The Rev. Teri Daily
Recently I was asked what I thought about sabbath, especially as it relates to the summer. Here is my brief answer…
Summer tends to be the time of the year when we slow down and “take it easy”—a sabbath of sorts. I am always intrigued by the concept of sabbath, perhaps because I find it so very difficult to actually practice. I suspect that Israel did as well. We read about the sabbatical year in Leviticus; the farmers were to work the ground for six years, but on the seventh year the ground was to lie fallow. Of course, God would see to it that the land produced enough on the sixth year to make up for the year Israel didn’t work the land. But if I had been Israel, I know the things that would have made their way through my mind: What if there’s a disastrous fire and we lose all that we’ve saved up? What if the wild produce is wiped out by desert-like conditions? (There is, after all, a lot of desert in Israel, right?) What if God loses track of time or, more likely, we lose track of time and the whole schedule for extra production gets messed up? Anyway, you get the point…
It is all too easy to be what some call a functional atheist. A functional atheist doesn’t necessarily proclaim with their mouths that here is no God, just with their actions. A functional atheist may even pray to God on a regular basis and attend church on Sundays; it’s just that when the rubber hits the road, he or she acts as if everything rests on his shoulders alone, as if her own well-being (and maybe that of the whole world) depends only on her. Functional atheists have forgotten deep down that not only is their existence a gift, but so is every second of everyday. They—we—have forgotten that the same grace that brought us into the world also sustains us once we’re here.
This is where sabbath comes in. Sabbath helps us see the life we live and the world around us as a gift—not as something we always have to fight for, earn, make happen, or strong-arm into existence. Sabbath is a chance to stop and, with outstretched hands, simply receive the gifts of God. This doesn’t have to mean we sit and do nothing—we can read or go to the movies or bike with friends or work on crafts or play in flower beds, we can rest in silence or stand in the middle of a rock concert. And although it’s nice to set aside twenty-four hours, sabbath can take place in as little as five minutes. Just as long as we recognize life and the world around us as the gift that it is, and not something we could ever deserve or earn. Just as long as we feel the nearness of God, and not merely the burdens of the world. Just as long as we experience the giftedness that comes with being creatures, and do not mistakenly make ourselves into gods.
There is, however, one part of sabbath that I think does require a certain amount of quiet and time; there are some gifts that we can know only in this way. These are the gifts that we bring into the world with us; it is who we are at our deepest core. We are often all too ready to have our identity defined for us by our culture. But if we turn down the outside voices and listen to our soul, we find out who we are—a child of God with unique characteristics that are not only God’s gifts to us, but also our gifts to the world.
Such experiences of the soul can’t be coerced or rushed. They rarely occur in a crowd; instead, they usually take place in solitude or with a trusted friend who sees us as we truly are (a soul friend). Parker Palmer describes the conditions which have to be present in order for us to know our own soul:
In our culture, we tend to gather information in ways that do not work very well when the source is the human soul: the soul is not responsive to subpoenas or cross-examinations. At best it will stand in the dock only long enough to plead the Fifth Amendment. At worst it will jump bail and never be heard from again. The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.
The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the wildness we seek.
To know our true selves, to know what is ours to bring to the world requires time, space, reflection, and quiet; it requires sabbath.
My wish for all of us this summer is to spend some time with this practice of sabbath—exploring both the gifts of God all around us and the gifts of God within us. In a world that tells us we are what we do or what we earn, let sabbath become an intentional and counter-cultural act of praise, thanksgiving, trust, recognition, and love.
 Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000) 7-8.