Sabbath: Some random thoughts

Sabbath. That is our theme for today.
It conjures up Jewish folks lighting candles on a Friday night and speaking words of praise and blessing: Praised be Thou, Eternal God, who has sanctified us with thy commandments and required of us the kindling of lights.
It conjures up Christian families walking to church on a Sunday morning, or getting in a station wagon, kids all dressed up and well behaved and parents all smiley and happy.
And the priest or the preacher says:
May God be merciful to us and bless us, *
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
Let your ways be known upon earth, *
your saving health among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

Have you ever read James Baldwin on going to church in Harlem, in his remarkable book: Go Tell It on the Mountain. The family, always late, passing by the revelers of the night before walking home, and the teenagers, walking with their parents, either amused or ashamed of what they imagine the revelers had done the night before. And they make it to the Temple of Fire Baptized, which is always full on Sunday mornings and they head off to the various Sunday school classes and return to the sanctuary and there when everyone is singing then the young protagonist of the novel, who is a proxy for James Baldwin himself, believes in God when he sees everyone transformed in the singing, under the holy spirit. All of the flesh has become spiritualized in that moment, the way the people changed visibly when under the power of the Holy Spirit. It elevates them from mere men and women into spiritual beings literally singing and dancing before the Lord.

Sabbath, Friday night. Sunday morning.

The whole idea of Sabbath comes from the Hebrew Scriptures. God is active, active, active, in the very beginning. Out of the silence and the void, and in the pursuit of relationship, God creates space in God’s own self for creation. The light and the dark, the day and the night, the animals, and all the land and the water.

It’s a lot.

And on the seventh day, God rests. Takes a break. Setlles into God’s self and into the beauty and goodness of the creation. Rests. Is at peace. Sabbath.

God looks around. Proclaims all of creation, in its crazy amazing beautiful diversity, even the sea monsters who have heads like monsters, even you, even me, the ones with power, the ones with out power, the beautiful ones the plain ones. Good. All of it, good.

That is where it comes from and some people go to temple and some go to church and some take hikes and some sleep in late and some never awaken to the beauty of sabbath and work, work, work all the time. It is ok. God has proclaimed all of it good.

So maybe you remember taking a sabbath and lighting candles and maybe you don’t. It is ok. It is all good.

Either way, I like Sabbath. I like the idea of Sabbath.I like that it was there from the beginning. When the poets and the prophets and the rabbis all decided that it would be worthwhile to imaginatively portray the beginnings of the world that they put in some creative acts, some work, some relationship building, some community, some love, and some rest.

This is an important point to consider: The climax of creation is not the creation of man on day six, as is sometimes understood, but the coming of God to rest on the Sabbath.

I want to just spend a moment on this idea. Curiously enough, in the Christian traditions, and especially in the traditions of the Western church, creation is generally only presented as ‘the six days’ work. The ‘completion’ of creation through ‘the seventh day’ is much neglected, or even overlooked altogether. It would seem as if Christian theology considered that both the sabbath commandment to Israel and the sabbath of creation were repealed and discarded when Jesus set aside the sabbath commandment by healing the sick on that day. As a result, God is viewed as the one who in his essential being is solely ‘the creative God’, as Paul Tillich says; and it follows from this that men and women too can only see themselves as this God’s image if they become ‘creative human beings’. The God who ‘rests” on the sabbath, the blessing and rejoicing God, the God who delights in his creation, and in his exultation sanctifies it, recedes behind this different concept. So for men and women too, the meaning of their lives is identified with work and busy activity; and rest, the feast, and their joy in existence are pushed away, relegated to insignificance because they are non-utilitarian.

By coming to his rest, God lets his creation be what it is on its own account. In his present rest all created beings come to themselves and unfold their own proper quality. In his rest they all acquire their essential liberty. By ‘resting’ from creative and formative activity, God allows the beings he has created, each in its own way, to act on him. He receives the form and quality their lives take, and accepts the effects these lives have. By standing aside from his creative influence, he makes himself wholly receptive for the happiness, the suffering and the praise of his creatures. In the works of creation, created beings, through their existence and their modality, ‘experience’ the power and wisdom of God. But on the sabbath the resting God begins to ‘experience’ the beings he has created. The God who rests in the face of creation does not dominate the world on this day: he ‘feels’ the world; he allows himself to be affected, to be touched by his creatures. He adopts the community of creation as his own milieu. In his rest he is close to the movement of them all. This closeness of his in the sabbath does not neutralize the tensions in creation, nor does it do away with the possible opposition of created things to the Creator and to themselves; but it thrusts towards their transformation to correspondence and to identity. With God’s sabbath of creation, his history with the world begins, and the world’s history with God.

All of that is a bit abstract.

The point is this. You need not do one thing. Sabbath is in the very core of your being. You as the divine idea, you have sabbath at the very core of your life.

You don’t have to grasp for it. You don’t have to strive for it. You don’t have to work at it.

It is available to you. You don’t have to go to church or to temple or to mosque, or hike up the mountain.

You are invited to receive it.

It’s like grace. It’s free, at all times, to all people, in all place.

It’s like air. You’re enveloped in it.

Fillmore says that divine mind rests in a perpetual sabbath and that which seems like work is not work at all. When we become one with the divine mind, with the spirit of life, all things are accomplished in an eternal peace. I mean, he gets very poetic here: What was a chain about our wrists, or a yoke about our neck, in the form of some fear, slips away into the fathomless sea of nothingness and we sit on the shore and praise the loving Goodness that we are nevermore to be frightened.

This Sabbath, which is the Feast of Creation, is the place where we are perpetual rest and in the deepest alignment and we know deep in our essence the idea of peace. Fear slips away. And the biblical mandate: fear not is at the very foundation of our being.

“The Sabbath is kept any time we enter into spiritual consciousness and rest from thoughts of temporal things. We let go of the external observance of days, because every day is a Sabbath on which we retire into Spirit.”

I mean look at the active words in that sentence:
Enter, Rest, Let Go, Retire

Look at the big ideas: “spiritual consciousness” “Spirit”
Look at the little ideas: temporal things, external observances

It’s all right there.

There is an important nuance here.

I don’t know if you have noticed or not but I have been hammering away on the idea that Sabbath is a feast, it is a piece of God’s proclamation that all things are good, and that in the Sabbath we find peace and fear slides away.

If we think that the silence and that rest is going to bring forth our evil or depraved nature, we are not likely to do that.

Sometimes, I think, when I was a senior minister, I didn’t slow down too much because I was afraid, deeply afraid. So I filled my world with activity and hyperness.

I’m learning to slow down.

Wayne Mueller in his classic book on Sabbath says that Our willingness to rest depends on what we believe we will find there. At rest, we come face to face with the essence of life. If we believe life is fundamentally good, we will seek our rest as a taste of that goodness (the feast of creation, we would say!). If we believe life is fundamentally bad or flawed, we will be reluctant to quiet ourselves, afraid of meeting that darkness that resides in things — or in ourselves.

Which is why it is so important to reiterate what I try to say over and over here: What saved my life in my moment of despair is this idea; At the heart of all creation, there is a purposeful goodness, from which we come, in which we live our fullest, to which we shall at last return.

So, rest, enter in, let go, take a Sabbath, because in the silence, in the quiet, you will find the goodness at the heart of yourself and all of creation.

I’ll finish with this. Billy Collins, the poet, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, was asked to reflect on the question What Inspires You?
And he remembers his love for The Lake Isle of Innisfree, the poem by Yeats.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
W. B. Yeats, 1865–1939
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The whole poem is about the process we are talking about here. Yeats is talking about building his cabin, and making a garden and putting up a hive for the honey bee, and hearing the water lapping on the shore. I will arise and go now, he says a few times.
And he says while I stand on the roadway or on the pavement, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
He’s going to the lake isle while he’s at work, and while he’s on the roadway, and at his suburban home. He’s going only in his heart.

He is taking a sabbath, a rest, as he goes about his daily life. And this is what we’re talking about to. A small rest, a small retreat, in your ordinary life.

He continually hears this ‘lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore,’ but there’s the shock: he hears this island sound in the city. He hears it on the roadway and on the pavement gray. It’s all wishful thinking. He says I will arise. But he never does arise. HE hears the sounds of the water lapping at the shore but he hears it in the city. He hears it in London. And we begin to understand that Innisfree is an internal place, a fictive place, a refuge that calls to him from the inside, not a place that he can physically go and visit. The poem ends with a strong sense of this internal motion, going in and down, in the final line: I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

And it can be orienting. Billy Collins talks about memorizing this poem, and it has the structure and rhyme that makes it somewhat easy to memorize.

And Billy Collins talks about once he had to get an MRI, and his doctor didn’t really prepare him. It was a new technology. He had no idea that he would have to get into something that he describe as being buried alive in a very high tech coffin. So when the tech asked: Would you like music or no music? Billy Collins had no idea what he was talking about and then the tech pointed to the mir machine and Billy Collins said no to the music because he was afraid what music might be played.

I lay there, he says, with y eyes closed, and pulled the lake isle of innisfree up in my memory. The pulled the whole poem up before me in my mind. Slowed I started reciting it. And then more slowly.

It’s about hearing the call of a safe, peaceful place. Collins says. So it is a perfect poem for an occasion like an MRI, where you feel out of control, a little crazy, a little freaked out.

Which is what life can feel like sometimes, on the gray pavement, standing on the roadway. So like Innisfree, Sabbath provides us a beautiful, safe, peaceful place.

And you have to just simply go there. Anytime, anyplace. And you’ll be just fine.

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Roger Butts

Roger Butts

Author, Seeds of Devotion. Unitarian Universalist. Ordained 20 years.