“Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” – Exodus 20:8
I’ve heard it said that the 4th Commandment, the commandment instructing us to keep sabbath, is the only one of the Ten Commandments that we willingly break and then brag about. I mean think about it, our culture is obsessed with busyness. Think of that executive skillfully running through the airport terminal, cup of overpriced latte in one hand, pulling his carry on luggage with the other, briefcase draped over his shoulder, and having a conversation with that mysterious client on his bluetooth. He’s so busy, and he looks really uncomfortable, but he looks so cool doing it.
In a culture where production is of paramount importance, rest is an unnecessary annoyance at best and an enemy at worst. Workers are rewarded for not taking vacation, new mothers are penalized for taking maternity leave, and even our teenagers are way too busy. In an attempt to make them more competitive for college, or perhaps because we’ve brought into the myth the an “idle mind is the Devil’s playground,” our kids go from school, to sports practice, to music lessons, to church, and stay up until midnight or the wee hours of the morning doing homework.
And yet, under all the noise of life is God’s invitation to rest for the sake of rest, to participate in the in-breaking of the Reign of God by stopping. In the background, God’s voice still calls us to “remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.”
Walter Brueggemann, Hebrew Bible scholar, suggests that origins of Sabbath are murky and unknown, but probably reflects some sort of agricultural rhythm. By granting it religious importance, early Jewish people framed Sabbath observance as a means of participating in a divine rhythm of creation, a rhythm without which life is unsustainable.
Creation does have a rhythm of creation and dormancy, of activity and rest. As I am writing this, I am sitting on the patio of the Roasterie Coffeeshop on the first day of Spring (after an asininely ridiculous Winter from Hell), taking full advantage of that divine rhythm that sustains all life on earth. The first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a) frames a God who participated in this rhythm, a God who spent energy creating the world and then had to be “refreshed” (literally re-“selfed”) by resting, according to Exodus 30:17.
Our culture doesn’t truly acknowledge this rhythm. We go to bed too late. We rise too early. We work all day and all night. Our cellphones are constantly within arms reach making us accessible 24/7. We’ve destroyed the sacred rhythm, and we’re so proud of if.
Sabbath keeping is about recovering that rhythm for ourselves. It’s about restoring the source of self and holding that up as paramount importance. It’s about recognizing a few things:
First, we are not the center of the universe. For centuries, the Church staunchly upheld the believe that the Earth was the center of the Universe and that humans were the center of creation, even martyring those who dared posit a different cosmology. Centuries after Giordano Bruno and Galileo disproved this theory, we still like to think that we are the center of our own universes. By working all the time, by saying “no” to God’s instruction to keep Sabbath, we are committing idolatry. We have made something else the center. We have put something else in front of God. Sabbath-keeping is about recovering the proper center for our lives – God. In The Creative Encounter, Howard Thurman writes at-length about the stripping away of the self that opens up possibilities for a new center of being, a center which reorders everything else about the self.
Second, the world will still turn without you. Last I checked, no human woke up and told the world to spin, told the sun to shine, or told the wind to blow. You may be cute, intelligent, and articulate, but the world will not end because you took a day off. Even on a micro-level, your own world will not end because you took a day off. I know it’s hard to hear, but it’s true. During the time I spent as a hospital chaplain in Atlanta, Georgia, I became intimately attune to what it meant to be overworked (at times working 70+ a week on multiple overnight shifts). I went for weeks without a proper break or vacation until finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I took a few days off to visit my family and guess what? The hospital didn’t implode, the patients still received pastoral visits, and the staff were still supported. Sabbath-keeping is a humbling experience because, contrary to how important we think we are, none of us is irreplaceable.
Third, we are part of a larger system that needs to stop. Walter Brueggemann suggests that Sabbath-keeping is, at it’s core “not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being.” He goes on to suggest that Sabbath-keeping is an example of economic and social justice. Yet how many economic and social-justice activists (arm-chair or otherwise) work, work, and work not realizing that their refusal to stop actually colludes with the very culture that they are trying to change. We want a system that upholds the inherent value of human beings, yet we make production more important than God’s promise of rest. As Christians, we are called to be salt, influencers and creators of culture. The so-called “American Dream” colluded with American religion in the middle of the last century and left us with a system that looks like the Puritan work-ethic on speed. What if instead of buying into the “American Dream” of more and more, we adopted God’s Dream of enough and equality? What if we refused to participate in Pharoanic system that demands more “bricks without straw?” What if we say yes to God and no Mammon? Sabbath-keeping is about doing just that. Sabbath-keeping is about allowing God to satisfy you.
God is serious about Sabbath. Many of Jesus’ miracles took place on the Sabbath to illustrate the point over and over again – the Sabbath is meant to refresh you, and heal you, and restore you, and make you whole, but we’ve got to stop long enough for the shepherd to lead us by still waters and to restore our souls.
Keep the faith, and make it COLORFUL!