Tuned for Praise: Even When God Is Silent

 

Read: Psalm 79

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins (Psalm 79:1, NRSV)

Psalm 79 is one of a spate of psalms that dare to confront an apparently indifferent God. The problem they pinpoint is God’s silence in the face of overwhelming evil.

Here is a brief sample of some of the raw outbursts from this section of the psalter. Pray along if the psalm fits:

O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God! (Ps. 83:1)

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel…stir up your might, and come to save us! (Ps. 80:1)

Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion? (Ps. 77:9)

The problem, of course, is that these psalms DO still fit. Even if the specifics have changed (fill in the blank with today’s particular atrocity), these prayers still express an all too contemporary sense of outrage.

A friend of mine once told me that Psalm 79 was the “evening psalm” of Christian households during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. He had this on the authority of his father, who had lived through those dark days as a young boy. (If you’re wondering what the morning psalm was, it was 68: “Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered….”)

It’s not hard to understand this desperate prayer’s appeal for people in that situation. Even the cries for vengeance (justice?) in verses six and twelve are wholly human under the circumstances. In fact, my friend’s father confessed that they were said, “With relish.”

The presence of such prayers within Scripture may strike some as embarrassing or inappropriate. I would argue, however, that they are a gift. Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 from the cross, after all, and asked God point blank, “Why have you forsaken me?” What is often overlooked is the faith that such candid questions assume. They are built on a relationship of trust that—even when that trust is shaken—dares to confront an apparently absent God.

Listen: Even When He Is Silent

The lines that gave birth to this anthem were found written on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid from the Nazis during WWII. This piece, composed by Kim André Aresen, is performed by the St. Olaf Choir, conducted by Anton Armstrong.

 

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining;

I believe in love even when I feel it not;

I believe in God even when he is silent.

Anonymous

 

Prayer: Deliver us from evil, O God. But when evil seems to be winning, help us to trust you anyway. Help us to believe in your power and your goodness, even when you are silent. Amen.

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: Stay With Us

“The Road to Emmaus”

Robert Zünd (1877)

 

Read: Luke 24:13-35

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. (Luke 24: 28-29, NRSV)

If I am honest, part of this painting’s appeal is that it reminds me of the place where I grew up. The only problem is that I grew up in a valley in north-west Illinois, and the road to Emmaus is a few miles north-west of Jerusalem. Last time I looked, the two places had little in common.

Once we get past the trees, however, things get more interesting and—one suspects—more accurate.

The body language of the three figures suggests that this is a scene from the middle of the story. The men on either side of Jesus seem to be hanging on his every word. Their posture is eager and alert. This must be the part where Jesus interprets to them “the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

Of course, they don’t realize yet that this mysterious stranger is Jesus.

Who could blame them? Even if their eyes hadn’t been “kept from recognizing him” (v. 16), their hearts and their heads would surely have gotten in the way. This was three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, after all. When Jesus asks them what they are talking about, they stop in their tracks and respond incredulously, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” (v. 18).

But first impressions are deceiving. This stranger does not turn out to be as clueless as they thought. Before long, they are the ones who feel clueless. They can’t get enough of what he is saying. It might not make sense, but it’s a vast improvement over their previous despair. So, when they reach their destination, and it looks like Jesus intends to continue down the road without them, they plead with him. “Stay with us,” they urge, “because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”

While this may be true, one suspects that their own curiosity was as much a motivator as their concern. And was there also a spark of hope—struck by the stranger’s oddly encouraging words? If so, it was nothing they could articulate yet. Only a gut feeling that they couldn’t let this man walk down the road without them.

Jesus accepts their invitation. The rest of the story relates the moment when the men finally recognize Jesus. It is surely significant that “their eyes were opened” when they were at the table. Maybe it was the way Jesus blessed and broke the bread. One can almost feel the wave of déjà vu as they heard the familiar words spoken by the beloved voice. By the time they reached out to receive the broken bread from his hands, they knew.

I like Robert Zünd’s iconic painting because it reminds me of home. But I love Luke’s story because it reminds me that Christ walks with us in our despair whether we recognize him or not. He is risen whether we realize it or not. He feeds us at his table whether we are worthy or not.

Listen: Abendlied (Bleib bei uns) by Josef Gabriel Rheinberger

This gorgeous setting of Luke 24:29 interprets the plea for Jesus to “stay with us.” The composer, Josef Gabriel Rheinberger, write the first version of the piece in 1855 when he was only 15. This recording, conducted by Klaus Breuninger, was made in Stuttgart, Germany in 2007. It features 100 singers from over 40 nations.

 

Prayer: Stay with us, Lord Jesus. Stay with us…whether we know we need you or not. Whether we recognize you or not. Whether we deserve you or not. Only stay with us.

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

Tuned for Praise: The Road Home

 

Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series

Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.

Enjoy!

 

 

Read: Jeremiah 31:7-14

With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble…. (Jeremiah 31:9, NRSV).

It’s easy to personalize this beautiful passage from Jeremiah, especially when it sounds so much like the 23rd psalm. It sounds like the prophet is speaking directly to us. But if we take the time to hear his words in their original context, they may speak to us even more powerfully. It’s one of those times when the longest way around may be the surest way home.

Here’s what I mean.

Jeremiah was speaking to a people who had seen their dreams shattered. The Babylonians had come calling, and nothing would ever be the same.

Some years before, the prophet Habakkuk had described the badly-behaved Babylonians with stunning precision. He called them a

…fierce and impetuous nation,

who march through the breadth of the earth

to seize dwellings not their own.

Dread and fearsome are they;

Their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.

Their horses are swifter than leopards,

more menacing than wolves at dusk;

their horses charge.

Their horsemen come from far away;

They fly like an eagle swift to devour.

They all come for violence,

with faces pressing forward;

they gather captives like sand.

At kings they scoff,

and of rulers they make sport.

They laugh at every fortress,

and heap up earth to take it.

Then they sweep by like the wind;

they transgress and become guilty;

their own might is their god!

 

Habakkuk 1: 6-11, NRSV

The people of Jeremiah’s day had seen all of this play out before their eyes. The temple was in ruins, the land was lost, and the citizens of Judah who hadn’t been killed had indeed been scattered like sand. What made it all so much worse was wondering why God had allowed it all to happen.

Now that you know this, imagine what Jeremiah’s words must have sounded like to those traumatized survivors. Imagine them listening to this crusty old prophet who has seems to have undergone a complete personality transplant. No more gloom and doom, but words of comfort and hope.

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,

and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…

With weeping they shall come,

and with consolations I will lead them back.

Jeremiah 31:8-9, NRSV

Some of them must have thought he was crazy. Maybe it had all been too much for him, and his mind had snapped.

But I wonder if some of them heard his words and hoped against hope. He had been right, after all, about what was coming. Maybe he had inside information this time, too. Maybe God was, somehow, going to find a way to lead them home.

People have been listening to Jeremiah’s words for centuries, hoping against hope. They are so surprising, so out of character, and so “over the top,” that we may be tempted to write them off as delusional.

But what if they aren’t?  What if they’re true? What if God intends to lead, not just Jeremiah’s brokenhearted exiles, but the brokenhearted children of every age to home where we “shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,” where “our life shall become like a watered garden, and [we] shall never languish again”? (Jer. 31:12)

It may be hoping against hope, but it the hope at the heart of the Gospel.

Listen: “The Road Home” by Stephen Paulus (Conspirare)

While the words to this traditional American hymn do not come directly from Scripture, they capture well the spirit of Jeremiah 31. Listen especially for the soprano soloist in the final verse, whose soaring invitation on God’s behalf seems designed to break through even our deepest pain. As she puts it, “There is no such beauty as where you belong. Come away, come away—I will lead you home.”

Prayer: Our hope is in you, O God. Help us to hear and follow your voice—through grief, through pain, through doubt, and through disaster. Lead us home.

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Self-Care

 

Read: Luke 13:10-17

 

When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” (Luke 13:12, NRSV).

Why is it so hard to slow down?

Perhaps I shouldn’t make assumptions. Maybe I am the only one who gets frustrated when the elevator door doesn’t close fast enough. Maybe I am the only one who grumbles when it takes more than a few seconds to send an email to the other side of the world. Maybe I am the only one who has to restrain myself from finishing the sentences—and for that matter, the stories—of my slow-talking, elderly relative.

Maybe I am—but I doubt it.

Since time is short (isn’t it always?), can we just agree that I’m not alone in this? While we’re at it, let’s just skip over the “why” question as well and simply move on to admit that many of us have a problem. We might even call it a sickness. Acceleration sickness.

In his book, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick observes our tendency to live our lives on fast forward. It is quite literally a “rush.” It gives us a sense of rush of adrenaline that our ancestors knew only in battle. The battle analogy is especially apt, since it’s impossible to sustain that kind of pace. This is a sickness that will almost certainly kill us.

At some level, many of us know this. We just don’t know how to be healed.

Some years ago I noticed that there was one lecture in my semester-long Old Testament class that always drew a crowd of students eager for further conversation. It was the lecture on sabbath. Instinctively, I think they knew how badly they needed this “rest cure.” I had to admit to them that I needed it just as much as they did. But I shared the sense that this was at least part of the answer to our prayers.

Over the years, however, I have noticed a tendency among us “sabbath seekers” to approach sabbath like a project. Oblivious to the irony, we make resolutions to “work harder” at keeping sabbath. While it does take work to set limits on ourselves, I wonder if part of this tendency reflects a fundamental mistake in terms of category. Here’s what I mean.

Sabbath is not primarily self-care. If, in our minds, it is filed with all the other ways we’ve tried to improve ourselves—whether it be through mindfulness, exercise, assertiveness, or de-cluttering—we’ve missed the point.

Don’t misunderstand. All of these efforts may be worthy. But sabbath-keeping is primarily about honoring God, not helping ourselves. If we find that celebrating the sabbath makes us feel better—hallelujah! But that benefit is a secondary. God is primary.

Perhaps today’s gospel passage can help put this in perspective.

In the story from Luke, Jesus’ critics get on his case for curing a woman on the sabbath day. Jesus deftly puts them in their place by pointing out that even a strict interpretation of sabbath allows for acts of mercy. The critics slink away defeated, and the story ends with the crowd celebrating all the wonderful things Jesus has been doing.

For our purposes, however, it’s worth looking again at the beginning of the story. It’s the sabbath day. Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues. A woman shows up who has been sick for eighteen years. Does she show up because she has heard that Jesus is there? The author doesn’t say. I prefer to think that this is just what she does—sabbath after sabbath, and year after year. In any case, on this particular sabbath day, Jesus heals her. Hallelujah.

This is primarily a story about Jesus. But it’s also a story about a woman who finds release from a debilitating condition. It’s a story that reminds me of the importance of just showing up—of consistently accepting God’s sabbath invitation whether there’s anything “in it for me” or not.

Prayer: Accept our sabbath praises, O God. We will return to praise you, week after week, and year after year, “even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats.” And if, in your great mercy, you see fit to heal us, we will praise you all the more. Only let us praise you for your own sake until “the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means.”

Quoted sections from the conclusion of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s, The Sabbath

 

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Justice

 

Read: Isaiah 58

 

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day, if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable…then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth…. (Isaiah 58:13-14, NRSV).

Passages like this really ought to come with some sort of warning attached. “CAUTION,” it might say. “Reading this passage out of context may be hazardous to your theology.”

In isolation, the language of these verses from the end of Isaiah 58 sound like a simple transaction. If you do this, then I will do this. Honor the sabbath, and I will give you prosperity.

This is language a good consumer capitalist can get excited about. What could be simpler? It’s like a cross between “Let’s Make a Deal” and the “Back to God Hour.” (Sorry if my media illustrations date me.) This is where the CAUTION label needs to kick in, however. God is not some cosmic vending machine that dispenses blessings in exchange for good behavior.

For a full-length seminar on the dangers of this kind of transactional theology, see the book of Job. Although it takes Job’s character 42 chapters to figure it out, he finally learns that honoring God is worth doing for its own sake, and not as a guarantee of health and happiness. For a short course on a similar theme, see John 9:1-3. There, when Jesus’ disciples ask him whether a man’s blindness was a result of the man’s sin or the sin of his parents, Jesus responds with an authoritative “neither.” The essence of his answer is to remind the disciples—and us—that there is often more going on than is dreamt of in our theology.

So, those are some cautions from the Bible’s broader context. It’s worth looking closer to home as well, however.

Even if we read no further than the rest of Isaiah 58 we will learn some important things about sabbath and the dangers of seeing it in isolation.

Most of the rest of this chapter is about justice. It turns out that God is not much interested in religious observance without it. I’m not sure this was the response that the seriously religious of Isaiah’s day were expecting, and I’m not sure it’s what we’re expecting either. But ready or not, listen to this:

Is not this the fast that I choose;

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your houses;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Isaiah 58:6-9, NRSV

 

If we read only verse 13’s warnings about “trampling the sabbath” by pursuing our own interests on God’s holy day, we might well come away with a rigid code about what’s allowed on the sabbath and what’s not. When we read in as the climax to which the chapter’s crescendo has been building, however, we are much less likely to limit it to mere legalism.

 

If you have been following this series for the last several weeks, you may have given some thought to what celebrating the sabbath will look like for you. Isaiah 58 reminds us that whatever our sabbath observance looks like, it needs to drink deeply from justice’s spring. It’s worth doing even if there isn’t anything “in it” for us. But if we do, there will surely be ways in which God will make our lives “like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Is. 58:11). Perhaps justice itself is the source of some of that living water.

 

Prayer: Teach us how to drink deeply from justice’s spring every day of the week, so that our sabbath celebration may truly honor you.

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Community

 

Sabbath and Community

 

Read: Acts 16:11-15

 

On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. (Acts 16:13, NRSV).

Is it possible to celebrate the Sabbath by yourself?

This may not be a question that keeps you awake at night. If you have been following this series on Sabbath, however, it may be something you want to consider.

Individualism is the air we breathe in contemporary North American culture. That this was not the case in Paul’s day is obvious from a couple of details in this passage. First, he and his companion assume that there will be a place of prayer where Jewish believers will have gathered on the Sabbath. This assumption proves true, and they engage the women gathered at the river’s edge in conversation—presumably about Jesus. This brings us to the second significant detail in the story. When the Lord “opens the heart” of Lydia to Paul’s message, “she and her household” are baptized. A similar “household” baptism happens later in this same chapter when Paul and Silas’ jailer becomes a believer (see vv. 25-34).

Much ink has been spilled over the centuries regarding the implications of passages like these for Christian baptismal practices. For our purposes, however, it’s sufficient simply to note the communal character of religious practice in general. Lydia and the other women are praying together on the Sabbath. She and her household are baptized, and afterwards, she prevails upon Paul to come and stay at her home. Paul and Silas return there to “encourage the brothers and sisters” after their miraculous jail break (v. 40). While individual decision obviously plays a part in these stories, it never occurs in isolation. These sheep, in other words, move in flocks.

Contemporary Christians who decide to celebrate Sabbath often find it frustrating to “go it alone.” It’s one thing to “step off the wheel” yourself, but if no-one around you is stepping off with you, it can prove to be a problem. Children, spouses, friends, and employers do tend to show up with expectations. Responsibilities don’t miraculously stop just because we as individuals have decided to be more intentional about keeping the Sabbath.

Another problem with “going it alone,” is that there is something inherently communal about Sabbath.

I’ll never forget my first experience celebrating the arrival of the Sabbath with a Jewish family. After the mother lit the two Sabbath candles and said the traditional prayer welcoming the Sabbath to the home, the father came to stand beside her. Then the children clambered to their side to receive a blessing. Mind you—this was not something they did with an eye roll; it was something they clearly looked forward to. Putting their hands on each child’s head, the parents prayed that they would be like Ephraim and Manasseh (for boys) or like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah (for girls). Then they pronounced the “priestly blessing” from Numbers 6:24-26 for each child, saying,

May God bless you and keep you.

May God show you favor and be gracious to you.

May God show you kindness and grant you peace.

Though I have no complaints about my religious upbringing as a Christian, I confess that I was seriously jealous of that profound ritual of belonging. Perhaps this is what Barbara Brown Taylor means by “holy envy.”[1] But in those words of blessing, I sensed that the children of that family were joined with generations of the faithful. These young sheep were abiding within a vast and ancient flock.

So, let’s return to the question with which we began. Is it possible to celebrate the Sabbath by yourself?

I think I would say that it is challenging, but not impossible. It may require being intentional about shoring up your individual commitment by covenanting with a few others who have made a similar commitment. Welcome the Sabbath together—on whatever day you choose—with a shared meal or even a shared FaceTime prayer. Let those around you know about your decision to celebrate Sabbath so that they can do their best to support you in that choice. But whatever you do, know that you are abiding within a vast and ancient flock.

Prayer: Bless us and keep us, gracious God, as we seek to recover the blessing of your Sabbath. Show us your favor and be gracious to us. Show us your kindness, and grant us your peace.

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others (HarperOne, 2019).

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Surrender

 

Read: Exodus 16

 

The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey (Exodus 16:31, NRSV).

Did you grow up being lulled to sleep with lullabies like this one?

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.
Mama’s going to buy you a mocking bird.

And if that mocking bird don’t sing,
Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring.

And if that diamond ring is brass,
Mama’s going to buy you a looking glass….

The lullaby goes on to promise prizes that reflect other “hot items” of the song’s era: a billy goat, a horse and cart, and even a dog named Rover.

I confess that I like this lullaby. I sang it to my children and I continue to sing it to my grandchildren. (Although I sometimes wonder when they will wake up and point out that they would much rather have an iPhone than a billy goat.) But as I sing it, I also wonder if I may be inadvertently encouraging little consumers. While we can’t blame everything about our consumeristic culture on an old lullaby, could it be symptomatic of the insatiable aspect of both our culture and our human nature? Have we been guzzling consumerism along with our mother’s milk?

The “manna” story, with its emphasis on not gathering on the Sabbath, is a perfect parable for those of us who feel like we never have enough.

Soon after their escape from slavery in Egypt, the people of God face a test that will reveal whether or not they truly trust God to care of them in the wilderness. Moses relays the instructions directly from God. Each morning, God will rain down “bread from heaven” in the form on mysterious but tasty “manna.” They are to gather only enough for each day, and twice as much on the sixth day, so that they will have enough for the Sabbath on the seventh day.

But of course, people being people, they disregard God’s instructions and gather more than they need. This does not work well. The hoarded portions quickly develop worms—except on the sixth day, when the manna’s shelf-life is miraculously extended to cover their needs for the Sabbath day.

It’s easy to get distracted by the miraculous characteristics of “manna” when we read this story. We, like the Israelites, can’t get past “What is it?” But obsessing over the characteristics of the manna may distract us from the true miracle of this story: those people who are able to recognize when they have enough.

The ancient Greeks had a similar cautionary tale about a man named Erysichthon. When he cut down one of the goddess Demeter’s sacred oaks, she cursed him with insatiable hunger. After devouring everything (and everyone) around him, he finally served up himself for dessert.

I think of Erisichthon every time I see my favorite bumper sticker, which reads: INSATIABLE IS NOT SUSTAINABLE.

But maybe I should remember the manna story as well—especially as I attempt to receive God’s gift of Sabbath. At its heart, the manna story is a call to trust God to provide for our needs. It is a call to surrender our unhealthy striving for more wealth, more stuff, and more success. It is a call to recognize when it is time to say, “Enough.”

Prayer:

Drop Thy still dews of quietness, ‘til all our strivings cease;

Take from our souls the strain and stress,

and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of Thy peace.

 

(John Greenleaf Whittier, 1872)

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Celebration

 

Read: Matthew 12:1-8

 

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat (Matthew 12:1 NRSV).

It has to be said. Many people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, Sabbath conjures up unhappy childhood memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On the woman’s first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath day….

 

Although stories like this are becoming increasingly rare, they explain a lot about why many of us have negative associations about the Sabbath. Even our language gives away our attitude. We talk about observing or keeping or honoring the Sabbath. But how often do we talk about celebrating the Sabbath?

Hold on to that question a moment while we consider Jesus’ confrontation with the first-century version of the over-zealous neighbor lady.

In Matthew’s story, the Pharisees play the role of the Sabbath police. When they see Jesus’ disciples plucking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath, they threaten to write them a ticket for Sabbath breaking. Jesus is ready with a couple of citations of his own, however, and reminds them of a couple of important precedents. His closing argument is that the “Son of Man is lord of the sabbath” (v. 8). I’m sure that sent the Sabbath police scurrying back to the precinct….

What the Pharisees and the neighbor lady fail to understand is that Sabbath is more about “yes” than it is about “no.”

In an earlier installment of this series, we talked about Sabbath as God’s invitation to rest, tranquility, and delight. We can hear hints of this in the passage just prior to the one about the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. It’s impossible to miss the power of Jesus’ appeal when he beckons to us and says,

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).

I will give you rest. Now that’s a promise worth celebrating. And it’s an invitation we can’t afford to resist.

If you’re one of those people that has negative associations with Sabbath, try creating some positive associations instead. Imagine a sphere of space and time that’s been set aside especially for communing with God, each other, and the rest of creation. Explore what it means to celebrate Sabbath. Because at its heart, Sabbath is much more like a party in a beautiful place with people we love than it is a list of obligations. Maybe this is why the Sabbath is greeted like a bride in Jewish tradition. When “she” is with us, it’s a time of great joy and celebration—a time to savor each other’s company and give thanks for the beauty of life.

So, let the celebration begin. And what the heck…let’s invite the neighbor lady!

Prayer: Show us how to say yes to the Sabbath. Welcome us—as we welcome others—into that sphere of serenity, celebration, and delight.

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Hospitality

 

Read: Deuteronomy 5:12-15

 

But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or you donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns…. (Deuteronomy 5:14 NRSV).

Look closely at the picture reproduced above. The scene in the foreground is familiar. The table may be a bit less formal than the ones that typically grace the front of our sanctuaries, but the bread and the wine are a giveaway. This is the Lord’s Table. All things are ready.

Now focus on the scene in the background. The man in the white shirt on the near side of the fence is an Uruguayan pastor named Dario Barolin.[1] He was visiting the US/Mexican border with a group of Latin American Christians concerned about the treatment of refugees. Just as he was about to begin distributing the communion elements to those in his group, he realized that there was someone participating in the service from the southern side of the border fence. So he did what any self-respecting pastor would have done. It was the Lord’s Table, after all, and he was certain that Jesus would not have let a border fence get in his way. So Dario served communion to his brother on the other side of the fence.

Some things just ought to be obvious.

The logic of justice and hospitality prevails in a similar way in both versions of the Bible’s Sabbath commandment. Sabbath rest is not something granted exclusively to the covenant people. Both versions of the Ten Commandments make it clear that Sabbath rest should be extended to children, livestock, slaves, and resident aliens. There is something in the very nature of Sabbath, evidently, that demands it be shared.

Both versions of the Ten Commandments devote more real estate to the Sabbath than any other commandment, and both agree on the necessity of extending Sabbath privileges to all. The reasons given for Sabbath observance are different, however, and that difference is instructive.

In Exodus 20:11 it is all about imitatio Dei: God worked for six days and rested on the seventh, so we should, too. In Deuteronomy 5:15, however, the rationale is a pointed reminder of the covenant people’s past. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

One wonders if Moses thought the people needed that reminder. Had people gotten into the habit of putting up their own feet on the Sabbath while asking those with fewer privileges and power to keep working? Perhaps in the time it had taken them to move from Sinai to the promised land the memories of slavery had faded. Maybe some people were starting to savor whatever scraps of power they could claim over those with fewer options.

There is no way to know, of course. But we do know that Moses’ reminder says something important about Sabbath. Sabbath is not about entitlement. Its essence is both generous and just.

One has to wonder if this reminder was enough to make those ancient Israelites uncomfortable, not just with their lack of Sabbath generosity, but about the fact that they owned slaves at all. But perhaps we should worry less about the ancient context than the modern one. If we decide to accept the gift of the Sabbath, should we not also commit ourselves to generosity and justice?

Some things just ought to be obvious.

Prayer: We are grateful for the gift of your grace, both at the Lord’s Table and the Sabbath table. Show us how to be more generous and just, especially to the strangers within our gates.

[1] The Rev. Dr. Dario Barolin is pastor in the Waldensian Church of Rio de la Plata and serves as the Executive Secretary of the Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches of Latin America.

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Creation

Read: Genesis 2:1-3

 

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation (Gen. 2:3 NRSV).

“It’s not all about you.”

This caustic comeback has become something of a cliché. Of course, the reason clichés become clichés is because so many people find them to be true.

“It’s not all about you” was never more true than with regard to the Bible’s first creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a. Contrary to most people’s assumptions, human beings are not the crown of creation. That honor goes to the Sabbath. The fact that so many of us are confused about that fact says a great deal about us.

But what can we say about Sabbath? At least with the other days of creation there are tangible results. Who can forget fruit trees, after all? And then there are the stars, the cattle, and the ever-popular swarming things. Each day is chock full of cool creations, and God seems positively chuffed at how well things have turned out.

When we get to the seventh day, however, the inventory seems to come to an abrupt end. “God rested,” it says. Our busy 21st-century brains hardly know how to picture this. Should we imagine God in an Adirondack chair drinking a micro-brew? That image might be less misleading than the boring blank canvas that is our typical impression of Sabbath.

Once again, the problem is not with the Sabbath itself, but with our misconceptions of it. When the medieval rabbi, Rashi, considered this conundrum, he suggested that the Sabbath was actually the last thing God created. Rather than an absence, menuha (rest) connotes a presence. It is not emptiness, but fullness. Imagine a sphere filled with tranquility, serenity, and peace. Imagine that God invites us into this sphere so that we can share that exquisite shalom with all the rest of God’s good creation. Imagine.

In his marvelous book, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight, Norman Wirzba reminds us that Sabbath is far more than a “divine afterthought.” In his words, God’s rest “is not simply a cessation from activity but rather the lifting up and celebration of everything.”[1]

Suddenly Sabbath sounds not just attractive, but essential.

Many of us live like we are being chased by a train. We complete one task, but we can’t take time to celebrate because we are already late for our next deadline. Weeks go by, months, years, then decades. Like the Energizer Bunny, we keep going and going and going.

But hear the good news: it’s not all about us. It is about all creation, invited into a sphere of rest, tranquility, and delight.

Why on earth would we say no?

Prayer: Forgive us, O God, for rejecting your gift for so long. Show us how to enter your sphere of rest, tranquility, and delight.

[1] Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), p. 33.

 

Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.