In the Hebrew Bible it is said that “In six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God rested, and was refreshed” (Exodus 31:17).
In my life I have encountered this creation myth countless times and know it as the origin of the tradition of the Sabbath; and I thought I knew what it meant until only recently, when I learned that the Hebrew word translated as “refreshed,” vaiynafesh, literally means, and God exhaled. God exhales on the seventh day, says the myth—God breathes out and relaxes. So it must be that on the previous six days, God quickens existence and life with a creative inhale. And here we have a profound picture of the nature of the fundamental reality in which we live and move and have our being. The creative process, ongoing and never ending, in the larger world and in ourselves, has a rhythm to it. Inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale: this is fundamental reality.
And this is the reality I would have us dwell on this morning, as we reflect on the spiritual meaning of Labor Day Weekend. Since the 1880s, it has been a time for honoring the working class and advocating for improved working conditions. It also brings with it a day off from work, wonderful but also bittersweet, since Labor Day has come to represent the end of Summer and the return of Fall endeavors. Soon we will be, with all our activities, inhaling like crazy; but on Labor Day, we exhale, we enjoy.
Take a moment, now, to try an experiment. Inhale deeply. Fill your lungs with air, as far as they will go. Now—don’t stop. Keep on inhaling….
Doesn’t feel good, right? Welcome to life in modern America, where the inhale-exhale rhythm of creation is out of whack. Today there is a constant flow of intense stimuli and endless information, mediated by satellites with their global reach, cable TV with its hundreds of channels, or the Internet, with its infinite connections. And we plug in, using the portable electronic gadgets at our disposal like cell phones, I Pods, Blackberries, and laptops. We plug in, and we inhale the emails, we inhale the images, we inhale the jabber, and we can’t seem to stop even as we end up feeling manic-depressive, feeling fried, feeling exhausted, feeling like we’re trapped in Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room and can’t get out…
And then there is this: the endless inhale of choices in our American marketplace. For me this is so well illustrated by something I once encountered at a restaurant called Macaroni Grill. “Create your own primo pasta,” the menu said. “Choose from everyday indulgences that take your pasta creation to new heights.” At this point, I’m rolling my eyeballs. The subtext, I know, is that as a consumer in a postmodern hyper-individualist society, the act of purchasing becomes nothing less than the art of declaring who I am, the art of constructing my personal identity. I am what I buy. But must this be the case when I’m hungry and I just want to eat some good Italian food? My eye scans the rest of the menu. I see five categories, each with multiple options: sauces, toppings, yummies, the actual type of pasta, and the type of side salad to accompany the dish. In all, there are 38 options to choose from, to take my pasta creation to new heights. I order a cheeseburger.
The inhale is constant and exhausting. So many things to know, so much need in the world to meet, so many things to do, so many things to choose. And so, like Elizabeth Gilbert, we multitask like Swiss Army knives. We text while driving. To-do lists paper our walls. “I am so busy,” we say along with everyone else. It is the age of overwhelming.
But how did things get this way? What happened to throw the natural inhale-exhale rhythm of creation out of whack?
Perhaps it is the Law of Unintended Consequences in action. For surely we did not intend to fashion a world in which we must inhale without end. The original intentions were hopeful, and inspiring. Capitalism, with its intention of rewarding people for their initiative and hard work and creativity. Technology, with its intention of making life easier and raising our standard of living. But then there is that sober saying from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Capitalism ends up in the saddle, and we see what has happened. The development of a system in which the driving goal is a never-ending MORE; in which the modus operandi is to create in people artificial needs; in which the people, bred to be needy, bred to be credit-card consumers of the MORE, find themselves on the wheel of work, working like mad, in debt like mad, running just to stand still if not to make the money to buy the things which they will have no time to enjoy because they are too busy working. This is what happens when Capitalism ends up in the saddle. And as for technology? Our “labor-saving” devices paradoxically cause us to work even harder than before, even as it arguably lowers the quality of our lives. Somehow, our technologies begin to alter our expectations for each other, so that, just as email is constantly available and instantaneous, people (we think) should be constantly available, and when we send an email, we should receive a reply immediately. The expectation is of course unreasonable, but it creeps within us nevertheless. Unfeeling, non-human technology setting the standard for flesh-and-blood. Don’t even get me started on how this is true where it comes to the work of democracy. How the nature of the television medium has shrink-wrapped political discourse into image and sound bite. Now, if a politician can’t explain his or her policies for a complex economy like ours in three sentences or less, he or she is dismissed as incompetent.
Things in the saddle, riding humankind. Culminating, I would argue, in a myth that is diametrically opposed to the inhale-exhale creation myth of the Hebrew Bible. I’m talking about the myth of being a limitless self in a limitless world. The myth of the infinite MORE. The myth that we can keep on living unsustainably without consequences. This secular myth, so different from the ancient one, taking up a central place in our lives and shaping our conscience within. And so, even as we say to one another, “I am so busy,” we say it with pride, as if it is a desirable thing, as if we deserve a medal, as if we are demonstrating the goodness of our character. And then, when it all finally gets to us, and we can no longer bear the pain, and we’re burned out, at home in our pajamas, eating cereal straight out of the box and staring at the TV in a mild coma—we feel shame. We feel wrong, and we feel conscience-stricken. We have let the myth down.
Perhaps these are some of the causes of the natural inhale-exhale rhythm of creation going askew. The Law of Unintended Consequences in action. The emergence of a new myth within culture and within conscience that worships the unlimited MORE. Whatever the cause, it hurts. It hurts to never stop inhaling.
In his tremendous book called Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, Wayne Muller makes this clear. How busyness and overwork become a kind of violence in which we simply cannot be our best selves. No time for rest and a renewal of perspective. No time to savor and to feel gratitude. Just living at warp speed, living in anxious survival mode. “I have sat on dozens of boards and commissions,” says Wayne Muller, “with many fine, compassionate, and generous people who are so tired, overwhelmed, and overworked that they have neither the time nor the capacity to listen to the deeper voices that speak to the essence of the problems before them. Presented with the intricate and delicate issues of poverty, public health, community well-being, and crime, our impulse, born of weariness, is to rush headlong toward doing anything that will make the problems go away. Maybe then we can finally go home and get some rest. But,” Muller continues, “without the essential nutrients of rest, wisdom, and delight embedded in the problem-solving process itself, the solution we patch together is likely to be an obstacle to genuine relief. Born of desperation, it often contains enough fundamental inaccuracy to guarantee an equally perplexing problem will emerge as soon as it is put into place. In the soil of a quick fix is the seed of a new problem, because our quiet wisdom is unavailable.” That’s what Wayne Muller says, and it leads me to think of the enormous problems facing this country and facing the next President, and I hold John McCain and I hold Barack Obama equally in the circle of my compassion. In the circle of my compassion, I hold the fine, compassionate, and generous people in this congregation and beyond. There is so much to do, so many needs to meet. And yet the more needs we try to satisfy all at one time, the faster we try to go, the more we breathe in, and in, and in: the more frantic we get, the more desperate, the more reactive, the more sloppy—and our work for justice and peace is neutralized, seeds of future problems are sown. The Tao Te Ching asks us, “Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” How would we answer? How would this congregation answer? Each of us as families, as individuals?
Perhaps this is why, in Judaism, regularly observing the Sabbath is no less than one of the famous 10 Commandments. It’s right up there, with “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” like don’t murder, don’t steal, honor your parents, and don’t bear false witness against your neighbor. It’s just as momentous, just as far-reaching, even if, on the surface, the command to take spiritual delight in our days and to indulge ourselves in the beauty of doing nothing seems … frivolous. And here, I have to confess that, in the past, this is exactly how this commandment had seemed to me, in comparison with the others. In the past, there would always be this voice from Sesame Street coming up to sing, “One of these things is not like the other….” Why, I always thought, had the author of the Ten Commandments put “Thou shalt not murder” on the same footing as “Thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”? Until I realized that people who lack an intentional practice for rest and spiritual reflection commit a kind of murder themselves. A murder of the life force within and without. Diminishment, depletion, erosion, exhaustion—in our bodies and in the body of our earth. There is a reason why the Chinese pictograph for the word “busy” brings together two characters: one for heart, and another for killing.
The message is clear: like God in the ancient creation myth, we do well to embody the rhythm of inhale and exhale in our lives even as it commits us to doing something that is countercultural and flies in the face of our secular world. Judaism teaches this, and so do other major religions around the world. Muslims are about to enter into their holy season of Ramadan, with its fasting, prayer, and reflection to achieve goals of spiritual and physical cleansing, and this definitely resonates with the Jewish Sabbath.
Inhale, exhale. Take a deep breath now, fill up your lungs—and release. Relax into the exhale. Be a good steward of the present moment.
So now we turn to practicing the Sabbath—what’s involved. And to this end, once again we go back to the Hebrew scriptures, where we read that “On the seventh day God finished God’s work,” and we also read, over and over again, the refrain: “And God saw that it was good.”
A close reading of that line about the seventh day—God finishing God’s work—suggests that, actually, the Sabbath is not simply a day off, a day when nothing is done. God is finishing God’s work—and this is something. Something is happening, something is being done, even into the seventh day; but the character of what is being done is special, has finality to it, has uniqueness. So what might this be? According to the ancient rabbis, God’s work of finishing has to do with menuha, which means tranquility, serenity, peace, repose. Rest, in the deepest possible sense. Renewal. This is what God creates on the seventh day, without which the Creation is incomplete and lacking. God creates the exhale, to balance out the inhale.
It means that we enter into Sabbath space and time not simply by ceasing from doing any job-related activities, or pressing pause on whatever makes us feel busy. We cease doing all such things so that we might shift our focus to the creation of something higher and something deeper, something which puts all the labor of the previous six days into perspective and completes it. Wayne Muller describes it well when he says, “It is the presence of something that arises when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, or true. It is a time consecrated with our attention, our mindfulness, honoring those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain and heal us.” That’s what Wayne Muller says. The Creation culminates in a direct sense of beauty, and nourishment, and grace, and healing, and the ultimate goodness of life. And what takes us to this is doing what God does in the creation myth: we consecrate the work of our lives, meaning that we step back and just look upon it, we attend to it, we listen, we honor, we give thanks, we appreciate.
This is the proper work of the Sabbath. For observant Jews, the practice is to set aside the time from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown for this. To spark the imagination by lighting the Sabbath candles, to eat the Sabbath meal, to remember God and reflect on the Torah, to enter into an experience, ideally, of spaciousness. It’s not supposed to be heavy and legalistic. It’s supposed to be a time of sacred spirituality, sensuality, prayer, rest, song, delight. One of the more popular Sabbath activities, in fact, is making love. Apparently there is a tradition among some observant Jews that couples are to make love four times during the Sabbath. Once, Wayne Muller respectfully inquired about this with a friend, and the response was, “No, we make love only once. But, for the other three, we hold a deep intention.”
The proper work of the Sabbath: whatever invites the Spirit into our lives. Gardening can do that. Creative writing, or dancing. We are doing it right now, seated as we are here, in the round—not busy with our jobs, not busy with housework, not busy with committee work, but focused on work of a higher order, which is singing together, reflecting together, mourning together, rejoicing together, praying together, committing and recommitting our lives to that which deserves the loyalty of our hearts and spirits, dwelling in gratitude together. This work finishes our week, just as God’s work of creating tranquility and peace on the seventh day put the finishing touch on all that God accomplished in the previous six—and without which Creation would NOT be good, would NOT be worth living in, would not be enough, so that, presumably, God would be in the same spot so many of us today are in, trapped in the myth of the infinite MORE, and compelled to keep on creating: an eighth day, a ninth day, a tenth, an eleventh, and on and on….
But what God created on the seventh day makes the other six ENOUGH, makes them GOOD. So let it be for us. Every week, but also every day, let there be a Sabbath time where we turn away from our regular labor and pause, find a place of spiritual rest and repose, breathe in and breathe out the rhythm of creation. Be like the God of the myth, on the seventh day, and look upon the life you are creating with love, with compassion. Allow gratitude to well up within you. Let gratitude flow in your heart. God may see that it is good, but even more important is that YOU do.
Rev. Anthony David
August 31. 2008
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta