Sabbath: Stopping When It Is Time To

As part of a course I’m taking, I recently read another book on Sabbath, this one by Wayne Muller. I felt an initial resistance to reading it, namely, because Sabbath had already been such a huge focus of my life over the past year. In 2015, I took a 5 month pastoral Sabbath and invested three months before-hand, preparing our church for it, practically and theologically. In addition, over the past twenty years, I had cultivated the practice of a pastoral “Monday Sabbath” which I would attribute to the current longevity I am enjoying in pastoral ministry. Over these years, I have gotten to know myself and what Sabbath rhythms are needed for me to live sustainably. Frankly, I was feeling I had the subject covered, thank you very much. Nevertheless, this presumption was soon overcome by a number of surprising and enriching insights that Muller brought to my understanding of Sabbath. I would say the overall impact has been a paradigm shift with regards to the relationship between Sabbath and the other six days of the week. The tendency is to see Sabbath as a stopping point for one day, so we can be more effective on the other six days that we work. Muller argued that it was actually the reverse – the other six days are “for the Sabbath.”  What does this mean? To be honest, I am still trying to work that out at a cognitive level, but throughout the book, the various nuances and perspectives on Sabbath that Muller introduced have provided practical entry points for me live out Sabbath more meaningfully as a way of life. Allow me to give three examples.

Freedom from the Need to be “Finished

A few weeks ago, I was working with my wife, Kathleen, weeding our church community garden which is located on our church property at St. David of Wales. We had both committed to two hours of labour on a Wednesday morning so that there would be some space for her to get a break before she headed off to her tutoring work a few hours later. Our plan was to work from 10:30am-12:30pm noon. We were weeding some plant beds in front of the church that had become infested with horsetail weeds. They were difficult to dig out, so we were kneeling in the dirt to pull them out, using every tool we could find, including hoes, shovels, and pitchforks. We had almost completed the whole bed, but there was one line of weeds left to do. I could have completed it in 15 minutes. Nevertheless, it was 12:30pm and I remembered our commitment. I was so tempted to take the needed 15 minutes to get rid of that last batch of weeds, but I remembered Muller’s words, “We do not stop because we are done – we stop because it is time to stop.” Stopping required surrender on a number of levels. It was surrender to the reality that we are never “finished.” Sabbath frees us from the need to be finished. As I reflect on this experience, I am struck by how hard it was for me to stop. It was a distinct act of surrender and submission to cease working at that point. I am mindful that there were elements of pride that I had to combat. For example, “How would the unfinished weeding look to others who would see the work we did?” as if that was what this was all about! Surrender also required that I remembered that this was a “community garden,” which means that a whole community puts their hands to it and offers the time and effort that each person is able. Sabbath is surrendering to the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It was a surrender to community rather than persisting in individualism, independence and performance. It was an admission that the world could, indeed, continue without me. On my regular Sabbath day, I return to these realities rather easily. However, this was an important experience of this reality in the middle of my work week, and I was surprised how difficult it was to embrace.  

Symbol and Ritual

Secondly, I was inspired by Muller’s encouragement to use practices of symbol and ritual that are related to Sabbath. I live in a city that has one of the highest costs of living in the world. The impact of this is that people’s margins are thin, with the perception of little time and money available for volunteerism, including church involvement. I was challenged by Muller’s thoughts on seeing Sunday worship as a "Community Sabbath"  My heart goes out to our congregants who, because of their lifestyle, where margins are so thin, can find Sunday worship to be the most stressful time of the week!  I long for Sunday worship to be restful, delightful, and joyful – a reminder that we worship a God who has abundant margins for all of us. Consequently, the employment of symbol and ritual is helping to renew this sense of Sabbath to our Sunday worship, even if it is still a journey we are just embarking on. For example, we are now employing several Benedictine practices. Because of our location in a heritage Anglican building, we are now able to sound the bells throughout our neighbourhood when it is time for worship. These bells constitute a call to worship, and are rung at least 8 times in tandem. Then, as we gather and welcome everyone, we invite one of our preteens to light a candle that is centred at the altar before a magnificent stained glass window. The lighting of the candle is then accompanied by an additional sound of the “toll bell” and a time of silence.  These simple practices, that involve intentional "seeing and hearing," are helping us be more more attentive and aware of the “God of Sabbath” in our midst, who is inviting us into rest.  

Sensuality and Delight

For many of us, sensuality and delight seem to be the farthest thing from Sabbath. Yet, Muller argues that this is exactly the point of Sabbath. As it happened, when I read this, Kathleen and I were on a recent spring vacation in Osoyoos. Inspired by my reading, I went for my regular morning walk, this time, paying particular attention to the colours, the fragrances, and the sounds of the blooming desert in the southern Okanagan. I literally wept as I took in this multi-sensory experience, so tenderly made available to me by God. When I arrived at the lakeshore, even though it was awkward, I took off my shoes and socks, and walked on the sand and in the water, just so my bare feet could feel the sensation of both. I felt I was on holy ground. Is it possible that God told Moses to take off his shoes because all ground is holy and having our naked flesh touch the earth helps keep us grounded in God?

A few days later, back in Vancouver, on a clear starlit night, I was standing on our bedroom balcony with a group of Korean students, which included our homestay daughter, Soyoun along with some of her friends, enjoying the grandeur of the heavens, gazing up at the Big Dipper pointing to the North Star. One young guy kept exclaiming, “This is so awesome!” I literally felt his heart reaching out to worship. Though we were from the opposite sides of the world, perhaps even from different faiths, we found a sacred commonness as we gazed into the heavens. This growing sense of perceiving the sacredness of all things is another gift that Sabbath has given me when I have been willing to stop when it is time to stop.