Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Remember the Sabbath
distributed 5/18/07 - ©2007

Among the many embarrassing moments in my life, there's the occasion of a horribly botched joke.

During an after-hours social gathering at a church meeting, I told a long, convoluted story, embellishing the details and dragging the narrative out as it moved toward its surprising conclusion. At long last, and with a great flourish, I delivered a closing line, then leaned back for the laughter. My friends, though, just sat there, staring at me. After a few moments, my wife (bless her heart), said, "Uh, Peter? Aren't you forgetting something?"

When I gave her my own blank stare, she then provided the real punch line for the story. The uproarious laughter that followed was only partly for the lame joke, and mostly for my bungling of its telling.

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Whenever there's a discussion of Christian environmental theology, the Genesis 1 creation story is sure to be mentioned. All too often, though, the way that beautiful narrative is addressed is very much like my telling of the joke.

The six-day sequence of creation is described, and at the end, an almost-final line is put forth with a wise nod and the assurance that now we know the meaning of life. But the punch line that completes the story isn't told, and the true meaning of the story is lost.

Some tellers of Genesis 1 come to a screeching halt with the affirmation that "It was very good." The beauty and integrity of creation is rightly affirmed. Other tellers find the point of the story in those words about "dominion" and "subdue." They highlight a role of human power over the creation.

But, in either case, if the account of creation stops on the sixth day, we miss the point of the whole story. For, on the seventh day, God establishes Sabbath. That is the crowning accomplishment which completes the meaning of the entire narrative.

Charles Milligan, my immensely wise friend and philosopher, noted, "Each of the days of creation is good, and the whole of creation together is very good. But the Sabbath is different from good; it is holy."

The Priestly writers of this creation story were passionately concerned with holiness. For them, the Sabbath day of rest and renewal was of utmost importance in creating that state of being. The significance of Sabbath -- and the related periods of seven days, seven years, and Jubilee at seven-times-seven years -- runs throughout the scriptures as a hallmark of what it means to live in right relationship with God and the community.

Just as I had missed the stunning importance of the seventh day of creation until Charles opened my perception, I also had not grasped the depth of a genuine Sabbath observance. My weak notion of "resting" is probably why I didn't see Sabbath as all that significant.

I had tended to think of the Sabbath day of rest as sort of like a "day off" from work. It is an opportunity to take a break from vocational obligations, and do other things. For most of us, the day off is a busy day, when errands are run and a multitude of projects are undertaken in the house and yard. There may be a change of pace, and a shift of focus, but there's still a lot of "doing" to be done. That isn't the meaning of Sabbath at all.

My awareness was expanded a few years ago when some Jewish friends spoke about their recovery of a genuine Sabbath observance. They helped me to understand the rich discipline of a weekly day when nothing is "done," and when there's a prohibition against "accomplishing" anything. The Sabbath is a day to be in relationship with family and friends and the creation, to rest and reflect, to laugh and play. All of the traditional prohibitions about what cannot be done on the Sabbath are designed to establish clear boundaries so that the true purpose of Sabbath rest can be maintained.

The Sabbath is a sharp contrast to the pervasive social values which focus on production and achievement. Sabbath calls us into a centered state of being fully human within community. The Sabbath rest provides a space for all of creation -- for all creatures and the land -- to be restored into right relationships of justice and wholeness.

If we're going to look to Genesis 1 for insights about how to live in faithful relationship with God and the creation, we must take the seventh day seriously. God rested, because creating and doing is not the most important thing. Being a thankful, joyous and centered part of the Earth community is the point of the story, and of faithful living.

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I have been pondering Sabbath recently for very personal reasons. In a few days, I begin a short Sabbatical (May 20 - June 17) from my work with Eco-Justice Ministries.

For the next four weeks, I will try to observe the injunction to "not work" at all -- at least in terms of this vocational part of my life. (Alas, there is a significant backlog of projects at home that will engage me in a "day off" style of busyness. I do intend to claim time, though, for a full resting from productive labor in the Sabbath tradition.) I am filled with eager anticipation about a renewal of creativity and joy in my life, as I take a real break from the routines and obligations of work. I plan to spend time rejoicing in the beauty and wonder of God's creation, and to minimize my attention to its urgent ecological crises.

While I am on Sabbatical, the office of Eco-Justice Ministries will be closed. Because I am the only staff person for this agency, there won't be anyone here to deal with phone messages or emails. Please be patient until I return from the Sabbatical!

Through my time off, you will continue to receive Eco-Justice Notes. Thanks to the wonders of computer technology, some "recycled" Notes from previous years already have been been scheduled to be sent out on each of the coming Fridays. Please be aware, though, that I won't be reading your responses until after I return to the office in late June.

I give thanks for the practical and spiritual wisdom that is embodied in Sabbath. After seven years of this work with Eco-Justice Ministries, I know that I am in need of this time of rest and renewal. I look forward to coming back to work with fresh energy and renewed creativity.

May we all allow Sabbath rest and renewal to be part of our lives, for in that resting we discern the deepest meaning of life, and we bring healing to ourselves and the planet.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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