Reclaiming the Gift of Sabbath

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Vincent Van Gogh “The Siesta”

In today’s first reading, we hear the proclamation of the Ten Commandments offered to the newly freed Israelites (1). The Ten Commandments are God’s gift to the people, providing them with a blue print of how to be in right relationship with God and with each other as they continue to live into their vocation as the Chosen people of God. As we see in this rendition from Exodus, the third commandment is the gift of Sabbath. I’m sure for a newly freed people, the third commandment regarding Sabbath must have seemed to be a great gift. It created a sacred boundary around one day a week, ensuring a God-ordained and thus culturally accepted time to rest and rejuvenate. Notably, the Sabbath commandment serves as the transition between those focused on the people’s relationship with God and the commandments that address their relationship with others. Intentionally resting from daily labors reminds us of our finitude and thus prepares us to be in right relationship with God, with the Earth, and others.

The Gospel readings these past few weeks show Jesus practicing his own Sabbaths of sorts. The first week of Lent, Jesus is “driven by the Spirit” into the wilderness to fast and pray in solitude. Last week, he took the disciples “up a high mountain apart by themselves” where they encounter the transfigured Christ. In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes to the temple area only to find that His Father’s house has been turned into a marketplace. He angrily confronts the moneychangers and those selling the sacrificial doves at exorbitant prices. This Gospel passage has strong messages for us today, especially those of us in the upper economic classes. Through our seemingly innocuous pursuit of the American dream, we desecrate holy spaces and holy time. In the name of the market place, we have a perverted Sabbath and turned into a symbol of weakness and laziness and, even worse, a luxury only available to the economically well off. Lent is the time to overturn our own tables and admit that failure to live out the Sabbath commandment is, in fact, participation in what Jon Sobrino calls the “anti-Kingdom.” Sabbath is a critical piece of authentic Christian living and it is a sacred gift we cannot afford to refuse. We need to figure out how to accept the gift and practice it in our own time and place.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I was a young girl, I loved to read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I remember being fascinated with her descriptions of the family’s practice of Sabbath, particularly in Little House in the Big Woods. The Sabbath rules were so strict and rigid! Laura and her sister Mary could not talk or run or play. They had to sit quietly, listening to their mother read from the Bible. Charles (Pa) could not work in the fields. Caroline (Ma) could not clean the house or cook the noonday meal. Of course as romantic and intriguing as this notion of Sabbath was to me as a child, I was very grateful that my family had the good sense not to take the Sabbath commandment quite so seriously. We went to church, of course. But after that, the day was full of other activities.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I see Wilder’s accounts of Sabbath not through the eyes of little Laura, bored and frustrated on Sundays, but through the eyes of her hardworking parents. They must have welcomed that day with such gratitude and joy. The physically demanding work of farming and housework took a hard toll on the body. Sabbath was, in many ways, part of the pioneer code of survival. Coupled with rigorous Puritan values, no work on Sundays was woven into the social and cultural expectations of the time and place. To violate this socially inscribed norm was judged to be a sin against God. Now, I don’t want to suggest that shame and judgment are helpful ways to encourage communal conversion. But there is something to be said for having the social permission and even social pressure to rest from the daily labors.

But as we all know, the opposite is the reality in our day and age. In the United States today, it is not only socially acceptable to work every day of the week—it is highly expected! (Ironically, this could be traced back to the same American Puritan values. But that analysis deserves its own post!) Thanks to email, twitter, and text messaging we feel the pressure to immediately respond to anybody who reaches out to us. Our smart phones ding and buzz incessantly. Because of electricity, our bodies are not as attentive to the natural rhythms of day and night, that natural boundary between labor and rest. (Don’t even get me started on Day Light Savings Time!) And even when we try to disconnect and rest, there is the social pressure to produce more, to be more, to do more. We can take vacations or days off from work, sure. But it better not negatively impact our productivity! Which, of course means that even if we take a day off, that work is just pushed to other times, making our work days longer and more stressful. We do not stop to eat meals, we go to bed too late, we fail to get enough sleep, and most people do not receive adequate paid vacation time—especially those working in service or manual labor jobs. And we glorify all of these unhealthy, inhumane practices as signs of progress. Sociologist and shame researcher Brené Brown calls this the status symbol of exhaustion (2).

And yet no one I know seems to think this is a good way to approach life. I can’t go a day without seeing some headline addressing the toll our frenetic life styles have on our bodies, our communities, and our children, not to mention our relationship with the Earth. We know at an intellectual level that this is not the way to live. We are a people craving authentic Sabbath practices and a communal lifestyle that allows for us to participate in these practices. This is hardly a new insight. Yet, in spite of the fact that our sociologists, psychologists, medical professionals, environmental experts, educators, theologians and spiritual leaders tell us over and over again that we need to slow down, meditate more, sleep more, turn off our gadgets, pray more, do Yoga, eat slowly, work less, and play more, we don’t seem to change.

I think part of the problem is we don’t know how to change. We are trained at an early age that the most successful people in life are usually those busy bees who are able to multitask and look good doing it. We have very few role models to teach us how to intentionally live out of a Sabbath reality. And while I hate to throw myself and my colleagues under the bus, I know very few theologians who walk the walk when it comes to Sabbath. We ourselves are often too caught up in the marketplace of the academy and we too need to be reminded how to practice Sabbath. So, who can we look to? We need to look to those wise enough to recognize their relationship to our Creator and accept our humble place in our relationship to the rest of Creation. I think, as Meg Stapleton Smith alluded to in her Ash Wednesday reflection on attentiveness and Mary Oliver, some of our wise poets and artists and farmers, those caught up in a different rhythm of time, offer us some clues.

One poet in particular comes to mind: Wendell Berry. There is not enough room in this post to capture the depth and wisdom Berry offers us through his work as a farmer, social critic, and poet. But his dedication to the land and his ability to name the social and economic realities that are killing our planet make him, to my mind, one the great prophets of our time. Wendell Berry’s collection of Sabbath poems titled A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 includes eighteen years worth of poems composed during his Sunday walking meditations. The poems convey the intimacy Berry experiences with God and lively express the integration he feels within himself and in relationship with others and the world, bodily and spiritually through his practice of Sabbath. He gives witness to intentional Sabbath practice and offers us some clues regarding the tools and techniques. In the preface he writes:

“These poems were written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors. A reader will like them best, I think, who reads them in similar circumstances—at least in a quiet room….I hope that some readers will read them as they were written: slowly, and with more patience than effort” (3).

Wendell Berry.

This collection illuminates the deep human need for Sabbath, for rest from daily toil in order to intentionally and vulnerably attend to the parts of our lives that go unexamined and to reconnect with God, each other, and our natural world. The poems are the fruit born from a life long practice of attending to one of the most central gifts God offered the Israelites so long ago, the gift of Sabbath. For those of us who are lucky enough to have been born into a life style that permits us to practice Sabbath, it is our responsibility to turn over the tables and start practicing—not as an act of our economic privilege, but as an act of resistance to the a frenetic life style that is quite literally killing communities and destroying the planet. The survival of Earth and our communities absolutely depends on a reacceptance of the holy gift of Sabbath. Or, in the words of Berry:

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by

Your will, not ours. And it is fit

Our only choice should be to die

Into that rest, or out of it.

I leave you with some questions. We welcome your own reflections on and experiences of Sabbath.

Do you practice Sabbath? What are some of your practices? What advice would you offer those seeking to integrate these practices into their own life?

What do you imagine a communal return to Sabbath in our own time would look like?

NOTES:

  1. Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear the readings I refer to in this post. This post is a reflection on the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent. The other options for readings today are the Readings for Year A Scrutinies.
  1. See her Guidepost #7 on Cultivating Play and Rest. Brené Brown, The Gift of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embracing Who You Are, (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), 99-104.
  1. Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, (Berkley, CA: Counterpoint, 1998), xvii.

The words of Berry are taken from the last stanza of Sabbath poem II. Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath    Poems 1979-1997, (Berkley, CA: Counterpoint, 1998), 6-7.

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