Life-Giving Sabbath

Photo by Rev. Tim Ten Clay

The word “Sabbath” calls up lots of ideas and feelings for different people.  As I grew up, we were expected to observe it strictly, with no unnecessary work and no homework done on Sundays. We could not patronize a swimming pool or a restaurant, because that would require other people to violate the Sabbath as they served us.  This was not altogether a negative thing. When I was in college I continued to avoid homework on Sundays, thus enjoying a true day of rest every week.

Over the years I have come to appreciate the concept of Sabbath deeply.

I am a person who likes to get things done, to have the satisfaction of achievement. I have struggled with the notion that to be significant I have to be this way; I have to produce something all the time to justify my existence.

            So when I entered full time ministry, I knew I had to rein in these impulses or I would burn out quickly, because in ministry, there are always ten more things to do and goals to set, people to see, etc. Someone recommended Marva Dawn’s book to me, and it helped a lot. I did other things to deal with this, but her exploration of Sabbath enabled me to have a way that helped me hold myself together in the midst of reining in my pushy impulses. It helped me to remain healthy as a pastor and non-anxious in my other relationships, as much as I was able.

            Gradually I realized that Sabbath is about more than a day. It is a lifestyle and a stance. But it helps to think first of it as that seventh day set aside at the very beginning, as described in the story of creation.

            Sabbath enables us to stop. When we stop, we can let our selves catch up with ourselves. And God can reclaim us too, because in keeping Sabbath, we can remember who we are—God’s beloved—and that everyone else shares that identity and grace that come from God. It also enables us to see where we are, what we have, who is doing life with us. We can step back and see the picture more clearly, more comprehensively.

            Sabbath helps us remember who God is too. We have the time to breathe and realize that we cannot do everything we want to do. We cannot even do what is within our capacity all that well. So we realize that we have to rely on God. So we can recognize what is our part, and what is God’s part, and not get them mixed up.

            In the process we realize that Sabbath is a gift. “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work, but the seventh is a sabbath to the LORD your God,” the Scriptures tell us. So apparently six days is enough to do all that we need to do.

            Enough. That is a key word in thinking about Sabbath. God seems to want us to know that we will have enough if we do our work faithfully six days of the week. To know that resting is part of the rhythm that will give us life. That whatever we can accomplish in those six days, we do not have to look at it and say it’s not enough. It is enough.

            So then I learned to extend this idea to everything else, all seven days of the week. That whatever I can bring to God is enough. That whatever time I have for family and work and study and friends and playing is enough, but I need to stop once a week so I can see how to balance all of it in a life-giving way.

            I also learned that I am enough. I do not have to prove myself to God, earn God’s favor by doing “godly” things, or be good enough for God to love me. On my own, there is not enough of me, but with God, there is always more than enough.

            I learned that Sabbath is about trust. That I can trust God to make up the difference where I cannot be or do whatever is needed. God will be faithful in that. Over my years in ministry this became very practical. If I had to deal with a lot of unexpected issues or pastoral care like a funeral or a catastrophic illness, I could give all the time needed to that, and still be ready to lead worship on Sunday. When I trusted God, the sermons just came, and everything else fell into place too. So I could relax and not be anxious about all I had to do.

            My husband and I have learned about Sabbath living and the concept of enough in our stewardship of finances. When we feel compelled by the Spirit to give more than we think we can afford at the moment, God always provides for our needs. Every time. We can trust God who asks us to give money, time (such as one day a week), effort, material goods and then provides abundantly when we respond in faith. So we can live life with an open hand and a trusting heart.

            Sabbath enables us to get our bearings. It enables us to be restored, to find our well-being in God’s goodness. It gives us time to rest our bodies, minds, spirits.  We can take time to delight in good food, loving relationships, the beauty of nature. It helps us take the time for gratitude, and for each other. It is a reset button that is pure gift.

            To me, Sabbath living is also about awareness. It is a way of savoring a slower pace of life and savoring the gifts that are all around and also within us. It is a way of saying yes to God and all that God offers.

            But in saying yes to God we are also saying no to other things. We recognize that we are humans with limitations. We will not work on that seventh day because we truly need the rest God offers. As we learn to do this, we realize that we do not want to rush through the rest of the week; otherwise one day to take a break is not enough. Something deep down tells us that doing so much is not abundance; it is exhaustion. So we want to slow down.

            There is no getting around it. Experiencing life as God means us to live it is not about doing as much as we can. It not about acquiring more that we do not need. It is not about hurry. It is about receiving the gifts and using them thoughtfully, with God’s help. It is about love that does not demand or push. It is a life of peace and well-being because we know who we are, whose we are, who gives us all things, and how we can care for one another.

            To me, this is Sabbath living.

Catching Up with God

 The following essay was originally addressed to the community of Spencer, Iowa, since it was written for the weekly pastor’s column of the local paper, the Spencer Reporter. As such, it is limited in scope and meant to be an article of interest to the faith population that typically reads it. The poem that follows it was written three years ago.

People tell me they want to keep learning about God and the Bible. So here is a perspective for you to consider, if it is new to you.

First, Jesus. Along with the comforting image of him as gentle Savior, he also challenged traditional understandings of the Levitical laws. He “broke” the Sabbath. He talked to women as though they were as intelligent as men. He conversed with Gentiles, touched the unclean and hung out with sinners, thus associating with all the “wrong” people.

            But there was that prophecy in Isaiah 43:18-19: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Jesus was demonstrating what it means to trust and honor God. He embodied the love he taught. We accept these “new things” he did.

            Second, Philip. There is a strange story in Acts 8 where he is told by an angel to go to a certain road south of Jerusalem. There was a eunuch who had worshiped God and was reading from a scroll of Isaiah in his chariot on his way home to Ethiopia. A eunuch was a man who was castrated to have presumably less power, so he could be trusted to serve in the king’s household.  This man had a high position as treasurer of all the queen’s money.

            A eunuch was among those considered sexual deviants in that time, no doubt disdained by both men and women for his condition. Yet among thousands of events that happened in the apostles’ ministries, this is one of the few stories recorded for us. When Philip told this man about Jesus, he responded in faith and asked a question that echoes through the ages: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer: nothing. Philip baptized him that day and was whisked away by the Spirit to another town. God was doing a new thing. (See also Isaiah 56:3-5)

            Third, Peter. He fell into a trance and saw something like a sheet coming down from heaven, filled with animals and birds that were on the list of non-kosher foods. He was commanded to eat, but he protested that they were profane and unclean.  But the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” It happened three times, a sign in ancient times that it was real and important.

            Peter did not know what to make of this until representatives of Cornelius, a Roman centurion (a Gentile), told them they had been sent to fetch him. An angel had told their master, a God-fearing man, to send for Peter to hear what he had to say. Peter had the chance to sleep on it before he went with them the next day. He told Cornelius all about Jesus, but before he could finish there was a mini-Pentecost then and there. The Holy Spirit fell on everyone and they spoke in tongues. It was Peter this time who asked whether there was any reason not to baptize them. Again, the answer was no. God was doing a new thing.

            We are approaching the end of June, Pride month for the LGBTQ community. Christian friends, please set aside the “seven texts” that are debated about human sexuality and purity for a moment. Jesus reframed the ancient texts in Matthew 5 as he taught a deeper truth about morality centered in the heart. He taught and embodied the divine, generous perspective that flows from love and compassion.

Look at these stories. What is to keep God from doing new things now? What if condemning people based on their innate understanding of themselves as whole and beloved in this world is not what Jesus would do? I invite you to consider what matters most to him: loving one another. Be open to the Spirit that is alive, always reminding us what Jesus said and did. Trust the God who does new things that help us to love as we are loved, every single one of us.

How Far Have We Wandered

How far have we wandered from the heart of God
when we scorn and shame
those who have mustered the courage 
to express the deepest cry of their hearts?
They who have explored their inner landscape
--where many are afraid to go—
and found what and who can truly give them life?

They dare to name their joy
while others hurl unearned labels at them.
They claim their bodies, stake out their homesteads,
listen to the quiet authority of their worthiness.

Meanwhile, religious people have the audacity to insist
that what the brave ones know to be true
is a lie
on the basis of what somebody told them God doesn’t approve of.

Ancient words attempting faithfulness
are used to condemn
while the language of love and inclusion
is dismissed.

Trusted leaders eat at the forbidden tree 
of the knowledge of good and evil,
but they deny others a place
at the healing banquet 
to which all are invited.

Lay down your forbidden fruit,
your facile judgments.
Let your fellow humans teach you 
how to listen to God
through your own heart.  

No Escape

Splash, rumble, plink, whoosh,
Plop, mumble, bang, sploosh. 
Clang, jiggle, roar, ding,
Thrust, giggle, vroom, fling.
The onomata runs around 
attempting to be freer, 
but he cannot escape the sound 
of his pursuing poeia.