“Sabbath…How Rest Can Heal Our World”

Sabbath is a large concept, much larger than a single sermon but I will do my best to give you at the very least an introduction as to why I believe bringing meaningful rest into our lives can repair our world.
Three years ago my family became a household with two parents working outside the home. When I decided I was ready to return to school and launch a second career my husband Craig and two children Madelyn and George all committed to the effort. To say our lives became more complicated, busy and hurried would be an understatement. To make this work our family roles had to change. Now the chores and tasks I can’t juggle on my own are shared by all four of our family members. Not only have the dynamics of our roles and expectations changed but so has our sense of time. We have all grown more acutely aware of how little “down time” exists in our day to day lives, feeling as if we are being pulled in four separate directions, leaving our together time increasingly nonexistent. As such I found myself compelled with the notion of trying to reconnect and recharge. I realized that we all needed to fill that most precious well that we draw from all week long. In my search I learned about Shabbat. Shabbat is the traditional Jewish observance of sacred time. Eureka! Yes, sacred time. Indeed our time is sacred to us.
According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote what I believe is the quintessential book on the Sabbath; God has given humanity two worlds (described as gifts) these are the realm of space and the realm of time. To quote Rabbi Heschel, “We are all infatuated with the splendor of space, with the grandeur of things of space. “Thing” is a category that lies heavy on our minds, tyrannizing all our thoughts. Our imagination tends to mold all concepts in its image. In our daily lives we attend primarily to that which the senses are spelling out for us: to what the eyes perceive, to what the fingers touch. Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space; even God is conceived by most of us as a thing.”
Rabbi Heschel’s insight seems even more relevant sixty years after initially making this statement. In most of our lives we focus on the realm of space, at the expense of the realm of time. All focus then concentrates on gaining power through money, prestige, the material aspects of our society, going far beyond having enough. We sacrifice time to an extent that it becomes the enemy. Soon we are making statements like, “beat the clock”, “time is money”, “time is the enemy” and “a day late and a dollar short”.
As we live our days like a run on sentence, never stopping to breathe or pause for rest, our anxiety increases to the detriment of our spirit, our physical and mental health, our relationships and ultimately the wellbeing of the world. Somewhere we bought into the idea that continually producing and consuming is worth this sacrifice. We may find ourselves in a place where we can’t sit still or be alone with our own thoughts. Some of the ways we tend to try and cope with the growing anxiety is through distractions such as technology, needless consumption and accumulation of material possessions, indulging in behavior to “numb out”, anything to keep us from feeling that anxiety in its full potency. Buddhists illustrate this state of being personified as the “Hungry Ghost.”
In her book Jewish Dharma, Brenda Shoshanna describes the Hungry Ghost as “the part of the person that is driven by greed, anger and delusion always seeking approval and gain…it eats everything offered but does not digest the food or receive pleasure from it. No matter how much it devours the Hungry Ghost is left just as hungry as before…it cannot be fulfilled or satisfied with any of life’s offerings.” Shoshanna goes on to say, “the practice of non-doing and resting on the Sabbath deflates the hungry Ghost, takes the steam out of its endless grasping and drives.”
In Zen Buddhism meditation is the antidote to doing, it is simply being. This also happens to be the road to enlightenment or oneness with God. Historically the Christian Judeo practice of observing of the Sabbath is the antidote to the doing. Rabbi Heschel writes,’ “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.”
These days the truth is that seven days a week most of us consume, we produce and move like ants from place to place. We forget to stop and just “be”. We forget the very reason we “do” throughout the week. We forget the gift, the realm of time, of how to be present and awake to a moment. We need to wake ourselves up from constantly manipulating space because a single moment holds the gift of eternity and we forget that when we neglect to consecrate time, we forget that Now is all we truly have and that all else is distraction and impermanent. Zen Buddhists believe through regular meditation practice the false attachments of the physical world lose their hold making space for us to find our true nature, the divine, the awakening of awareness that eternity resides in a single moment called the present. In the Jewish tradition the Sabbath encourages our awakened presence, finding the joy in sacred ritual of sanctified time that gives deeper meaning to all our doing the rest of the week. It is believed the Sabbath is preparing those who observe for the world to come, a call to what is not transient, the eternal. Buddhist meditation is also sometimes described as a practice in dying. In yoga the ultimate resting pose is savasana or corpse pose. Perhaps it is the fear of death that keeps us scurrying, consuming and trying to beat the clock. Perhaps this is why we avoid being still?
Psychologists are increasingly adapting “mindfulness” into their education and work. Mindfulness is another buzz word for an awakened state of consciousness. Psychologists believe that by employing the practice of meditation the mind becomes less reactionary, less prone to anxiety and depression. People become more aware to their internal environment and their patterns of reacting enabling themselves to change dysfunctional behavior. Mindfulness practitioners express feeling more conscious, alive and free, free to feel emotions, free to engage more fully into one’s life while exercising free will and leaving reactionary behavior behind.
I believe our earth would benefit exponentially from an entire day where very little consumption took place. Imagine if we all went off the electric grid for 24 hours every week. What if all non-emergency fuel burning trips were halted one day a week? How much would our noise, light and air pollution levels drop by unplugging one day a week? What ripple effect would that have on thousands of species, plants and animals with whom we share this earth?
I believe our diplomatic relationships, interpersonal relationships our relationship with our own selves would benefit from one day every week of down shift. No longer would we be so detached from each other or our own selves. We would be less likely to indulge in reactionary acts of disrespect forgetting the inherent worth of all our brothers and sisters. Observing the Sabbath allows time for self-reflection. Our internal compass that guides us through our lives has a chance to recalibrate. Our drives would be less like that of the Hungry Ghost. We would be more attuned with our connection to the natural world.
As a Unitarian Universalist I believe observing sacred time on a regular basis refocuses and strengthens my connection to our Seven Principles, reminding me of my connection to the greater web of life, to the divine and to my own inherent worth and dignity and that of those I encounter every day. Time is truly a gift of universalism available to all who can open up to it.
But how do we do this? How can we as Unitarian Universalists bring sacred time into our life in a meaningful and enduring manner? My advice is to start small, that’s what my family did. After reading Sabbath in the Suburbs, (written by Presbyterian Minister MaryAnn McKibben Dana), my husband Craig and I decided that observing sacred time on a weekly basis was worth a try. We all craved this special time together, unplugged and without the stress of doing. Craig and I craved a deeper connection with our children that felt even more urgent knowing that in a few short years our eldest daughter will be leaving our nest.
So we took the advice from Rev. McKibben Dana’s book and enlisted the kids in defining what our intention and guidelines should be for our Sabbath. The kids were clear on their desire to have a no electronics rule (much to my surprise); we also agreed that our intention was to rest and simply enjoy being together. We named our observance of sacred time Chalice Night. We thought what better expression of refuge, a safe harbor in our busy lives and guiding light than that of our own Unitarian Universalist Chalice.
On Friday evenings around 6pm the four of us power down our electronic devices. We then walk through the house turning off lights. We gather together in our living room where a special chalice (one only used for Chalice Night) is lit. We offer a prayer to open our sacred time. Then for the next three hours there is very little work done and no cleaning (not even the dirty sock on the floor gets picked up). We share a meal, sometimes take- out or something already prepared. After dinner we tend to spread out in the living room in chairs, on the couch and floor with blankets and pillows where we spend the remainder of the evening under the glow of our chalice simply talking. No topic is taboo; judgements and parental lessons take a backseat to just enjoying each other and our time together. For these three hours a week we are four humans musing about God, Nature, and sometimes flatulence. Our discussions cover it all.
As UU’s we are good at action and perhaps a bit lacking on the ritual. Ritual can be a grounding presence when performed with awareness and intention. Ritual can call us back to our true selves, to deeper connection with one another and with God. I submit that a ritual or practice that embraces and honors the sacredness of time would be of benefit to our religious community. Of course the idea that we can suddenly devote an entire 24 hours to rest may not be a commitment we are currently able to make. American society rejects the idea of rest, often portraying it as sloth like and dull. Our economy and capitalist engine thrive on us not resting in such a deep manner. Our commitments are innumerable to our careers, our family, and our community. But I believe this is not an all or nothing proposition. My family has been able to find three hours a week to devote to the practice of embracing sacred time. Perhaps a daily mediation practice would also be a vehicle to observe this gift. Maybe just a Sabbath from the iPhone, from the laundry, from answering that ever present tap on our proverbial shoulder is what is needed.
My Family’s Chalice Nights have become a grounding refuge of sacred time during our week. Although our commitment is only three hours a week it has become a restorative going in and connecting that we all look forward to. It has enabled us to explore the gift of time. It has allowed us to increase our understanding of each other, the importance of family and how we exist in the world throughout the rest of our week. Observing Chalice Night isn’t always easy. There are times when one of us is feeling less than Sabbath ready. But even those difficult Friday nights offer a check in, alerting us that we are more out of balance than perhaps we were aware. Periodically we have to skip a Chalice Night due to some other pressing obligation but we feel that we missed out on something important. Almost as if a beloved member of our family was not with us. I believe for the majority of us time has been forsaken; the gift of time has been replaced by the cultural idolatry of materialism. But objects and things are poor pacifiers that do not nourish our hungry souls. We ache at the hollow inside.
I leave you with this question from Rabbi Heschel;
“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?”
שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם
and Amen

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