Say No to Anxiety

As part of my journey of self-care, I sat down a couple of months ago with a therapist, sharing some of my story and journey dealing with anxiety, walking with grief, and trying to find balance.

It was an honest and frank conversation, and she relieved some of my burden by acknowledging that while I may be out of balance in areas, I can improve. I can grow.

And then at the end, just as we were wrapping up, she asked me about work balance and if the church respects my day off – which is Mondays. I said yes. For the most part, my congregation is doing a great job of helping me honor my rest day, but – and it was I who added the but – I kind of prefer answering emails on my day off just so I don’t forget or have a deluge the next day. It’s just easier that day.

And she said, Ahh, working on your day off? So you do have problems.

I don’t know if a workaholics anonymous group exists, but maybe we need to start one in our anxious, fast-paced, 24/7 consumer culture. Maybe I am not alone in finding it difficult to rest, to set boundaries that preserve my health and my family’s health.

During my first sabbatical experience when I took extended time away from my ministry role, I remember bouts of feeling guilty of not being at work.

Truth is we are all misshaped by a capitalist society around us that has a lot to offer but continues to make increasing demands on our lives – everything should run 24/7, replies to our support emails to come back instantaneously, our prices must be cheap and getting cheaper, our home renovations should come under budget, our interest rates

Beneath all of it in our society is what Hebrew Bible professor Dr. Walter Brueggemann might call a predatory economy, a theme he argues is core to understanding the sweep of the Bible.

In his words, a “predatory economy” is one that depends on constant production that flows upwards, where the gap between the haves and the have nots keeps growing, when profits require expendable cheap labor at the bottom, when people become a means to an end, when we forget that we are more than just laborers by children of God.

Dr. Brueggemann’s example of a predatory economy in the Bible is that of Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, the tyrant who deemed himself a god and inflicted torture, murder, genocide, oppression, and dehumanization on the Hebrew people… until God liberated the people.

The way of Pharaoh is a way of anxiety – fear that there is not enough, fear that others will steal from us, fear that our neighbor wants what is ours, fear that we are not keeping up with the Jones, fear that it could all disappear.

Pharaoh crushed those beneath him in order to become rich, to fill his storehouses and his greed and his desire for control.

This morning, and throughout this month, we will embark on a series based on the short book from Dr. Walter Bruggemann that focuses on this practice of Sabbath as a core resister to this relentless rush of anxiety.

Walter Brueggeman suggests that “Sabbath is a bodily act of testimony to alternative and resistance to pervading values and the assumptions behind those values.”

Brueggeman in his book Sabbath as Resistance reminds us that the grounding of the Ten Commandments, rather than a universal set of rules that simply exist and we are to follow or face damnation, are rooted in the story of Exodus, in the story of liberation, in the act of God’s movement of freedom among enslaved Hebrews at a particular time and place.

In other words, God doesn’t command us to murder just because God decided it was bad.

Rather, God delivers these particular commandments as a contrast to the way of Pharaoh, the way of back-breaking enslavement and labor trafficking, the way of oppression and silencing, that characterized the Hebrew’s life in Egypt and upheld the empire of Pharaoh.

This deep anxiety did more than just deny the people freedom, but it tore at their identities, their family structures.

There was no opportunity for freedom. The people were trapped, forced to Labor Day after day without rest even though their Creator commanded everyone to rest at least one day.

Brueggemann suggests that the Ten Commandments are ordered specifically against those ways of death-dealing, anxiety-centered theology, for at the heart, Pharaoh always needed more. And the way to get more was to abuse and use the Hebrew people, grinding them into dust to fill his storehouses with wealth and food and power.

At the beginning of our scripture this morning, God reminds the people who God is:

Then God spoke all these words:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Like Pharaoh, God is jealous, which made our Thursday night discussion group think about how God sounded very human. God demands the people reorder the lives around these divine commands, to treat God with respect and dignity, but what is different is that where Pharaoh enslaved and oppressed the people, God frees them for new life. That new life cannot come through something we humans control – something that we make and fashion into an idol, whether we call it a god or worship it like we do little green pieces of paper or radioactive 

Much early in the ten commandments, emphasizing its importance though many of us Christians push it down the list, we are told to rest:

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.

What should always surprise us about hearing these passages is that Sabbath is holy and set apart, and it applies not just to humans or those who are in a supervisory role. It applies to all living things – livestock, the immigrants and migrant workers, your children, even those at the very bottom of the social order, those who might be enslaved. (I always find these texts fascinating as a people who are coming out of slavery are expected at some point to enslave others.)

Just as God rested on the seventh day, so we too should rest.

And then Brueggemann suggests that the following commandments shift the conversation even further – they are not simply absolute objective standards of behavior but they help initiate a new “neighborly” way of life:

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Each of these commandments invites a practice that resists anxiety, that offers a compelling no to the way of Pharaoh. We don’t need to disrespect our family members or see them as our competitors in the game of life. We don’t need to take from others. We don’t need to destroy our rivals. We don’t need to steal the wives of spouses, breaking down families. We do not need to destroy the lives of our neighbors through words. We do not need to take, take, take from those around us.

On a larger scale, the last commandment, Dr. Brueggemann writes that this is not simply about “petty acts of envy” like when we see our neighbor in that new Tesla. Rather, “it is about predatory practices and aggressive policies that make the little ones vulnerable to the ambitions of the big ones.”

Sabbath is a practice that pushes back hard against the desire to produce, to take, to store up. Divine rest says we do not have to work every day. Rest says we do not have to participate in a world where which never sleeps. Rest says there is time for us, reserved by God, where all the parts of our household, even the livestock, even the land itself, deserve a break from relentless anxiety and production.

What does this look like for us?

For one, it invites us as a church and as individuals to practice the sacred gift of saying “no” to the anxiety of the world. For those of us with kids, we should teach all of our young ones that a “no” is to be respected. It offers dignity and care, a reminder that we are all not the same and that we all deserve boundaries that are respected. I so value when one of you says “no” to an invitation to serve in some capacity. We may need someone to fill that position, but no organization is worth anything if it has to twist everyone’s arms to share their gifts.

What are the things you need to say no to in your life to resist anxiety? How can that no lead to you saying yes to things that bring life and care and healing… or even rest?

Our bodies often tell us no. Do we listen?

Our souls often tell us no. Do we listen?

Our careers often tell us no. Do we listen?

Church does not exist so that we all run ourselves ragged. Church should be a community where we know joy, balance, and love, an alternative to what we experience so often in our world.

Perhaps that means joining with our Jewish siblings and restoring the practice of Sabbath and rest as a divine boundary that we will not cross so that we may thrive.

And it may also mean as a church exploring ways we can be neighborly to others, lifting burdens of debt and anxiety that are crushing people in our communities right now. I love how some churches and denominations have spent a small amount of money to purchase the medical debt of strangers and then cancel it. Are we called to that kind of Sabbath work?

But on a larger scale, as we discussed on Thursday night, the imperative in this vision of Sabbath is not just about individual action or our community. It is big picture. It envisions a world of course where everyone has an opportunity to work and to rest. It envisions a society ordered around neighborliness, not classifications of hourly wage, pay scales, bank accounts, and accumulated wealth. It envisions a society where all workers have rights and protections to rest, to honor themselves, and to care for their families.

What does Sabbath look like to neighbors in communities that we work with who might not have legal status and can be exploited by little Pharaoh’s who demand their profits rise at their workers expense?

What does Sabbath look like to those who cannot find regular and meaningful work at all because their communities don’t have investments?

What does Sabbath look like in a society where some people are afraid of being fired if they take off work or care for their newborn?

Brueggemann writes, “God is not a workaholic. God is not a Pharaoh. God’s rest bestows upon us a rest that counterattacks the predatory economy.” May we say no to anxiety and receive that precious gift. Thanks be to God.