Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Four of Ten

Lent is traditionally a season of contemplating the Ten Commandments, or words of life. How many of them can you call to mind? Here’s the fourth:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Exodus 20:8-11

The thing that people say to me more than anything else is, “I’m sure you’re busy at the moment.” Every single moment. Because that is the conspiracy of our times. The conspiracy of slavery. We all need to be busy — “the devil makes work for idle hands, you know!” — this is not true, by the way: the devil provokes our hands to constant distraction when we do not embrace a rhythm of stillness, of rest. We all need to be busy, to feel important, to justify our existence. Who the hell needs to justify their existence? That God has created me is all the justification I need.

Jesus, when asked, summarised the Commandments as teaching us how to love: how to love God, and ourselves, and others. And all of the Commandments relate to all of these — our lives are deeply interconnected — but the focus varies: the focus of the first three Commandments is on how we love God; the focus of Commandments five to ten is on how we love others; and the focus of the fourth Commandment is on how we love ourselves. To a people freshly liberated from slavery, God says, live into your no longer being a slave by enjoying rest. Follow my lead: work, as an expression of creativity and to bring the world into harmony, and, every seventh day, down tools. Pause. Reflect. Look back at what you have done, look around at what I have given, and enjoy it.

I work. At times it is a joy, and at times it is deeply painful. At times it feels as if something good is accomplished, and at times it is frustrating. I work, but — and in the present climate, this has become part of my work — I resist being busy with every fibre of my being.

And I have been given the gift of a stipend, the provision of a roof over my head and the means to put food on the table, in order that I do not have to be busy, but, in a world full of busy people, might have time to sit with the infirm and the elderly or see the world from the eye-height of a child. But it is still a challenge.

Once, not so long ago, when our society was shaped by the Commandments, whole communities would take their rest together. Shipyard fortnight, the annual holiday was known locally, where I live now. In these days of 24/7 retail and zero-hours contracts — all presented as greater flexibility — of bills that require the juggling of several poorly-paid jobs to meet them, our rest has become so atomised that it doesn’t feel worth taking. We are no longer human, we are economic units (taking a short-term view, at that). Machines, switched off when not being used.

Modelling rest, and recreation, in community with others — and, in as much as we are able, empowering others to enter into times of rest, including the security of having work to take up again — is just about the most subversive thing you can possibly do in England in 2020. Especially when it crosses divides that have been erected between young and old, richer and poorer, indigenous and immigrant communities, and human aspiration with care for the world in which we live.

Work has become an idol (see the second life-giving word), a cruel taskmaster in a competition against others for limited resources. It has become an arena of injustice. The god who made all things, and blessed them with re-generativity, says, “Come to me, all who are weighed down; and I will train you in the rhythms of work and rest.”

When did you last still your inner being for long enough to feel the wonder of life?

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