Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Impossibility of Disconnected Sabbath

Kristi left for Atlanta, Sunday. As of Wednesday morning the kids are still alive, but the dog is gone. We had to eat him.

I've hit a routine that works in her absence. Being a morning lark (that is, one of those annoying people who can have meaningful conversations and exercise at 5:00am but can't spell his own name by dinner), I am able to get lunches packed and the crap out of the kids' eyes with time to spare. We've been early to school everyday this week. Much of that is due to Kristi writing out a list of what to pack in their lunches, her going to the grocery before she left to set us up for the week and laying out folded piles of everybody's clothes (not mine, I'm a grown man) ahead of time. This morning as I looked in the fridge and pantry, I thought about the conversation I had on the phone with Kristi last night. She might stay one more day than planned. I fully support it. But I realized I won't have enough lunch stuff to pack for the kids tomorrow. The scales have tipped on laundry too. By this evening, I will have to knock those and other items off the list somewhere between my other responsibilities. Kristi and I share all this stuff for the most part. But when she's gone, I of course have to take up the slack.

Joking aside, it's not a big deal at all. Really. But only because it's a stint. Any inconvenience or pain is bearable when it's known to be finite. This is how people endure highway detours and tattoos and childbirth. The negative part is temporary.

Often I have people express to me their seeming inability for their family to find any rest, to relax. Despite wanting to and clearly seeing the need, it's "unrealistic" or "impossible". Theologically they ask about sabbath. Casually, they say they can't stop. The spirit is willing, but there's only so much week. As I looked into the paltry pantry this morning, I emotionally connected, if only a glimpse, to other people's existence:

There are people who aren't enduring a short stint, waiting for someone of high competence to return and reshoulder much of the load of family living. This is their life.

An isolating pressure cooker of trying to keep the kids not just going through their lists, but engaged as loved sons and daughters. To keep the house clean (or even "clean"), the cupboards filled, meals prepared, bills paid, dog uneaten. And then somewhere in there they have to go to work and meet all their vocational requirements. Somewhere in there they have to leave that job to pick up kids from school. Or schools. Earlier on some days on those hyper-convenient teacher workdays, or when their kids'  young bodies succumb to flu season. And when they or their kids must stay home and be sick, or the car breaks down, or the penalty for late payments disappears automatically from checking, the whole teetering system topples for days. Or longer. Somewhere in all this a social life must limp along, or be postponed till God knows when. Somewhere in there a novel longs to be read. Or written. Maybe after the grass is cut. Leaves raked. Taxes filed. After all that, maybe something fun. Maybe a nap. Maybe after answering that email about being available to volunteer at church Sunday. (Unless kids are still sick.) Over the years, to people who live this life I'm only barely mimicking for a few days, I have preached and counseled You gotta have rhythm. You must rest. Find margin in your days and weeks and claim it. You must know when to stop. And then I've gone home with my wife.

  • Sixty-four percent of children ages 0–17 lived with two married parents in 2012, down from 77 percent in 1980.
  • In 2012, 24 percent of children lived with only their mothers, 4 percent lived with only their fathers, and 4 percent lived with neither of their parents.
  • Seventy-four percent of White, non-Hispanic, 59 percent of Hispanic, and 33 percent of Black children lived with two married parents in 2012.
  • The proportion of Hispanic children living with two married parents decreased from 75 percent in 1980 to 59 percent in 2012. 
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements.

The fourth commandment reads, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." Exodus 20:8-11

Many centuries later, Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." Mark 2:27

Christians over the centuries have tried to understand this ancient command of God (the breaking of which was often an immediately punishable capital crime for ancient Israel, an interesting scenario when one considers the work required to kill a person caught in the act of breaking the Sabbath by picking up and throwing large stones at him) and Jesus' words. I'm asked fairly regularly about the sabbath. "Is it Saturday or Sunday?" "Did Constantine sin by changing it?" "Are we out from under that commandment if we're not Jewish?" These are important questions for which I recommend Google. There's a greater point than the day and letter of the law I'm interested in. 

Note that the commandment mostly deals with others. It starts with me, but then it references to a far greater degree every other person in my life. Even my animals. There are other laws that even command giving your fields a rest, a fair text to reference when you want Biblical support for not mowing the lawn. The fourth commandment isn't really about me as it's about the whole community. When Jesus teaches on the spirit of Sabbath, he speaks of it as not a law demanding to be served and honored, but instead is designed to serve and honor the human beings it was given to. He's always talking about what serves people. To follow him is to serve people. The sabbath, primarily, is a system for others to get the rest they need by my help.

Sabbath is hard. It's hard to stop working, to kick up your feet and say with deep peace, "All that work can wait till tomorrow. I've been a human doing all week. Today, we're human beings." It was hard for the Israelites (thus the command to do it), and it's hard now. But I think it's important for single moms, single dads, and even households with both parents present but all their familial support a city or a state or country away to hear; Sabbath for our culture is nearly impossible. Sabbath was given to people who lived their whole lives together, not folks who prize moving out by age twenty, having their own home and their own career and their own life apart from, ideally, the best support system there is. When the men went out in ancient times, the grandmother, the sisters and aunts were still there to take a turn with a mother's children. Men worked and farmed and hunted, but communally shared their talents and resources so nobody imploded under the weight of isolation. Only an idiot would go it alone apart from the community. I'm told this is the original meaning of "village idiot", one who tried to make it without support. 

I don't mean to romanticize things like ancient gender roles or pre-industrialized family life. I mean to say that the participation in Sabbath was intended for and marked by a community working together, legitimately affording each other their resting, together. Sabbath is only really possible communally. Friends and family living in something the modern eye would recognize (and unfairly judge for the most part) as a commune. As our lives are distanced by degrees from this sort of arrangement, the idea of really resting becomes, by degrees, harder and harder. Living apart from others is living apart from that which allows you to off-shoulder some of your life from time to time.

In Roman times, the wealthiest began living in single family residences called a domus. Your ability to live part from the lower and middle class, on your own, was a sign of power. Plebes, the common folk, lived together in apartments. Often very crudely constructed, the insulae were multi-storey buildings peppered throughout the city and full of people not making it like the minority rich were. These days the thinking is the same- the rich get their precious, private isolation while the poor get packed together like a box of free mutt puppies. But there's another dimension to it now. You don't have to have much money to be rich. Now the wealth of making it on your own trumps the financial aspect. Failure is having to come back home from independence to be interdependent. You can be behind on bills, so long as you have your own car in your own garage. The front room might not have furniture, but we'll pat you on the back and say welcome to the Dream as long as you live your life free of the help of others. Tell a woman you live downtown in a loft you can't afford and that you've filed bankruptcy, and she'll admire you for your tenacity. And you may have some. But tell her you live with your elderly mother and take the bus, and you may be blogged about derisively to her online friends. Never mind we have solid empirical and anecdotal evidence about who it is carrying the most anxiety in our world and who seems to enjoy the easiest peace and joy. The strongest in our society are those the ancients called idiots.

Sabbath is not simple. I have not, and probably never will, fully appreciate the unique exhaustion that comes from being a single parent, or even a married one with no support. I am both married and well connected to others whose backs we mutually have. For all of us who want to step into the spirit of what God is after in sabbath, before we can really enjoy stopping, we must begin something else. We have to be really connected to others for each others' sake, or we are truly poor and without rest. A life no one wants. Sabbath doesn't command I work and rest in proper rhythm as much as it reminds me I'm to stay deeply connected to others so we all can. 

So I'm thinking....

A church with small groups should recognize that having their people get together to study a book every week is good until it begins to ignore the fact that single moms and dads never nap and their kids' homework gets harder to help with every year. 

church with small groups looking for ways to bless locally will recognize the growing number of people, very likely within in their church, stuck in secret cycles of fragile overwhelm. Behold, the objects of your strategized love in your midst!

A church that wants to be relevant will recognize Sunday morning is sacred to many men and women more often for the social aspect than anything else. This is a holy thing. They needn't hear a sermon every Sunday, unless they so desire, to be part of a church. Some are utterly alone with no margin, and sitting silent in a room while one stranger speaks about life to a sea of faces isn't necessarily what their tired, lonely soul needs. 

Churches who want to bless people will put on very, very few events and will incentivize unprogrammed, quiet dinners among its people. The student ministry will look at providing free childcare for events like these as "mission work".*

If disconnected people serve, they should do so in a system that encourages them the other six days like supported family. When they leave, they are too often plunging back into great difficulty. Find ways to follow them without being creepy.**

A person with extra time who wants to live the life of Christ might really consider putting their Bible down more often and seeing if they can create margin for the out-of-towners they live on the same street with. In fact, that person may wish they could start a Bible study on their street, but perhaps the more sacred act would be providing childcare, grocery runs, or just having dinner together. This isn't a Bible study per se, but it is biblical.***

A person who wants to enjoy the life of Christ will wave a flag. They will admit they have perhaps been duped by western, industrialized idiocy and want to move back into support of the insulae. They will realize to lose at society's game is probably a W at reality's. They will embrace something of a feared poverty, in some degree, for a new type of riches. This person will ask for help, guidance and advice, which in my experience results in scenarios like he/she moving back home, moving to a cheaper area, consolidating extra-curriculars, allowing others to help out, the cessation of pretending, and other flavors of humble pie.****

There are a ton more dimensions to this, and my brain is racing a mile a minute on different ramifications to lives and churches. But, I have no more time. Got stuff to do.

* I know many, many people in our church have benefitted from exactly this sort of effort from our students.
** I love how good our church is at this. Volunteers are very connected, checked on, visited, supported, heard and befriended. Key people stay tuned into them, making sure they know how important they are outside of the volunteer work they provide our big church.
*** I like to encourage folks to study the Bible as illiterate people must.
**** This typically happens after some collapse. I suggest it should happen before, but an experienced crisis has always been a more compelling catalyst for change than the anticipation of one.

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