Several years ago I needed surgery, not urgently, but for relief of pain. The congregation I served was renovating its building, and we were working hard to maintain life for a congregation of 600 adults and 150 children out of boxes in two temporary locations. The last thing I wanted was to stop.
Still, there would be no better time than summer, so I accepted the inevitable. The first few days unfolded pretty much as expected. But five or six days later a sense of profound calm descended. I began to see and hear things I hadn't noticed for months: light dappling through trees; the diverse hum of early morning, high noon, and dusk; the subtle gradation of colors in the valley. The world of ministry, errands, and with our daughter at camp, even parenting, had stopped, and I surrendered my eyes and ears and attention to nature. Most importantly I remembered. We are here, if we stop to remember and claim it, to experience the joy of this world.
I don't recommend resorting to surgery, but all of us need deep rest. So many people in this room live hectic days filled with the demands of work, children and family, friends, volunteer commitments, activism. I am amazed by how much, and what good things, you do. We also live in a highly anxious time when we are worried about our society and each other; many of us feel that we should constantly be doing something to help. In the momentary peace and safety of this place on this day, I give thanks for your concern and commitment. But as your minister, I remind you that you also need times to be empty and receptive, to wait and recover. The time is now to understand that your well-being, and that of those around you, and the good you can ultimately do, depend on it. From a spiritual point of view, you need sabbath.
Indeed, the roots of the word "sabbath" mean "to rest," and while in the Jewish tradition, and the Christian one, too, Sabbath is a holy time to be in touch with God, the more practical human reason for it was to provide rest from the demands of agrarian life. Just as Jewish law mandated that every seventh year a cultivated field be allowed to lie fallow, so every seventh day all work ceased, not only for the families, but for the servants and animals as well. During Shabbat people were not allowed to hire others, specifically non-Jews, to do their work for them. Sabbath was egalitarian: everyone stopped. Living as we do in a time when workers must often work on Thanksgiving or other holidays, we might well appreciate the practice.
In the religious traditions, keeping sabbath is a commandment, but science and history back up its wisdom. Our bodies operate on cycles, from sleep and dream cycles to biorhythms of response to light and dark. If we ignore the natural rhythms, we pay for it with disease, disorder, and disorientation. One physician realized that, when exhausted from working endless hours, he so feared making mistakes that he ordered every possible test for his patients. When he was rested, he relied on listening to them and to his own intuition and ordered only the truly necessary ones.
We need fallow times for mental and spiritual health as well. It turns out most people spend 80-110 minutes a day in reverie or daydream. What looks like boredom is a universal, almost meditative state that's essential to mental well-being. (This is encouraging. I now appreciate that when your eyes glaze over during a sermon, you are really engaged in the deepest and most necessary reflection.) Seriously, a nomadic tribe in South American had the perfect way to express this need. As they pushed themselves from one food source to another, they would, without command, all suddenly stop, make camp, and for days rest, eat, and visit with each other. When interviewed, they explained that in these resting times they were letting their selves catch up with their bodies. Don't you ever feel that need – to let your self catch up with your body?
The world has changed. Connected as we are to each other and the world all day every day through technology, even the nature of time for us has shifted. We watch shows when we want to, not when they are shown; we shop online when we want to, not when stores are open. Much is at our discretion. Yet, as Judith Shulevitz says, in The Sabbath World, "being in perpetual contact can also make us feel as if time is in charge of us." Cell phones, she says, are like umbilical cords, keeping us tied to others when we used to be able to escape. There is no excuse now for disconnection, for solitude, for retreat, for prayer or meditation time. In being available at all times, we may well be making the renewal our souls need unavailable to us. Remember the Sabbath! It was a commandment, leaving no room for rationalization.
While our multi-cultural, commerce driven world has made an artifact of the historical Sabbath for most of us, the need for rest and regeneration has not changed. Yes, we need to turn things off and rid ourselves of distractions, seductions, connections and practice what Davy Levy, professor in the Information School of the University of Washington, calls "information environmentalism": creating "sanctuaries in time and space for reflection and contemplation." Even as we fight to save marshlands and old growth from development and pollution, we need to fight to save ourselves from the pollutants of communications overload.
Think about it. What would it take for you to have a sabbath? First, what would you have to turn off or shut down or decline to do, or refuse to feel guilty about? Would anyone's world end if you went one day without checking email or texting? I can't convince you to turn off your phone; we will all give up addictions only when we are ready. But you need sanctuaries of time and space, because as well as physical rest, we need soul rest. We need to be able, as Shuvelitz says, not only to remember to stop, but to stop to remember what makes it all worthwhile.
The wisdom of Sabbath teaches us one more important lesson. A true Sabbath is defined not simply by what we forgo, but also what we do with intention and respect to honor the holy in the common. The original Jewish Sabbath was a nourishing time of rest, a time of delight and joy spent with people you love, lighting ritual candles, making and eating food and giving thank, playing and communicating more deeply than usual. It is, Wayne Muller says, " . . . a time of mindfulness, honoring those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain and heal us." What delights you? Are you restored by a time of solitude? Is it meditation or prayer time or a time to share a meal with family? Whatever you do, do it mindfully. If you make a meal on your sabbath, select the food, prepare the ingredients, put them together with appreciation for every action. Or if you walk, do it not to reach a destination, but for the joy of putting one foot in front of the other and smelling the scent of pine in the woods or feeling the sea mist on your face. Sabbath is a time to remember to stop and also a time when we stop to remember what it means to be on this Earth able to taste and to smell and to love.
With all that we have facing us in our world, the time is now to stop and remember to live. Because if you do not do so, you will be lost to the effort. I have mentioned that several years ago I took some extended time off from ministry. After intense years of renovating not only a building, but a congregation's organizational life, and of trying to help heal its grieving spirit, I experienced a malaise in which my creative energy ran low and I had difficulty finding my passion.
Knowing I needed advice, I went for clergy vocational counseling with a gifted counselor. For several days I shared my writing, took a battery of inventories, and had discussions with several professionals. On the last day, Steve sat me down, looked me more deeply in the eye than perhaps anyone had ever done, and said, "You've done a good ministry in a difficult situation, but you are literally taking years off of your life. You must stop. You will recover. You will come back to your self. But now is the time to stop." I did. And when I returned to ministry, it was with more joy and effectiveness than I could have imagined before.
We come here together, and labor to create the most beloved community we can, in order to make a difference in the world. We also do it to make a difference in people's lives, in your lives. This community is here to gather you into caring arms even if that means reminding you to stop sometimes. So, yes, you have the minister's sanction to say, "No, I can't do that task right now, " or "I must let this go," even when the request comes from us. And, then, I hope, you will take up something good at the right time with conviction and with joy.
I don't know whether it's taking care of yourselves or letting the world do its natural healing, but the time is now. The time is now to remember to stop and to stop to remember all that makes this life worth loving.
Copyright Susan Milnor 2017
Muller, Wayne. Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. New York: Random House. 1999/
Shulevitz, Judith. The Sabbath World: Glimpses of A Different Order of Time. New York: Random House. 2010