Sabbath for hard times

Sabbath for hard times

All those people out there walking the roads all those years, hardly a one of them remembering the Sabbath. Who would know what day of the week it was? Who wouldn’t take work when there was work to be done? What use was there in calling a day by a certain name, or thinking of it as anything but weather? They knew what time of the year it was when the timothy bloomed, when the birds were fledging. They knew it was morning when the sun came up. What more was there to know?

Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Growing up in the middle class suburbs of Chicago, Sunday was something more than cereal: store-bought coffeecake or orange Danish or a microwave recipe for sticky buns that each of us girls learned how to make by heart to our liking early on (I liked mine under-baked, without walnuts). Sunday was sit-down breakfast and lunch, but not supper, with church sandwiched between, and Sunday school in season. Sunday was the telephone off the hook in the afternoon while Mom napped in the bedroom and dad fell asleep on the couch in front of the TV. Sometimes Sunday was night church, with a smaller crowd and an outfit too casual for Sunday morning, but too fancy for school. Though I’m sure Sunday was punctuated with the same old workaday, grown-up worries for my parents, for me it was chock full of the luxury of boredom: interminable sermons and pastoral prayers, quiet afternoons, no shopping, no lawn-mowing.

Over the past twenty years, through phases of church and churchlessness, one thing that has remained steady for me and my husband is our attempt to set Sunday aside as a day of rest in the practice of Sabbath. We schedule as little as possible and seek to listen for the voice of delight, though it can be hard to hear through the many layers of habits and shoulds that insulate us from some kind of pure, mythical kernel of desire. The strain to listen is itself instructive, and yet I hope the personal practices are just the beginning.

In my own time and place, I feel like I’ve just begun to understand the ways in which “Sabbath rest” is like the street-facing façade of a house: a thing in itself that is one integral part of a much larger whole. There is infinitely more to the structure than the façade, including the stories of the building and all of the people who have ever passed through the place, and what kind of future will emerge from the unique culture of the household within. It will take me a lifetime and more to learn. These days, I’m reflecting on the meaning of practicing Sabbath in a world in which so many do not have the luxury of keeping a day holy and set apart, and how we as individuals and as faith communities are being called to much more than church and a nap on Sunday.

In the introduction to his short book The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, Ched Myers begins making a case that the practice of Sabbath and economics go hand in hand, throughout the biblical story and today on the ground in our communities. “At its root,” he writes, “Sabbath observance is about gift and limits: the grace of receiving that which the Creator gives, and the responsibility not to take too much, nor to mistake the gift for a possession.” Within the ubiquitous press for more and better that is the only way of life so many of us know, Sabbath is surrender, a suspension of money-making and clock-punching, a way of watching what keeps going even when we stop doing. It gives us new eyes for the way the world is working—or not working—every other day of the week.

If the connection between the practice of Sabbath and economics is foreign to us, Myers says, it’s because we’ve allowed the relentless drone of advertising and acquisition to drown out the cries of the poor, which reverberate at the very center of God’s heart. He writes,

…the fact is, these are hard times for those trying to resist the triumphant march of a global capitalism that leaves in its wake ever-increasing disparities between rich and poor. It is a struggle to find an alternative language and practice to the manic claims and absolutist grip of market thinking. That means this is a good time for the church to rediscover the radically different vision of economic and social practice that lies right at the heart of her scriptures…. God’s people are instructed to dismantle, on a regular basis, the fundamental patterns and structures of stratified wealth and power, so that there is enough for everyone.

What would it look like for our local churches to be leading the way in this dismantling, not just by addressing individual needs on a one-by-one basis, but by seeking to reshape the very structures of society for shalom—the flourishing of all? Myers makes a few suggestions, and Matthew Colwell elaborates in the companion booklet Sabbath Economics: Household Practices. But Myers circles back to perennial importance of Sabbath-keeping, finding hope in the fact that “both Christians and Jews are re-visioning what Sabbath renewal might look like in light of our political situation of crisis. Many are returning to the healing (and subversive) character of regular rhythms of rest and ‘non-productivity’ for both individuals…and for society as a whole.”

If faith communities are being called to much more than church and a nap on a Sunday, they might also be called to: church and a nap on a Sunday. In her book Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative practices of the Black Church, Barbara Holmes writes about the inextricable connection between contemplation and activism in the black church as it evolved in the U.S.:

The activism that ignited the freedom movements had contemplative practices at their center. The very act of passive resistance can be described as stillness in the midst of turmoil, a willingness to subject the body to the chaos of abuse and social rejection while uniting the ultimate purposes of that resistance to the Holy Spirit. Incredibly, abuse loses its power when it confronts the unified resolve of a community and the personal commitment of its individuals.

The question for local congregations of all colors is: what kinds of actions throughout the week are the contemplative practices of Sunday morning preparing us for? Are they preparing us to sit down and shut up, or to risk our own security to stand with those who are suffering? Is the congregational culture exacerbating our individual hunger for upward mobility so that we can have more, or strategically reinforcing our collective capacity for downward mobility so that we can share more? Who doesn’t have the luxury of gathering and resting, both in our local community and around the world, and how are those stories present in the space? Sabbath practiced with integrity holds the power to dissolve boundaries: between Sunday and every other day of the week, between rich and poor, between black and white, between contemplation and action, between I and thou, between the present and the future.

Why would we settle for less?