Monday, February 11, 2013

The importance of the Sabbath


What I'd like to talk to you about today is the Crown of Creation. Typically, the Crown of Creation has been thought of as human beings. Not only were we created last but we were created in the image of God. Therefore, everything that comes before the creation of human beings was seen as something of a lead-up to that event.

So, if we think of the Creation story as a movie, the typical way of looking at it was that the creation of human beings was the final scene. All the other days of creation were just scenes leading up to that climax. And in our anthropocentric view of the Creation story, sometimes these earlier scenes were thought meaningless by themselves. Their only purpose was to provide an environment in which the grand climax, the Creation of humans, could occur.

Of course, the Creation story has seven days in it, not six, the seventh day being the day that God rested. The Message Bible says:

By the seventh day 
      God had finished his work. 
   On the seventh day 
      he rested from all his work. 
   God blessed the seventh day. 
      He made it a Holy Day 
   Because on that day he rested from his work, 
      all the creating God had done. 

But if we thought about that rest at all, it was a bit like the credits at the end of the movie. Sure, it was part of the movie. We could pay attention to it if we wanted to. But it didn't add anything to the story. If we walked out of the movie theatre at that point, we didn't really miss much.

Jurgen Moltmann, who has a completely different view of the Sabbath and whose work I'll be drawing from a lot in this talk, puts it like this:

The seventh day of the Sabbath was often overlooked. Consequently, God was presented throughout merely as the creative God. The resting God, the celebrating God, the God who rejoices over his creation receded into the background. [1]

Of course, seeing humans as the Crown of Creation, rather than the Sabbath, gives us a completely different view of ourselves, of nature, and of how humans can treat nature. It's led to the kind of thinking where we believe the earth was created solely for humans. It's also led to us treating the earth as though its only purpose was to benefit humankind. While it may not be explicitly stated this way, we have seen and treated the earth as though it belonged to us, not God.   

When we ignored the Sabbath rest at the end of the Creation story, we were focused on a God that was doing something. To be in God's image then therefore meant doing something too. It meant that we saw purpose and meaning in activity, and anything that wasn't useful wasn't seen as all that important. While people may not relate it back to how they view the Creation story, this is still the predominant view today. We tend now to see busyness as important and rest as meaningless. We must be doing something, achieving goals, striving for something.

We must also always be plugged in. I saw an article the other day about a patent by Nokia for a tattoo that vibrates when a person's phone is ringing. Now I'm not sure who this kind of tattoo would appeal to, but the fact that Nokia think there are people who are so scared of missing a call that they want their body to vibrate when it rings, says something about our priorities and our idea of what's important. Not only are there people who don't want to tune out of all the communication technology we now have, but they're almost afraid to. A body that vibrates when a phone rings is not embracing the Sabbath rest that God wants for us.

So if we return to Moltmann again, this is how he views the Sabbath:

It is the Sabbath which manifests the world's identity as Creation, sanctifies it and blesses it.[2]

So the Sabbath isn't the unimportant bit at the end of Creation. The Sabbath is the most important part of Creation. Moltmann says the whole work of Creation (including the Creation of human beings) was performed for the sake of the Sabbath. This is the time when God delights in his Creation. Furthermore, it's the time when Creation simply exists in God's presence and God completes his Creation by being present within it.

While Jesus did say that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, this was in the context of the Pharisees complaining about Jesus and his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. What he was addressing was the way the Pharisees turned the Sabbath into a whole heap of rules that had to be obeyed, regardless of whether they were beneficial or not. Sabbath observance had become more important than human beings. While the Sabbath is meant to benefit the whole of Creation, Sabbath observance must never result in putting rules before the very people, and the Creation, it is meant to benefit. 

But the Sabbath, according to Moltmann, is also a foretaste of what's to come. It's celebrated in anticipation. It points towards a future when Creation and God's revelation will be one. It points towards the redemption of Creation.   

To return to our movie analogy, instead of the Sabbath being the credits at the end of the movie, it's the bit where the good guy triumphs, the bad guy gets stopped and everyone that was in danger gets saved.

Moltmann says the Sabbath commandment was the longest of the ten commandments and therefore the most important. I'll just read the Sabbath commandment now as it is in the Message Bible.

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don't do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day.

One of the interesting things about this commandment is that even the animals have to rest. In Exodus 23:12, it says:

Work for six days and rest the seventh so your ox and donkey may rest and your servant and migrant workers may have time to get their needed rest.

And just before that, in verses 10-11, God says:

Sow your land for six years and gather in its crops, but in the seventh year leave it alone and give it a rest so that your poor may eat from it. What they leave, let the wildlife have. Do the same with your vineyards and olive groves.

So we see then that the Sabbath is not just for humans. Not only the slaves and the foreigners are required to rest, but even the animals get a break. And on the Sabbath year, the land itself rests. The food that it produces goes to the poor and the wildlife. Can you see any of the big corporate farms doing that nowadays? Imagine trying to explain that to their shareholders. To celebrate the Sabbath is not a good way to maximise profit.

The Sabbath then is a time of rest that all Creation enjoys. It is also a time for all of Creation to rejoice in Creation and in God. It is a time to simply be.

So what might it mean for us today if we recovered the importance of the Sabbath?

Firstly, it would mean that we take the time to appreciate nature and God's presence in nature. That we stop seeing nature as something to be used, and start seeing it as having intrinsic value in its own right. That we recognise the beauty of nature, and not just its utilitarian value. And that we take the time to enjoy nature, to simply be in nature, rather than doing something in or to nature.

Because we live in a very busy society, we tend to always be doing something. It's hard to just do nothing. But when we spend time in nature, it seems easier to just stop or slow down. There is a type of peace that we find in nature that can't be found elsewhere. Our focus moves from the 'us' of individuals to the 'we' of every part of Creation. The worries and stresses of a busy life seem to fade away or at least grow less important for a while.  Nature almost seems to be telling us to stop doing and just be.

There is a poem by Wendell Berry that really captures that feeling of the peace that comes when we spend time in nature. Let me read it to you:

The Peace of Wild Things

BY wendell berry 
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I would love to make it compulsory for everyone to spend time in nature at least once a month. I think it's that beneficial. Turn your phone off. Or even better leave it at home. That way, even if you have vibrating tattoo on your body, you won't be interrupted.

Secondly, if we are to recover the importance of the Sabbath we need to ask questions about whether we are letting all of Creation rest and what steps we might take to give Creation more of a rest than we are currently giving it.

Once upon a time, not actually all that long ago, most things were closed on Sundays. Nowadays, most things are open. This first of all has implications for the opportunities humans have to rest. Not only does there need to be people working on Sundays, but it's harder for those of us who aren't working to rest too. When everything is open, it's too easy to go and do something. Shopping has become our Sunday leisure activity. But shopping is the complete opposite of what the Sabbath rest is meant to be. Shopping is not a time to simply be, and let Creation be. Shopping is not a time to rest in God's presence. Shopping is a definitely doing activity.

And this Sunday shopping also makes further demands on Creation. Every purchase we make is a drain on the earth's resources. Even buying locally grown vegetables uses up the earth's resources in some way. And using the earth's resources is not necessarily bad. We need to eat. We need to clothe ourselves. All of these involve using the earth's resources. But the purchases we make often make huge demands on the earth's resources - demands on the earth's resources that are not sustainable. And we never give the earth a break.

Perhaps Sunday ought to be a time when we try to avoid stores and purchases. And sometimes that's easier to say than do. Even though I would love to see stores start closing on Sundays again, because it's good for the earth and good for people, I also know that, in the past, I've sat in front of a bookstore at 9:30 on a Sunday morning, feeling hard done by because it wasn't opening until 10. Yes, I think stores should close on Sundays - except for when I want a book!

Another area we can look at is electricity. Now most of us won't be prepared (and in some cases can't) go a day without using electricity. But what if we just tried to limit it for a day? What if we recognised that the land needs a rest too and made a concerted effort to give it more rest than usual? Could we perhaps make Sundays a day of no TV, no mobile phones and no computers? And honestly this is another area I find difficult No matter how many times I tell myself I am leaving my computer off this Sunday, I usually find a good reason to switch it on. Or a not so good reason - like changing my Facebook status.

I've talked about Sundays here, because that's the traditional day of rest for Christians. But it doesn't have to be a Sunday. And it doesn't have to involve any of the activities I've listed here either. To recover the importance of the Sabbath, we don't need a whole heap of rules. What we do need is a recognition that the Sabbath is important, that it is a time for us to rest with Creation, enjoying God's presence. It is a time for us to rest ourselves and it is a time for us to think about resting the land in some way. The Sabbath is when we switch from doing to simply being. The Sabbath is when we, along with all of Creation, rest in God's presence, sharing God's delight with his Creation.

Now all of this may seem a little boring. And I can imagine saying this to my children and them replying with, 'Right, so Sunday is the day that we can't have any fun.' But the Sabbath is certainly not meant to be about not having fun. We don't just appreciate nature and rest in God's presence, we delight in God's presence and celebrate nature. After seven cycles of the Sabbath years, so after every 49 years - which kind of makes it the Sabbath of the Sabbaths - there was the Year of Jubilee. That doesn't sound too boring to me. That sounds like a party.

And rejoicing in God's creation should be a party. It is a time for celebrating. A time for feeling fantastic just to be alive. A time for saying, 'Woohoo, I'm so glad I'm here in this wonderful world that God has created.' It's not just a colon, end brackets. It's the biggest smiley face you can find.

My kids might think it's boring to go without TV or computers. But maybe it's only when we force ourselves to take a break from these things that we really learn how un-boring life can be. We delight in a sunset, smell the flowers, walk barefoot through the grass, stand in the rain, feel the waves against our legs as we walk along the beach, climb a tree, and jump in puddles. There's no agenda. No purpose. We are free to simply be. And I think we've forgotten just how fun that can be. Maybe we need to recover it again.

And maybe sometimes it doesn't seem like this earth has much to celebrate. Climate change, melting ice caps, mountaintop removal, islands of plastic in our oceans, extinction of species, dwindling water resources, destruction of rainforests. It can be all to easy to look at the earth and think we have reason to mourn, not rejoice.

But while these are all serious problems that need to be addressed, the Sabbath reminds us that we also have reason to hope. We celebrate not just what is happening, but what will happen. God's presence in the world reveals to us the time when God's presence will be completely manifest in the world. Moltmann says the God's creation and his revelation will be one.

To return to our movie analogy, not only is the Sabbath the climax of the movie, but it's the bit where we realise that there's going to be a sequel. And unlike most movie sequels, the sequel of the Sabbath won't be a pale imitation of the first movie. It's going to be much, much better. 

So if it's a celebration, it's a bit like an engagement party. Yes, we have reason to celebrate now. And we should celebrate and rejoice. But this celebration points towards a future celebration. The wedding feast is still to come.

Moltmann, J. (1985). God in Creation; The Gifford Lectures, 1984-1985, an ecological doctrine of creation: SCM Press Limited.

[1] (Moltmann, 1985)
[2] (Moltmann, 1985)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A life without germs is not much of a life

Last week in Australia came the news that the government had created stricter hygiene and sanitary regulations for childcare centres. These new standards included children not being allowed to blow out candles on a communal birthday cake and having to use hand-sanitiser before and after playing in the sandpit.

Later on came the news that a study by Stanford University revealed that actually exposing children to some germs may be good for them, as it builds up their immune system. Out of all the mothers I have spoken to about it, not one was shocked by this news.

So why do we have such stringent requirements when it comes to sanitation and hygiene? And what is that doing to us?

The emphasis on germs really began in the post-war period. This was a period when women were forced back into the home after doing work during the war. It was also a period when a new wave of household appliances supposedly freed up house-wives' time. It was also a time when consumerism really took off.

Having more stricter cleanliness requirements not only meant that women were kept busier, but that there was a ready market for more products particularly aimed at house-wives.

Things have changed a bit since that time, but I can't kept thinking that at least some of our ideas about cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation come from the very companies that are trying to sell us products.

We've all seen the ads where a women cleans the bathroom, but (shock, horror) doesn't get all the germs. No, if she wants the germs, she has to buy this particular brand of product that is guaranteed to pick up germs that the other products leave behind.

I remember when I was a new mother, receiving a free magazine and pack. The pack contained lots of samples of things I might need for my new baby. The magazine was filled with ads for more products. And looking back, I would say that many of those ads really capitalise on the fears that a new mother has. Many a new mother would have looked at those ads and thought they immediately needed to go out and buy a million and one things just to keep their baby safe, healthy and free from germs.

And this is probably a good time to say that an emphasis on hygiene and safety can be a good thing. The discovery that it was important to wash hands in hospital actually saved lives. And I for one am pleased that someone created products to keep cupboards locked so that little fingers (and mouths) could not get into them.

But have we gone too far?

The rules about birthday cakes are only for childcare centres. Parents can still choose to have a communal birthday cake at their own party if they wish. And I'm sure that many parents will. But will some parents see these new laws and suddenly worry that their child should not eat any cake where another child has blowed out the candles. I can all too easily imagine a scenario where little Tommy has a birthday party and little Jane's mother says Jane can't have any birthday cake if Tommy blows out the candles - spoiling the moment for both Tommy and Jane.

Birthdays are special, magical, joyful times for children. And one of the best things about birthdays (besides the presents, of course) is blowing out the candles. Children have been doing it for years. And I don't think we've suffered too much for it. And if any of us did catch someone else's cold, it's a small price to pay for sharing this moment together.

And that's one thing about strict sanitary regulations. It keeps people apart. Yes, when we share things, we may share germs. But we also share special moments. We are together as a family, a group or a community. The occasional cold is a small price to pay for that.

Some churches have now stopped allowing parishioners to share from the same cup during communion. Again, this is an attempt to stop the spreading of germs. And while I can see times when this might be a good practice (for example, when deadly viruses are widespread), it kind of ruins the meaning of sharing communion. In communion, we all come together. We partake in the one bread and the one wine. We share in the one faith. That's symbolic and it's special. And yes, we can still have that drinking from separate communion glasses. But something is lost if we do.  

At some point we need to ask ourselves if the price we're paying to keep ourselves free from germs is actually worth what we are losing. And part of what we are losing is our sense of belonging to the one community. We focus on the individual rather than the shared sense of being together.

We are not only isolating ourselves from each other. We are isolating ourselves from nature. The hand-sanitising before and after sandpit use is an example of how we wish to protect ourselves from dirt (and often nature).

Nature can make us dirty. Nature can expose us to germs. Nature can make us cold and wet and lower our immune system. Nature can bite and sting and hurt us.

So what do we do in our super-safe, super-sanitised (and super-comfortable) world we have created? It's telling that many eco-holidays are now held in very clean, very comfortable and very safe resort type settings. People get to experience nature without being exposed to any of the risk. But it kind of seems that that super-safe, super-sanitised and super-comfortable experience of nature is missing at least some of what nature has to offer.

And what about the backyard? Or the park? Or general everyday places where kids get to experience nature? Do we keep our kids far from any of that because they might get hurt or they might catch germs? I personally think that a childhood where we don't experience nature is far worse than a childhood where we might get sick or get stung now and then.

My son got stung by a bee just recently. I asked him whether he thought it would have been better to not play outside, because therefore he wouldn't have got stung by a bee. His answer was no. When asked why he said, 'Because then I wouldn't get any exercise or any sun and I wouldn't have fun.' When I said, 'What if you knew you would get stung by a bee again if you played outside, would you still play outside?' His answer, 'yes' and he didn't really need to think about it too much.

There's one way to keep children safe. Keep them isolated in sterilised rooms, with nothing dangerous and no contact with anyone or barely anything. But that's not living.

We're not meant to live highly sterilised, highly safe, highly comfortable lives. Whether we like it or not, we are connected to each other and we are connected to nature. And that involves some risk. But the risk is worth it. Because a life that's connected to other people and connected to nature also contains much joy. And anyone who has experience that joy would say that it was worth the risk to get it.