The Wisdom of Sabbath
Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Sabbath the “bride of heaven” in his inspiring little book, “The Sabbath.” Heschel offered a necessary respite for me as I was struggling to respond to the devastating critique of one Marxist author who suggested that capitalism would always run out of time and space. The problem with his critique was that I knew he was right.
Kelly, my wife, and I had often discussed our frustration with the non-stop inclination to tear up land with yet another shopping complex while many shopping centers sat empty on dead concrete land. When I look at the continuous drive to develop yet another shopping center, yet another subdivision, yet another giant church building, I sometimes feel sick at what appears to be a total disregard for the wonder of the world around us.
Combine our insatiable need to consume more and more space with our non-stop schedules and the critique about running out of time and space seems accurate. Our inability to slow down makes me think of Randy Stonehill’s indicting song, “Keep Me Running.”
Keep me runnin’ keep me movin’ keep me always on the go
Keep me makin’ sure my footprints never show
Keep me runnin’ keep me movin’ keep me numb from head to toe
Keep me hiding where my past will never go
In the late 1980s, I served at a church where we were running and running and running. We worked seven days a week and didn’t take vacations. We were on a mission to win the world, but within four years our relentless drive resulted in a church that fell apart with a total a 42 divorces.
In 91, Kelly and I walked out of organized church and decided never to return. I went back to school with plans to leave ministry and pursue a life in film-making. But in the midst of my program, the Lord renewed a sense of calling to ministry, and I changed the focus of my studies to relationships and rest. I had a vision to eventually develop a retreat ministry to teach and model a life of rest and relationship.
Jump ahead to the late 90s, and I’m reading Heschel’s book, “The Sabbath.” In this treasure, I began to capture an image of how the Biblical pattern resists our consumptive use of time and space and offers a clearer creational vision of rhythm. Heschel describes the coming of Sabbath this way:
When all work I do is brought to a standstill, then candles are lit. Just as creation began with a word, “Let there be light!” So does the celebration of creation being with the kindling of lights. It is the woman who ushers in the joy and sets up the most exquisite symbol; light, to dominate the atmosphere of the home.
And the world becomes a place of rest. An hour arrives like a guide, and raises our minds above the accustomed thoughts. People assemble to welcome the wonder of the seventh day, while the Sabbath sends out its presence over the fields, into our homes, into our hearts. It is a moment of resurrection of the dormant spirit in our souls. (p. 66)
A thought has blown the market places away. There is a song in the wind and joy in the trees. The Sabbath arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night: eternity utters a day. Where are the words that could compete with such might? (p. 67)
Zion is in ruins, Jerusalem lies in dust. All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth. (p. 68)
In Heschel’s description of Sabbath, I hear a song of God’s grace and love sweeping over all and in all. This picture of beauty, of wonder, of harmony offers a starting place for me to consider a few thoughts on how I’ve begun to understand Sabbath in light of the rhythms of Scripture.
In the movie “August Rush,” we see a glimpse of this harmony imaged as a song that pulses through all creation. This song permeates the world that God has created and the world that man has created. There are several scenes where the song is connecting characters and places together.
In the beginning of the film, we see a young boy conducting a wheat field into a symphony of joy and dance. The same image is repeated later in the city when the same boy begins to conduct the sounds of the city into a song. But his beautiful music suddenly collapses. After a glimpse of harmony, he descends into cacophony of discordant city noises out of harmony.
This makes me think of the experiments in dissonance by John Coltrane in songs like “Sun Ship.” While the music is still connected, it is connected on such an abstracted level that only a few people could honestly say the music is pleasing. Coltrane captures the chaotic energy of the age in his. There may still be a center but we feel as though we are spinning on an carousel that has lost it’s bearings.
Into the midst such chaotic dissonance, the Sabbath speaks God’s word of rest, peace, renewal and refreshment. The harmonic beauty of the Sabbath cannot be fully appreciated outside the context of the Biblical story of creation and redemption. We read and rehearse again and again the goodness of God in the midst of our tear-stained world.
Image by Robert Couse-Baker (used via Creative Commons Permission).