SCRIPTURE: Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: April 25th, 2014
12“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
Sometimes, I would hear people tell me that they keep Sabbath by slowing down. They would pace themselves a little less than normal. They would also learn to relax while they can and the incorporate leisurely activities as often as possible. Some go to Church on Sundays and call that Sabbath. Some watch the morning sports. Others go shopping.
Strictly speaking, these things are not exactly the biblical Sabbath. The word "shabbat" means to stop, to cease, to abstain, or to desist. There is no "slowing down." When one stops, movement stops. When one slows down, movement continues. "Shabbat" is about observing a day in which our normal activities cease. Period. Like Genesis 2, God essentially stopped his creative work and rested on the Sabbath Day. He didn't make another ant, or weave in another leaf. He didn't even create another snowflake just for the fun of it. It is a day in which God observes Sabbath by stopping. No multi-tasking or slowing down to the speed of leisure. In Deuteronomy 5:12, the purpose of observing the Sabbath is to "keep it holy."
A) Restlessness a Spiritual Norm
Do we then need to work out something in order to "keep it holy?" Not really. For holiness is not about action or activities. Neither is it about a ritual or a routine. It is about a state. It is about that tranquil moment in which we let things be what they are. We let people be who they are. We let ourselves catch a breath. Stopping facilitates the journey toward stillness and silence. The prophet Elijah knew it all along that recognizing the presence of God means being focused on the still small voice of the Divine. It is not dependent on the flurry of activities or the dramatic waves of the world. He found God not in a twister but in a whisper. Not for a elaborate sight but with an expectant delight. Elijah expected to see God not in the way that he wants to, but in the way that God does. This means knowing the Person of God. It reflects the relationship between Elijah and the Lord.
Sometimes, we too behave like the Israelites who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday only to run away from him on Good Friday. We have become so activity driven and fanfare-led, that when nothing is happening, we feel like something is wrong.
Oops, my phone has been way too silent. Did it run out of battery? Is the signal weak? Have I silenced the phone and missed an important call? Have my friends forgotten me? Did I forget my phone? If we are used to email beeps or Facebook prompts, when nothing is received, we worry that we have been forgotten, ignored, or ostracized. Can we survive even a day without that tempting red notification balloons on Facebook?
So we check incessantly our social media status to make sure we are connected. We rummage through the different email accounts to make sure that we do not miss out on any emails. For the desperate, even a spam mail will keep our level of importance afloat. For those who are used to activities, anything is better than nothing. Any sound is better than silence. We have largely failed to appreciate the need to stop and the beauty of silence.
Even in Bible studies, many people are uncomfortable with long periods of silence. They need Quaker-style training. In fact, you will know that true friends are those who allow us to talk when we want to, and not to talk when we don't want to. A certain Jim Morrison once said:
"Friends can help each other. A true friend is someone who lets you have total freedom to be yourself - and especially to feel. Or, not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at the moment is fine with them. That's what real love amounts to - letting a person be what he really is."We need friends like these, people who will give us the space when we need it. Close friends know when to spark conversation and also when to leave us alone. The American poet, Elizabeth B. Rooney nails it when she questions society's attitudes toward silence.
"Must we use words
Can there not be
A silent, flaming
Leap of heart
Restlessness is a spiritual norm. That is why we need exercises to address this. One way is via personal retreats.
B) Noise and Non-Stop Activities
My friend recently went for a silent retreat at a monastery. I am familiar with that place. At a silent retreat, people eat, walk past one another, or go about their work quietly. Even friends will refrain from speech at any time. Whispers are frowned upon. Silent prayer is an accepted currency of the entire retreat. The other is quiet meditation. Thomas Merton, the famous Roman Catholic monk says this of silence:
"It is generally safe to say that noise and turmoil in the interior life are signs of inspirations that proceed from our own emotion and from some spirit that is anything but holy. The inspirations of the Spirit of God are not grandiose. They are simple. They move us to see God in works that are difficult without being spectacular. They lead us in paths that are happy because they are obscure. That is why they always bring with them a sense of liberation." (Thomas Merton, Ascent to Truth, Burns and Oates, UK, 1976, p137)
Noise is that single greatest distraction from the spiritual life. A disquieted soul will lead to a noisy roll. A restless spirit ruffles up feathers everywhere.
I think there are spiritual lessons to learn even when one watches golf on TV. Before that all important putt or that amazing tennis ace, professional golfers and top tennis stars demand total silence so that they can get their stroke absolutely right. A single cough or a guttering throat will spoil everything. In Sabbath moments, we need to learn to still ourselves and to be watchful for that single divine moment where God is present. We need to stop, not just slow down. Maybe, this is one incentive for our spiritual life and devotions. We learn to have better devotional moments whenever we learn to stop everything else.
Open the Bible only after we turn off our phones, our computers, our TVs, and our radios. Pray without interruption by closing our doors. Meditate at length without the nagging pull to multitask everything. For if we do so, we end up so centered on activities that we fail to let our hearts sense the presence of God.
C) The Unbearable State of Stopping
Unfortunately, popular culture is unfriendly to stopping. From traffic congestion to people stuck in a stagnant queue, the lack of movement is unacceptable. It breeds impatience and anger. Fights have even occurred over a lane changing incident. The worst times are when lanes are closed due to construction work or police incidents. During accidents on the expressways, busy people become busybodies. No wonder traffic was held up all the way behind.
During regular times, stopping is also not a popular habit. At traffic junctions with a stop sign, I often see drivers making "rolling stop" prior to negotiating a turn. According to the law, the vehicle must come to a complete stop when they reach the STOP sign. Alas! People are so used to motion that instead of stopping, they slow down to a crawl before picking up speed. If caught by the traffic police, they will be penalised.If not, they roll their cars away, regardless of the traffic signs.
Some even beat the red light.
D) When Forced to Stop
Sabbath means stop, not slow down. Unfortunately, for some of us, we only stop when it becomes all too late. This is most powerfully demonstrated when a loved one passes away or suddenly falls seriously ill. Busy executives take emergency leave. Family members fly in from all over the world. The daily activities that concern us often suddenly become less important. Recently, I saw that happening to the family of a dying father. For death is the surest way of forcing people to stop what they are doing.
I know of no more profound thing than death or dying that would stop people at their tracks and to start appreciating family, friends, relationships, and life in general. Death is a rude way to awaken anyone's sloth. For the Christian, it should not be the only way. For if we learn to practise stopping on a weekly basis, we will not see death as something to be afraid of. The Sabbatical moment is about stopping regularly from our regular work. It does not mean doing the "Shabbat" is more important than the other six days. It simply reminds us that we are mortal beings, created in the image of God. We make use of the seventh day to pause, and to look back at the week. We experience what it means to be free to say "no" to regular work, and to say "yes" to rest.
Each week, take the time to stop. Then we will realize that life is bigger than our hustle and bustle. It is larger than our petty worries. For as we make space to still ourselves, we become more appreciative of God who always cares and loves us. No need to worry that we do not have enough to eat or to drink. God takes care of them. Didn't He teach us to watch birds and to see the lilies of the field?
Once I watched a still garden. With flowers blooming and the gentle winds blowing, I stopped. I observed. I admired. I cherished the beauty of flowers and the flurry of colours. For moments I waited. Second turned to minutes, and minutes into times oblivious to technology and radio waves. Waiting, watching, and wondering what is behind that twig of leaves. Then it moved. It was a hummingbird.
THOUGHT: Step back from the inner and outer noise of the day. Dismiss every interruption of sound or thought about what’s next on your calendar and bring your whole being into the presence of God, who is already present to you. Sit in silence as you quiet your soul before God, inviting the Spirit’s guidance to form your prayers and shape your life. (Reuben P. Job, Listen: Praying in a Noisy World, Nashville, TN: 2013, p104)
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