Bethany Theological Seminary and Earlham School of Religion's Seminaries Librarian Jane Pinzino delivered the following message in ESR worship on Tuesday, February 3, 2015:
Early one Friday evening, when I was a graduate student living in Philadelphia, I was walking home from the pub with Lana, a classmate in the program. As we strolled across the Walnut Street bridge, I was discussing in detail my views about a class in medieval paleography that Lana and were enrolled in. I was verbally processing the work of the week now done, continuing the trajectory from our Happy Hour conversation. As daylight waned Lana became more and more quiet, apparently distracted, and finally visibly concerned. Lana turned to me and politely asked whether we might move along more quickly, and I often remember her explanation, “The sun is going down and when it does, I put down my backpack.” I looked at her backpack and I looked at the sinking sun, and we picked up the pace.
We proceeded in silence while I digested this unexpected information about Lana’s way of life. Lana then shared with me, “And this is why I don’t normally go to Happy Hour on Friday with all our friends in the program; it’s not because I don’t want to be with all of you; it’s because I celebrate the Sabbath.” Lana rested at home from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. In a bit confusion on that Friday, I offered to Lana that I would carry her backpack myself, but that idea was unrealistic since I was also carrying a backpack heavy with books. And in fact, Lana preferred carrying her own load, she simply wanted to reach home to put her own backpack down in her place, and begin the Sabbath celebration, lighting candles and enjoying rest at the end of the school week. As we now walked along Walnut more briskly, Lana went on to describe how she observed the Sabbath in her home by refraining from schoolwork and spending a day that celebrated, received and reflected. Lana loved graduate school and the creative processes that she engaged in all week long through her writing, presenting, discussing, organizing, teaching; all of which she lay down every Friday evening for a full 24 hour period. My walk home with Lana that day started my own journey of claiming Sabbath rest as a vital part of a productive, industrious, full and rich life.
As your librarian I recommend four books, all of which I draw upon for my own spirituality and for this message: 1) the classic work by Abraham Heschel, entitled “The Sabbath,” 2) a work by Wayne Muller, “Sabbath: Finding, Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives,” 3) Wendell Berry’s, “This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems,” and 4) a book from self-improvement literature by Neil Fiore, “The Now Habit: A Strategic Programfor Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play.” Through my practice, I learned years later one of the things that Lana was calling me to, on that Friday--what is called in Jewish tradition “Sabbath of the tongue,” which means not talking about work all the time. Rather, talk about the sunset, talk about wine, candles and flowers, share joys, abstain from grievances, and don’t talk at all, invite silence. In the Sabbath we consider not the results of our creation, but the mystery of creation itself.
We live in a culture that not only overworks, but may be unclear about what it means to rest. After the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, they wandered their way to Mt. Sinai where the Lord delivered the Ten Commandments in their hearing. And they distinctly heard God say, in the context of their new precious freedom, you are no longer slaves, celebrate the Sabbath Day and keep it precious. We probably don’t need reminding that we should rest, but we may need support knowing understanding what rest might look or feel like. From Abraham Heschel: “People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle . . . celebration is an encounter, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.”
Lana, as member of a Jewish community both local and global, had extensive law and literature to drawn upon to define work and rest. While I have figured out a Sabbath practice for myself, centered in my home, it is mostly independent from a practicing community. A couple, or a couple with children, who relax together on the weekend may have a unique Sabbath celebration, even if they do not use the word “Sabbath,” but what I am unsure of, and remain unsure of, and ask your response about is, “While we may all agree that it is important to observe some semblance of Sabbath; is it important to observe the Sabbath, or to observe it all together?” The Orthodox Jewish community is in it together in ways and with a level of mutual support that really precludes the possibility of violating the Sabbath. I have read articles and stories about Jews coming together for Shabbat who were otherwise complete strangers—in an airport--but in the Sabbath practice they became family. “The soul cannot celebrate alone,” Heschel says.
What about pastors and ministers whose work it is to lead worship on Saturday and Sunday? Really, when do they celebrate the Sabbath? As you know, to be a professional minister, or an amateur one, or even an active church member, you work on the Sabbath. Preparing sermons, teaching Sunday School, leading monthly meeting for business, building community; this is all work. Ironically, it seems, those who may be most attuned to the spirituality of rest, are ones who may often find it lacking in their lives.
In the Pentateuch, according to Numbers 28:9, the Levite priests offered
two sacrifices every Sabbath, which doubled their regular daily workload of a
sacrifice each day; and according to Leviticus 24:8 the priests also refreshed the
altar bread on every Sabbath. Now the Levite priests did not own a parcel of
land in Canaan like the other tribes of Israel; their inheritance was God; ideally
they did not work the land like their fellow Israelites; they took care of the
Temple and worship. The priesthood in ancient Israel had their own set of rules.
And pastors today help to provide a Sabbath day for others, and may be left to
figure out on their own their Sabbath rest.
In my personal practice, on Friday evening, I come in the front door and I place my keys in the Shabbos box. This is my Shabbos box that I brought in from home. A Shabbos box is something that Jewish families often have, and at the outset of the Sabbath they put in it whatever represents work; for me it’s my keys; some people put in their cell phones, or a list of work responsibilities that they will not do on Shabbat. At the conclusion of Shabbat, you take the items out of the box, and work now resumes. I place my keys in the Shabbos box every day when I come home, and in addition to never losing my keys anymore, I leave the work day behind and frame my mind for rest.
Questions arise in our time and place: How do I rest at home when I work out of my home? How do we define our “home”? How do we define our “family”? And how long to celebrate the Sabbath each week? Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday? One Jewish family told me, “We would, we really would, but the kids have all their music lessons and sports practices on Saturday. We can’t deprive the kids of their activities; the kids want to be involved with everything that goes along with Saturdays in the U.S.” So I follow the simple lead of this family, the Kasimow family: Friday evenings are sacred. I spend them at home. When I lived near the Kasimows, I often celebrated Shabbat with them. My friends here, mostly non-Jewish, no longer expect me to do anything outside the home on Friday evenings; my response is “Shabbat Shalom.”
I bear witness for my household: if housecats were theologians, my two kitties would be sure to claim, “All of life is a Sabbath.” My family on Friday evenings are my loved ones, including those in heaven above, my ancestors, angels and saints with whom I have shared love. I do refrain from my occupational work on Saturdays, though on Saturday I am not quiet in the way I embrace silence on Friday evenings.
Beyond Friday evening, we may cultivate Sabbath moments throughout the week. I celebrate the Sabbath and receive rest most powerfully through gardening. I grow flowers; I lose track of time when I dig and plant my flowers, when I enter into the processes of nature, watering and feeding, watching the buds come to life, the unfolding of petals. I meet God in the garden. My favorite of the resurrection narratives is that found in John, where Mary Magdalene finds Jesus walking among the flowers, so at ease and present that she mistakes him for a gardener. Wendell Berry talks about that experience of Sabbath time, when time stretches to its fullest within us: “There is a day when the road neither comes nor goes, and the way is not a way but a place.” That place is home, where we celebrate the Sabbath.
God knows however, I’m not fond of weeding, although it may be necessary for the health of the garden. I procrastinate on the weeding. Weeding is work, and not gratifying work, as far as I can tell. I dislike weeding, and I can’t even find someone to pay to do the weeding. When I weed my garden, I am conscious that I am working. My back hurts, my brow sweats, my labors don’t resolve anything; there are always more weeds. I console myself, I will just weed for 15 minutes each day; 15 minutes feels like an hour. When I water and walk among my flowers however, my heart is at rest. That is a Sabbath moment. For Berry, “In time we are present only by forgetting time.” Heschel defines Sabbath time in this way: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
And for all of us who are procrastinators, one of the gifts of taking time off weekly, punctually and without feeling guilty, i.e. without judging oneself to be a slacker--to take time not to do, but simply to be--is that it builds within a subconscious urge to work. I anticipate with pleasure the return to work. Work, the return to work, the conclusion of the Sabbath, releases energy—I get my keys and list out of the Shabbos box, ready now to do what now needs to be done to sustain daily life. Berry offers it as an allegory of a turtle:
“Every afternoon the old turtle crawls up out of the river along the trunk of a drowned tree that slants out of the watery dark into the sun and the wind. In the wind and the sun he dries and ceases to shine. He grows warm. He looks slowly this way and that way. He thinks slowly, and his thought passes from satiety to hunger. And so he lets himself sink back down out of the air and light.”
In the deep of winter, most plants, flowers and trees, the soil itself goes through a dormancy period in order to flower and bear fruit in their time. The dormancy period of rest is one in which nutrients come together and penetrate the plant’s internal systems towards renewed productivity. When a gardener plants bulbs in the fall, tulips, daffodils, crocuses, she must do so in a timing that ensures that the bulb has sufficient dormancy time in freezing weather before sending forth its green shoots to bloom in the spring. We too require periods of lying fallow, resting and coalescing energies within, cultivating inner spaces where we find the energies of heart and the powers of peace. The more we engage in unrelenting busyness, the more brittle and shallow our roots may become.
At this time of year, when the garden is frozen, I tend to the outdoor creatures that visit my yard in winter; this year I have even more birds on these cold days than I did any day over the warm and green summer.
A poem from Wendell Berry:
“The sounds of engines leave the air. The Sunday morning silence comes at last. At last I know the presence of the world made without hands, the creatures that have come to be out of their absence. Calls of flicker and jay fill the clear air. Titmice and chickadees feed among the green and the dying leaves. Gratitude for the gifts of all the living and the unliving, gratitude which is the greatest gift, quietest of all, passes to me through the trees.”
I am full of anticipation for the arrival of spring and the planting season. Anticipation for the Sabbath is one of the things that makes the whole six days worth it. Sabbath time is a taste of eternal time. “Eternity is not infinity. It is not a long time. It does not begin at the end of time. It does not run parallel to time. In its entirety it always was. In its entirety it will always be. It is entirely present always.” Shabbat Shalom. Let us lift up our hearts in open worship.