Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Students needing this or that have been emailing me asking if I’m around during the summer. Unfortunately the administrative side of my dual titles controls my calendar, so yes, I’m around. But things are definitely quieter with students and many faculty members away; now there isn’t even the buzz of University of Chicago or Lab School students in the neighborhood. The sign outside the Ray School announces the arrival of summer vacation this week for Chicago Public School children. In varied ways for all of us – pastors, teachers, students, even administrators! – Sabbath time is, or should be settling in.
Fifty years ago Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his little book, The Sabbath,
“He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. 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. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.”
There are many reasons for being “yoked to toil,” most prominent among them being poverty. The vast majority of people in the world find Sabbath keeping challenging simply because they must work incessantly, and at another’s whim, simply in order to feed and shelter their families. Thus, the call to Sabbath carries with it a call to justice, of the expectation, for example, that a living wage need not include two jobs on top of housekeeping at home. Yet poverty alone is not the sole hindrance to Sabbath keeping. The Jews who kept Sabbath discipline for centuries in the shtetls of eastern and central Europe and Russia were desperately poor. Yet their Sabbath candles were lit week after week, a joyful and rhythmic counterpoint to lives of labor and heavy burdens.
No, Sabbath eludes us for other reasons as well. Perhaps it is a fundamental distrust, as Heschel suggests, that God can manage without us! Perhaps it is simply our greed, our desire to possess, to own, that drives us to work in order to earn in order to buy. The “fury of acquisitiveness” does lead to the “embezzling of our own lives.” But perhaps, also, it is our fusing together of productivity with worth that makes Sabbath an extravagance we fear we cannot afford. Over the years I have heard far too many pastors wear “busy-ness” as a badge of honor. The lament, “I’m so busy,” usually masks the desperate desire to be seen as worthy – to others and to ourselves.
There’s a fundamental irony to the fact that so many of us who are called to proclaim a Gospel of God’s salvation through grace rather than works, bear witness to lives devoid of Sabbath, to lives yoked to toil masked as doing “the work of the Lord.” Does it make sense that we show everyone how hard we work in order to testify to a love we cannot earn? Should we feel guilty for taking a quiet day of lazy leisure in which little if anything is actually “accomplished?” Or is not doing that a more appropriate cause for guilt?
I worry from time to time these days that I’m not working hard enough. It’s not that I’m goofing off, exactly. Most days are full and many, I trust, productive. But the pace is so different from the consuming schedule I experienced as General Minister and President. Why is that cause for worry rather than simply rejoicing? Is it that I am still, in some ways, “yoked to toil?” Learning Sabbath is not so much obedience as it is taking on a discipline, being attentive to what – and who – matters. It’s about learning my place in the scheme of things – and what place is not mine – and then cherishing my place, enjoying and savoring it. Maybe when I can worry more about too little Sabbath, and less about too little work, I will know I have started to grow up.
Paradoxically, growing up may just mean watching the playground. This week as the children come shrieking out of my nearby elementary school, a long summer stretching out before them, may I remember the sheer joy of Sabbath, of time for being attentive not simply to my work, but to my relationships, my world, myself, and yes, my God. Jesus reminds us that we must receive the Kingdom like a child. Pay attention this week. We might just learn something to avert a lifetime of woe.
John H. Thomas