Monday, December 10, 2012

Sermon: "The Spiritual Practice of Rest" (Delivered 12-9-12)

Call to Worship
The theme of this morning’s service is “The Spiritual Practice of Rest.”  There were a few ideas for this worship service that were considered and rejected.  I believe they deserve to be shared with you.

In keeping with the theme of rest, hold our first ever wear your pajamas to church day.

Extend the time of silence after the meditation by twenty minutes.  Turn down the lights in the sanctuary for everyone to take a nap.

Invite those sitting on the bleachers in the back of the room to bring pillows and sleeping bags.

Have the minister show up without a service prepared and explain to the congregation, “I took a few days off and boy do I ever feel refreshed!”

During the sermon, point out the person in the congregation who has fallen asleep and is snoring and declare, “He understands what I’m talking about.”

Come into this place.  Step away from the noise and crowds.  Put aside hurry and worry and the flurry of demands for just this hour.  Take time to laugh and sing and breathe and be still.  As Kathleen McTigue puts it, “Resist the headlong tumble into the next moment.”  Let us worship together.

This reading comes from the book Local Wonders by former Poet Laureate of the United States Ted Kooser.  Ted Kooser is a member of the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, NE.

Lots of people on the Great Plains pack up and go south from November through February, but my wife and I enjoy winter in Nebraska.

Spring is downright impatient with people in their fifties and sixties: we’re under steady nagging pressure to turn over and plant a vegetable garden, to gas up and check out the lawnmowers, to wait endlessly while the other party selects bedding plants at the greenhouse, and to begin the five-month-long, everyday chore of picking wood ticks off the dogs.

Summer is one weary, endless, hot, dry, mowing of grass, with interludes of garden weeding and chigger bites, and after every thunderstorm there are fallen branches to cut up with the chain saw and drag from one place to another.  It is also a time when nature’s weedy disorder reclaims the little bit of territory we thought we had cleared for ourselves.

Autumn is beautiful, my favorite season, with its clear skies and long shadows arrowing across the red hills, but it is also a time when the lawnmowers have to be drained and stored, when the pressure tank in the well house must be drained and checked, when the block heaters need to be installed on the cars, and when the dead plants in the garden must be pulled up and burned.  It is also a time of sighing and regret, of the admission that during the spring and summer we didn’t get done what we had hoped to.

The winter sets in, and the obligations of our sixty-two acres are buried under the blessed somnolence of snow and ice.  It is the time of lingering over suppers of meatloaf and squash and of wrapping ourselves in shawls in our chairs and reading books and nodding off at eight-thirty or nine.  Then to bed under heaps of blankets and comforters, my wife in wool stockings, sweatshirt, and sweatpants, and I in the long flannel nightshirts my mother made.

The goal of religion, it’s been said, is not to get you to believe in God.  The goal of religion is to help you to see that you are not God.  I might add that even God rested, so what makes you think that you don’t need to?

The amazing singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock has a song called “Ella’s Song” that begins and ends with the lines, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.  We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”  I last heard this song performed at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association several years ago, a gathering held at the end of June when many ministers and church leaders are feeling most exhausted and worn down from long and eventful church years.  “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”  Yes, I do believe in freedom, I thought to myself.  But, I’m still going to take the vacation I had planned to take in early July.

At gatherings like General Assembly we sing all sorts of songs and hymns that declare our intention not to rest.  “Gonna keep on moving forward, never turning back” are the words of one song.  Another declares, “One more step, we will take one more step, ‘til there is peace for us and everyone, we’ll take one more step.”  I don’t think the Sweet Honey in the Rock song and the various beloved songs and hymns of our religious movement are meant to be taken so literally as to suggest that believing in freedom means we cannot take a coffee break or sleep in or get away for the weekend.  To say that we who believe in freedom cannot rest is not the same as saying that we who believe in freedom cannot nap.  No, in reality these songs are about having the type of long-term commitment that will last for the long haul.  They’re songs about having the depth of dedication that can only really be sustained by habits of regular spiritual practice, renewal, and rest.

My message this morning is that rest and work are not mortal enemies.  They are complementary, not combative.  They are not polar opposites engaged in mortal combat, but elements of a natural cycle that need one another.  Work is to rest as yin is to yang.  Work is not to rest as God is to Satan.

Are you following so far?  Is this something you can agree with so far?  If this is how you feel, I invite you to say it along with me.

“Rest is not bad.”
“Rest is not a sign of weakness.”
“Rest does not make me a bad person.”
“I shall not feel guilty about rest.”

OK, how many of you said it and really believe it deep down in the depths of your soul?  And, how many of you said it but still harbor some doubts and reservations?

That’s OK.  We live in a society, after all, that doesn’t have a particularly good relationship with rest.  The other day I ran across a document entitled We’re Number One that compares the United States to other industrialized nations.  According to this document, quote, “among industrialized nations, the United States has the lowest average number of days for paid holiday, annual leaves, and maternity leaves.”  In fact, unlike most industrialized nations, United States employers are not mandated to offer paid vacation days.  Even though workers in the United States receive less vacation than workers in other nations, many US workers do not take even the small amounts of vacation that they do receive.

This past summer I read an article about a software company in Denver that tried to motivate its employees to take better vacations by offering a vacation bonus.  The $7,500 vacation bonus is given annually to employees under three conditions.  First, you have to promise not to do any work while on vacation.  Second, you have to unplug from cell phones, computers, and the internet for the duration of your vacation – so no spending your vacation making Facebook updates.  And third, you actually have to travel somewhere – so no staycations.  The head of this company wrote an explanation of their vacation policy, saying that their employees were less likely to take good vacations if they had to pay for them, so the $7,500 was about overcoming that barrier.  He also wrote about how this vacation policy was good for his employees as individuals, but also better for them as a team.  As individuals, they returned refreshed, reinvigorated, more creative, and more positive about their work.  As a team, though, the reality of vacations that involved people actually getting away created a culture where the members of the company had to work better together, share information, and nobody could afford to become a savior, a person whose presence was so crucial that the entire company would suffer if they were gone and unreachable for several weeks.

The goal of religion, it has been said, is not to get you to believe in God.  The goal of religion is to help you to see that you are not God.  And even God rested.

If it seems that I spent a lot of time talking about that software company in Colorado, it is probably because ministers as well as priests, rabbis, and imams have proven to be bad examples when it comes to rest.  A 2010 New York Times article reported that “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than most Americans…  Public health experts who have led studies [on clergy health] caution that there are no easy answers… but a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.”

The story goes on to mention that apparently in the United Methodist Church, ministers who are known to skip taking vacations can expect a call from a denominational administrator bugging them to schedule a vacation.

As much as I may feel tempted to compare Unitarian Universalism favorably to other religion traditions, I have to say that, anecdotally, we fare no better than these other traditions, and possibly worse.  The other day I remembered the story of an overworked Unitarian Universalist minister who died of a heart attack in the pulpit, but I was a bit fuzzy on the details of who and when and where.  So, I threw this question out to the email list of UU ministers.  The responses I received were troubling.  You must be thinking of a minister a few years back in Massachusetts, one person wrote.  Something similar happened in New Mexico, offered another respondent.  I believe it was a UU minister in Minnesota, wrote a third.  One colleague shared the story of a 19th century Universalist minister named Thomas Whittemore who suffered a stroke while preaching that paralyzed the right side of his body and left him slumped in the pulpit.  At that moment the preacher decided to abandon his notes and deliver the rest of his sermon extemporaneously.  Only during the final hymn did Whittemore allow a friend to help him to the hospital.

In actuality, I wasn’t thinking of the minister in New Mexico or Massachusetts or Minnesota.  I was thinking about a minister from New Hampshire.  When Bob Karnan became the minister of the UU Church in Portsmouth, the congregation numbered about 100 members.  A decade later the church had 750 members.  If you’re interested, you can find an essay by Bob Karnan in the book Salted With Fire in the church library telling the story of how that congregation grew.  Let’s just say that rest does not seem to have been a part of his recipe for success.  The church he served was the fastest growing church in Unitarian Universalism and, as Karnan himself wrote, he had the scars on his body and soul to prove it.  Some of his minister friends told me that they had grown concerned about his well-being and expressed their concern to him.  “Bob, you sure seem like you’re pushing too hard and not taking time for yourself.”  And, a few months after the essay he wrote was published, Bob Karnan died of a heart attack.

I haven’t told you all this because for the purposes of shocking or worrying you.  Rather, I mention these sad stories to say that if you are in a career or have loved ones in a field where burnout is common and workaholism is rampant, believe me, I understand you.  Lots of people in my chosen profession are really awful at the spiritual practice of rest.  I also tell these stories as a kind of confession.  For a host of reasons, it is hard for people to rest, even though it seems like it should be the easiest and most natural thing in the world.  Even the people who are supposed to know better, the people who, you know, should be expected to model healthy living and a life of balance, struggle, and I mean really struggle, with the basics.

I should also tell you, in the interest of full disclosure, that while I’m far from the best when it comes to taking as much time to rest as I am given, I am also far from the worst.  I admit to being imperfect and could stand to do better when it comes to the spiritual practice of rest.  I give myself a C+, not an F.

Call it what you will – rest, vacation, time away, down time, renewal – what I’m talking about here is something that I think very few of us would disagree with if we put it in strictly rational language.  Rest is a human need.  Nobody is going to argue with this.  So, if we understand this intellectually, then we might puzzle over why people don’t do what they know to be good for them.  Why do people not do what they know they should do?

Three years ago I took a three month sabbatical.  I was eligible for six months.  Like I said, I’m far from the best but I’m also far from the worst.  During that sabbatical I traveled to Ecuador and Peru.  Why did you go there, someone asked me.  Because it was just far enough away that I wouldn’t be tempted to do church work.

I have a friend, another minister, who never took a sabbatical in his quarter of a century in the ministry.  I asked him about this once and he said that the timing was just never right.  There was always something happening in the life of the church that was exciting, important, urgent, or critical.  He either had the world’s most thoroughly exciting quarter century of ministry or he had deluded himself.

I want to read to you part of what Bart Lorang, the CEO of the software company in Denver, wrote about his philosophy of vacation.  I invite you to translate what he writes into language that works for your situation.
I love [this company.]  I love the people.  I love the problem space we’re in. I love our customers.  I love inventing solutions. 
However, if unchecked, love can also have a smothering effect. 
Just as parents can smother their children when they leave the nest for the first time, founders, managers and employees can do the same: 
What happens if a key customer calls?
I’m the only who knows this! What happens if my people need me?
Did you think about X? What about Y?
Perhaps it is a sense of ownership or desire to feel needed, but in many company cultures (especially startups), there is often a misguided hero syndrome that encourages an “I’m the only one who can do this” mentality.
That’s not heroic. That’s a single point of failure. It’s not good for the employee or the company.
But here’s the thing: If people know they will be disconnecting and going off the grid for an extended period of time, they might actually keep that in mind as they help build the company and empower others to make more decisions.
At the end of the day, the company will improve.
As an added bonus, everyone will be happier and more relaxed knowing that they aren’t the last line of defense.

How many of you feel like he could be talking to you?

My message this morning also applies to our life as a church.  For the previous year and a half, leaders in this church have worked incredibly, incredibly hard to make this move into our new church home possible.  Each stage has been important and intense and exciting in its own way.  Now, we’ve been here for a month and a half.  And the work and the possibilities and the opportunities for ministry now are important and exciting.  And six months from now there will be more things happening that are exciting.  And a year from now…  Do you see where I’m going with this?  There will always be something happening that is urgent and exciting and critical and important.  Which speaks to our need to be mindful about rest, to share work, to love but not to smother.

For bears rest comes instinctively.  They know when it is time to hibernate and they trust that they’ll wake up again just in time for excitements of the spring.  Birds don’t need a monetary incentive to head to the tropics.  We humans have the flaw of needing to be convinced to rest.  May we have the compassion to remind one another.