Confessions of a Failed Sabbath Keeper (Guest Post by Michael Williams)
Oh, I know a little something about sabbath. I have been in the process of learning about it from various sources almost all my life. When I was a child there were “blue laws” in the community where I grew up, which meant that stores and filling stations could not sell anything on Sunday. This was some legislature’s interpretation of observing the sabbath. In the rural South where I grew up Sunday was our sabbath, and my grandmother would not let children play ball on a Sunday afternoon, even after they had attended worship and Sunday School. “Bless the sabbath and keep it holy,” the Bible said. To my family that meant “If you can’t work. You can’t play.”
Later when I finally met some Jewish people, I learned that the sabbath to which the Bible referred actually began at sundown on Friday and ended at sundown on Saturday. I had grown up knowing that the commandment to observe the sabbath was one of the top ten, then from a rabbi who was also my teacher I discovered that it is not only one of the 613 commandments, it is actually mentioned twice, in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. Each time sabbath-keeping is mentioned a different reason is given for keeping it. In Exodus 20:8-11, sabbath is woven into the very fabric of creation. God rested after the long story from which the universe emerged. If God can rest, we can rest.
In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, sabbath is a reminder of the exodus of the Hebrew children from Egypt. We are not anyone’s slave any longer, sabbath observance proclaims, since God has set us free. Sabbath was a sign of the gift of freedom to a people who had been enslaved and forced to work seven days a week without a break. In addition, sabbath-keeping is a sign of trust in God, reminding humans that we don’t have to act as if we are in control of everything every hour of every day. Freed slaves can rest each week. No matter the rationale, rest was part of the deal.
For more than forty years as a pastor, I recommended to members of the congregations I served keeping a time of sabbath. Of course, by that time blue laws were a distant memory, and only the most strict among us would not be allowed to play on Sunday. In fact, in recent years attendance at sporting events and participation in youth sports teams has become one of the big competitors with church attendance and sabbath observance.
I even tried to practice what I was preaching, to take a ”day off” – in my case, Friday. Sunday certainly wasn’t a time of sabbath for clergy. Instead, it tends to be the busiest and most stressful day of the week for most pastors and lay church professionals. Friday presented it’s own challenges, though. While I refused to schedule meetings on Friday, if there happened to be a wedding rehearsal or a funeral or both scheduled, which really does happen sometimes, there went a day of sabbath rest.
In addition, the sermon I was preparing for the upcoming Sunday took up so much psychic space in my consciousness all week long that there was little or no room left for thoughts of sabbath. Sometimes, especially on Friday. Even vacations seemed to be preternaturally prone to attract deaths and crises that inevitably would announce themselves within 48 hours of my leaving town.
Having failed to keep a day set apart for sabbath, I decided I would have to settle for a little sabbath each day. For at least the past forty years, I have tried various practices to quiet my mind in order to achieve some mini-sabbath. My attempts didn’t work very well for the longest time. I attempted to empty my consciousness of its constant chatter so it could be filled with silence, to focus on the sound of my breathing, or a mantra. Instead, my mind sounded like a crowded sports bar with televisions blaring and dozens of conversations floating around the room. The harder I tried to silence these voices in my head, the more insistent they became.
Then about twenty years ago I became an oblate of a Benedictine women’s community, Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama. I know, I’m a male, Protestant pastor officially associated with a group of Catholic sisters. My wife thought that was pretty weird, too. How it happened is too long a story to tell here. Suffice it to say, one of the practices that came with being an oblate was praying every morning in some form or other. Various prayer books, poetry books, essays, writing in my journal, verbal prayers for friends and strangers, and sitting in silence, full of the present, helped me occupy those early mornings. This became my daily sabbath – a time of day, rather than a day of the week. My mind was still often busy and distracted, but I had a time and place in my day that would not be devoted to accomplishing anything. Rather, I could just be.
The eccentric composer and musician John Cage asserts that whenever you play music you simply are where you are. I understand him to mean that whenever you play an instrument you are fully present to that instrument, the sounds coming from it, as well as those listening to those sounds as they emerge. Over time, I have come to believe that sabbath is just that, being fully present in a given moment, whether that moment of presence lasts thirty seconds, twenty minutes, an hour, or all day.
To be fully present to another person is to be fully present to that which is of God within them. Any activity can become a sacred act if we are fully present in it; preaching or praying, singing or storytelling, making music, or making love. If the world is, indeed, “charged with the grandeur of God”, as Gerard Manley Hopkins asserts, then whenever we are where we are, fully present to the any part of God’s creation, human or otherwise, we open the gate to an encounter with the divine presence. This, as I understand it now, is what sabbath is all about.
Michael Williams was educated at Vanderbilt University, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and holds a PhD from Northwestern University. Michael has been a featured teller at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, and has taught workshops on writing and storytelling across the country. He is the author or editor of twenty-one non-fiction books, most recently Spoken into Being: Divine Encounters through Story, Upper Room Books, 2017, and has written three plays that have been produced. He serves at Writer/Storyteller-in-Residence at Martin Methodist College in Tennessee.
In A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” Marianne Williamson writes that “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” In preparation for the launch of my new book, For Sabbath’s Sake (coming out on October 1st), I asked prominent authors, theologians, bloggers, and ministers to “let their own light shine,” by writing on the joys and challenges of sabbath practices. During this guest blog series, these writers will help us learn from one another, and, in turn, give us permission to explore our own sabbath journeys.
I want to hear from you, too!
Take a photo of yourself—or a selfie—while engaging in a sabbath practice (rest, worship, or a community gathering). Share the photo on social media and include #ForSabbathsSake in your post. Give yourself and others permission to enjoy the gift of sabbath.