“Time to us is a sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.” Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
When I started attending Church of the Ascension – a small, quirky, Episcopal church in Sierra Madre, CA – the rector explained the theological distinctive of Episcopal worship: “For Episcopalians, time and space matter.” I remember nodding, trying to look sage and thoughtful, but it took me at least 4 years of weekly attendance to understand his words. Space matters: the physicality of our worship – what we see, hear and smell, the position of our bodies – impacts our spiritual disposition. Time is broken into seasons – Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, ordinary time – and these seasons give a certain texture to our life, a movement that, we hope, reflects the biblical narrative. Episcopalian worship weaves the rhythms of faith into the passage of time; it uses all the senses to draw the worshiper into the liturgy, the work of the people.
Paying attention to time and space was a slow, experienced revelation for my faith and ultimately led me to consider taking the Sabbath more seriously. That and a study of the Old Testament during which I could see no definitive reason why I should dismiss the 4th of the 10 Commandments.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work . . . For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:10
If our call to “be fruitful and multiply” and “subdue the earth” is lived out in the work-week, then Sabbath is a time for rest in the fact of our existence, a moment of pause and thanks. Notably, the first use of the word holy is attributed to the Sabbath. All the goodness of creation is exactly that, good. The fact and remembrance of Sabbath, on the other hand, is holy. On Sabbath, we remember that God is revealed as creator, redeemer and sustainer. We also try really, really hard to learn (way deep down) that we are, in the end, none of those things.
Sabbath is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world. (Heschel)
How does a fidgety evangelical practice Sabbath?
Not easily, as it happens. As the sun goes down on Saturday night, we try to usher in Sabbath by lighting a candle and saying a prayer. Inevitably there’s a tussle over who lights the candle, who blows out the match, and who is bumping whom. Fingers get burned; occasionally there are tears and stern words. But, we’re making some progress. I heard one of my little guys (the one most likely to break out with a raging case of scrupulosity) say rather certainly: “Wait, we can’t do that, it’s Sabbath.” We also have a new series of Sabbath phrases. “Well, that’s not very Sabbath-ey!,” if one of us stubs a toe and slips with an expletive. Or, if I catch Amy checking her phone for texts, I will chide, “That’s not a Sabbath appropriate activity, I don’t think.” We’re learning as we go. No electronics. No work. No jobs. No chores or tasks. We rest, read, go to church, talk, lie around, visit with people, eat, take a walk and enjoy the day. What are we aiming for?
Do you recall the opening monologue to A River Runs Through It? The narrator, an older man (Norman Maclean) recounts growing up in Montana and fishing with his father, a Presbyterian minister.
As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. (A River Runs through It)
God’s rhythms. That’s good and seems to me what observing Sabbath is about. How do we redeem the time, make it holy? The question becomes more acute as we age and realize that our time here is not, as we might have somehow hoped, endless. We pause and another year, another milestone, another season has passed. The house needs paint and our back needs an MRI and the barber asks if you want your eyebrows trimmed. We sigh, scratch our heads and move on to the next pressing task. Our striving, consuming, entertaining, accomplishing and exerting – though perhaps rooted in the goodness of work – has a shadowy side, the desperate hope that we can somehow outrun the “monster with a jaw.” How do we redeem the time – give it value, meaning, glory? As a start, we pause, just for a day, to live without the noise – internal and external – of consumption, or accomplishment, or the unacknowledged belief that we somehow control time’s flow.
Time is like a wasteland. It has grandeur but no beauty. Its strange, frightful power is always feared but rarely cheered. Then we arrive at the seventh day, and the Sabbath is endowed with a felicity which enraptures the soul, which glides into our thoughts with healing sympathy. It is a day on which hours do not oust one another. It is a day that can soothe all sadness away. (Heschel)
Last weekend, on Saturday night, I turned off my various electronic devices and tucked them away in my desk. We lit a candle as the sun set, said a prayer, “Lord God, you are Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Help us to remember that.” We woke the next morning and lived for a day without electronic interruption or effort to produce, clean, accomplish. And it was tough. The great urgency seemed to be everywhere present. I was twitchy every time I walked by my new Samsung Note 3, knowing important matters must be waiting. Then my youngest asked me to look at a Lego booklet and explained in great detail why this particular Lego creation was the neatest thing ever. I found myself listening without thinking about the next thing or the thing before. That’s progress, I think – a moment when God’s rhythm just might have the chance to break through. No doubt it’s just a beginning. Sabbath, in the end, is not only about living in that elusive holiness but about sharing it too.
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our souls belong to Someone Else. (Heschel)
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda