I understand that during the Sabbatical many of us experienced a change of pace, a re-ordering of priorities, a re-looking at what’s important. I certainly enjoyed the travel, the exercise, the dedicated family time. At the same time, I thought of you and your ministry here. Being away helped me appreciate your generosity, your commitment, your drive to be faithful people.
The Bible tells us all that we need to do a good and attentive job of respecting the Sabbath. It’s God’s universal health plan. But the Bible doesn’t give us anything about how to make the transition from the seventh day to the eighth. How do we make the eighth any better than the previous week? How do we integrate the rest of the Sabbath into the “work” week? I transitioned out of Sabbatical with jury duty, car repair, garden weeding, home repair, bill paying and green bean harvesting.
One thing I did, however, was do so with a renewed sense of my place in the world. There is underneath the protestant work ethic a need for us to not just rest our bodies, and lie fallow, but to fill our minds and hearts with things that are good for us. When we are told to keep the Sabbath and keep it holy. It’s not only about resting, it’s about being attentive. Attentive to our families. Attentive to God. Attentive to how we are doing with our own mental and spiritual health plan. That’s what Sabbath is to give us. It’s perspective.
While surfing through facebook the other day, a friend posted the following reflection which speaks to our need to be attentive:
Once there was a rabbi named Zusya who loved God with all his heart and soul, and who treated all God’s creatures with respect and kindness. Rabbi Zusya studied Torah, kept Shabbat, visited the sick, and praised God for all the goodness in the world. Though he was not a rich man, Zusya gave generously to those in need. Students came from far and near, hoping to learn from this gentle and wise rabbi. Zusya often told his students, “Listen to the still, small voice inside you. Your neshamah will tell you how you must live and what you must do.
Each day Rabbi Zusya's students came to the House of Study, called the Bet Midrash, eager to learn what they could from him. One day, Zusya did not appear at the usual hour. His students waited all morning and through the afternoon. But Zusya did not come. By evening his students realized that something terrible must have happened. So they all rushed to Zusya’s house. The students knocked on the door. No one answered. They knocked more loudly and peered through the frost-covered windows. Finally, they heard a weak voice say, “Shalom aleichem, peace be with you. Come in.” The students entered Rabbi Zusya’s house. In the far corner of the room they saw the old rabbi lying huddled in bed, too ill to get up and greet them.
“Rabbi Zusya!” his students cried. “What has happened? How can we help you?”
“There is nothing you can do,” answered Zusya. “I’m dying and I am very frightened.”
“Why are you afraid?” the youngest student asked. “Didn’t you teach us that all living things die?”
“Of course, every living thing must die some day,” said the Rabbi. The young student tried to comfort Rabbi Zusya saying, “Then why are you afraid? You have led such a good life. You have believed in God with a faith as strong as Abraham’s. And you have followed the commandments as carefully as Moses.”
“Thank you. But this is not why I am afraid,” explained the rabbi. “For if God should ask me why I did not act like Abraham, I can say that I was not Abraham. And if God asks me why I did not act like Rebecca or Moses, I can also say that I was not Moses.” Then the rabbi said, “But if God should ask me to account for the times when I did not act like Zusya, what shall I say then?”
That’s what the Sabbath is for. It’s for us to stop, reflect, pray about how we are living into God’s plan for us.
This past week, I received a call from a reporter who is doing a story on Gustavo Parajon, an American Baptist Medical Missionary to Nicaragua who died this past March. Since he and I were quite close, she wanted to get some stories from me. We spoke about him and his influence on my life. But she wanted me to tell a story. I told about receiving refugees from Honduras in 1984. We had been up in the northern part of Nicaragua, visiting some rural health clinics that Gustavo and his organization Provadenic had established. Over the years, groups from my hometown church in Cleveland, Ohio had sent work groups down to build clinics. But in the 80’s, the US-backed Contra War was devastating the people of Nicaragua. Gustavo gently told us that if we really wanted to help the Nicaraguan people, then we needed to hear the stories of the people, take pictures and then go back and change US policy. They could build their own clinics and dig their own latrines, but only US citizens telling impassioned stories could change minds and hearts in Washington.
Word came to Gustavo that a dozen people who had been kidnapped by the Contras were being returned to Nicaragua. They were to be received by Gustavo and his NGO, CEPAD, the Evangelical Center for Aid and Development. We were escorted up to the border area, passing a checkpoint ten kilometers south of Honduras. We saw people’s homes with trenches on the property to protect them from the often-present gunfire. I reflected upon what it might be like to live with a foxhole in your very back yard. We saw guns drawn on both sides of the border, which was a painted white line on the Pan American highway. The dozen people came across the border with the clothes on their backs and a small bag of rice. As I think back on this, my mind flashes to meeting refugee families at MSP carrying only a small cloth bag and not at all dressed for winter in Minnesota. As we drove back to Managua, Gustavo spoke about how the chaos was a part of Nicaraguan life in a situation of war and poverty. The welcoming back of the refugee, the poor, the abused was a central aspect of Christianity. It didn’t need to be said that we don’t experience that kind of chaos in the US, at least not that often.
In many ways, that intense experience in Nicaragua was a Sabbath. It was a time of trying on something new. It was a time of reflecting upon my life. And I left there committed to look for the depth of spirituality.
Telling that story, helped me to make a connection with my own story on the eighth day.
What are the important things you have learned about yourself? About God? About your place in the world? Remind yourselves of these. This is what the Sabbath is for. Remember who God is. Remember that God is your greatest cheerleader. God sees through your inadequacies and lack of self-confidence. God sees all of your foibles and missteps and loves you anyway. I like the way Anne Lamott puts it. “You are loved because God loves, period. God loved you, and everyone, not because you believed certain things, but because you were a mess, and lonely, and His or Her child. God loved you no matter how crazy you felt on the inside, no matter what a fake you were; always, even in your current condition, even before coffee. God loves you crazily…like a slightly overweight auntie, who sees only your marvelousness and your need.” (from Imperfect Birds p. 16)
That’s what God sees in you. And on the Sabbath, we are to pay attention to that, wash ourselves in its beauty. Forgive ourselves for what we have done wrong, lay aside the blinders that we are so quick to erect between us and our fellow sojourner. When we lay all of this aside, and fill up with perspective and the blessings of God, then we will be able to face the new day more alive and more whole. We won’t be able to do all of that each week, but the good news is that there’s an eighth day every week. It’s not just the first day of the week. It’s also the 8th day, inspired and renewed by Sabbath.
So, we have had this summer break. How will we re-enter after such a Sabbath? Will we face the week with vigor and perspective? Or will Monday be as awful this week as it was last week? If we pay enough attention to the Sabbath, we will face the eighth day with focus and joy.
The key to living a balanced and God-loving life is not just about keeping the Sabbath. It’s a good start, but not what it’s about. The key is to make sure that we enter the eighth day with resolve, with a sense of God’s presence in our lives, with a refocusing of our priorities to be the person God has called us to be—regardless of what we face. It may not last through the week. Heck, it may not last the day, but it’s there every week—a new opportunity, a new reminder of your vocation and blessing as a child of God. God gave us the Sabbath so that the eight day can be a blessing. May it be so.