Remembering The Nap Rock: Reflections on Sabbath Keeping

I like a good nap now and again.  It sets things right.  I want to tell you about the best nap that I ever took.  It was at Lake Tahoe in July.  If you have never been to Lake Tahoe in July, I am not telling you this so that you will feel poorly toward me, although I would almost assuredly understand if you were.  The weather at Lake Tahoe in July is pretty much like the weather in Heaven.  Clear, slightly warm in the day, but with a cooling breeze, slightly chilly at night, but not cold.  Now I could probably stop right there, but there's more to tell.  The nap in question took place on a rock that was about fifty yards from the shore---right smack in the middle of the Lake.  And my wife was with me.  We waded out in the freezing cold water of the Lake, got on top of the aforementioned rock that also happened to be warmed by the brilliant Nevada sun and we just laid there while a cooling breeze blew across our bodies.  
And brother, I have to tell you that I slept, and slept good.  My iPhone with its incessant email reminders was back in the car, and there was no place in the world that my wife and I had to be except on that rock, taking a nap. Every so often I would reach out slowly and sleepily and just touch my wife to remind myself that she was still there next to me.  There is nothing like that, my friends, just reaching out and feeling your best girl next to you while you sleep on a rock in the middle of Lake Tahoe in July.  I will remember that day until I die, and when I do, I want the good Lord to let me relive it at least a thousand times---for starters.  

When did we get so busy that our most restful. fulfilling moments are relegated to once in a blue moon memories?  

My memories of the "Nap Rock" in Tahoe are sacred to me. It's easy for me to see that moment in my life as a Sabbath-keeping moment because I was resting and all was right with the world.  I am sure that most of us remember those distinct Sabbath moments in our lives with fondness.  Many of us, who call ourselves followers of Christ, would be able to point to those Sabbath moments as God-sightings---moments when we were aware of the presence of God so acutely that we knew the time was sacred.  But is it possible for the rest of our time--even our busy moments--to become sacramental?  What would that look like?  
To begin with, we would need to become more aware of our own selfishness.
About a year ago, I was at home in one of those rare instances when I was by myself.  The kids were gone, my wife was doing something, and I found myself alone.  I decided to take advantage by watching a little TV, and having some "me" time.  I just got settled down on the couch with a good episode of C.S.I. that I hadn't seen yet, when the phone rang.  
And I got extraordinarily angry.  Seriously, I got so angry that I actually yelled at the top of my lungs, "Why?!!?"  Who would trouble me in such a moment of perfect peace? I thought to myself.  Who would dare?  Honestly, I can't even remember who called me, but I do remember getting uncontrollably angry about it, and that troubles me... a lot.  
What kind of a person gets angry when the phone rings? If you were relating to me a story about how you got angry because someone dared to reach you on the phone when you were watching TV,  I would think that you were messed up.  Or at the very least, I would think that you were incredibly self-centered t. So I have to ask myself, “Am I really that selfish?” The answer comes back. “Yes.  Yes, you are.” And if I am really being honest with myself, I have to also admit that my selfishness when it comes to my time is extended not only to the moments I want to keep to myself, but every bit of time that I have to give away.  
The good news for people like me--people who don’t care for being the only one in the “wrong”--is that most of us are that incredibly selfish with our time. We just demonstrate it in different ways. For some of us it becomes a matter of deciding who we will spend our time with as opposed to who we will not be spending time with at all. Others of us value our “free” time above all else even to the point of neglecting those who love us, our jobs, or our responsibilities. There are still others of us who choose to spend our time buried in our work---again, even to the point of neglecting relationships, family, etc.

Time has become as valuable as Money in our culture. The saying, “Time is Money,” didn’t become a well-recognized cultural idiom because it sounded cool. It became a well-recognized cultural idiom because there is truth in it, and people know it. We also say things like, “My time is valuable,” or “don’t waste my time.” This kind of cultural valuation of Time affects how Christians view their stewardship of it. If you read the Bible with the intention of uncovering the secrets of how God views Time, you will find numerous passages like this one in 1 Corinthians where Paul basically states that Time, like everything else, belongs to God. Yet, for some reason it becomes the hardest thing for us to give Time back to the One who gave it to us in the first place. And what would it look like for us to give God our time anyway? Most Christians equate the stewardship of time with church work. There’s nothing wrong with that, to be honest. It’s the easiest place to go when we are looking for ways to give some of our valuable time, so why not?
It's true that Christians have developed an extremely selfish way of viewing time, and because the Church is made up of Christians, that selfishness has permeated the Church itself.   As a result, the Existing Church has come to resemble every other place in our society, and lifts up the same selfish concepts of time.  I have served four different churches over the past 11 years, and each one of them had more than their fair share of committees, boards, task forces... and every other name that you can think of for a group of people who schedule long, important meetings to accomplish long, important tasks.  Further, these committees typically were made up of people who served on multiple committees, all of which met at least once a month.  The average meeting time for each of these groups was at least two hours if not more.  One church that I served in Chicago had 39 separate committees all meeting at different times throughout the month.  We were so busy there that we had to hire a staff member (with a fairly hefty salary) just to keep the schedule straight.  

The Existing Church has forsaken its teaching on Sabbath-keeping and the holiness of Time.  Instead it has come to embrace teachings that enumerate all of the steps you need to take in order to be a better follower of Jesus.  Church leaders are told that their church will never be successful unless they are able to develop a purpose for their congregation through a series of workshops and training sessions---all of which have to be scheduled during the evening or on the weekends, by the way.   The Existing Church favors hours-long meetings to formulate a mission statement, but spends scant moments on exhorting Christians to trust God with their time and to rest.  

I know how this is beginning to sound---like a total cliche, right?  Here I am, the pastor of a busy congregation, railing against the constant stream of meetings in my church that seem to have taken the place of actual action.   Okay, you got me on that one.   I pretty much hate meetings, and I am constantly trying to reduce the amount of committees my church wants to form, not increase them.  There is something more important at stake here, though.  The foundation upon which so many Existing Churches are building their understanding of Time is one that is constructed with the improper assumption that Time belongs to us, and not to God. 
The Existing Church wears its busy-ness like a badge of honor.   It publishes it in its weekly bulletins, monthly newsletters and posts it on the walls of its Fellowship Hall.  And it is  constantly calling for volunteers to tithe their time to keep the busy-ness flowing.  
   Now before we go any further, I need to point out that I am not completely cynical.  I am well aware that much of the busy-ness of the Existing Church is busy-ness that results in real, kingdom-building activity.  My critique in this case is not of the content of the busy-ness of the Existing Church---although it probably could stand some critique---but of the way in which busy-ness itself is becoming the goal, not kingdom building.   
What if we came to understand that our stewardship of Time is a bit deeper than volunteering at a church soup kitchen, or teaching a Sunday school class for an hour a week? What if we actually learned how to give God a gift of our time with the belief and the trust that what God would do with it would actually heal our very souls? What if--and this is the really challenging part---what if the stewardship of our time meant that we really and truly observed the Sabbath?

I believe that the way of the emerging church in this regard is going to be found through an understanding of what it means to live a Sabbath lifestyle.  When we finally begin to grasp that Sabbath keeping is more than just an observance of a day of rest, "we will come to it," in the words of Maya Angelou---"it" being the kind of inner and outer peace that can only come from God.   
The word Sabbath comes from both Greek and Hebrew words--the Hebrew word came first and the Greek word sort of copied it. Either way it means “restfulness.” Jewish rabbinical texts are full of scriptural interpretations about keeping the Sabbath. In Exodus 20, keeping the Sabbath is introduced as the 4th commandment, and its the longest one of the ten. God had a lot to say about being restful.
I think that Sabbath-keeping--true Sabbath-keeping--is at the heart of the stewardship of our time. As I mentioned, keeping the Sabbath is one of the 10 Commandments. “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” is the way it’s worded, actually. I can’t make things holy no matter how hard I try.  It is God who makes things sacred, and God's interpretation of what is sacred and what is profane is beyond my comprehension.  
Now this is my interpretation of the whole thing, but pretty much the only way for “The Sabbath”--the day commemorating how God “rested”---to be made holy is for us to give it to God. In Exodus chapter 20, God tells the ancient Hebrew people, “Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don’t do any work...” Now this might seem like a pretty easy thing to do---to give one day a week to complete and utter rest. But when every day is a fight for survival, when every day is a day spent trying to maintain a basic level of sustenance---giving a day to complete rest is sort of...foolish. At the very least it takes an unbelievable amount of trust that God is going to provide, protect and sustain. For ancient Middle Easterners this was a radical notion.
By the way, in the Genesis poem where it states that God “rested” on the seventh day... Yeah, it’s sort of God’s way of teaching or leading by example. I believe in an infinite and all-powerful God. Resting isn’t something that God really needs to do on a regular basis. God doesn’t get tired from creating things or from holding the universe together. It’s sort of what God does. God rested because God knew that we wouldn’t really do it right by ourselves. God rested because we need to know that it’s okay to stop once in a while and take stock of things, our bodies, our minds, our spirits. God rested because God wants us to do the same. In Exodus it reads, “God blessed the Sabbath day, he set it apart...” Funny thing, too...there weren’t a whole lot of rules and regulations attached to Sabbath-keeping--at least at first. That came later when people decided that they had more control of time than God.
I was reading from 1st Corinthians, a letter contained in the New Testament of the Bible, and I came across this strange series of verses where the Apostle Paul (the guy writing the letter) tells the people he’s writing to, “What I mean brothers and sisters is that the time is short. From now on those who are married should live as if they were not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”
I think I speak for all of us when I ask, “Huh?” I sort of got hung up on the first line--the one where Paul tells married people to act as though they are not. I’m guessing that everyone does. Did he really mean that? Paul did seemed to prefer it if people remained unmarried and dedicated to doing nothing but breathing and spreading the Gospel. In fact, he goes on in his letter to say, “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs---how he can please the Lord.” What’s left unsaid there is something like, “...instead of worrying about how to please his wife...” Groovy, I guess. But did he really mean that?
 I believe that this passage wasn't about being married or not being married it was about Time, and how it was running out. And because, according to Paul, Time was running out---everything needed to change. Nothing that humans thought of as important or valuable or necessary was any of those things in light of the end of the world as Paul knew it. “For this world,” he says ominously, “in its present form is passing away.” Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” translates the passage like this, “I do want to point out, friends, that time is of the essence. There is no time to waste, so don’t complicate your lives unnecessarily. Keep it simple---in marriage, grief, joy, whatever. Even in ordinary things---your daily routines of shopping, and so on. Deal as sparingly as possible with the things the world thrusts on you. This world as you see it is on its way out.” I like this translation---even though it softens the language of Paul’s rhetoric a bit.
 So Paul says that Time is running out on the present world, and then asks in his round-a-bout and totally confusing way, “Since the world as we know it is going to end...what’s really important to you? Sex? Relationships? Being happy? Money? A Career? What?”
Here's the big, fat truth in the passage.  Paul understood that Time did not belong to him or anyone else for that matter. It belonged to God, who is sort of beyond Time. And since Time belongs to no one but God, Paul suggests, we should not be slaves to it especially in light of what he believed was the imminent return of Jesus. It is true that Paul was not exactly right about the timing of Jesus’ return, but even getting the timing wrong speaks right into his essential point: We are not in control of Time or anything else for that matter, so we need to stop living as if we are. This was true in Paul’s day, and it continues to be true in ours.
Jesus had some interesting things to say about the Sabbath. Once he and his disciples were walking through a grain field on the Sabbath and they got hungry. The disciples started “gleaning” or pulling ripe grain off of the stalks, which was not an uncommon thing for people to do. It wasn’t stealing, it was an acceptable form of labor---especially if you were poor and needed some food. It could be that they knew the owner of the field, or had permission...who knows? What we do know is that some of the more religious folk in the area that always seemed interested in what Jesus was doing were incensed that he had allowed his disciples to break one of the laws of the Sabbath. 
The truth is, by this point in Hebrew history, there were so many religious laws affixed to the Sabbath that it was almost impossible to keep it. In fact, it was more work to keep than not to keep the Sabbath, and Jesus pointed this out to the religious leaders when they confronted him. First, he told them a story from I Samuel where David and his men were on the run and starving. They came to the tabernacle and the priest gave them some of the consecrated bread to eat. His point was---”people are more important than the superficial rules and regulations that you’ve constructed.” He then goes on to say, “The Sabbath was created for humankind and not the other way around----you don’t have to be a slave to the Sabbath. God made it for you.” The poor Pharisees had become so consumed with not breaking the Sabbath rules, they lost track of what the day was actually for in the first place.

We’re no better at Sabbath-keeping than the Pharisees, however. It takes an incredible act of trust for us to just let go of our time, to just stop whatever it is that we are doing that has become more important than simply resting as God rested. We push our bodies and our minds to the breaking point and then expect a couple of weeks of vacation to do the trick. 
What we need is a new way of viewing how time works for us rather than against us. It's significant that Jesus demonstrated over and over again that he was more concerned with people and their needs than with religious structures. Stewardship of our time is more than volunteering for a few hours a week at our local church. It’s more than scheduling extended vacations to catch up on rest and find some inner peace. It’s more than observing rules about what we aren’t allowed to do on Sunday. It’s about being able to hand over all of our time to God and know that God holds us in the palm of his hand. When we are secure in the knowledge that we are no longer in charge of our time, than we are free to use it without a shred of self-interest. It becomes holy even as God our God is holy.

I am constantly looking for emerging moments in the life of my existing church.  It's not too hard to find them, believe it or not... 

On Monday mornings there is a lady who quietly comes into the sanctuary and cleans it.  She doesn't say much to anyone.  She just cleans the pews, replenishes the prayer request cards and the visitor pads, picks up the trash and straightens everything.  No one other than the church staff knows that she does this.  It generally takes her all morning to do it.
On Tuesday afternoons and evenings a small group of people get the church bus and drive around  picking up at-risk children from some of the worst neighborhoods in our community.  One team cooks dinner, another team plays with the kids, another teaches them a lesson and does crafts with them.  For many of these kids it is the only time of the week when they get a good meal and have an adult share with them that they are loved.  
Wednesday evenings are busy around my church with bell choir practices, Bible studies and a host of other scheduled activities.  One of our nursery workers begins her Wednesday by driving the church bus to pick up children from local schools.  She returns to the church and gathers a group of 10-12 children for Bible study, snacks and crafts.  No one asks her to do this.  It's not advertised.  It's not printed in the bulletin or in the church newsletter.  She just does it.
Thursdays there is a small group of ladies who tutor anywhere from 10-15 students from our local elementary school.  These students would almost assuredly be failing if it were not for these women donating their time each week.  
On Friday morning an older couple from my congregation arrives at the church office to fold the bulletins for Sunday morning.  They do it every week.  The man has back problems and has a hard time walking upright, and generally is pain the entire time.  Still, they arrive every Friday to serve.  It takes them a while, especially when we have inserts or additional information that needs to be added.  
Some Saturdays I arrive in the morning to work on my sermon.  More often than not I will find people here weeding, planting flowers, picking snails out of the flower beds or cleaning.  No one tells them to do this.  It's not a church work day.  They feel compelled to come and to quietly give their time back to God even when no one is there to see them or applaud their efforts.  

The spirit of the emerging church can be found in  these quiet moments of stewardship. They give us a glimpse of what the Church could be if we gave up our need to simply be busy and began to be led by the Spirit of Christ to be good stewards of all that we have been given---even our time.   An emerging theology of Sabbath-keeping begins with the knowledge that every moment has the potential to be a sacrament, and how we spend them can be an act of worship.

Comments

  1. Recently my church had it's traditional Youth & Families Kickoff Lunch. It was, as usual, a big "to do" affair as kids whined and parents griped and I sat their, happily eating my fried chicken, but when it came time to thank all the volunteers for their efforts, I blushed and didn't really want to be recognized. I've only met a handful of the parents of the kids I teach, "my kids" as I term them, and I prefer it that way. The way I see it is that I can't give money to the Church, because I'm in college, don't have a job, and at times wonder if I'm going to be able to afford rent in the city this summer. I tithe my time because it's something I know I can give.

    Just my thoughts

    ReplyDelete

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