I remember very clearly the moment when I first glimpsed the possibility that my Christian faith might be a source of guidance through the time crunch that was my life. It was a Saturday night, and a few teachers were sitting around a dinner table. Tomorrow, we complained, would not be a happy day. Great piles of papers needed grading, and we had promised our students that we would return them on Monday. And so we whined, and as we whined our complaints gradually shaded into boasts. Someone listening in might have thought that we were competing to see who had to grade the most, who worked hardest, and who was most put upon by the demands of his or her job. That's when it hit me. "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." This was a commandment, one of the ten laws in the basic moral code of Christianity, Judaism, and Western civilization, and here we were, hatching plans to violate it. I could not imagine this group sitting around saying, "I'm planning to take God's name in vain"; "I'm planning to commit adultery"; "I think I'll steal something." Yes, we might occasionally break one of the other commandments ("You shall not covet" is an especially hard one for me), but if we did, we would hardly boast.Our approach to the Sabbath commandment was different. We had become so captivated by our work, so impressed by its demands on us and by our own indispensability, that it had simply vanished from our consciousness. We were in the habit of churchgoing, though our whines included a little complaint even about this. But I knew in my bones that we were a long way from keeping the Sabbath holy. I began to wonder what that meant and why it mattered.This "aha!" moment set me off on an exploration of the ancient practice of keeping Sabbath. Though I had never used the expression "keeping Sabbath" much, the practice was not altogether unfamiliar to me. The Sundays of my childhood, though not governed by strict rules, had the quiet atmosphere of a traditional Protestant Sabbath, complete with Sunday school, worship, a family meal, and quiet hours of reading or play. A great many things have changed since I was a child, however, and I knew that whatever Sabbath practice I might discover for today could not be shaped by nostalgia.When we keep a Sabbath holy, we are practicing, for a day, the freedom that God intends for all people. We are practicing life outside the frantic pace set by financial markets and round-the-clock shopping and entertainment venues. We are practicing independence from the forces of injustice. We are trying on a new way of life as we begin to allow our weeks to be changed in response to God's promises. We are practicing—pun intended. Like a novice learning to play a musical instrument, we may be off-key at times. It may be years before we are in harmony, and we will never get it perfect. But that need not stop us. Besides, stopping is less a problem than getting started.During the years since the Saturday night when my friends and I whined about our work, I have talked with many people who engage in this practice in one way or another, and I have tried taking a few steps of my own as well. The forms of Sabbath keeping that bring joy in creation, freedom from bondage, and the experience of new life will vary from household to household. Each person needs to consider what forms this practice can take in his or her life, and each local community, family, or institution needs to discern the life-giving shape of Sabbath within its own unique context. With this in mind, I humbly offer the following suggestions as resources for this process.
A REST FROM COMMERCE
One Sunday at noon, my twelve-year-old daughter received a very appealing invitation. A friend, and the friend's parents, wanted her to go along for an afternoon at the mall. Sunday afternoons are relaxed times for us, and our kids often get together with friends. But the mall? As my daughter knew, I don't shop on Sundays; stepping out of the rat race of consumerism is an important part of my Sabbath practice. I said that she couldn't go."But Mom, I won't buy anything," she pleaded. "I'll just look." When I did not give in to her pleas, she stormed for a few minutes in her disappointment, first at me and then alone. But after a little while, we had one of our best conversations ever. What kinds of feelings are stirred up in us when we "just look" at the displays at the mall? We start to want things, but do we need them? Is this wanting good for us and for others? If we were poor, how would we experience the mall?Perhaps my daughter will remember our conversation in the future, during a weekday shopping trip. She and I will not be withdrawing from contact with the mall by any means. I hope, however, that we can help each other visit it equipped with a degree of spiritual independence from its gaudy promises. It is this sort of independence that keeping Sabbath can help us form. Although I have yet to develop the independence for which I yearn, I know that there are a number of needless things that I never got around to buying simply because I would not shop on Sundays.This episode set me to thinking about all the ways in which time and possessions tug against each other. In The Overworked American, Juliet Schor describes the treadmill of working and spending on which we scurry: work more, buy more, then work more again. And the work hours expended for the purpose of paying off credit-card balances represent only a fraction of the time we give to our possessions. Shopping, maintaining, storing, fueling, fixing: these, too, absorb hour after hour. Moreover, a Sabbath pattern of resisting consumerism awakens the parts of ourselves that cannot be nourished by possessions. When these are awake, the whole week looks different.
A REST FROM WORRY
Abraham Heschel tells the story of a pious man who took a stroll in his vineyard on the Sabbath. He saw that his fence was broken through and decided that he would come back the next day to fix it. That evening, however, he changed his mind: "Since the thought of repairing the fence occurred to me on the Sabbath I shall never repair it." His resolve arose from an ancient interpretation of the Sabbath commandment: "Rest even from the thought of labor."Trying to take Sabbath rest this far would be difficult, particularly for those of us who find that the more we try not to think about something, the more it is on our mind. But there are ways to structure at least part of this story's wisdom into our own Sabbath keeping. We can refrain from activities that we know will summon worry, activities like paying bills, doing tax returns, and making lists of things to do in the coming week.On Sundays, one wise woman deliberately refrains from thinking about people who make her angry, practicing letting go of the slights and grudges that accumulate over the course of any week. And we can cultivate those forms of engagement with nature, ideas, and other people that really get our minds off of the week ahead. For my son that means shooting hoops with a friend, and for me, watching him do so.Unfortunately, it is often the church itself that habitually misses the wisdom of Heschel's story by filling Sunday afternoons with church committee meetings. "We will have a short service today so that we can get straight to the business meeting," one preacher announced. Of course it is difficult to find time to meet during the week, but part of the point of Sabbath is to cause shifts in weekday priorities. In many churches, it is the generous people who serve on the committees who most need to be reminded of this. Resisting the temptation to meet on Sunday would help them say to one another, "God intends rest and liberation for you, during at least one-seventh of your time." Eating, playing, and taking delight in nature and one another in the hours after worship, however, would be wonderful ways for congregations or groups within them to keep Sabbath.
A REST FOR CREATION
Jürgen Moltmann, an eminent German theologian, ended his book on the theology of creation with a radical suggestion: "The ecological day of rest should be a day without pollution of the environment—a day when we leave our cars at home, so that nature too can celebrate its Sabbath."Fifty years ago, before the building of the freeways and the suburbs, many American Christians might have found in this suggestion a satisfying endorsement of their way of life. Then, churches had small parking lots and served neighborhoods or parishes, and people walked. But things have changed. In recent decades, the lack of adequate parking space has been a significant factor in the withering of many urban congregations, while suburban megachurches have prospered in part due to the efforts of parking stewards who volunteer to direct the traffic flow across acres of asphalt. A few of my friends have chosen to live where they can walk to church, unknowingly emulating the walk to synagogue that is imperative for Jews of the strictest observance.For most of us, getting to worship, and also enjoying many of my other suggestions for keeping Sabbath, would be impossible without our wheels. I wonder, however, whether we should consider the possibility that there is a relationship between the drivenness of our lives and the fact that we so often drive cars, even when we could walk. Visitors from other countries are often astonished at the degree of Americans' reliance on automobiles; one recently pointed out to me that you know your neighborhood differently when you walk it. Moreover, minutes spent walking are open in a way that minutes spent driving are not. The space of the sky and the span of the minutes stretch out, free, before us.As the earth grows fragile under the pressure of human misuse, we need to consider how we can spend our Sabbaths practicing a way of life that is good for creation, even if we cannot or will not abandon our vehicles. Doing this will require discernment, as well as attention to the particular situations in which we live.For example, I find gardening a happy part of many Sundays. But is gardening "work"? For someone who does most of her labor with books and computers, gardening feels like a form of meditation on the wonders of nature, an opportunity to ally with the soil and the sun that is absent during the week. Others find similar renewal in walking or swimming or visiting a park. The important thing is to discover in the freedom of this day a place to allow our love of the earth to be rekindled: to notice its beauty, to enjoy its colors and shapes and smells, and to experience how our bodies move among its waters, rocks, and breezes.Keeping Sabbath not only brings us closer to the earth but also begins the process of healing it. Refraining from work on a regular basis is a way of setting limits on behavior that is perilous for the well-being of the planet itself. Just as overworked Americans need rest, both from work and from the illusion that they themselves cause the grain to grow, the earth also needs rest from human burning and buying and selling. Perhaps as Sabbath keepers we will come to live and know these truths more fully and thus to bring their wisdom to the common solution of humanity's problems.
Continued in part two:
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