on their lives and discovering new challenges and opportunities.
We need to remember, above all, that rest is not the absence of work. It is the opportunity to find fellowship with one another, or to be still and know.
As I may have said before, I’m often reminded of the story of the man who hit a low point in his life. Somewhat at a loss, he made an appointment to see the local vicar whom he found sitting in his garden on a deckchair, with a pile of books beside him and listening to the cricket on the radio. His immediate reaction was that he was clearly wasting his time coming to see such an idle person. But then, to his immense surprise, the vicar turned out to be a fount of thoughtful, sensible advice, and he went away reflecting that perhaps sitting in the garden, reading books and listening to the cricket is not such a bad idea after all.