2016-06-03

The first time I really tried [to keep the Sabbath] was the Sunday after my last Sunday as a parish minister. After more than twenty years of being in church most Sunday mornings, I found myself suddenly faced with a whole day at home alone. I could not go to the church I had just resigned from. I did not want to go to church anywhere else. I thought about going to the grocery store, but I live in a small town where someone was bound to report that I had been seen buying cold cuts on my first Sunday morning away from church. So I stayed home instead, where I confronted grave questions about my professional identity, my human worth, and my status before God.

But that only lasted about an hour. After that, I went out on the front porch and said morning prayer with the birds. Then I read until lunchtime. Then I made an egg sandwich. Then I took a nap. By the time the sun went down, I realized that I had just observed my first true Sabbath in more than twenty years. In the years since then, I have made a practice of saying no for one whole day a week: to work, to commerce, to the Internet, to the car, to the voice in my head that is forever whispering, "More." One day each week, More God is the only thing on my list.

While reading up on a practice is no substitute for practicing it, I have also read enough to remember that the Sabbath has always been Saturday, not Sunday. By the lunar reckoning of the Bible, it starts on Friday evening and it ends on Saturday evening.

Look the word up in the book of Exodus and you discover that Jews were observing Sabbath before Moses brought the stone tablets of God's holy law down from Mount Sinai. The first holy thing in all creation, Abraham Heschel says, was not a people or a place but a day. God made everything in creation and called it good, but when God rested on the seventh day, God called it holy. That makes the seventh day a "palace in time," Heschel says, into which human beings are invited every single week of our lives.

Why are we so reluctant to go?

In the eyes of the world, there is no payoff for sitting on the porch. A field full of weeds will not earn anyone's respect. If you want to succeed in this life (whatever your "field" of endeavor), you must spray, you must plow, you must fertilize, you must plant. You must never turn your back. Each year's harvest must be bigger than the last. That is what the earth and her people are for, right? Wrong god.

In the eyes of the true God, the porch is imperative—not every now and then but on a regular basis. When the fields are at rest—when shy deer step from the woods to graze the purple clover grown up between last year's tomato plants, and Carolina chickadees hang upside down to pry seeds from the sunflowers that have taken over the vineyard—when the people who belong to this land walk through it with straw hats in their hands instead of hoes to discover that wild blackberries water their mouths as surely as the imported grapes they worked so hard to protect from last year's frost—this is not called "letting things go"; this is called "practicing Sabbath." You have to wonder what makes human beings so resistant to it.

Anyone who practices Sabbath for even an afternoon usually suffers a little spell of Sabbath sickness. Try it and you too may be amazed by how quickly your welcome rest begins to feel like something closer to a bad cold. Okay, that was nice. Okay, you are ready to get back to work now. Yes, you know you said you wanted this, but now you have had just the right amount of rest—maybe even a touch too much—so that you are beginning to feel sluggish. What if your energy level drops and never comes back up again? What if you get used to this and want never to go back to work? Plus, how will you ever catch up after taking a whole day off? Just thinking about it makes you tired.

Is weeding the garden really work if you enjoy it? Is looking through a Garnet Hill catalog really shopping? This, I think, is how the rabbis were finally forced to spell out all the kinds of work that are forbidden on the Sabbath—because people kept trying to find ways to get to yes instead of no. If I am a doctor and someone calls for help, am I allowed to help? If my dog gets sick, can I take her to the vet? Is striking a match really making a fire?

Yes, it is. If you decide to live on the fire God has made inside of you instead, then it will not be long before some other things flare up as well. Most of us move fast enough during the week to outrun them, but if you slow down for a day, then all kinds of alarming things can happen. You can start crying without having the slightest idea why. You can start remembering what you loved about people who died before you were ten, along with things you did when you were eighteen that still send involuntary shivers up your back. You can make a list of the times you almost died in your life, along with the reasons you are most glad to be alive.

Released from bondage to the clock, you eat when you are hungry instead of when you have to. Nine times out of ten you discover that you are far less hungry than you thought you were, or at least less for groceries than for the bread no one can buy. As you slow down, your heart does too. The girdle of your diaphragm loosens, causing great sighs too deep for words to pour from your body. In their wake, you discover more room around your heart, a greater capacity for fresh air. Sabbath sickness turns out to be a lot like other sicknesses, which until now have been the only way you could grant yourself more than one day off from work. If you flee from the pain and failure, then you run into them everywhere you go. If you can find some way to open to them instead, then they may bring their hands from behind their backs and lay flowers on your bed.

Most people I know want to talk about why it is impossible for them to practice Sabbath, which is an interesting spiritual exercise in itself. If you want to try it, then make two lists on one piece of paper. On one side of the paper, list all of the things you know give you life that you never take time to do. Then, on the other side, make a list of all the reasons why you think it is impossible for you to do those things. That is all there is to it. Just make the two lists, and keep the piece of paper where you can see it. Also promise not to shush your heart when it howls for the list it wants.

If a whole day of life-giving freedom is too much for you to imagine, then start however you can. Decide that you will get up an hour before everyone else in the house and dedicate that time to doing nothing but being in the divine presence. Decide that you will turn off the television an hour before you go to bed and spend that time outside looking at the sky. You could resolve not to add anything more to your calendar without subtracting something from it. You could practice praising yourself for saying no as lavishly as you do when you say yes.

If you do any of these things, you will likely discover that they are very difficult to sustain all by yourself. It is hard to be a lone revolutionary, yet that is what you become when you start saying no. You rise up against your history, your ego, your culture and its ravenous economy. You may also have to rise up against your church or synagogue, if you belong to one, since such institutions can demand as much of you as any pharaoh. My advice is to find yourself a partner revolutionary. Find a whole community of revolutionaries if you can. They will help you hang on to your vision, the one that helps you remember who you were created to be. They may even supply you with some missing details, along with the support to realize them.

In the meantime, I think it is good to have a Sabbath vision even if it seems impossible to you right now. Here is mine, which you are free to borrow while you are envisioning your own.

At least one day in every seven, pull off the road and park the car in the garage. Close the door to the toolshed and turn off the computer. Stay home not because you are sick but because you are well. Talk someone you love into being well with you. Take a nap, a walk, an hour for lunch. Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce—that even if you spent one whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God's sight—and when you get anxious because you are convinced that this is not so, remember that your own conviction is not required. This is a commandment. Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working. The purpose of the commandment is to woo you to the same truth.


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