I can remember as a child, driving to church on Sunday mornings in the spring, around the time when the fields began to dry out. We were farmers, so this was an anxious time of waiting and readiness. Every morning my father, itching to be out there in the fields, would drive around his farm testing the soil, seeing if it was dry enough to be tilled and planted. So often, the fields would be almost ready, but not quite, and then it would rain again, and you’d have to wait for them to dry, again, and hope the rains stayed away long enough to get some good planting done. When a field was ready, my parents and grandparents worked from early morning until late at night, using every available body and every available minute to put in our fields, trying to get as much in as possible before the next rain.
But, if the field came ready on a Sunday, you didn’t touch it. It just wasn’t done, even if you weren’t a church-going person. Even if the weatherman predicted a 100% chance of thunderstorms on Monday morning! And if you did dare to work your fields on a Sunday, everyone would know about it, and talk about it, and look at you differently. But inevitably, there would be someone who just couldn’t resist. Some Sunday mornings on our way to church we would see a lone cloud of dust rising from a field. My parents would shake their heads and as children we would know what that meant! Someone was disrespecting the Sabbath.
As a child, I found this very interesting. I had been fed a pretty literalist understanding of God in Sunday school. God was someone who watched what we did very closely and kept lists of the good and bad things we did, all in the interests of future punishments and rewards. I was deeply curious to know what, if anything, would happen to the farmer, because I personally did not experience much lenience in my own life. So I asked my father, the prime disciplinarian in my family, what was going to happen to the farmer. I didn’t get a very satisfactory response. My father believes in a God of love, so he basically said that he didn’t know, that God knew best, and we’d have to trust him.
Well that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. So I asked my grandfather, who had a much more unpredictable and judgmental God. He said in no uncertain terms that God would punish him, somehow. The crop from a field worked on a Sunday would probably come to no good. And if it wasn’t in the field, it would happen in the home. And if not in the home, then it would happen in the heart. And so I watched that field all year, and if by some chance that field had a bad stand, or flooded, or suffered from pests or disease, I could go into that delicious place of self-righteousness and marvel at the truth of my grandfather’s words.
That was some 30 years ago, and times have certainly changed. In April, I attended our District Assembly in Madison WI, and made the long drive back to St. Louis on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Everywhere I looked, the landscape was dotted with tractors lumbering across the fields. Life has become faster for the farmer and it is now nothing unusual for a farmer to take to the fields on a Sunday. In fact, life has become faster for all of us. Just as farmers work their fields seven days a week, many of us also work just as long. It’s been a long time since stores closed on Saturday night not to reopen until Monday morning. You can do most of your errands seven days a week. Banking. Groceries. Shopping. Even businesses that close their buildings often have 24-hour internet or phone access to their services. And if you have children, add even more to that load. Many child-focused activities, like sports programming, take place on Sunday mornings and so we don’t stop running on Friday when school lets out. The running keeps going all weekend. Furthermore, since the dawn of cell phones we are rarely able to be alone, but rather constantly expected to be available for whatever or whoever might need us.
A PEOPLE WHO RUN
We have become a people who run. And we have become a people who work, all the time. Americans are working harder. They have longer hours and less vacation time than ever before. And we’re making less money to boot. The real value of the average income has dropped considerably since a high in the early 1970s. So we’re working longer, we’re working harder, and we’re making less.
One of the things I like to do is start a meeting with a check in. So whether it’s the board or a committee, we take some time to share a bit about what is going on in our lives before getting to work. It helps keeps us real with one another as we move into the nuts and bolts of sustaining and growing this religious community. The most common thing I hear is that we’re busy. We’re running. Going to work. Taking care of the family. Dropping off the kids. Picking up the kids. Running errands. Taking care of elderly parents. Going back to work. Coming to church, doing church work, going home to more work. Everyone is working. We’re often tired and in need of rest, and can’t usually say with certainty when or how we will get it.
In his book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives, Wayne Muller writes that our busyness has become a badge of honor. Listen to what he says: “The more our life speeds up, the more we feel weary, overwhelmed and lost. It all piles endlessly upon itself, the whole experience of being alive begins to melt into one enormous obligation. It becomes the standard greeting everywhere: "I am so busy." We say this to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a mark of real character.”
What has happened to our Sabbath? When do we stop? When do we allow our feet to simply rest on the ground, and to taste the blessings of our lives and give thanks?
I am reminded of my grandfather’s words. A field that is worked on the Sabbath comes to no good. And if not the field, then the home. And if not the home, then the heart. This is not so much a punishment. It is a consequence of not taking care of ourselves.
I am also reminded of a scriptural passage from the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Exodus, God is instructing Moses on the nature of his covenant with the Israelites, and one of the cornerstones of that covenant is respecting the Sabbath. Listen to what he says in Exodus 31:
" You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest … Therefore the Israelites shall keep the Sabbath … It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.
Now as religious liberals it would be easy for many of us to read this literally and discard it as useless. But I think we would lose an opportunity if we did. Taken away from its literal prison, this passage provides powerful metaphors for what happens to us when we fail to take care of ourselves, when we fail to keep the Sabbath. And when I say Sabbath, I’m not so literal-minded as to mean only Sunday. What I mean by Sabbath is that regular time when we withdraw from the rushing of the world, that sacred time when we stop working, stop running, and allow ourselves to simply be.
This scripture professes death for those who fail to keep the Sabbath. Pretty harsh words. But, is this not what happens to us when we don’t let ourselves stop? Overwork and the accompanying stress can lead to spiritual, psychological death, a living death. In extreme cases, it leads to physical death. The scripture also says that the one who works on the Sabbath shall be cut off from among the people. Also pretty harsh. But is this not what happens to us when we work to the point of losing connection with our own emotions, and thus lose the ability to connect with those around us? There is nothing like overwork and exhaustion to keep you from your people – be it your family, your spouse, your children, your friends, your church.
A field that is planted on the Sabbath comes to no good. If not the field, then the home. If not the home, then the heart. There are always going to be fields crying to be planted. There is always going to be more to do. And it’s always possible that the weather forecast will call for rain the next day. But that doesn’t mean that we have to continue on relentlessly. We can make the choice to stop. In fact, choosing to stop is often exactly what it takes to protect our Sabbaths because we no longer have a culture that offers the kind of rest that we actually need. In a culture that promotes 7 day a week productivity, we have to be proactive in claiming our Sabbaths. If you are going to get the Sabbath that you need, you will have to make it happen.
So what makes a Sabbath? Is the Sabbath simply about sitting and not doing? Well, it is, and it is also about much more. Taking the Sabbath is a covenant that we make with ourselves, with those we love, and with the God of our understanding. The Sabbath is what some would call “holy leisure.”
A good Sabbath has four principles (These four principles were developed by Rev. Richard Pinelli in his sermon,
“How to keep the Sabbath Day Holy.”):
The cessation of work. Rest. Fellowship. Worship. These are the four principles of taking the Sabbath. Well, spring has left us behind. Most fields are planted, and we’re moving into summer. In the months to come, how will you claim your Sabbath?
Some people also find that in order to really rest they have to change what they do with their other six days. It is highly unlikely that you will be able to go go, go like crazy and then be able to really rest on your Sabbath. If running is your modus operandi, it will likely follow you on your time off. You may find that in order to take your Sabbath you have to change your way of doing the other six days a week so that you are in a place of internal readiness to really take your Sabbath.
Claim the field. Claim the home. And claim the heart. Taking the Sabbath says something about us. It says something about our values, about our self-worth, and about our way of being in the world. It says that we take seriously the covenant of care.
Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Find a time to withdraw, even if for a short time, from the demands of your days. Rest, as fully as you can. Be with those you love. And celebrate the holy any way you can.
May the spirit be with you, move in you and through you. So be it.