Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Moses' 11th plague, or medical leave as spiritual practice

Yesterday, I started writing a poem about Sabbath and how wonderful it is for ordained and lay ministers to enjoy their day off.  Overpowering my desire to be creative, however, was that drone lack of concentration that accompanies the cold or flu. Instead of finishing my poem, I put my head down on the pillow of the couch for what I thought would be a few moments.  Two hours later, I woke up feeling congested and guilty.

Today, instead of attending a staff meeting, I called-in sick.  Apparently I sounded disoriented on the call.  My persistent cold symptoms and my compliance with my body's nagging really surprised me.

What is it about self-care that makes us feel guilt when we give-in when my body tells me to take it easy?  Why would we feel shame in the midst of modeling exemplary "right relations" with our immune systems?

The dilemma has something to do with a conflict between the American imperative to be productive vs. the Sabbath.  Today, I had literally 36 emails I wanted to read and respond to this Wednesday morning and a planning meeting that would have influenced the next six months for my RE program's Family/Intergenerational ministries.  In other words, it was just another day at the office, but I was very much looking forward to accomplishing these routine though foundational tasks.  When things depend on us, but our bodies won't let us be dependable, the American tradition of productivity grinds to a halt. 

Perhaps there is a different cause for our guilt.  Many of us were raised under the Mosaic commandment, "Thou shalt honor the sabbath day to keep it holy."  It is possible that part of the dilemma of conscience we feel is the conflict between being productive vs. the Mosaic commandment that we must rest and reflect, in order to follow the pattern that the books of Moses established for God's created order.  What insight have the writing communities of Moses' books obtained with regard to the body/spirit and the need for rest as a way to honor our covenant with God?

Traditionally, the monotheistic people of Moses' time were Egyptian slaves who, like the American workforce, would have felt tremendous pressure to be as productive as possible.  Resting, therefore, is counter-cultural both for the Hebrew monotheists as for the American workforce.  Whether to honor God or to help us get over our colds, we can take comfort in knowing that the desire to keep working has been a dilemma of conscience plaguing the Judeo-Christian world for at least 6,000 years.

What is the answer?  Whether we like it or not, we are all subject to that commandment of "thou shalt." This is not to say we will burn in a lake of fire if we fail to take a sick day, but it is to say quite confidently that our cultural, if not religious, situation confronts us with two competing values.  So, to congratulate a student for having perfect attendance may be rewarding an important character-trait, dependability, at the peril of honoring our bodies or our Lord.  Contrarily, to reward individuals unproductive work might easily be abused.

It all boils down to the agreements we make.  Whether we agree to follow the Mosaic Law or accept a job with limited sick day benefit, we must follow through on the commitments we make.

So, I will reply to those three dozen emails and reschedule that foundational meeting, which will probably compound the number of tasks in my Microsoft Outlook for the next three days.  I am blessed to work for a congregation that values my commitment to care for myself.  Keeping this sick-day Sabbath has also helped me reflect on covenanted living--horizontally, vertically and inwardly.

Therefore, the final element of the Sabbath is integration.  The anxiety of the dilemma of conscience begins to disappear when our religious, cultural and workforce expectations become integrated with the self-expectation.  The guilt dissolves and the healing begins.

For the secular American workforce, may we make peace with the counter-cultural precedent set by Moses and embrace this commandment to be good to ourselves.  As Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, "You were bought at a price; therefore honor God with your body."

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