When I was in 2nd grade, I went for a while with my Friend Suzanne to her Presbyterian Sunday School. That year the class was studying the commandments, (we were awarded a scroll if we memorized all 10!) I was a little put off by the commandment to keep the Sabbath. I was raised in a solidly Humanist UU church, and was suspicious of anything we were supposed to do because God commanded it. It was a time when Pennsylvania’s blue laws kept stores closed on Sunday, and this seemed inconvenient and silly to me.
Then I got a job. It only took one Memorial Day shift, sitting in an empty restaurant while my family went to a picnic, mentally adding up the $1.67 an hour I would make while the tables sat empty to make me realize that I would gladly eat at home a couple of days a year so that waiters and waitresses could have a day with their families. When that national department store chain advertises that it will be open on Thanksgiving Day, I don’t feel grateful that I get some extra time to shop; I feel sympathy for all the staff who will be required to work instead of taking time with their community.
But this is not the message we get from our culture. You are almost never going to hear your boss or client say; your life has become too focused on doing, go rest and renew yourself. It is easy for busy-ness to fill up every nook and cranny of our lives if we don’t carve out time for rest and renewal. So it is time to ask ourselves- do we believe that rest has value? Do we believe that our quality of not only our own lives, but of our society improves if we take at least one day a week for renewal and reflection?
We live in a culture that values profit and productivity very highly so to answer those values in their own terms I offer you some wisdom I learned during a Franklin Covey time-management seminar. It turns out that leaving one’s desk for lunch increases productivity for the afternoon. They also claimed that productivity drops off at the end of an 8 hour day. And I believe it. We can rest knowing that time away from work increases the quality of our work, but that also misses an essential point, because I believe there is more to leading a full and balanced life than work. Things like healing, connecting, learning, reflecting are higher functions on Maslov’s hierarchy of needs. They come long after eating, drinking, and running from tigers. But these are the things that turn surviving into living. Robert Reich, form secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, believes that one of the 3 fundamental principles of our democracy is that people have the right to develop themselves. William Ellery Channing, one of our Unitarian forefathers also held that self development was a basic human right. It is part of our liberal religious heritage to believe that we are called to grow, learn and become our best selves.
So I try to set time aside bringing balance to my life, but it takes a conscious effort. It’s hard to patiently wage a Pokemon battle with my son when the energy of busy-ness is still driving me like an inertial force. That’s why this morning I want to turn to the wisdom of the World’s religions, the 3rd source of our UU Tradition, to help us find our own way to create space for stillness and renewal in our lives.
The famous commandment which guides the Jewish Shabbat tradition is found in Exodus and says: "9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns." So conservative and orthodox Jews set aside the time from just before Sundown on Friday night until just after sundown on Saturday evening. They set aside that time for rest and for “Sacred Assembly.” This is a time where you not only don’t go into the office, but refrain from "all and any kind of creative 'generative' endeavor, changes to the environment or any object" because on the 7th day God refrained from God’s creative work. There’s a list of 39 such activities, like writing, plowing, building, sewing, or kindling a fire, I think it’s interesting despite all those prohibitions, the Sabbath is also a feast day, a day of celebration.
Terry Goldstein, who wrote the first of this morning’s readings, made a choice to observe the Sabbath, and has built her life around that. And I wonder, would you believe me if I told you that your religion offers this commandment in the same spirit? As a religious and observant Unitarian Universalist, you have the same authority to take time to reconnect with others, with yourself, with the earth (and for the theists, God as well). Could I give you the courage to say to your boss “as part of my religious observance, I will no longer be calling in to check messages or e-mail one day a week. I will not be available for meetings or overtime on that one day.”
A few years back when my Junior High class was studying Islam [through the neighboring faith curriculum], they had a chance to speak with a Muslim man and ask some questions about his life and faith. The students and teachers were all struck by the fact that this observant Muslim prayed 5 times a day, every day. One of our bright children asked “What if your boss didn’t let you stop work to pray” and the guest responded “I would have to find a new job.” This man believes that his religion requires him to take time every single day to pray, to reconnect if you will. He takes this assumption as a basic given in his life, and shapes the rest of his life from there.
Not long ago I was reading Nadine Gordimer’s novel “The pickup” and was struck by the religious observance of the mother. When she is in prayer, the household knows not to disturb her. It strikes the protagonist as it struck me- those times of prayer were probably the only moments of quiet in the life of a mother of several children. 5 times a day she could count few moments of quite reflection, for that which was most holy to her. No one would tell her she was being a bad mother, but a good Muslim.
If we Unitarian Universalists had the courage to set time aside, how would we use it? Shopping and mowing the lawn are definitely not in the spirit of these religious practices.
I consider the practice described in this morning’s reading by Tich Nhaht Hahn. He doesn’t mention it, but it seems to harmonize with a Buddhist observance called Uposatha which has been observed since Gautama Buddha's time (500 BC), and is still being kept today in Theravada Buddhist countries. It occurs every seven or eight days, in accordance with the four phases of the moon. Buddha taught that Uposatha is for "the cleansing of the mind", resulting in inner calm and joy.
Hanh writes “you might do household work such as washing dishes, dusting and wiping off the tables, scrubbing the kitchen floor, arranging books on their shelves. Whatever the tasks, do them slowly and with ease, in mindfulness. Don't do any task in order to get it over with. Resolve to do each job in a relaxed way, with all your attention. Enjoy and be one with your work. Without this, the day of mindfulness will be of no value at all. The feeling that any task is a nuisance will soon disappear if it is done in mindfulness.” For Hahn, it is not so important WHAT we do on a day of mindfulness, but that whatever we do it, we bring our attention, bring our whole self into that very moment.
Over the past few years I have tried to find a Sabbath practice for myself. For ministers, Sundays are specifically NOT a day off, and Saturdays inevitably involve some final editing of sermons or memorizing stories. So when Nick was just a small child I took Fridays as my day off. We called it “special Ma Nick Day” because while his father was still at work, I would have a couple of hours of quiet alone time in the morning, then I would pick Nick up from preschool at around noon and we’d head off on some adventure. For a while we were in the habit of stopping at a coffee shop for mini-scones and milk, then driving over to the library that had a wonderful children’s section, and about an acre of gently rolling hills out back past the bronze statues of characters from “the wind in the willows.” I tried to avoid e-mail and business calls all day, even though this often meant people were quite exasperated with me when I tried to get caught up on Saturday.
Now that Nick is in Elementary School, I have to re-think how I want to set time aside. I thought at first I would make Monday a Sabbath, which is what most ministers do, but because I really need some quiet time alone to write a sermon, I just can’t give up that Monday writing. I’ve decided instead to try to really focus on that time from 2:30 when I pick Nick up at the Bus stop and dinner time as a time to turn off the computer, to help Nick with his homework and find a way for us to connect. We still enjoy a trip to the library together, and now that he’s older we have found new things to do. It’s working pretty well so far these first couple weeks of school. It provides an important balance to all those times I regretfully have to say to my son “not now honey, wait until I finish this e-mail.”
Then a couple of weeks ago my husband was out of town, and Nick and I were home together with no car and some gloomy fall weather. In my search for a Unitarian Universalist Sabbath I decided it was time to apply a piece of wisdom I picked up at this year’s general assembly of UUs, which had come to me in the lyrics of a song by Peter Mayer, the one who wrote that beautiful song “Blue Boat home” in the teal hymnal. As he sang this song the light of new wisdom dawned:
You can sleep till afternoon
Make some chocolate chip pancakes
Wake up with Einstein’s hairdo
And let it stay that way all day
You can be an unclean slob
Skip the shower, skip the shave
As if you don’t have a job
Not even a resume
On Jama Day…
Now I had always felt a little pretentious saying to friends or co-workers “I can’t do that today, I’m observing the Sabbath” Because UUs don’t have a specific Sabbath tradition, and I felt like maybe I was culturally appropriating a neighbor’s traditions. But Jama Day I knew in my heart was a holiday I could observe. Not every week, mind you, but maybe a couple of times a year:
Read a book by Dr. Seuss
Play canasta, play ping pong
Make a list of jobs to do
Then do none of them at all
I want to tell your our jama day was awesome, even though we did put our jeans on and walk to the park when the sun came out. And when my friend called to see if I wanted to come help can some tomatoes, I said without any fear of pretension or cultural appropriation, “I promised Nick we would have Jama Day” The friend completely understood.
Work, whether paid or unpaid, is important. Each dish we wash, each time we diaper a child, we help create this world we share. But as the Judeo-Christian creation story models, after 6 days of creating, comes a time of rest. This is part of what it means to live a balanced life: work and rest, action and reflection. Whether we follow the Sabbath laws in Exodus and Leviticus, or take time each day for meditation or prayer, Whether we set aside time for mindfulness, or create something unique in keeping with our own natural rhythms for health and balance, what is important is that such a balance is a part of our lives. As the great poet Wendell Berry writes:
And Sabbath live together in one place.
Though mortal, incomplete, that harmony
Is our one possibility of peace."