Part 2 of 6-part series on “The Sabbath”
E.B. White, the man who wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, was a very funny guy. Sort of a dry sense of humor. He once said, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it difficult to plan the day.”
I resonate with that. Oh look! It’s Sunday- the day of rest! Shall I change the world today by adding another bumper sticker to my car and writing my Senator, or shall I putter down to my little workshop and paint a birdhouse? So much to do! So little time! It makes it difficult to plan the day.
Time is, after all, the only thing we actually have. It is the sole commodity of our lives. And it is this treasured, precious time of which we speak today.
Ok, what I’m about to say is… insensitive. And it is politically incorrect. And it does not uphold the dignity of creation. But… I was down at Petco the other day buying cat food for Jack, and I dropped by the mouse cage to say hi to God’s rodents. Mice are so cute as long… as they’re not in my kitchen.
Anyway, there was this little mouse on a wheel. And that little mouse was just going like crazy. She was in the Zone; she was in her Second Wind; it was the Mouse Olympics. Beauty, grace, energy, speed… and all of a sudden, the wheel took on an energy of its own, and the mouse was no longer in control, and the little thing flew through the air to the far side of the cage and landed in a pile of shavings, tottering in stunned incoherence. It was the funniest thing; I nearly dropped Jack’s kibbles.
Like I said; it was insensitive of me. I mean, how would I like it if I was caught on a wheel that kept going faster and faster until it threw me stunned to the sidelines?
Hm. Suddenly this is getting a bit… close. I was reading an article this week called “American Karoshi.” Karoshi is the Japanese term for being worked to death. Like Mr. Aioki, who worked at a major snack company for as long as 100 hours a week. He died from a heart attack at the age of 34. Oh, but we don’t do that sort of thing here in the US! Except that Americans “now work an average of 1,979 hours a year- about 3 ½ weeks more than the Japanese average.” (New Internationalist)
“A study conducted by Oxford Health Plans insurance company found that one in five Americans show up for work whether they’re ill, injured, or have a medical appointment. This same obsession keeps one in five Americans from taking their vacation- a failure which has been found to put individuals at risk for early death.” (New Internationalist).
But we are not rodents! Our life has purpose and meaning, and when we run around in a little wheel, we’re doing Important Things! And when we get sick or depressed or incapable of coping anymore, and we get thrown off to the side, it’s not funny. It may not be funny… but it does look startlingly familiar to life at Petco.
Last week, we studied the first chapter of Genesis, when God creates all things, and then finishes creation by resting, noticing it, appreciating it. It is this rest, this appreciation, which gives creation its meaning. This week, we’re hearing God’s instructions to the Israelite community at Mt. Sinai: the giving of the Torah, or the Ten Commandments.
In Hebrew, ‘Torah’ means ‘the Way’- the way of life, the path you walk if you desire to live with fullness and joy. And the Fourth Way of Life commanded by God reads like this: Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
Mandatory rest. Get off the wheel, Mouse. Because the rhythm of fruitfulness and rest, of labor & sleep, of energy & quiet… is how God made the universe. And when we keep the Sabbath, we help make creation whole, viable, pulsing, alive.
In the beginning, before God imposed the boundaries of creation, it was absolute chaos.
The earth was a formless void, a swirling vortex dark and threatening which sucked everything into it.
And there was no escape, no breathing room, no place to live. And so God pushed the whirling chaos aside to create a time of light and a time of darkness. And God put a boundary between them, to give order to our days.
What happens when there is no boundary between the days, between the work days and the rest days, between labor and the Sabbath? The 31-year old reporter, Miwa Sado, died from a heart attack because she worked a straight 159 hours of overtime in the month before her death. What happens when boundaries are overrun?
What happens when there is no boundary between day and night? The rhythms of our bodies get thrown off, and we walk around as if we were zombies, unable to either sleep or function. We don’t eat right; we don’t exercise; our lives are stripped of the relationships that give our lives their deep meaning. What happens when boundaries are overrun?
Boundaries are the gift of God. They are also a commandment, a law of life. And when we disregard the laws of life, be they gravity or the Sabbath, we do so at our own peril. Time is, after all, the only thing we actually have. It is the sole commodity of our lives. And God commands to place a boundary around our time, so that we may live.
Unfortunately, time is also money. And in this cut-throat job market, where our businesses demand efficiency and productivity with as few workers as possible, the stripping of our boundaries are being demanded of us all the time. No, you have to work overtime. No, you don’t get a weekend off. No, you cannot be offline. No, you don’t have a choice but to live at our beck and call. And if you don’t follow the rules, you’re out of here.
And our health suffers, and our marriages suffer, and our minds and spirits suffer. Because human beings were not created to live like this. Human beings were created to live with boundaries that separate the night and the day, the labor and the rest.
Hasidic rabbi Zalman Schachter, wrote, “There is a disease rampant- a chronic, low-grade depression that never knows how to smack its lips and say, “It’s good to be alive!” It does not know the haven of a Shabbos in the bosom of an unhassling family. All the nostalgia we experience is a yearning for the Sabbath: … to eating, resting, singing, loving… The sabbath is long and full when one knows how to be beyond doing..”
Dear Friends, when do we get a chance to rest- to just be? When do our kids get a chance to just be? Before or after homework? Before or after the soccer match? Before or after school?
So when our daughter is dealing with slashing words from the lunchroom, or when our spouse’s boss just reamed him out, or when all of us just need to be held- when does that happen? We try the best we can- but when there just isn’t time…
One of the practical aspects of the Jewish Sabbath was that families were given to each other. So God says, ‘Stop it. One day a week, you, and your sons and your daughters stop, come back together again, and give yourselves a chance to breathe. I command you.’
‘You COMMAND us?’ we say. ‘And what’s going to happen if we don’t?’
(And God sighs with a pain deeper than the sea, and says,) ‘You and your children will live in the darkness of chaos.’
‘WHAT!’ we say. ‘You’re a God of love. Why would You send our family to the darkness of chaos?’
And God says, ‘I’m not. I saved you from slavery, from compulsion. Why do you train your children to go back to it with your endless, frantic activity?
Stop! as individuals, as families, as communities- Stop. Rest. Notice each other. Re-tie those ties that bind. And remember that the only thing we truly have to give to each other is Time.
There’s a book that challenged me: The War Against Parents*, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornell West. It’s a radical book that goes against our culture. The idea of it is pretty obvious: to parent our children, we need to be present. We need to have the same days off, an economic and social structure that supports our efforts to spend time with our children, to mentor them, talk with them, teach them. But what happens when parents have to work weekends and nights? What happens when we shuttle our kids from event to event, and there is neither time nor energy to just be as a family?
Because the only thing we truly have to give to each other is Time. Because if there isn’t one common day off, one day consecrated to rest, to appreciation and gratefulness; then we are condemning ourselves and those we love to separation, to compulsion… to chaos.
God gave us the border of our health and sanity in the Sabbath. But it is we who must protect our time. “God helps those who help themselves” is nowhere in the Bible. But there is an element of truth to it. If we don’t demand our time, take back our time, there is no one who is going to give it to us. If we don’t stand up for ourselves, our families, our health, our sanity, there is no one else who will. So how much is our sanity worth to us? How much is it worth to us to have a life?
Back in the day, and even today, the observant Jew paid a price, of course. Faithfulness always costs us something. The Jews living in Macedonia and Rome were ridiculed for not working one day a week. They lost profits; they couldn’t compete.
But the Jews living in Macedonia and Rome built a life and a culture, and a sense of themselves as God’s people. And when those powerful nations around them went down in flames because their societies had so deteriorated, the Jews survived. And they not only survived. They remained intact, because there was a boundary which kept them together. It was the Sabbath.
What would it look like if we were to embrace the boundary God has made for us by intentionally carving out a consecrated time for ourselves and our families? God intended one whole day, but maybe we could start small. Like Sunday afternoons. Every Sunday afternoon- just hang as a family. If we’re single, hang out with your best friend, or with a great book.
No cell phones, no computers, no soccer games, no getting some work done. Just hanging with each other, enjoying each other, talking with each other. The gift of time… for each other. Because the only thing we truly have to give to each other is Time. And that gift is the very gift of the God who loved us so much that God gave us each other.
In the Name of the One who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen
Resources: Interpretation Commentary: Exodus, by Terence Fretheim; The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W.G. Plaut; New Internationalist, “American Karaoke, March 5, 2002)
* To order The War Against Parents, or receive the “Alternatives To Living” Resource Guide, call 1-800-821-6153; browse www.SimpleLiving.org; e-mail: Alternatives@SimpleLiving.org, or write: 5312 Morningside Ave., PO Box 2787, Sioux City, IA 51106.
Scripture for Oct. 22, 2017
Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy. Work hard for six days; do everything you have to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God- your God. You are not to do any work- not you, not your son or your daughter, not your male or female employees, not your livestock, not even the stranger living in your town. For in the six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but God rested the seventh day: Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. You keep it holy, too.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.