“There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be.”
He ran the nicest supermarket in town. In a time when most grocery stores were still mom and pop affairs. The long wide aisles of his store, the gleaming glass freezer cases, and endless choices of products made our eyes pop out. He, his wife, son (my friend), and a daughter lived on a beautiful tree-lined street with manicured lawns. He was a member of the country club where he loved to play golf, enthusiastically but not well. He was also an active deacon in his church.
He had everything going for him. Until he told corporate headquarters no.
Their request, to today’s ears, sounds like such a small thing; his refusal, a quaint and quixotic reaction. They just asked him to open the supermarket on Sundays. He said no. Sunday is the Lord’s Day.
I have two confessions to make today, and I’ll make the first one right up front. I never saw his choice as a ditch I would have been willing to die in. I respected my friend’s dad for his integrity and his courage, but I always felt that his cause was unnecessary. I’m not so sure anymore.
This memory came to mind recently reading a column by Margaret Renkl, a writer from Nashville who contributes regularly to The New York Times. The title of her essay was “Remember the Sabbath Day: What if resting, all by itself, is the real act of holiness?”
In her column Margaret tells a story about her great grandmother, who, every Sunday, after returning home from church, went directly to her bedroom. There she sat in her reading chair by the window, her King James Bible open on her lap. One Sunday, Margaret, then a little girl, quietly knocked on the door and asked her great grandmother if she could help her with some needlework she was doing. The reply surprised her, because her great grandmother never refused any request from her.
“Mother Ollie,” Margaret asked at the door, “can you help me with this?”
“Not today, honey. The Lord tells us not to work on the Sabbath.” And, as Margaret observes, looking back, “handwork is, by definition, work.”
I know I am risking my credentials as a card-carrying member of the Calvinist Work Ethic Society, but the question Margaret asks in her subtitle is one of the most compelling I can imagine: What if resting is the real act of holiness. Not to take away “creating” as the defining work of God, but what if God’s resting is meant to draw us into a way of being “in God’s image” to which we have no other access.
In 2012 I found myself sitting in a cozy room talking with a therapist. Several months prior to that visit I had nearly died when blood clots in my leg travelled to my lungs and I became a walking object lesson for my doctors on the subject of how not to live. As my therapist pointed out that afternoon, I didn’t work to live; I lived to work. If I wasn’t speaking at a church, or meeting with potential donors, or participating in a conference, or talking with executives with foundations, I was on campus chairing the strategic planning committee or presiding at faculty meetings. And if I wasn’t doing any of those things, I was on a plane bound somewhere to do something. You get the drift.
I remember one day standing in line at a Starbucks, tapping my foot at the pace of service, looking at my watch, texting on my phone, when an old Tony Bennett song came on the soundtrack, “Are you having any fun?” As I listened to Tony sing, tears welled up in my eyes. I retreated to my car. I went to see my therapist. She was not comforting. She said I already knew what to do, I just wouldn’t do it. I needed to learn to be still.
Something in my brain trembled.
“Be still and know…. “
“Be still and know I am God.”
Nothing great comes into being all at once, said Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher. Insight does not change the unmotivated, said Rabbi Ed Friedman. Change comes slowly, and sometimes painfully. But I realized that I was at a crossroad. And even my precious theology had failed to help.
If there is anyplace we have failed grandly in the Protestant Christian movement it is in not stressing sanctification as much as we do justification.
I’ll explain what I mean. The Protestant movement was fueled by the awareness that we don’t earn our standing with God; it is a gift. Forgiveness is a matter of grace, not works. That’s what justification is about. “The just shall live by faith.” In other words, we trust God to do that which we can’t.
Sanctification, however, is about that long, slow work of grace in our lives, a work in which we participate. It is about becoming the human beings God created us to be. The tools we need are all gifts of grace, but we won’t get any better as humans unless we open the toolbox and get to work.
That’s what we Protestants have not stressed nearly enough. We converted prayer into a twenty-four hour-a-day valet service. We turned Bible Study into a search for proof texts that will demonstrate how good we are, and how bad are people unlike us. And we largely rejected the tool of Sabbath as just plain impractical. We even condemned the work of self-examination as either an indulgence in navel gazing or in legalistic self-condemnation.
Our deep and enduring Christian tradition understood prayer, worship, Bible study and Sabbath to be “means of grace,” meaning that they open us to the quiet work of the Spirit of Christ. But in a cruel twist of irony, we who believed that salvation is by grace through faith, neglected the gracious work of the Spirit within us. The work of stillness, in which we know that God is God, and we aren’t, was sacrificed to an existence of busy-ness and distraction. We exhaust ourselves in much doing, escape from time to time into entertainment and other deadening indulgences, and neglect that balance of creation and rest for which we were designed.
A few weeks after the conversation with my therapist I mentioned above, I reported to her that I was struggling with some guilt. One night, not long after that conversation, I told her, I was at home on my own. I poured myself a large bourbon (or three), took a very good cigar, and went out onto the back deck to listen to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. “That probably wasn’t very good for me,” I said.
“Nonsense,” she said, “That sounds like the healthiest thing you’ve done since we started work together.”
There’s an old saying that God can only save some people by making preachers of them. There’s also a bit of conventional wisdom that holds that some people only become motivated to change when they face death. Here’s what I know. Until I learned to nurture the habit of holy rest, I was walking through my life with my eyes closed. I knew all sorts of clever sayings about setting good priorities, but I still hadn’t learned how to discern what is genuinely most important. My whirlwind of activities had become a distraction so I didn’t have to face myself and learn to let God’s grace be sufficient.
So here’s my second confession: I confess that I don’t have a clue as to how to help anyone else do what I am encouraging us to do today. Life is crowded, complicated and fast-paced. I marvel at the challenges my children and others of their generation face: Rising early to beat the traffic to work, caring for their children, a peck on the lips of a spouse, then working, working, working, and only squeezing in “stolen moments” for life and love. Even leisure hours are seldom leisurely. The same is true for the vast majority of people I know. And I’m not sure how to help, other than to hold up the memory of a sweet obliging that God provided.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.