Heaven On Earth In The New Year
In the call that Jesus makes to Philip and Nathanael (John 1: 43 - 51), the promise is made that they will see great things. Jesus made the promise of soul to his people. He was a man without an address. A man without a home. But he told people, as part of the great corpus of resurrection promises, "In My father's House, there are many dwelling places...I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2). A homeless man promises his people a home. An austere man promises abundance. A simple man promises multi-faceted dwelling. A human promises the divine, on earth. "You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (v. 51, Ch. 1).
Jesus salts us, as the Koreans say the word animation. We are salted when we come alive.
This salting or souling pattern, this memory of our air and its source, is the pattern of Sabbath. I like to think of Sabbath as the source of soul in our lives. Sabbath is a little heaven on earth: we ascend and descend, with Jesus and through Jesus, to heaven.
If we do nothing else to change our lives in this new century, we could begin to keep Sabbath. We could let great things happen. We could see great things. We could experience a little heaven on earth.
Jesus chides Philip and Nathanael—they want too little. So do most of us.
Even when we think about keeping Sabbath, we think about a better ritual observance. Sabbath is widely reduced to mean Sundays. It is not just Sundays at all. It is the remembrance of the source of our air. It is decluttering, the way a housekeeper takes care of a coffee table that still has last week's newspapers, tickets, clones and earrings spread all over it. Sabbath keeping is a form of spiritual decluttering; it gets us out of our way. We can remember our source and our God on any day. We return home; we go from spiritual homelessness to spiritual shelters. We go from being starved to eating. The Sabbath pattern is exile and return. homelessness and home, a prepared place, a renewed focus on what Jesus goes on to call "The Way, the truth and the life" (John 14:3). He functions as a gate to God. He is the way to Go.
Sabbath is a little heaven on earth.
Scholars are just beginning to figure out that in addition to all the other changes in modern life that Sunday is changing. In Sunday Morning: Aspects of Urban Ritual (Michael H. Ducey, Free Press, 1997), the people of four parishes are asked how they get rest. They do not answer with Sunday morning, which they perceive as work and obligation. They answer with hiking, housecleaning, gardening, eating a meal with friends in a ritual way. They salt themselves outside of religious ritual. Dorothy Bass in Practicing Our Faith, tells us that the spiritual life is full of spiritual motions, like honoring the body, saying yes and saying no, forgiveness, healing, dying well, shaping communities, keeping Sabbath, testimony and discernment. Strange, isn't it, that we can do all of these things without going to church at all.
While I long for culture that could keep its Sabbath by a Sunday morning ritual, I don't think that's where our people live. We are desperate for the homing action of Sabbath—but we are going to have to find it in the development of homing rituals. We are going to have to attack the clutter of our lives in new ways.
One way we make time for God is by entering ritually into exile and return, clutter and declutter, by preparing a place for ourselves to wait upon God. We can soul our lives, salt our lives, by decluttering them.
Now, let's take a pause and play with this word spirituality. I don't like words that end in “uality,” like spirituality or sexuality. I prefer sex or spirit. They are decluttered words. With Mark Matousek, originally writing in Common Boundary.... I"ve come to detest the word spirituality. After years of working in the so-called spiritual community, and writing about the path for a living, I've OD'd on sacred lingo.... I long for a time when infatuation with spirituality matures beyond its current kid in a candy store phase. I look forward to a time when spirituality returns to its rightful place in a sacred culture, as foundation rather than fireworks, and holiness is present by implication and deed rather than by display. Quoted in CONTEXT, October 15, 1997. More briefly, we could say, don't talk to me of Christianity...show me a Christian.
With Philip and Nathanael, we want too little. We are so impressed by a fig tree or a spiritual gimmick that we forget that what we are really after is heaven.
In our normal weeks, we become discombobulated. Things pile up. The coffee table joins the counter in becoming unopened mail, unpaid bills, scarves worn once, old newspapers. In Sabbath we clean spiritual house. We unclutter. We start over. We recombobulate. These simple patterns of living, and then putting away our living, are the basis of Sabbath keeping. They are also the basis of death and resurrection as Jesus knew it. We go to a prepared place. That place is heaven. We imitate Jesus' preparation of place by preparing our own.
This image of an uncluttered simplicity is one that is hard for modern day spiritual types to understand. It mixes lots and little, abstinence and plenty, centeredness and sprawl. With Jesus, these kinds of mixtures often happen: he surprises us with a Sabbath spirituality that is not what we had assumed it would be.
Remember in Matthew 12:1-8 when he played around with picking corn on the Sabbath? He was trying to tell us something important about Sabbath. We can ruin Sabbath with rules. We can keep Sabbath by keeping rules but keeping them in an un-ruly way.
"But if you had know what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice," you would not have condemned the hungry for picking corn on Sabbath. "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."
When we keep Sabbath, we do so as a way of grace, not a way of obedience, as a way to allow ourselves some mercy, not just sacrifice. Yes, we do give up things in keeping Sabbath. We clarify ourselves. We even use spiritual gimmicks or disciplines. We need them; we are human. We need all the treasure we can get in earthen vessels—institutions, rules, observances. But we don't idolatrize them. We don't let the fig tree get in the way of the fig.
We let go of things that are urgent on behalf of things that are important.
Stephen Covey, in his important, strangely anti-capitalist book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, talks about the way most of us live. We solve problems all day long. We don't get clear. We get to our major goals by 5 in the afternoon, by which time we are too tired to pay real attention to them. The rest of the day we are fiddling with problems caused by what we didn't do yesterday. Covey recommends that we learn to distinguish between the urgent and the important. For Jesus, that would be mercy and not just sacrifice. Covey also recommends that we live by a personal mission statement and that we do something about the personal mission early on, every day. Instead of starting every day with solving the problems caused by what we didn't get to yesterday, we begin the day working ahead, living ahead, living as though we are the people our mission statement says we want to be.
For every one of us, this proactivity is different. For me it is a half dozen simple goals. I want to know the meaning of the word enough. I start the day by shaving it. I cut out what will be too much. That usually means making no more than about a dozen phone calls—and making sure those are the ones that are essential for today. That means calling some of my "well" pastors rather than those who are in crisis. Preventive mental health is as important as preventive physical health.
Another goal I have is to confuse my work and play. A third is to experience the sacrament or holiness of marriage and family. That means I have to find time to enjoy my family. A fourth is to remember, actively, the poor. As a rich first world person, I often forget where my air comes from. A fifth is to thank God.
Two of my pastors have decided they will pray an hour a day—and they have totally freaked out their association and congregation!
These personal missions and goals change from time to time. I don't meet them; I practice them. I keep them. I don't achieve them. They are directions, spiritual strategies, spiritual goals. I live from them and not just from my job description or cultural economic marching orders. Covey has guides as to how to accomplish this mission driven living. He uses quadrants to divide up time; quadrant four is where the urgent and the important coincide. You can imagine that the rest of the quadrants are variations on that theme.
These little observances grant me the heaven on earth that Jesus promised to the disciples.
Some of us are hopelessly buried. We are so busy making up for yesterday that we can't even imagine tomorrow. We have goals but we don't touch them, or even remember them often. Sabbath is the time for God in that it is the time we remember our best selves, the ones that we dedicate to God. Sabbath rituals rehearse our mission statements. They declutter by putting a few things at the center—the rest falls away.
Some of us are surrounded by so much spiritual clutter and physical clutter that we can't see through to our basic selves. We need Sabbath to remind us who we are and Whose we are.
The crisis in Sabbath keeping is mightily exacerbated by clutter and excess, by what more and more people call "Affluenza." Some of us don't even know what we have or don't have. The food in our refrigerator is long spoiled. But we keep hoping for a time of clarity, a revision, a decluttering and a refocusing. We long for Sabbath, even if we don't always experience it. We have to believe that this very longing for God, while standing on top of a pile of clutter, is a prelude to Sabbath. God accepts our longings. But God loves our preparation.
The Jews redid their kitchens every Friday as a way to prepare for the Sabbath queen. They put away the everyday dishes and got out the good dishes. They prepared food. They made one meal a week very special.
It may be that modern families need do no more. We may only have to step into time and refuse to let it all be homogenized. We may only have to reinstitute the weekly dinner, Friday or Sunday or both. At that meal, we may have to eat off the good plates. We may only have to carry around our own cup—and refuse to eat out of paper, as a way of slowing ourselves down, and salting ourselves, and souling ourselves. Poets should not eat out of paper bags!
Heather Murrays Elkins talks about dozens of ways to ALTAR time by altaring it. It doesn't take much to steal time back from the Chronos Empire. Read from Spiritual Fitness if you want here.
Can God be absent from such a meal as well as present? You bet. We can turn the ritual into a spectacle, instead of a preparation for God. Toni Morrison says that the difference between a ritual and a spectacle is that one is pledging and rehearsing truth. The other is a drama. Jesus says that sacrifice is a drama; mercy is a ritual when he speaks of Sabbath.
One summer my husband lost a ring I had given him. It was a ring with three small diamonds in it, reminding him of each of our three children. He caught a mean fly ball during an adult softball game and jammed his ring finger, thus necessitating the removal of the ring. He put it in his pocket. Or so he thought. The ring never showed up, even though we have wasted lots of time looking for it.
The ring has a Sabbath to it: every time we tell the story of the lost diamonds, we remember our love for each other. We recite it. We ritualize it. The ring is gone in the same way that the corn was eaten by the hungry man. Sometimes you do things that you "shouldn't" really do. You remember, though, what the actions point to, rather than what they are. The ring points to our love. The corn pointed to the Sabbath law. But Sabbath is something beyond itself. It is time for God. And God is more than rules, more than diamonds.
Decluttering as preparation for the mansion, Sabbath living is often helped by the simple act of taking time to look at things differently. In a big storm on April first one year, our old deck collapsed. The snow was so heavy that it took the whole old deck down. It had been built on the base of the old barn. For months, we worried about how we were going to replace that huge deck for the $3000.00 insurance money they gave us. Finally, we saw the light: we didn't need to make the new deck the same as the old deck! It could be smaller. It could be different. It could be itself. Sabbath could be Sundays—and it could be something quite different.
Nathanael really wanted to know if anything good could come out of Nazareth. Jesus said, yes. More than yes. Heaven can come right out of earth.
Donna Schaper Amherst, MA