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Practicing Sabbath: Caring for Body and Soul

(Return to main 2010 Sermons)

Rev. Craig Scott

(August 1,  2010)

Last month, Karen and I took some vacation time on the Northern California coast. We rented a house for most of the time, and we also did some camping. For 10 days, we were out of cell phone range, and we lacked access to the internet, and thus to our email. That seemed pretty scary at first – We are used to being constantly in touch. We expect to be kept up-to-date on events in our work, among our family and friends, and in the wider world. We hadn’t really planned it this way. But we quickly realized that this was a good thing. Every day, we had the time to swim for as long as we wanted. Every day, we had opportunities to take long walks along the bluffs above the ocean and to observe the abundant wildlife – seals, and deer, and many types of birds. We had time to do lots of reading; each of us brought along a stack of books. And we had time to spend together, to appreciate each other’s company, without interruptions for phone calls, or for checking our email, or even for reading newspapers (although I did manage to sneak off once or twice to get a New York Times).

It was kind of like being on a retreat. Suddenly life was much more spacious. There was time to reflect, to think about our lives and their meaning. There was time to pay attention to our inner selves, to the state of our souls. I know that for me, when there is the time and the space to look inward, I am able to feel the spirit moving in me and in the world. I’m able to appreciate beauty, and once again, I am able to feel connected. I am able to see myself as part of vast networks of interconnectedness. And I am able to feel connected to whatever is sacred and holy in the world.

The house we stayed on the Sonoma coast contained lots of books that the owners and other renters had left behind. As it happens, one of those books was a little book called “Sabbath,” written by Wayne Muller. As I leafed through it, I realized that it spoke to exactly what I needed at that moment. We hadn’t consciously planned this trip as a “sabbath,” but that’s what it became – a time-out, a time for rest and reflection, a time to be deeply mindful, and a time to restore our souls.

Today, during and after this service, we consider the crying need in our culture for access to health care for all Americans. As we do that, we tend to think in terms of our physical health – the state of our bodies. And caring for our physical health is crucial to our overall wellbeing.

But, this morning, I want to focus on the concept of taking a “Sabbath,” as an aspect of self-care; as a way of caring for both our body and our soul.

So – what do I mean, when I speak of “sabbath.” We know that many religious traditions have some concept of Sabbath. For millennia, practicing Jews have observed “Shabbat” from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. This is a time to put aside everyday concerns. You don’t drive a car, or work at your job, or check your email. Shopping for food (and for everything else) is forbidden on Shabbat, and so is cooking. So the Shabbat meal must be prepared in advance. But Shabbat is not meant to be a time of austerity and deprivation. On the contrary, it is meant to be a time of pleasure. As Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote: “Shabbat is a different rhythm, a rhythm of calm, peace, rest, joy, pleasure, song, wonder, amazement, and celebration.”

For Christians, of course, Sunday was traditionally set aside as the Sabbath. That meant a worship service, but also a day of quiet and rest. I remember how, when I was a kid, most businesses were closed, so it was mostly impossible to shop. There was nothing formal, but my family tended to view Sunday afternoon, after morning worship, as family time. We would have a large meal and then we would often gather for family pursuits. The four of us would do the crossword puzzle in the Sunday New York Times together. My sister and I could try to find answers to the clues in our encyclopedia. So we not only had fun together, but we learned arcane bits of knowledge as well.

Buddhists have the concept of “taking refuge” — refuge in the example set by the life of the Buddha, in the Buddhist teachings, and in the “sangha,” or community. When we sit in meditation, we find a place of refuge, a place to surrender into the Buddha-nature that already exists within us. We open ourselves to loving-kindness as a way of being in the world, and we glimpse the interdependent nature of all existence.

Religious traditions have these formalized versions of Sabbath – time set aside for sacred rest, perhaps a special holy day, or a specified day of the week. But I want to introduce the idea of Sabbath as a larger metaphor. I want to encourage us to think in terms of anything that brings to us a visceral experience of life-giving nourishment and rest – a Sabbath hour, a Sabbath afternoon, a Sabbath walk in the woods, and even a Sabbath moment in the midst of a busy day.

At Plum Village, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat center in France, monks ring a gong at random times during the day. This is a signal for all the residents to pause in whatever they are doing for the space of three breaths — And to use this pause to get back to their center, to focus, to experience their connection to all other living things. Muslims are called to worship five times every day – a practice known as salat. When the muezzin‘s call is heard, Muslims stop whatever they are doing in order to worship. And then there is the example of Jesus. When he was worn down from healing people, or preaching, or whatever, Jesus would leave and go off to the mountains to restore himself in body and soul. There was always more work to do, but Jesus seemed to know that he needed times of rest and reflection, so that he could return restored and be more effective at his work.

Earlier, I mentioned the book “Sabbath,” by Wayne Muller. In it, the author explains the wisdom or taking time for rest and nourishment, and how important this is to our own health and to the world’s well-being as well. I want to share with you some of his words:

Sabbath honors the necessary wisdom of dormancy. If certain plant species, for example, do not lie dormant for winter, they will not bear fruit in the spring …

We, too, must have a period in which we lie fallow, and restore our souls. In Sabbath time we remember to celebrate what is beautiful and sacred; we light candles, sing songs, tell stories, eat, nap, and make love. It is time to let our work, our animals, our lands lie fallow, to be nourished and refreshed. Within this sanctuary, we become available to the insights and blessings of deep mindfulness that arise only in stillness and time. When we act from a place of deep rest, we are more capable of cultivating what the Buddhists would call right understanding, right action, and right effort …

Sabbath is more than the absence of work; it is not just a day off, when we catch up on television or errands. 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 time consecrated with our attention, our mindfulness, honoring those quiet forces of grace or spirit that sustain and heal us.

So Sabbath is something more than just time off, more than just not working, although taking that time off is important. It is a time in which we listen to our deeper voices. It’s a time in which we appreciate what is beautiful, and nourishing, and true. It’s a time when we are mindful of those things that sustain us and heal us. And Sabbath is not a time of austerity and a list of “don’ts.” It should a time to celebrate. As Rabbi Lerner reminds us, Sabbath should be a time of pleasure, a time to dance and sing, a time of joy, wonder, and amazement.

Well, at this point, I need to confess that I don’t have answers to how we do all this. I do want to encourage us, over this coming year, to consider ways in which we might honor the concept of Sabbath, both as individuals and as a congregation. I invite us to consider ways in which we might go deeper within ourselves, finding nourishment and inspiration.

When Jesus needed a respite, he went to the mountain to pray. For some of us, prayer might be the practice that helps to restore us. Personally, I’m not so big on prayer, but I believe that meditation is a very helpful practice. Sitting quietly, paying attention to our breathing, noticing our thoughts and letting them go – for me these are all ways for me to go deep into my own mind and heart. For several years, some of us have met for meditation on Saturday mornings. We are taking a break for the summer, but this fall, I hope there will energy for restarting the group. Setting aside a specified time helps us to make the commitment to meditate, and sitting with others in a contemplative silence is a very powerful practice.

Of course, we can also find time to meditate on our own. The best way I have found so far to do that is to bring together physical activity, nature, and meditation. Every day I try to get in a hike of an hour or so, preferably in a place where I can experience the beauty of trees, hills, and birds and other wildlife. When I’m in Sonora, I usually take an early morning hike on the Dragoon Gulch Trail, which starts by the park on Stockton, across from the fairgrounds. As I climb the ridge through the trees, while the sun is coming up, it’s easy to feel the presence of the spirit and to feel connected to the universe. It’s the same in the Berkeley hills, where we hike to the top of the ridge and look out over San Francisco and the Bay.

To facilitate their meditation, some people feel that it’s helpful to construct a personal altar, with favorite, pictures, objects, a candle or chalice, and so on. Others tell me that they find it helpful to focus each day on something for which they feel deeply grateful. And some folks write something down each day about things they are thankful for. Gratitude is a powerful tool for bringing us back to the realization that our world is so much bigger than the problems that worry us. In the words of Lao-Tzu:

Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
The whole world belongs to you.

(August 1, 2010)

Over the years, people have created many ways of celebrating Sabbath in their own lives: Gathering with friends and family; shopping for, preparing, and eating good, healthy food; painting; sculpting; singing; dancing; playing music. The list goes on and on of things that can provide a profound sense of restoration and reflection.

For example, to me most gardening is work; another task to be done. For Karen, it’s a spiritual practice. I can see the pleasure she finds in relating to her plants, and how calming and restorative gardening is for her. For me, I got that same effect for all the years I took care of seals and sea lions at the Marine Mammal Center. We worked our tails off on our shift. And after working hard for many hours, I would come home all stinky from fish and (other things), but somehow the experience helped to energize me every week. I forgot about my everyday cares and concerns; I worried about our patients; and I worked hard to make them better. And all of that was really, really good for my soul!

So Sabbath can be something different for each one of us, and it can also be something that we do together. We need to take the time – from our busy lives – to be still, or to play, or to be with friends. We need to find the time to appreciate the silence, to be nourished, to be refreshed. We need to take the time to look into our deepest being, to experience the insights and the blessings that come to us from periods of deep mindfulness. We need to take the time to be grateful for this amazing, wondrous, miraculous gift of life that we have been given. Because, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Just to be is a blessing.
Just to live is holy.

May it be so! Blessed be! And amen!