Sabbath Rest

Yesterday morning I took my car in to be serviced, hoping for an inexpensive fix to the “check engine” light that had been gleaming at me from the dash for the last three weeks. There weren’t many people at the dealership for a Saturday, perhaps because of the pouring rain. It had started raining the night before and had continued with the downpour through the night and into the morning. I noticed on my drive up that the rainwater in a number of fields and ditches along the way was reaching the overflow stage.

The person who checked me in at the service department said it would take an hour or so to run the diagnostic tests, so I went in to find a place to wait. The dealership is outfitted with several huge screen TVs, positioned strategically in different seating areas, designed no doubt to keep customers pacified. But I didn’t want to sit in front of a giant screen. I found a chair in an out-of-the-way spot where I could sit and look out the huge glass windows at the rain. From my vantage point, I could watch a vast network of puddles, as raindrops splashed down in rhythmic patterns from the heavens.

I had my journal with me. I wrote down a few thoughts. But mostly I was mesmerized; I just sat and watched the rain. What a treat. What a time of rest. Beautiful, comforting, even worshipful. Something about letting myself spend time just enjoying watching the rain had a deeply spiritual effect on me; it lifted some burden, helped me relax, made me aware again of the greatness of God—right there in a car dealership—this God who created this whole balanced system of rain and sun, day and night, activity and rest. I felt grateful. For a few moments right there, in that unlikely spot, I enjoyed sabbath rest.

My thoughts and feelings in those moments would have echoed Isaiah’s own that we heard in our Old Testament reading this morning:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah is describing here what happens to us—and happens for us—when we take the time to wait for the Lord. We find true Sabbath rest. We are renewed. We are strengthened. We are refreshed, inspired, ready to continue on with whatever challenges or opportunity life brings.

Our traditional ideas of Sabbath began with the very creation of time at the beginning of the Old Testament. In his classic book, The Sabbath, rabbi, theologian, and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that the first time the Hebrew word for holy appears in the Bible, it is not attributed to a person or a place. Instead, what is holy is a segment of time, a day. “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,” the scripture says. Heschel writes, “The Sabbath… is more than an armistice, more than an interlude; it is a profound conscious harmony of man and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above. All that is divine in the world is brought into union with God. This is Sabbath, and the true happiness of the universe.”

Heschel goes on to say that most often people expect to find God in places—like sanctuaries or mountains, temples or woodland paths—but in reality God is found in time, in this precise moment because God, as spirit, is available to us instantly, everywhere, anytime we are willing to open our hearts and minds to the possibility of divine presence. When we dedicate ourselves to true Sabbath rest, we count this moment precious for its opportunity to allow us to feel the nearness of God. We stop striving and trying so hard and let God lead and bless and lift us. As the famous 14th-century book, The Cloud of Unknowing says, we allow ourselves to crawl up in God’s lap for a while and let ourselves be held. For that quiet interlude of rest, maybe 12 or 16 hours out of our entire lived week, our time simply belongs to God and we can relax and live for that brief span as though the kingdom—of peace and harmony, completeness and ease—is already here, already realized, inside and out.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he invited people to think about God in a new way–not as a far-away, disinterested judge who will decide each person’s punishment or reward at the end of life, but as a loving, present Father who wants to help his children live good and compassionate—and even joyful lives. Jesus introduced us to a God present in the here and now, a God who hears and answers prayers, who cares about the suffering of others, a God who feeds the hungry, frees the prisoner, and heals the lame, blind, and sick. Jesus’ teachings weren’t about living within the letter of Mosaic law but about living in harmony with the spirit of mercy and love, moment by moment, choice by choice.

In fact, Jesus pushed back on empty laws that got in the way of meeting peoples’ real needs. In the story we heard today from Matthew, Jesus allows his disciples to gather and eat wheat from the fields on the Sabbath. The hunger of his friends was more important to Jesus than adhering to a rigid rule that had nothing to do with the life or present spirit of God. When the Pharisees challenged him, he responded with a story from their history they would know well and then added, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Something greater than the temple is here, Jesus told them. Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that time—the time we live and act with God’s mercy and compassion, with joy and humility—is the point of the Sabbath, not the place in which we spend it. In our Friends’ tradition, George Fox also had this same realization—that it is God’s spirit in our lives, that of Christ with each of us—where God dwells, not in outer constructions like steeple houses, churches, and public squares. That is part of the reason for Friends’ simplicity and plainness in outward things. And it is this idea—and living intentionally in tune with this idea—that is at the heart of sabbath rest.

The Old Testament teaching about the Sabbath—which continues in Jewish tradition today—is the idea that we have six days for dealing with the practicalities of life (work and family, social events and public discourse) and one day reserved for a tender time of waiting on and living purposely in tune with God. Rabbi Heschel says, “The work on weekdays and the rest on the seventh day are correlated. The Sabbath is the inspirer, the other days the inspired.” (p. 22)

But because we Friends place such importance on the Light of Christ within, we approach every day as having the potential for an encounter with God that brings Sabbath rest. We do our best to live sacramentally, not putting any one day above another, but trying to be awake to and aware of the spiritual life of things beneath surface events and activities.

Heschel writes about the importance of the Sabbath as the time in our week when we live more nobly, trying to be in tune with the best of God in us. This is a way of living in touch with a realized vision of God’s promise, the kingdom of God among us in the here and now.

You can hear in that George Fox’s calls for us to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” That sounds like just the sort of thing we Friends might do with a week full of Sundays. It becomes easier when we have a sense of God’s promise, God’s paradise, around us. Fox was a big believer that the ideal of God was within reach of all God’s children—this is known as a belief in perfectibility, and it was a difficult concept for people to accept in the mid-1600s in England.

Fox was simply trying to earnestly teach what he understood to be the true, right relationship with God that had been revealed to him in his personal encounter with the living Christ. In his journal in 1648, he described the powerful understanding he’d been given:

“Now was I come up in Spirit, through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new; and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus; so that I was come up to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. The creation was opened to me; and it was shewed me, how all things that heir names given them, according to their nature and virtue. I was at a stand in my mind, whether I should practice physick (medicine) for the good of mankind, seeing the nature and virtues of the creatures were so opened to me by the Lord. But I was immediately taken up in Spirit, to see into another or more steadfast state than Adam’s in innocency, even into a state in Christ Jesus, that should never fall.” [1648, Journal, pg. 68]

So Fox was convinced it was God’s intention to restore his relationship with us to the way it was before Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden. When the mistake is erased, the wound repaired, the effects undone, and trust and love restored, Fox believed, God will return us to the paradise where we walked and talked with Him in the cool of the evening. We spent time with God. George Fox deeply believed this was still possible for every person who was open to God’s presence and would be led by the Light.

He tried to explain this in a very contentious meeting in Derby, England in 1650, but things didn’t go well. Describing it later in his Journal, Fox wrote,

“At last they asked me whether I was sanctified? I answered Yes, for I was in the paradise of God. Then they asked me if I had no sin? I answered, Christ my Saviour has taken away my sin, and in Him there is no sin. They asked how we knew Christ did abide in us? I said, By His Spirit that He hath given us. They temptingly asked if any of us were Christ? I answered, Nay, we were nothing; Christ was all.”

Right after this, Fox was arrested and imprisoned for the first time. The charge was blasphemy. It was during the trial that the judge derisively called Fox’s followers “Quakers” for the first time, mocking Fox’s suggestion that people should “tremble at the word of the Lord.” This initial time in prison would be followed by many others over the years, but Fox saw God at work in it all because his time in prison took him among the people he thought needed his message most—prisoners and jailers alike. He tried to live his faith in such a way that it demonstrated forgiveness and faith, humility and trust in God.

So what will we do with our Sabbath rest today? I love the idea of giving an entire day to God and listening, resting, and watching for what God will do with it. This is a time to turn loose of our worries, let the unfinished things go, set aside our list of “have tos,” and invite God in to simply be the leader of our day. God’s presence brings warmth and rest, cheer and comfort and helps us remember our connection to God’s reality where harmony, wholeness, beauty, and love already exist for all God’s children.

In closing, I’d like to share one of Wendell Berry’s “Sabbath Poems.” He says the poems were, “written in silence, in solitude, mainly outdoors.” And the reader “will like them best who reads them in similar circumstances, at least in a quiet room, and slowly, with more patience than effort.” In other words, Berry hopes we’ll receive his Sabbath rest with our own.

Sabbath Poem VII (1982)

The clearing rests in song and shade.
It is a creature made
By old light held in soil and leaf,
By human joy and grief,
By human work,
Fidelity of sight and stroke,
By rain, by water on
The parent stone.
We join our work to Heaven’s gift,
Our hope to what is left,
That field and woods at last agree
In an economy
Of widest worth.
High Heaven’s Kingdom come on earth.
Imagine Paradise.
O Dust, arise!

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