Sunday, April 24, 2011

Significance of Sabbath

Currently, I'm reading an outstanding and insightful book by Norman Wirzba called, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight. Here are some lengthy, but key, passages which describe the meaning and purposes of "sabbath" in a way that is becoming more foreign to Western thought, while remaining essential to the faith traditions of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

Regarding the deep purpose of "sabbath" Wirzba explains this way:

Quoting from a midrash (interpretive elaboration of Torah), the medieval rabbi Rashi claimed that after the six days of divine work creation was not yet complete. What it lacked, and thus what remained to be created, was menuha, the rest, tranquility, serenity, and peace of God. In the biblically informed mind, menuha suggests the sort of happiness and harmony that come from things being as they ought to be; we hear in menuha resonances with the deep word shalom. It is this capacity for happiness and delight, rather than humanity, which sits as the crowning achievement of God's creative work. It is as though by creating menuha on the seventh day God gathered up all previous delight and gave it to creation as its indelible stamp. Menuha, not humanity, completes creation. God's rest or shabbat (sabbath), especially when understood within a menuha context, is not simply a cessation from activity but rather the lifting up and celebration of everything.

It's an important point to recognize that it was not God's intent to see the created world apart from the purposes of delighting in it. The secular and cultural sabbath which most people enjoy by having a "day off" from work each week does not capture the meaning of the biblical intent. While it gives us pleasure to have a day "to ourselves" for the enjoyment of recreation, extra sleep, and leisurely activities, it does not go so far as to promote our active participation in the restful, though active, reflection and delight in the created order, nor in the Creator.

This passage from Wirzba is an important elaboration upon the first one noted above:

The creation of menuha is not a divine afterthought. Nor should it be viewed in a passive way, as a mere withdrawal from exertion. God's rest on the seventh day did not amount to a pulling back but rather a deep sympathy, harmony, and celebration with all that was there. In so delighting in the splendor of creation, God invites creatures to bask in the glory of the divine life. In a most important way, therefore, the creation of menuha gave to the whole of creation its ultimate purpose and meaning. Without menuha creation, though beautiful, would be without an all-encompassing, eternal objective which is to participate in the life of God forever. And so what Sabbath menuha does is give us a positive vision in which there is no fear, distrust, or strife. There is rather a celebration of, and a sharing in, God's own experience of delight.

Sabbath, being the climax of creation, is thus the goal toward which all our living should move. It is not merely an interlude within life, but rather its animating heart, suffusing every moment with the potential for joy and peace. It is the interpretive key that helps us understand what all the moments and members of life mean. It gives aim and direction to life so that we know how and where we are to move. Life's fullness or happiness cannot be achieved in the absence of divine delight. It is what God wants for us and for all creation. Abraham Joshua Heschel put this point beautifully when he said, "All our life should be a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the thought and appreciation of what this day may bring to us should be ever present in our minds. For the Sabbath is the counterpoint to living; the melody sustained thoughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God's presence in the world." Insofar as we genuinely experience Sabbath menuha, we catch a glimpse of eternity, a taste of heaven.

So, it is incumbent on people, especially people of faith who regard their lives as a gift from God to Whom we owe our praise and obedience, to reflect upon the progress we are making toward the realization of Sabbath observation in our lives. To aid in our reflection, Wirzba offers this conclusion:

We can now begin to see why Sabbath observance is of the greatest significance and why our refusal to heed it is a great threat. In its practice, what we are finally doing is opening ourselves up to the happiness of God and letting God's intentions for menuha take precedence over our own ways. To refuse the Sabbath is to close the world in upon ourselves, by making it yield to our (often self-serving) desires and designs, and to cut ourselves off from God's presence and purpose. In our arrogant fantasies of dominating the whole creation, we forestall life and precipitate death. To forget or deny Sabbath is thus to withhold our lives from their most authentic purposes in God. It is to claim that our worrisome ways are better or count more than the intentions of God. It is to put ourselves at the center of creation -- the very definition of sinfulness -- rather than God's own delight.

In closing, these thoughts from Wirzba are entirely consistent with, and illustrative of, Question 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Question 1: What is the chief end of man?

Answer: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

The Sabbath is given to humankind for the purpose of focusing on a single day each week upon our delight in God, his creation, and in the life to come from which the Sabbath is a reflection. It is the light of promise which we see on a night's distant horizon even when lost at sea, the olive branch from the foot of Noah's dove after days of incarcerating loneliness and isolation from his creation, the burning bush and cloud by day when we wander aimlessly among the giants of fear and intimidation.

Without it, we are bound to the same old patterns of creating our own way, with all its missteps, betrayals, heartaches, and failures. Observation of the Sabbath, one day in seven, is the formula by which God brings about our repentance, our confession, and ultimately our joy.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Manna Economy, the Essential Component of Faithfulness

And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, "Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.

Then the LORD said to Moses,
"Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not...."
So Moses and Aaron said to the people..."At evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, for he has heard your grumbling against the LORD. For what are we, that you grumble against us?"

It is not coincidental that in the model prayer of Jesus he uttered the words, "Give us this day our daily bread." In a day when "more is better", greed is "wise accumulation of resources", and gluttony is merely a health condition (obesity), the point of the manna story and the model prayer of Jesus is completely lost.

In the wilderness, Israel confused grace with comfort, and so do most people. In the discomfort of the wilderness conditions Egyptian slavery became preferable to living in the wilderness not knowing where or when they would have their next meal. Satisfying their hunger and knowing daily what to expect from their Egyptian taskmasters in the way of labor and cruelty became preferable to freedom.

Truly, ambivalence about the future has this effect on people. Chaining ourselves to our present masters prevents us from living in the hope of God's providential care. Grace is out of our reach if we do not act on the provision of faith which God gives.

The manna of the wilderness was not just about feeding the people; it was about how to walk in faith within the rules and limitations of God's design.

This "manna economy" is what Jesus's model prayer alludes to, asking God only to give us what we need to live daily, trusting that tomorrow, God will be listening again...and providing.

Needless to say, American culture knows nothing about the "manna economy." Instead, Christians and non-believers alike relish in the bounty of their production, ofttimes even at the expense of natural resources, attributing their "success" to the blessing of God. How contrary this is to the grace of God!

If Christians became more acquainted with walking in the faith set forth in the "manna economy" it might very well produce a grumbling sound, the likes of which exceeding the complaints of Israel in the wilderness. The comforts of slavery are preferable to not knowing what tomorrow might bring.

Confusing comfort with grace, and discomfort with curse, is a dangerous condition which engulfs American Christianity. In the process, while numbers grow and grow in churches which espouse this mentality, faith is becoming ever and ever an endangered virtue of the Christian life.