Sermon for 6th July 2014
I read a fascinating article in the paper the other day. A study carried out by psychologists at Virginia and Harvard universities discovered how far people will go to avoid sitting and thinking. Eleven separate studies have revealed that when subjects are asked to sit in a chair and do nothing for a period between six and fifteen minutes, they find it extremely difficult. The only rule was to stay seated and not fall asleep. The age, income, education, or amount of time they normally spent using smartphones and social media made no difference to the result. The tests were repeated with students, members of a church, and customers at a farmers’ market, and the result was the same.
But the really interesting discovery was this. The students in the study were given a mild electric shock before the test began, and all of them found it so unpleasant that they said they would pay money to avoid getting another one. But when they were sitting and doing nothing for a quarter of an hour, two-thirds of the men and a quarter of the women opted to press a button and self-administer an electric shock in order to interrupt the tedium of just sitting and thinking. They did this up to four times on average.
Clearly, human beings are sensation seekers. We prefer to do something rather than nothing. If we have time to kill – a significant phrase if ever there was one – even an electric shock is better than nothing at all. We fidget, look around for something to observe, chat about nothing in particular, scan Facebook, pick up a newspaper, tune in to music. Members of my family have a custom that we never leave the house without a book in our bag in case of being stuck somewhere with time on our hands.
Some of us are old enough to know Isaac Watts’ poem of good advice for children that begins “How doth the little busy Bee/Improve each shining Hour”, a poem famously parodied by Lewis Carroll as “How doth the little crocodile: Improve his shining tail”. It used to be a rule in Victorian times, and perhaps later, that a well-brought-up woman never sat down with empty hands. She could always darn a sock or hem a handkerchief. It would be truly shocking just to sit and rock in a chair unless she had the excuse of extreme old age. Men might not have to do the mending but they were likely to tinker with a small job, even if it was just filling a pipe or whittling a stick.
Using social media may be new, but it is just a variant of the time-filling activities that human beings have always employed. What we can’t abide is doing nothing at all – even lying on a beach is described as working on a suntan!
Human beings seem to be the only species with this problem. At the vicarage we have two new kittens who could be described as sensation-seekers most of the time they are awake. But they also have the capacity, as other animals do, of just sitting quietly and doing nothing. Their lives seem to have a natural rhythm of activity and rest.
Some human cultures have not lost this ability. After my visit to Kenya last summer I spoke about the remarkable ability Kenyans apparently have to sit peacefully in the open air without any company or entertainment. It was restful just to watch them do this, and it made me reflect about how frantic we are to avoid such situations most of the time.
The words Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel reading challenge us to reconsider our busyness. They are often quoted and admired, but do we really take them to heart?
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Rest for our souls. How we long for that. How wonderful it sounds. When did your soul last have rest? Jesus is reminding those who have chosen to follow him that they can lay down the heavy yoke of worrying about keeping every stroke of the Law. This was the burden he blamed the extreme Pharisees for laying on the shoulders of the poor. It was all about justifying oneself by doing the right thing. It is what Paul was lamenting about in his letter to the Romans. I try so hard, but it all keeps going wrong. How can I escape from the law of sin that holds me captive?
Jesus’ yoke is very different. It is a true liberation from performance anxiety. He compares his message to an invitation to take part in a children’s game. He asks us to reconnect with our inner child, to reconnect with the delight in life that young creatures instinctively know. All that his disciples need to do is to learn to love. When the wellspring of our lives is receiving his love, living in it and sharing it, then we need have no worries about rules and duties.
And when Jesus speaks of giving us rest, he is referring to the Sabbath as God intended it to be. It’s not another day with even more rules to worry about breaking, but a foretaste of the kingdom of God, when we shall be able simply to enjoy being in God’s presence. Because our eternal life with God has already begun in our baptism, we can enjoy that Sabbath rest here and now. It is all right to rest in the presence of God. In fact it is essential if we are going to have any spiritual health.
The difficulty is that resting with God can become another item on an endless to-do list, and it’s often the one that we find it hardest to get around to. I am speaking of what I know from my own experience. It’s so very easy to fill up time we have set aside for just being with God. There is always something else to do – it may not come to self-administering an electric shock, but there is usually an email to answer or a chore to complete or a person who needs attention. All good things, but if we never sit and do nothing, we are starving ourselves of our soul’s rest.
I think we need to be gentle with ourselves and start with where we are. Summer is perhaps a good time to let go of some of the busyness. For the sun-starved British, it is natural to relax on a warm day and bask for a few minutes in the sunshine that we can never take for granted. Why not sit in the garden, on a balcony, on a park bench, and rather than talk or read or send a text, just enjoy a moment of doing nothing at all? Get in touch with your inner child who is naturally full of awe, wonder and thankfulness.
Remember how absolutely astonishing it is that you are there in that moment. The odds against your successful conception and birth on a planet with air and water in a democratic country in an age of modern medicine are literally trillions to one. Each one of us who is alive in this city and in this generation is the winner of a lottery with much longer odds than the National Lottery.
Not only have we been given the incredible prize of life in a safe and prosperous country. As Christians we have received the good news that this is not just an accident. The fact that we are here, in this astonishingly unlikely place, with all the blessings of our senses and our relationships, is something intended. God has made us and loves us, and God wants us to know and love him. All we need to do is become more and more aware of this truth, and dwell in it with attention and thankfulness.
This summer, I am going to try to copy not just the frenetic busyness of my new kittens – I do that naturally – but also their calm enjoyment of cuddling up in a ray of sunshine or staring out the window. I need some rest for my soul. I need to remind myself that Christ’s yoke is easy, that he does not call us to drive ourselves into the ground but to follow him with light and joyful steps.
Those who know this at a deep level will be rested, happy people, well able to sit still for a quarter of an hour without needing to give themselves electric shocks to relieve the boredom. Perhaps years of listening to sermons is a helpful way to practise this art!