Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Signals of Oddity: Sabbath, 3

Signals of Oddity 10
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
In our context, it’s odd to acknowledge that there’s more to life than work, making money, building security, consuming, being busy, achieving tasks. Sabbath sets that aside for a time. And Jeff Street is one church where it’s OK to say that Sabbath is about much more than church.

Wendell Berry says it beautifully in his collection of poems entitled, Sabbaths.

I go among trees and sit still. After days of labor,
All my stirring becomes quiet mute in my consternations,
around me like circles on water. I hear my song at last,
My tasks lie in their places and I sing it. As we sing,
where I left them, asleep like cattle... the day turns, the trees move.

These beautiful phrases catch the essence of Sabbath:
My tasks lie in their places.
My stirring becomes quiet.
Mute in my consternations, I hear my song at last and I sing it.

Intentional time like this, free of distractions, really can condition us to notice the color purple on a summer day, to hear the song of the lark, to feel the breeze on the skin, to breathe in the honeysuckle on a warm summer evening, to notice in the eyes of the neighbor a kindred spirit. And to relish each of these as gifts of love and goodness. In a culture that’s all about busyness and achievement and cynical hardheartedness, Sabbath rest is countercultural because it locates value elsewhere and opens us to genuine gratitude.

But we really do have to tune out the static. Turn off the TV and the computer. Give stuff away. Simplify. Stop talking. Reinsert ourselves into natural settings and communal settings that remind us who we are. Reconnect with our finitude, our limits.

Years ago I was in Guatemala on a Witness for Peace delegation in a community of returned refugees who had established a new community –- building houses, planting crops, tending animals, raising kids… One afternoon, while people were bringing food from the gardens to cook, feeding cattle, hanging clothes out to dry, this powerful tropical storm came up. And everything stopped. Here’s what I wrote about it in my journal:

7/11/97—Much of the afternoon was spent waiting through a powerful rainstorm. Here, when it rains like this, daily work simply comes to a halt. People wait. Nature takes over. The earth replenishes itself. The cycles integral to the life of creation are part of daily human existence and there’s no attempt to go on as if creation was something separate. Here, existence conforms to the rhythms of life. I think of modern culture, an intentionally fostered alienation from what is real. When it’s hot, we turn on the AC, when it rains, we can still get in the car, or continue our office work. When it’s dark, we turn on the lights and prolong the day.

Here, each casa is glows briefly with evening candlelight before an early bed time. People eat for today because leftovers can’t be refrigerated. They coexist with the animals that share their space and provide their sustenance. They know how to gather from what the land provides—mangoes and bananas or maize and frijoles. Here, in this rainstorm, creation took over for a while, a reminder of the rhythms into which our lives fit despite our denials and our alienation, our pretensions to separateness.

Huddled together under the roof of the tienda, we’re awed by the power of the rain, the strength of the wind, the grandeur of the thunder and lightning. Little rivers form from all directions, filling the stream with rushing water. Talk gives way to the sound of relentless rain and wind. We sit together, silenced, enveloped, connected, aware, sensing the presence of what is. For a moment there is no past, no future, just now.

Three volcanoes dominate the horizon, arising like phantom silhouettes in the darkening night sky. That night, we sit again, witness to the primeval sight of earth re-creating itself. Picaya rumbles. The mountain erupts with bright flashes of orange. The clouds and ash above take on a soft red glow. A faintly visible flow of lava appears and disappears along the eastern edge of the volcano—a primordial beauty occurring before our eyes.

In the distance, flashes of heat lightning brighten the purple sky. The ground shakes. The orange glow visible again. The earth is alive. These moments are mystical, full of power and energy, exotic, utterly fundamental; inspiring wonder—a beauty that touches the deepest places.

But the pain of this community dwells even deeper. Orange flashes of gunfire from weapons provided by my government, long ago drove them from ancestral lands. Churning memories ready to erupt at any moment, phantom silhouettes looming on a dark emotional horizon.

The children are sick. Babies have pneumonia and diarrhea. Kids have pink-eye and rashes. Latrines are filthy and unsanitary. Chickens and turkeys wander through kitchens searching for scraps— flies gathering on their feces, the same flies exploring the food on our plates. The dogs are starving. Mucous oozes from the eyes of the children.

The government, conforming to IMF requirements, has cut funds for health care … I go to the river to bathe. I need cleansing…

So, this creation narrative suggests that creation is unfinished business. Another reason we need Sabbath: It’s odd for those who have all they need to acknowledge that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity—and therefore, that something is required of us. Sabbath helps us connect with community and the responsibility community calls us to. In our context, this is countercultural.

Something important happens to us at Sabbath rest. As Thomas Kelly says,

“God plucks the world out of our hearts, loosening the chains of attachment, and God hurls the world into our hearts, where we and God together, carry it in infinitely tender love.”

Genesis reminds us that we share responsibility for creation, and that as social beings, we share responsibility for one another. For the child who is sick, whose dog is starving, whose entertainment is the flash of a volcano but whose nightmare is the flash of an American-made gun. In Sabbath time, we reaffirm the inherent worth and essential equality of every human being created “in the image of God.” And we find ourselves saying, “Creation isn’t finished. It has been good to rest. It has been good to reconnect with what is real. Now, we have work to do.” That’s why we’re here.

So that’s the truth. It will make you odd. And it will make you free.


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