Sabbath

Or, Stop Having Church Meetings On Sundays.

Y’all, I started this PE class on Wednesday called Total Body Conditioning, and it is as horrific as it sounds. After doing only twenty minutes of what’s normally going to be a 50-minute workout, I woke up wicked sore yesterday. Yes, wicked, like Boston is getting into me, and also like an evil witch cast a spell on me to make me wince with every move. A seven-hour catering shift (consisting mostly of speedwalking and carrying large stacks of dishes) followed on Thursday. Today, I can’t towel my hair or properly walk down the stairs.

click to buy this sweet hoodieAfter a month of sitting around, reading and eating cookies, I would like to tell myself that this pain is weakness leaving the body, or that the searing protests of every muscle are like the cleansing tears of a dragon, or some other such nonsense to make me feel cool for inflicting this upon myself. But in reality, I know that I passed that point a long time ago; now pain is just me being injured.

On my morning twitter-scroll today, I saw five different posts and links about busyness, exhaustion, and the need for rest. We are all in real pain when it comes to the drive to do too much, too fast, and yet we seem unable to get a handle on our own need for accomplishment or the pace of life in general. We just continue to tear ourselves down, long after such activity has actually been useful. We could blame this on all sorts of things, but it seems like the remedy should be simple: take a break. stop running. heal. Yet it is equally obvious why that seems so impossible; if life is frantic now, we reason, trying to cram everything into less time is the last thing anyone wants to do.

Abraham Heschel, a mid-20th century rabbi, framed this problem as a refusal to admit our finitude. We believe somehow that we will someday come to the end of our to-do list, that if we just keep trying we will exceed everything that needs doing. God gives us the Sabbath so that we can come to terms with our limits: “He who wants to enter the holiness of the day… must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and from the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.”

For Heschel, the Sabbath is holy, set apart; it has been consecrated by God and is not subject to our approval. I have often heard the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy (which is repeated so very many times in the Hebrew Bible) reduced to an injunction to “incorporate the principle of rest into your life”. Heschel would adamantly refuse to accept this modification; “Observing the Sabbath”, he says, “is not only about refraining from work, but about creating menuha, a restfulness that is also a celebration.” He often describes this Sabbath celebration as a “glimpse of eternity”, which is hardly possible to see when one is snatching rest at odd intervals between other things we believe cannot wait.

Does this sound like legalism, to insist that people should really take a whole day and not “do” anything at risk of profaning the holy? Does it sound like some kind of busy-shaming? To fully answer that charge would take another post, but to sum up such a post I’d simply say this: we talk and talk and work at talking about “incorporating principles of rest”, but we appear to be failing miserably at actually finding the deep peace we seek. Might it not be a great relief to unshoulder the burden of figuring out “what works for me”? To accept one day of the week that, whatever the worries of my restless heart may be, my hands must remain idle and perhaps, in the space created not by me but by God, my spirit might follow into stillness.

To put it another way, Heschel implicitly asks us: what else are we even working for? The Sabbath is meant to be a day for living into the reality (for Christians, not for Heschel) that God’s kingdom has already come. It is a day of fullness, peace, and joy. It’s a day when we are invited to actually give primacy of place to those things we claim are our highest priorities: worship, family, friends, and simple celebration. Again, can we really give our full attention to these if we are only penciling them in between pressing appointments and business deals? When we set one day aside, we will learn to relax into the life we have been building and sustaining the rest of the week.

Dear church people:
Defy the myth that there is not enough; trust that God provides, not you. Move the meetings. Volunteer another day. Invite people to leave off commerce, errands, rush and hurry. Encourage hospitality. Turn off electronic distractions. Create rituals for families to mark the day. Rediscover naps. Offer places of silence and places of merriment. Celebrate life and God, because life and God. Encourage, support, and fight for those who are financially unable to rest. Go outside. Gather. Sing. Tell Stories. Laugh. Feast. Live.
Rest.

Heschel’s work is called The Sabbath. I recommend it very, very highly.

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