by Charles LaFond
It seems like God had America in mind when God assigned a day of rest as one of the ten commandments. In all three listings (Exodus (two of them) and Deuteronomy), God is so very clear about the Sabbath day. And in the creation story God names the Sabbath day as the first “Holy thing” which is a big deal for God because calling something Holy is just not done lightly in scripture.
My little pottery studio is an icon of Sabbath rest for me. I hope everyone can find such an image in their life – something which speaks “rest here a while” to them. I go there to be alone and though I love to invite friends into it, I do so rarely. When people say to me “Oh I wish I could meditate every day” and “I wish I could be an artist” my response is simple; set aside a place for it, and it will happen. Its funny that we “make” money but “find” time. If you want to pray daily, find a comfortable chair away from the center of the action and place next to it a prayer book. Go there daily – even when you don’t feel like it. If you want to do some creative act like knitting or painting or poetry or calligraphy or jewelry making – just set a small place aside, keep the materials there – never move them – and it will call to you. The place itself will actually call you over to it. I can’t explain it but it is true. The “place” will come alive and it will summon you, woo you, coax you, call to you, whisper to you, seduce you.
Sabbath rest is not just sitting there covered in Cheeto dust in front of a television or a computer. Sabbath rest is ideally infused with creativity – making things happen – generativity. It is joy – and joy is life’s goal. As we look around us at this creation, it is constantly giving birth to itself. The creation is constantly creating new species and new life within those species. God is constantly creating new life from death. If we are – and we indeed are- made in God’s image, well then we are made to create. And not creating is not living into our fullest humanity.
The creativity of raising children well, the creativity of reinventing vocations and marriages rather than simply casting them off in exchange for something new, the creativity of making a good soup and inviting two friends over for conversation and the creativity of a potter or a painter or a writer are all a response to God’s gentle whisper: take what I have given you and MAKE something wonderful!
And the weird thing is that the “work” of creativity seems to me to be more restful and more fulfilling than just “spending time” on things unworthy of being the artists we all naturally are made to be and to become. Yet, because I am a member of an over-stimulated, over-caffeinated and noisy society, I am sometimes given over to the dark side of overly passionate work. Thomas Merton addresses this kind of work-binge as follows:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence…(and that is) activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fullness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.”
There are ways to mitigate this sense of losing one’s way in life — stop-gaps like days off, Sabbath days, retreats, hobbies, travel, study weeks, and sabbaticals. They say that sin amounts to not much more than forgetting who we really are. Sabbath is something we make and not something we do. And that Sabbath – be it a few minutes of rest, a day off, a week off or a season off – that Sabbath rest is a command.
Sabbath can be an hour or a day or two in a busy work week. But it can also be a few minutes with a candle in the darkness of the imminent dawn. For very busy people – especially the working poor or people in transitions or times of critical deadlines – a few minutes with a candle can make all the difference.
For people who believe in God, Sabbath is time during which their God can be with them. For people who do not believe in God, it can be time during which, unknown to them, their God can be with them. It is union with a God whose penchant for intimacy and playfulness cannot be underestimated. And the time prepares me for what I will face in my work. It is, as the years progress, becoming easier and easier to identify those rare people whose toxicity or lack of mindfulness are dangerous in the church but it also helps me, sinner that I am, to differentiate these dangers from my own projections. For a leader in the church, silence and prayer are essential – worn like a secret decoder ring from a Marvel comic book version of Lesser Feasts and Fasts.
How can we recover the Sabbath in our lives? Sabbath was designed to be a gift from God, one that God taught by example in the Creation story when God rested on the seventh day. As a theologian and priest, I am interested in the stewardship of rest and renewal. I wonder what it might take for us to return to a time in which we actually keep the Sabbath “holy.” Sabbath is part of the stewardship of our lives because without Sabbath- we become exhausted shells – panting and hollow, useless and unhappy. The “Protestant work ethic,” by which salvation was achieved from an angry God rather than accepted as a gift from a loving God is warped and bent. The door to Auschwitz said “Work will set you free.” That was a lie then and it is a lie now.
Families make visits while on vacation to “shrines” throughout our country – Nashville, Disneyworld (my personal plan), Williamsburg, Gettysburg, the Colorado Mountains, Big Sur, the Lincoln Memorial and other of our nation’s “holy sites.” We mark each place with an event and that place becomes pregnant with meaning and nostalgia. But in the scriptures, God chooses first to mark a time, not a place, as holy. As Abraham Heschel points out, instead of designating a mountain or an altar as holy (“qadosh” in Hebrew), we read, “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” No place or thing was endowed with the word “holy.” The label “holy” was reserved for a time – Sabbath time. When scripture and early church writers call us to be “in the world and not of the world,” the world they refer to is not the creation – which, after all, was created “very good.” The world to be avoided was the human tendency to conspicuous consumption, self-anesthetizing workaholism, the wasted noise of busyness, and the frantic lust for power and control. In our desire for more, more, more – we work harder and harder and harder – longer and longer and longer. We have lost the stewardship of rest that so informed our ancestors’ experience of God, life and each other. Now we use Sabbath for the recovery of strength for more work. Learning to make a Sabbath – to be good stewards of rest – is a process; and I think it is one which could transform our church and our lives.
Sometimes my body hurts. I know I am not alone. Usually, the pain comes from a lack of rest or a lack of fluids…or both. Coming from a long line of alcoholics and megalomaniacs I, like most westerners, am given to mild addiction (that is, the desire to dull pain and human loneliness with something distracting). I like alcohol (especially single malt scotch) but am, for reasons I do not understand, not an alcoholic. Sometimes I use shopping to dull my pain when I am feeling insecure. The purchase usually gives me a “hit” of power, but the glow fades faster than the interest payments and the regret. I have never found gambling the least bit attractive with the exception of the all-you-can-eat buffets designed to keep one docile, in the building, and unaware of the time. No, my addiction is work. They say that such a statement is well-placed in a work-related newsletter or in a job interview. Employers like workaholics. Oh sure, we “tsk, tsk” a bit, but always with a sly, knowing half-smile. Work is our society’s main addiction because it does double-time. It simultaneously masks our pain and also provides the resources we think we need to achieve an absurdly high standards of living.
Chapter 45 of the Rule of Life at the monastery from which I emerged ten years ago this week is on “Rest and Recreation” and reminds the community, every 45th day, why Sabbath- keeping is so vital. The irony is of course, that I left the monastery, in part because it felt like a Victorian workhouse. The chapter’s opening paragraph is as follows:
“The hallowing of rest and the keeping of Sabbath is an essential element in our covenant with God. The one who can find no happiness except in ceaseless work is afraid to be still and know that the Lord alone is God. If we find ourselves filling leisure time with tasks, we can be sure that we have begun to imagine that our worth consists in what we accomplish. When we regularly cease from our labor and enjoy rest as a holy gift, we can grow in trust that our worth in God’s sight lies simply in our very being, clothed with Christ.”
I am trying to imagine God satisfied with my work, but thrilled with my rest. It also occurs to me that when I rest, I make life for those around me better. The rested Charles is less cranky, less hypervigilant, less stressed and less demanding. To take time to rest weekly and daily is an act of humility. It accepts the reality that I am a creature and not God. There is also the challenge of a Sabbath day (day off) that is genuinely re-creative rather than heavily slothful. To hallow our Sabbath is to fill it with sleep, friends, hobbies, music and entertainment. To profane our Sabbath is to find that time-off has simply left us dull and un-rejuvenated.
There are plenty of people who will take pot shots (or more likely frown with that “It must be nice!” look) at our attempts to find rest: such is the cost of discipleship, of living counter-culturally. I am not trying to tick them off – that’s just a side benefit! To live against the culture by taking time for study, play, sleep, rest, play, prayer and friendship will always push tired people’s buttons – especially those who most long for the discipline to follow suit. Yet we are resurrection people who follow a Savior who rested and prayed and took time with his friends – even occasionally turning away from the hordes of people clamoring for healing.
Keeping Sabbath rest is a commandment. It is one of “The Big Ten.” To take time for rest means saying no sometimes. It means admitting we are limited. It means accepting our human frailty and it provides us with the time we need to consider our life so that we make good choices with eyes wide open and hearts softened by slumber. When I am rested, I can see where I am hurting others and where I am being hurt by others. My tired eyes open. But mostly, when I am resting, I am saying yes to a gift God has given me – a gift God would prefer I not squander. And I have no excuse not to rest and play because, Kai, my black lab, seems to be God’s constant visual prompt to put the work down, curl up on the carpet in front of the fireplace and ponder stuff in my heart.
Chapter Five – Sabbath-Keeping
The Rule of Life
Being a Christian does not make one better than others, but it does make one different. And if not, is one really anything other than an on-looker, an observer. Jesus began a movement, not a religion. So being different is a mark of being a Christian. One way in which I am marked as a Christian is that I do not take “vacations” nor do I have “lunch hours” nor do I have “weekends” or take “days off.” I keep Sabbaths.
If I am “off on Friday” then actually, I use terminology such as “I am on Sabbath on Friday.” I do not mean to annoy those who consider this weird. I love that I annoy them, to be sure. But that is not why I do it – annoying them is a side-benefit! I take Sabbath days because I follow a God who made and named the Sabbath Holy and then commanded that we keep it.
My Sabbath Day is usually Friday. So, in keeping with the Christian notion that a feast begins on the night before at sunset, I do not agree to any work on Thursday nights (or my Sabbath eve) unless for pastoral need. On Thursday night at sunset, I wash my bed sheets and dry them (with lavender – back when I could smell). I then dress my bed gently, the way a deacon dresses the altar with the vessels of the Eucharist – lovingly, carefully, slowly, and reverently as a symbol to myself of the need we have for sleep and rest.
As a recovering work addict, I need to be careful to leave my cell phone in the car glove box and keep my computer off unless for something I will enjoy. If I am on-call for pastoral care in the congregation, I take another day as a Sabbath. A phone unable to ring is different from one not ringing – the rest is different. I realize that many, especially parents and the working-poor are denied Sabbath so I pray for them and remind myself of the goodness of the gift.
Silence is an important part of my Sabbath–keeping and so I only make plans with my closest friends – people I love and trust – on my Sabbath day. And I work hard to follow the monastic norm of doing only one thing at a time. A Sabbath day is a time for hand-written letters on cotton stationary, with a good pen and to people I love and who love me. It is also a day to tend “The garden” – the list of my closest 20 friends – what needs watering, what feeding, what pruning and what needs pulling up and out, to make space for new growth?
A Sabbath Day may be broken by carelessness (as I did last Friday – oops) in which case stopping, standing and acknowledging the mistake with a moment of un-scolding silence helps me re-orient. I will say my prayers but not usually in the morning and I will try to create something on my Sabbath day – some pottery, some Butter Crunch Almond Toffee or writing or a meal for friends.
Sleep is an important aspect of my Sabbath. I do the math. I consider my week and if I need extra sleep stolen from one day or another, I intentionally sleep long or stay in bed and listen to a book while my black lab Kai snuggles close for heat.
As Sabbath ends, I try to recollect it at bedtime with gratitude. I thank God for the gift of rest and ask forgiveness if I invaded and broke my Sabbath or if I was dull, lazy and lifeless, wasting time rather than enjoying it.
God made all things in heaven and on earth says Genesis. Each act of creation was named good or very good. Only one thing was called “Holy.” The first time that bombshell of a word is used in our scriptures it is used for the naming of Sabbath-rest – not a person, nor a place, but rather a time. If God is to attribute rest with such heavy glory, then who am I to do anything but bow and enjoy it. God gives it as a gift. Let no man break it asunder, least of all me.