Rules – June 3, 2018
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
take our moments and our days,
let them flow in ceaseless praise.
The seventeen-year-old version of me loved rules. As a new driver, I refused to go even one mile per hour above the speed limit, much to the consternation of the drivers behind me and the passengers I was carrying. I believed that rules formed the bedrock of society, ensuring safety and justice for everyone. Rules, I thought, served as a roadmap for living; if you followed all the rules, you would always know what to do, and nothing could ever go wrong.
We couldn’t live without any rules; we need to operate within some parameters in order for society to function and not devolve into chaos. But focusing too much on rules can be counterproductive. Just ask any parent of a teenager; sometimes the more you insist on a rule the less likely it is that your child will be interested in following it. Or think about your own efforts to get an adequate amount of sleep at night. Insomnia sufferers know that you can worry so much about being able to sleep sufficiently that you actually sleep less as a result.
In his book Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created our Restless World, professor Benjamin Reiss lists the many rules we have imposed on ourselves as a way of regulating how we rest: “sleep through the night, in one straight shot, for about seven or eight hours,” he writes. “Form a habit of preparing for sleep at roughly the same time every night, no matter what season, preceded by similar pre-bed rituals. Sleep in a bed in a sealed-off, noise-free space. Do it alone, or with, at most, one other consenting partner. Train your children to sleep on their own, and through the night, from an early age. If something goes wrong, consult a doctor, read a sleep-training book, or pop a pill.” All of these rules Reiss outlines seem self-evident to us because we live in a culture obsessed with the virtues and necessity of a good night’s sleep. We know that without seven or eight hours of quality sleep we will get sick or cause an accident or simply not perform at our best, and we have been informed of all of the various ways in which we should approach sleep in order to get what we need.
And yet we find it so difficult to follow the rules—to sleep as we should. When was the last time you got seven or eight hours several nights in a row? We “neurotically” “cling” to the rules of sleep, Reiss claims, even as it becomes more and more difficult to adhere to them. “Our world,” Reiss explains, constantly “throws up new challenges” to our sleep lives: “‘flexible’ work times, distracting and hyperstimulating electronic devices, ever more powerful caffeinated beverages, high-speed travel across time zones, and an unsleeping world of commerce, information, and entertainment that beckons us across the digital highway at every moment.” “The poor fit between the rules for ‘normal’ sleep and the lives so many of us lead,” Reiss concludes, “induces a self-perpetuating pattern of worry and micromanagement. Battering our sleep with rules, training manuals, rituals, and commercial sleep products like anti-snoring pillows and memory foam mattresses only leads us to be more intolerant of small changes to routine and environment, creating a society of fussy, stressed-out sleepers.”
According to Reiss, then, we have developed a way of thinking about sleep that ironically can prevent us from sleeping adequately. Anxiety about insomnia begets further insomnia. The rules we have learned about sleep may derive from science and may have been created with our health and happiness in mind, but at a certain point our dedication to following them doesn’t save us. It makes things worse.
“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”: when Jesus declares this, he too is confronting ideas about the “right” way to rest. The Sabbath is a fundamental Jewish principle: it recalls God’s own rest after the six days of creation; it honors the deliverance God provided for the Israelites in Egypt; it sets apart one day a week specifically for God, giving God’s people the opportunity to demonstrate just how important God is for them. Jesus’ interlocutors are convinced that he and his disciples are desecrating a key tenet of Jewish faith and practice by plucking grain from the fields and healing a man with a withered hand on a day on which no work is supposed to be done. Jesus, however, is clear that he is not seeking to undermine the Sabbath; he seems to take for granted that the Sabbath is holy. Instead, Jesus aims to put the rules that govern the Sabbath into proper perspective. If someone is hungry, he suggests, it is probably ok for them to gather food; if someone needs healing, it is probably ok for someone else to work to heal them—all of this seems to be true even if in other contexts work is strictly prohibited. Specific exceptions do not negate the principle of Sabbath in general. In Jesus’ mind, the rules about the Sabbath cannot be applied in the same way to every situation, regardless of circumstance; there can be exceptions; we must always consider how the application of rules will impact human beings before we actually apply them.
“Everything in moderation,” Oscar Wilde is believed to have once said, “including moderation.” We require rest; we cannot pluck grain and heal sickness for every hour of every day; we have to sleep eventually. Rules remind us of what we need and tell us how best to achieve those things. But sometimes people get hungry; sometimes a man has a withered hand; sometimes an uninterrupted Sabbath can’t happen; sometimes seven to eight hours of sleep just isn’t possible. Our rules, traditions, and customs should be flexible enough to allow for the murkiness and complexity of everyday life, and our societies, our governments, and our churches should be willing to evolve and change as the people they have the privilege of serving do—because rules and traditions and institutions and customs are imperfect entities that can’t anticipate every single problem that people will face and ultimately rules and traditions and institutions and customs are not God. They exist for us, not the other way around.