Keeping Sabbath – receiving the gift of living well.
One of the greatest challenges to living a fully human existence in our modern culture is the problem of time. Many of us feel as though we have too little of it to meet the demands that are upon us. We feel crushed and bent out of shape by the attempt to fit everything in, and overwhelmed by the sense of 'not enough' - not enough hours in the day, not enough time to think and respond as we'd like to the situations we confront, not enough space for ourselves. Alternatively, some of us feel as though we have too much time on our hands, and each day passes with a sense of sameness and formlessness that leads to inertia, sometimes loneliness, and the depression that stems from a lack of meaning and purpose.
Our wider culture reinforces these feelings. Social media and mobile phones and email conspire to give us all the impression that we should be 'on' 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that to drop off the grid for a while means we cease to exist in the eyes or esteem of others. Being 'too busy' is in some circles a weird kind of competition that equates busyness with importance. There is a vague kind of social guilt in having nothing to do...as though our civilizations' conquest of the natural world depends on us all being permanently productive.
But I think that many of us are deeply uneasy about this sense that time has become our enemy, and know in our hearts that this embattled relationship to the demands of our lives is not how God intends us to live. And, in fact, I think we should be uneasy, because this state of affairs has come about to some extent because we have begun to ignore, even in the church, a crucial feature of what it means to be human, that has been part of our religious tradition from the beginning, and that is hard-wired into our identity as humans in the image of God. We are meant to rest. Our work and our rest are meant to unfold in a healthy rhythm. We are meant to have one whole day every week where our human control and ordering of things is put aside, and we align our hearts and minds to the deeper reality that holds our creation. This rest is called Sabbath.
I have come to believe that keeping Sabbath may be the gift our whole culture needs to heal the profound sense that we are not free – that we're being held captive to a way of being that is shrivelling our souls. Honestly, if there's only one thing that you hear me say this year, let this be it...we have in the core of our faith tradition a teaching about what helps us to stay human in the midst of the pressures of life, and re-claiming it may be the single most important thing you can do for yourself and all those with whom you are in relationship.
I want to begin by sharing some general ideas about the Sabbath. Then I want to look at some practical specifics of what keeping Sabbath could look like for us.
The Sabbath isn't the same as the weekend, or a day off from the thing you get paid to do – it's more intentional and sacred than that. The Sabbath is also not meant to be about a hundred regulations of what you can and can't do. The Sabbath is a beautiful song that interrupts the white noise of our usual living. The Sabbath is, in Jewish culture, both bride and queen – to be welcomed with delight, honoured and loved, longed for, and sadly relinquished at the end of the day. For observant Jews, the Sabbath is welcomed with song and ritual and food, and in their writings they affirm that even in a world where there are no clocks or calendars, the true child of Israel would still know in their bones when the sunset of the seventh day had arrived and would rejoice and cease from toil. Many have observed that the strong habit and deep understanding of Sabbath keeping has held people of Jewish faith together in dignity and integrity in the midst of horrific suffering.
I think that we are sadly misled by Gospel portrayals of the Pharisees, or images from Puritan Christianity to assume that the Sabbath is something rule bound and dour. And maybe it has become that from time to time. But in its truest form, the Sabbath is constitutive of our true humanity, part of the rhythm of creation, and the story of liberation. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel goes so far as to say that 'What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us.' And what I understand Sabbath to be is one day in a week where we willingly step aside from all that burdens and presses in on us, and where we joyfully embrace those practices that nourish our relationship with God, with others, and our own souls.
In the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments, we hear the song of Sabbath woven into the song of Creation...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 for Yahweh your God...For in six days Yahweh made the heavens, earth, and sea and all that these contain, but on the seventh day he rested; that is why Yahweh has blessed the Sabbath day and made it sacred.
We don't need to believe in a literal six day creation to see that, if we are image bearers of a God who rests from labour, so we also need a rhythm of rest. As in fact does the earth, and its animals. It is no great leap to see our western society's refusal of rest as deeply connected with the depletion and stripping of the earth and lack of care for its ecologies and ecosystems.
In Deuteronomy, when the Ten Commandments are repeated again, there is another song...the song of Liberation, of freedom from slavery...Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy...Remember that you were once a slave in Egypt and that Yahweh your God brought you out of there with mighty hand and outstretched arm; this is why Yahweh your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
This gives me great pause because it convicts me of choosing my own peculiar brand of modern slavery in rejection of the deep pattern of God's action in the world...which is to release people from their chains. When I decide to delete Sabbath from my faith practice, I am in effect saying that I'd rather an Egypt of my own making than God's gracious provision of a life free from all kinds of bondage. Abraham Joshua Heschel expresses it like this: 'The seventh day is the exodus from tension...Out of the days through which we fight and from whose ugliness we ache, we look to the Sabbath as our homeland...a day of independence from social conditions.'
There's a third melody to Sabbath keeping that weaves into Christian, rather than Jewish practice. And this is the song of Alleluia, Christ is risen! In the early days of the Christian faith, the followers of Jesus observed Sabbath on the seventh day (Saturday), and then celebrated the resurrection with the breaking of bread together on the Lord's Day, the first day of the week - Sunday. When Christianity dispersed and became unhooked from its Jewish roots, the resurrection celebration and the Sabbath became the same day. A Christian practice of Sabbath therefore usually involves practices of worship and remembrance of the resurrection mystery at the heart of our faith.
The point of the Sabbath is not just in what is 'not done' on that day, but what the 'not doing' frees us to taste and experience – those glimpses of eternity, the stepping into an alternative climate, with fresh air that reorients us toward our home and belonging in God. But because our world is what it is, in order to see eternity in the ordinary, to inhale the forgotten fragrance of God's welcome, and hear the song of the angels, we need to turn our senses away from their usual experience. For a whole day, not half an hour now and then. To rest properly – embracing and feasting on what is truly good – requires some stopping, some saying 'no.' It's not that our culture is bad or that our work is bad or the things that preoccupy us the rest of the week are not important. It's just that they're not actually the main story of this created world - they become over-inflated in our field of vision and make us forgetful of our real identity. The Sabbath is where we belong, and when we are most ourselves. The rest of our occupations flow out from Sabbath and are informed by who we are when we are resting. Remember, 'rest' is not an inert, passive or static state of being – though it may require some stillness sometimes. It's about actively immersing ourselves in those actions and spaces that enliven and restore us in our core.
Marva Dawn's book on Sabbath keeping lists 7 kinds of 'ceasing' that she sees as a valuable prelude to Sabbath resting, embracing and feasting. She writes about Ceasing Work – which is not just paid labour, but housework, and anything that pressures us because it 'needs to be done', Ceasing Productivity and Accomplishment – because so many of us are driven to find our identity and worth there – Ceasing Anxiety, Worry and Tension - by not doing or dwelling on things that we know cause us to fret, Ceasing Our Trying to be God - which is to say, acting as though it's all up to us to make our lives come out okay, Ceasing our Possessiveness - which includes not buying or selling on the Sabbath as a challenge to our profoundly consumptive lives – Ceasing our Enculturation - becoming intentional about those things in our culture we have taken on without question, and Ceasing the Humdrum and Meaningless - a life without shape or rhythm where every day has the same tasks and stresses.
But, the Sabbath commandment is more than just this negative movement away from what usually pre-occupies us. The Sabbath commandment is to keep the day 'holy' and a day 'unto God'. Meaning that there is a positive embrace of those things that take us into the life of God, connecting us to the Source in whom we live and move and have our being. For each of us these things might be different, but I suspect most of us would include activities that deepen relationships, that take us into prayer or 'dwelling' with God, that connect us with our community of faith, that re-connect us with the earth, our physical senses and our creativity, that expose us to things we find beautiful and spirit-lifting, and that have a quality of celebration or joy.
How, in practice, might Sabbath unfold for us?
Here are a few principles that I've used in shaping Sabbath. Firstly, there's no rule that says that the Sabbath has to be on Sunday, and for those whose schedules mean another day of the week works better that could be something to try. One value in the Sunday practice of the Sabbath is that it's easy to include connection with your faith community and time in worship as part of Sabbath practice. But, if Sunday worship takes on a character of work for you because of your commitments to rosters or whatever, then seriously consider observing Sabbath on another day. It doesn't necessarily have to be the same day as others in your household, though it's nice to be able to include children in observing the rhythm of Sabbath keeping so that they can learn to do it for themselves. And it's made easier when other people you know are also in relaxed time, so that when you get together on the Sabbath it's understood what kind of mode you're in.
To observe Sabbath when it's not yet a habit takes some advance planning...if you decide not to shop on your Sabbath but there's a birthday or a pot luck meal scheduled for that day then the shopping needs to happen beforehand. If you can't relax in a messy house but you commit to no housework on the Sabbath then the house has to be tidied the day before. However, as we go down this path of preparing, we keep in mind that it's not in the service of keeping the rules. As Jesus taught, 'the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.' Sabbath keeping is mostly about our inner disposition, our intent to let go of our 'shoulds' and relax into God's generosity and spaciousness, rather than sticking to a plan. And of course, there are unavoidable things that impinge on our ability to deeply and fully practice Sabbath at some times in our life – say, if we do a lot of travelling that other people determine for us, or if we have young children whose needs can't be turned off one day a week. With these things, I invite us to use whatever creativity we can muster to see how the spirit of the day can still be part of our lives, even as we recognise the limits for now.
Something that I find helpful to remember in Sabbath keeping is that a day in 'biblical time' starts in the evening. Jewish Kiddush prayers, Sabbath beginning rituals, happen around sunset on the Friday and the Havdalah, the farewell to the Sabbath at sunset the following day. An important principle encoded here is that we affirm that God's faithful presence is sustaining the world, and giving us good gifts even as we sleep. The time of sleep is the cradle and starting point of anything I contribute to the following day by my own efforts.
I'd like to share my own Sabbath practice that I've been developing over the course of this year. It's still quite recent for me to have a fully formed notion of Sabbath – while I've long practised a day 'off' my usual paid work or study, I haven't until recently discovered the full range of 'ceasing' and 'embracing' that are part of a deep Sabbath observance. I share my practice with you not because your Sabbath should look the same, but to show a process I went through in planning it out, that you might want to adopt in some way. My guiding questions were things like – what causes me tension? Where does the stress come from in my life? When do I feel most pressured or not in my best self? These are clues to 'ceasing.' And then, what gives me life, when do I feel most deeply centred and present? What connects me to God and my own heart? These are clues to 'embracing.'
I practice Sabbath on a Saturday, because Sunday is a work space for me. So, on a Friday night after the children are in bed, I do about an hour of housework to create a peaceful space in which to relax the following day, and so that I don't need to do any household chores of tidying or cleaning on my Sabbath. Then, Andrew and I light the Sabbath candles with a prayer of invitation and dedication of the day. From that point on, my ceasing begins.
I have chosen to say no to...
- doing work for and thinking about Cityside
- household chores other than preparing food...though we have decided that dinner on Saturday night is always homemade pizza, so we don't have to think about what to cook and it's fast and easy.
- Anything that happens on a computer screen – no email, no facebook, no youtube, no trademe, no googling etc.
- thoughts and practices that cause anxiety, particularly financial and security issues. So, no paying bills or doing financial admin, no planning about budgets, thinking about problems, planning, or making to do lists for the coming week.
- And as far as possible, shopping and driving.
On the positive side, my 'resting, embracing and feasting' list isn't a set of fixed things that I have to fit in to the day – that would be quite the opposite of the spirit of Sabbath. I've simply made a note of things that I find restful, that orient me toward the sacred and deepen my sense of myself as at home in God. It's there as a constellation of options to choose from, if I find myself wondering what to do. They include – gentle exercise, gardening, taking a nap, conversation, socialising, visiting, having people over, events in my wider community...family days and festivals, prayer, chant and song, listening to music, getting out to a park, water or forest, reading for pleasure and 'holy reading' – spirituality and devotional material.
Some time in the evening on Saturday we pray a prayer of thanksgiving and farewell to the Sabbath, ritualising the end of Sabbath time and inviting God to help us live the rest of the week in the gifts that the Sabbath has brought.
So, that's my practice, and like I say, I share it with you not because all our Sabbaths should be the same, but to see what intentionality around the Sabbath could include. I invite you to ask me about it, and hold me accountable to it. I was even vaguely thinking of starting a facebook group for people who keep the Sabbath, for us to share our practices and experiences and any reading that's inspired us. If you'd be interested in this let me know.
I've become quite urgent in my sense that Sabbath keeping is both necessary and potentially transformative as a counter-cultural practice in our contemporary world. There's so much I haven't been able to say this morning that's been part of the reading and reflections of the past year. But, suffice to say, if the life of faith involves becoming more authentically human, then getting back in touch with God's rhythm of creation, liberation and celebration is vital to that process. I invite us all to do what we need to do to unseat the idols of busyness and self-sufficiency from our lives and lean instead into God's good provision of a day of rest and re-creation.