Finding One Moment
[With apologies for the several updates — I hadn’t published the previous three sermons by accident.]
Our reading today comes to us from Christine Organ, from her essay titled. “Taking a Modern-Day Sabbath.”
By unplugging for one day each week, my modern-day, personal Sabbath seeks to balance the utility of technology with a little patience and remind myself that life unfolds on a timetable that is not always within my control. By removing the distractions one day each week, I am slowly learning to become comfortable with my own discomfort in order to gain a certain depth of self-awareness and figure out how to work through, not around, problems.
With a mantra of “turning off to tune in,” the modern Sabbath almost feels like capturing time in a bottle. Time is a funny thing, you know. On some days, it seems to slog along, and then, in the blink of an eye, a month or a year or a decade has passed and we are reeling from the loss of our Earthly time. By separating one day from the frenzied blur of the remaining six, by disconnecting from the frenetic pace of technology to reconnect with the sacredly simple, the modern-day Sabbath allows us to slow time and savor its goodness. Because nestled into that little nugget of slowed time is a heady calm and a mild exhilaration in the stillness and the quiet and the waiting.
Just over a month ago, I was in Boston for a minister’s seminar. It was good to be in that city again, to be surrounded by a world where primordial America is blended with the modern rush and bustle of commerce.
While the seminar itself was described as a retreat, it was one of the more exhausting weeks of my life in the past months. Unitarian Universalists have this terrible habit of having retreats that are all about work, checking off lists, and squeezing every ounce of opportunity out of a moment. Maybe it’s not just Unitarians, but people and institutions in general these days.
Couple this intense working retreat with a colleague of mine having a tragedy strike his family suddenly and mercilessly, and you have a recipe for a tiredness that is truly hard to capture. A tiredness that demands we keep going, keep working, keep reflecting, not pausing for one moment to mourn with our colleague — but to press on.
Don’t get me wrong, the information at this more appropriately named seminar was invaluable and I look forward to bringing it here in some way at some point. But I don’t know about you — those of you that are long time Unitarians and those of you that work in a world where retreat means work — the word itself makes me want to crawl back in to bed and have my own private retreat by way of sleeping in.
On the very last day of this ministers seminar, after all of the farewells, a final lunch gathering with my closest colleagues, and checking out of the hotel — with my suitcase bulging with far too many new books — I found myself with three whole hours to myself. Three hours to share with Boston.
Three hours to share with cobblestones, crusty new englanders, and a city that is in many ways as comfortable to me as Chicago — as comfortable as this place here is becoming with each passing hour. Three glorious full and undefined hours. One hundred and eighty minutes with not even a hint of an agenda.
After walking a friend to the train station and hastily bidding her farewell, I went to the only place in Boston I could think of: The Harbor. At the end of the long wharf in Boston, looking out over the harbor, you find large concrete edges, wide enough for multiple people to sit along the wharf — with giant bollards poking up through the concrete — bollards are these metal posts where berthing lines are fastened so a ship is securely docked.
I figured the place would be packed, it almost always is, but to my delight it was not. There were only a handful of people with me that crisp afternoon where the dawn of the Atlantic touches North America. I hopped up on the concrete edge and propped myself up against one of the giant bollards, stretched my legs out, and sat. And sat. And sat.
I briefly listened to music, took a few photos, but mostly I sat. Seagulls and ships passing by were the soundtrack, the sound of the wind and water, the clouds hurrying by, the sunlight passing into and out of view. A few small boats passed by with solitary captains that spotted me, they nodded, they waved.
I suspect they understood what it was to just sit and stare out at the harbor. It is something to be so completely at ease in a place. To find that you can just sit and be — just exist in a moment. It is something to let yourself melt away in to a place.
Those glorious three hours on the wharf were wholly transcendent but, at the same time, absorbing. I felt at once complete and deconstructed. I cannot tell you how many people came and went on that wharf in that three hours. I cannot tell you how I didn’t notice it got rapidly colder and windier that afternoon. I cannot tell you exactly what crossed my mind.
But in that moment, in that place, I finally entered into retreat. I entered in to a Sabbath — a moment of rest with no expectations, no measurable results, no need for Brian the reverend, Brian the partner, Brian the son, Brian the citizen — but just myself and the whole world before me.
Such moments are absolutely precious these days. And it is not because I work on the traditional Sabbath day in Western culture, but because our culture is no longer built to have Sabbath time — let alone Sabbath days.
This idea of Sabbath comes to us from the Jewish tradition. I’m sure many of you here immediately thought of Charlton Heston on Mt. Sinai receiving the commandments. But for Jews the idea of Sabbath starts with the story of Creation in the Hebrew scriptures.
In this ancient myth, the drama of God creating the world over six days ends with one heck of a cliffhanger — God rests. And this extends to the practices of many modern Jews. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, they take moments to rest and be apart from the demands of the week.
They worship God, eat with family, and unplug from technology. For the more conservative Jewish movements, you don’t drive, you prepare the Sabbath meals ahead of a time, you don’t shop, you don’t check facebook, and for the truly dedicated, running the tap water is even considered work. You completely rest.
For Muslims, there is Friday community prayers, where you join with fellow Muslims in the worship of Allah and spend time in rest. From the Qur’an Muslims are told: “O you who believe, when the call is proclaimed to prayer on Friday, hasten earnestly to a remembrance of God and leave behind all business and trade.”
And in Christianity, we know that Sunday is set aside as a day of worship and rest — as well as the day where the resurrection is honored — as any good Episcopalian and they’ll remind you, every Sunday is Easter.
Having come out of a protestant tradition, we Unitarian Universalists still gather, obviously, on Sunday. And for those of you from other generations, you no doubt remember blue laws prohibiting shopping on Sunday. It was a time to spend with your church, your neighborhood, and your family.
The examples from the worlds religions is endless. Sabbath time is a fundamental commonality between faith traditions.
Sabbath is not an unfamiliar idea. It may be an idea that calls forth grand images of burning bushes, old myths, gods that are far too interested in our day to day lives, and the lasting legacies of state sponsored religious tradition — you only need to look at laws governing the sale of alcohol on Sunday to see it.
But in this moment, right now, here in this pulpit, I am not talking about the hebrew god sanctifying the seventh day, I am not speaking of sabbath as the day when the Christian god was resurrected, I am not speaking to any of these particular traditions — as important and valid to peoples spiritualities as they are.
When I say Sabbath, for myself, I am brought back to the Boston Harbor. When we speak of Sabbath here, we are, of course, speaking of sacred time — personal moments of rest from the busyness of our lives.
The well known late American rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, is known best for his book titled simply, “The Sabbath.” In this book he puts forth his understanding of sacred time. For Heschel, the Sabbath is, “Spirit in the form of time. With our bodies we belong to space; our spirit, our souls, soar to eternity, aspire to the holy.”
When was the last time you had a moment where you could say your body belonged to space and you soared to eternity? How often do you find yourself without a moment of Sabbath time? Where are you not resting when you definitely should be? You are not alone if you can’t think of moments where this is a regular practice in your daily life.
We live in a culture of busyness, a culture that demands constant attention, a culture that asks of us far too much with not enough hours. And this is especially true in American culture. We are an overworking, Type A idolizing, and vacation forgoing people. It is not wonder then, that Americans do not find time for a regular personal Sabbath. Such moments are an intense luxury. But should they be a luxury?
There are many distractions and competing interests in modern life. I say that sentence and wonder if every generation before us has asked the same exact thing. But in this moment, on this day that is still the Sabbath in our culture, as a clergyman I am well aware that Sunday is prime real estate in the world of busyness these days.
There are soccer tournaments, cultural events, concerts, reruns of Game of Thrones, and plenty of candy crush saga to play on ones phone. Even if people find themselves in a church on a Sunday, they find themselves with an uncontrollable urge to take notes during the service —
Not on the sermon, but their grocery lists or to-do lists for the week. Someone might also sneak glances at facebook on their phones making sure that picture of their cat is still getting likes, or seeing what’s on instagram or twitter, or checking work email — for shame.
And beyond Sunday, every ounce of time has already been claimed by mammoth schedules and demands. Toddlers have busier social calendars than the Kardashians, many people in this room work multiple jobs just to get by, some people spend hours in traffic, others are in school — working — studying — embarking upon internships —
There are more social clubs and organizations than we know what to do with, there are causes for justice under every stone, and still somewhere in the midst of all of this there needs to be time for eating, resting, and sleeping.
At the risk of sounding like a luddite, there is also the constant demand of the devices we have in our pockets, on our wrists, in our living rooms, on our desks, in our cars. And I truly believe in technology — I believe in the power of the advances our species is making. But like many people, like many photo commentaries ironically posted on social media —
I cannot help but notice how completely uncomfortable people are just being in a moment. Just being alone with their thoughts. Just resting with their mind, body, soul — just being, with no noise other than ones own breathing
We live in a world that gives us every opportunity to consume every single waking second with noise, information, phone calls, text messages, reruns, pictures of cats, celebrity gossip, and work with more work along with work added on to work.
It is clear to me that sacred time — time where we allow ourselves to just be in whatever way is most restful, is more valuable than ever. Time to listen to our thoughts, time to recognize the sound of our beating hearts and contemplate how fragile a tether to life we have, time to let go of our frustrations and worries, time to lean in to the unknown, time to just melt away so completely in to a place.
We are Sabbath starved as a culture. I’m sure there are those in this room that have mastered the art of carving out moments of time to just be — but I suspect there are more of us that struggle with this. Perhaps this hour here every week is that moment and it can be that moment. It can be the start of making Sabbath not just a once a week experience, but a daily discipline.
I dare not call this a spiritual practice — but a discipline. There is nothing simple about breaking away, even if just for fifteen minutes a day, from the busyness and chatter around us. It is seductive and demanding. So, yes, discipline it is. But what I am suggesting here is taking back time every single day if you do not already.
Whether it is five minutes or half an hour — time that is completely yours where there are no demands of you. No noise. No schedules. No requirements beyond just being you. That is sabbath time. That is rest from the world.
And no, watching television doesn’t count. Sabbath is an intentional time to disconnect from what is demanded of us and reconnect with what we find to be restorative. Wayne Muller from his creatively titled book, “Sabbath,” puts it this way:
“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.
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.”
It is a tall order when the world demands quite a lot of us. But as I mentioned, you can begin small. And the more it is done, the easier it becomes. The more it is sought, the easier it is found. You can start by paying attention to the moments in your day to day life where you suddenly have time to yourself.
Is it riding the bus? A plane ride? Time after a seminar or retreat? A walk through your neighborhood or a moment at home where nothing needs to be done? Pay attention to what you are drawn to do. Do you find yourself reaching for your phone? Your laptop? The remote control?
Does sitting, waiting, breathing, hearing your own heart beat — does it make you nervous? Bored? Frightened? It very well might. But sit with it. Lean in to it. Don’t reach for the distractions — and there are many. Rest with yourself and melt away even if just for a minute.
I can only say this from my own experience, but what I’ve found is that I crave those moments of sabbath these days. I do not have them as much as I’d like — much of it is my own fault and much of it is rests in the reality that sacred time is counter cultural these days.
People that know me very closely have come to know one of my sabbath practices. On clear evenings, I can be found, at any given moment, staring up at the stars. Sometimes naming constellations, other times just staring and being absorbed in the presence of infinity. It could be the dead of winter in Chicago and there I’ll stand, staring, and lose track of time.
And it is instantaneous. I can go from a million competing thoughts on my mind to complete humbling silence as the constellations Taurus, Eradanus, and Orion come in to view. When sacred time is a discipline it can be instant. It can be on our terms. What in your life brings you in to such moments of reverence and silence? Answer that for yourself and you will find the beginnings of sabbath time.
There is a cold hard reality to the the culture we are a part of. It will let you give of yourself without end, without rest, without gratitude, as much as you can give — your complete self, mind, body, spirit — and it will let you keep giving until you are wasted away and have nothing left to give.
It is importance for us, then, to find those moments, even if it is just one moment a week, to be wholly content with just being — just living — just resting in our thoughts. Find those moments and take hold of them. Hold on to them for dear life, do not let go, enjoy them, love them, find comfort and yes some discomfort in them — wrestle with the silence. Keep a sabbath.