There is a story told of a traveling merchant who overloaded his wagon, one day, to the point where his horses could no longer pull it. Frustrated, he scrutinized his merchandise to see what he might discard to lighten the load. But every item appeared indispensable. Yet, something had to be done. Unable to discard anything, but needing to do something, he took the wheels off the wagon.
Most of us, I suspect, identify with that. The parable speaks of overload.
Few words describe our lives as accurately as do these: overload and hurry. Our days are crammed and crowded, rarely do we have unpressured time. Underlying many of our lives is the feeling that there is too much to do, that we are carrying too much, that time is too short, that we’ve not enough energy and space to do what we would need to do. We rarely are able to work, drive, eat, read, or do anything in a leisured way. Always we feel pressure. Our timetables are too full; our responsibilities seem too many. This sense of being under pressure causes us to hurry. It seems that we are always behind, running, forced to do something in less time than we would like.
In all this hurry there is a form of violence, violence against joy, against celebration, against relationships, against contemplative wonder, and against simply enjoying life. As Donald Nichol puts it: “Hurry is a form of violence exercised upon God’s time!” The reason why we, so habitually, feel pressure and hurry is, quite simply, that we no longer keep the Sabbath holy. We have, progressively through the last years, lost all sense of the third commandment: Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath day!
Put simply, my argument for this runs as follows: The Sabbath rest, by forcing us to stop working – no matter how important the responsibilities seem, no matter how grave the loss of time and revenue might seem, no matter how important it might seem to finish off just this one thing – forces us to, fundamentally, put our lives into perspective, to re-appreciate ultimately why we are here in the first place, namely, to rest in God, to enjoy, and to play and celebrate with each other.
When we stop taking this mandatory rest, which God so wisely commanded, then we will, forever, have trouble stopping work, finding perspective, celebrating and enjoying. We will fall into the trap in which we believe that there is always something more critical to be done than the task of enjoying life. We will always be in a hurry and overload and pressure will consume us.
Conversely, if at a definite and fixed time each week – and not at the time we find most convenient and we choose, but at the time God has chosen, the Sabbath – we lay down our work, regardless of its importance, and rest, then we will find ourselves, regularly, centered, put into perspective, given some stillness, unpressured time, and some peace. In that, enjoyment will flow back into our lives. This will then begin to permeate the other six days of our week. We will find ourselves hurrying less.
Biblically, the Sabbath day does not mean Saturday or Sunday. It means resting in God’s presence and delighting in creation. Looking at the creation accounts in the Bible, we see that the Sabbath is not God’s rest day, a turning away from God from his creation to have some time for himself. Rather it represents God’s gracious turning towards his creation, his conferral of his own holiness upon and into creation. As such, it represents the end for which creation, especially human creation, is made, namely, to delight in creation, in its holiness, and to glorify the God whose presence permeates it. The Sabbath is a symbol for resting and playing in God. It is also a symbol for praying to God.
The third commandment teaches us that, ultimately, we have no purpose outside of enjoying creation and glorifying its maker. Everything else we do is in function of that. Regularly, we need to stop working and hurrying and re-appreciate that fact. It is when we forget that that the unimportant things become too important and we become consumed by hurry and pressure.
What can all of this mean, today, concretely, in a culture of Sunday shopping, Sunday jobs, Sunday business as usual, and sporting events which dominate our Sundays? It doesn’t mean that we should feel riddled by a false guilt which says: “God has given you six days, now you can’t even give him one day or one hour back!” We don’t owe God anything. God made us freely, in love, and wants us to respond freely in gift. He doesn’t demand our love.
What the Sabbath does mean is that on one day a week, ideally Sunday, we must stop work, try to center our lives, try to slow things down, try to re-appreciate why we are here in the first place, and then worship and celebrate that with God and each other through prayer, food, and play. Life is too short for the way we are living.