Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Practicing Faith, Part VI: Sabbath

The Sabbath generally gets a bad rap with modern Christians. On the whole it is viewed from a distance as a once-good, then-abused antiquated practice that Jesus clarified as neither necessary nor beneficial. Even though some of the very structures of modern work life in America—weekends, holidays, businesses closed on Sunday, no mail on Sunday, and so on—were inspired by or structured from the spirit of the Sabbath, it remains for the most part something we simply read on a page but don’t practice in our lives; and certainly not something embedded into the meaning of living as disciples of Jesus.

To be sure, Christians are not required to practice the Sabbath (inasmuch as they are “required” to do anything!), and it was an important, indeed essential adaptation of the Jewish gospel proclaimed to the Gentile world that the practices that marked out membership in the people Israel were not essential for inclusion into the church—that is, one needn’t become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Yet in the freedom to remain Gentiles and not to “have” to do certain practices Christians have often fallen into the habit of believing that what is not required would not be good to practice in itself, when in fact some of the most life-giving, enriching, healthy practices may be just those that can only be done out of the freedom we have been given in Christ.

The Sabbath is one of those practices. The Sabbath is, at root, about the limits of creaturely existence, about living human life precisely as a human. Because God is the only one who may truly be called infinite, our finite lives as humans may be received either as a threat (we are not in control!) or as a gift (we are not in control—and amen for that). Sabbath rest decides for the latter: to receive from God our finite, temporal, vulnerable lives as gifts to be celebrated and delighted in and shared with others. That we need sleep each night, that we need habits and rhythms for the days and weeks and years, that we simply cannot work without ceasing, that our efforts by their sheer willpower will not always succeed—all these things are gifts of the Creator to creatures for the flourishing proper to what we have been made to be. Sabbath names the limits of our abilities and our energies, saying, “Here, and no farther,” and with gladness we thank God for the grace of his boundlessness.

Like the other disciplines, Sabbath orders us to the peaceful rhythm of love for God and neighbor. It recognizes our profound need for freedom from the constant encroachment of noise and stuff by blocking out time for quiet and non-consumption. There simply is no need to consume (or to be consumed) when we can do nothing better than to delight in God and God’s good gifts to us.

Sabbath is especially powerful as a discipline in American culture in its witness to a way of life ordered not by control, activity, or ceaseless “connection” (such that we are always available, always distractible, always ready to keep the world running) but by the gracious rule of the one God who reigns forever and completely. Sabbath can even be overwhelming, a kind of merciful judgment, in the way it reminds us so sharply that we can in fact stop—that God has made us for this very thing, not to produce-produce-produce, but to love and be loved, to delight and be found delightful. Our perpetual “on empty” is no sign to a dangerously tired world of an alternative way, but if our lives are filled (even as faithful friends and tireless coworkers) with the grace of a God who gives us rest, who longs for us to have true rest, then perhaps we have something to offer after all.

Therefore our working definition will be:

Sabbath rest is the creaturely practice of recognizing the limits of finite human living, marking out space in time devoid of work, resting from the speed and busyness of daily life, and delighting in God and God’s good gifts to us.

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