Reclaiming the Sabbath

By Jane Carol Redmont

A colleague and I met for lunch recently to discuss diocesan business and enjoy conversation with each other. The meeting took weeks to schedule. As we settled into our meal, the topic shifted to Saturday all-day meetings, attendance at evening and weekend programs, and the time crunch in the lives of church members.

The church, we agreed, was one of the culprits.

My colleague is a parish priest. I teach in a small college and do pastoral work “on the side” as well as at my job. Both of us are involved in leadership at the diocesan level. We both have families we love, friends with whom we try to carve out time, a commitment to prayer. She lives with her husband. I live with a cat equally dedicated to sleep and play.

A little over a year ago, a class of mine read The Sabbath, the classic work by Abraham Joshua Heschel. We studied the Jewish meaning and context of Shabbat and made note of the practices associated with it: a regular weekly rhythm of rest, time for reconnecting with the sacred, festive meals with loved ones, the nurturing of community life, study of holy wisdom and sacred texts, attention to beauty and sensuality, honoring intimacy. I suggested to the students (none of them Jewish) that they try to observe some form of Sabbath time (even one more brief than the traditional 25 hours) and keep a journal about their experience. When the students reported back, many had been unable to find time even for a Sabbath afternoon.

The loss of Sabbath time in our culture is not news. Contemplative spaces are increasingly scarce. The speed of life in the U.S. has been increasing for decades. Cell phones, the internet, and other electronic realities have added to this, although the internet, as this Café attests, can also support the contemplative life. Labor policies and practices have as much to do with our time bind as e-mail and the 24-hour news cycle.

In both the corporate and the nonprofit world, individuals are doing the work that two or three people were doing ten or twenty years ago. Work days and weeks are longer. Arlie Russell Hochschild documented over a decade ago the overlap and blurring of household time and job time. This transformation was taking place long before the World Wide Web threaded its way into our lives. Alone among industrialized nations and unlike more than 130 countries worldwide, the United States has no guaranteed paid holidays mandated by law. Low-wage jobs keep workers under the poverty level and sap their energy, as Barbara Ehrenreich has eloquently reported and David Shipler subsequently noted. The more privileged among us are not exempt from the time crunch. John de Graaf, coordinator of the U.S./Canada Take Back Your Time initiative, has pointed to the yoked phenomena of overwork and “time poverty.”

Is it any wonder we have trouble with attendance at Saturday workshops?

Of course there are other reasons. Sometimes a household member is sick. Sometimes church is a lower priority for people than their children’s soccer games or the NBA playoffs. Sometimes we design our programs poorly. Sometimes our publicity is inadequate. Sometimes the weekday evening or weekend day on which a church program or meeting takes place is the only one on which people can spend time with their families.

My point, though, is the church’s responsibility in the struggle for Sabbath. We contribute to the overscheduling of the culture.

We are between a rock and a hard place: we want our churches to nourish their members, to challenge and educate them, to provide spaces for prayer and opportunities for service and the building of community.

All of this takes time.

To be in the world but not of it has been a challenge for Christian churches since the beginning. For some, being countercultural means not waging war. For others, it means offering a witness on how we live our sexuality. For many, it means both. Both witnesses are based on our discernment of the path to which Christ calls us, but also on an assessment of the signs of the times in the society around us.

On the matter of time, what does it mean for us to be countercultural?

One of the greatest challenges to us as church is to go against the culture’s use of time as a commodity, its business model of program evaluation, and its focus on production and consumption. God loves us. God saves us and makes us whole. God rests on the seventh day. If we decide to embody this as church, what will the shape of our time look like? How will we operate differently from the culture around us?

I am not about to cancel the work of the diocesan anti-racism committee which I chair. I do wonder whether, in addition to an anti-racism audit, we in the churches also need a “Sabbath audit.” The “audit” language is, of course, hardly countercultural. But it helps make my point.

My intuition is that in addressing the problem of overscheduling and the struggle for Sabbath, we will get to the root of our vocation in the world as surely as we do when we address an issue of justice. The lack of time for rest and contemplation is, in fact, a matter of justice – among other things. Protecting Sabbath time may remind us that contemplation and action for justice are neither opposed to one another nor mutually exclusive. Each withers in the other’s absence. Brother Roger, founding prior of the Taizé community, knew this when he spoke of lutte et contemplation, struggle and contemplation, in one breath.

I have no easy response to the Sabbath struggle and the overscheduling of churches. I have only an assessment, some intuitions, and some questions. I also know that the solutions, like the problem, are likely to be systemic and economic as much as “spiritual.”

I also have – it would be more fitting to say “we also have” – the blessed rhythms of the liturgical year, the wisdom and resources of monastic orders, and lessons from sisters and brothers of other traditions, from the Jewish Sabbath to Zen mindfulness practice.

Writers in the Christian tradition have also reflected on the Sabbath from their perspective, with much practical insight. (Dorothy Bass and Tilden Edwards come to mind.)

Read the signs of the times and consider the shape of our time. Think about this one with me. But first, take a deep breath. Take the afternoon off. Then, let’s talk. And listen.

Jane Redmont chairs the Anti-Racism Committee of the Diocese of North Carolina and teaches at Guilford College. A new edition of her book When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life will come out in October. She blogs at Acts of Hope.

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