Sabbath and Wendell Berry (by Sara Barton)

By Sara Barton, chaplain at Pepperdine University and author A Woman Called.

For several years, I’ve been convicted that Christians should take sabbath practice seriously.

  • This is no clear-cut transferal of the Old Testament commands about sabbath to Christian practice today.  Sabbath is deeper and wider in the biblical narrative than a simple commandment.  Sabbath is an invitation from God, to mark human creativity with the punctuation mark of rest, the way God rested after Creation.
  • While we see rest as important, we shouldn’t confine sabbath to rest alone, because sabbath principles are not merely confined to one-day-a-week observance but also extend to addressing justice, in the example of Jubilee (one-year-in-seven).  It’s not meaningful if we commit to weekly rest if it does not propel us to seek justice.
  • Sabbath observance is not a means by which we earn our way into God’s grace. Sabbath is about placing God before our production, before our consumption, before all our doing. Sabbath is about being with God. The New Testament teaches we shouldn’t be legalistic about sabbath practice. I don’t think sabbath has to be observed on Sunday.  Or on Saturday.  It doesn’t have to last sundown to sundown.

Oh I have all kinds of ideas and thoughts about sabbath.  I’ve read plenty of books about sabbath.  Unfortunately, in practice, sabbath remained a list of bullet points and an idea about which I liked to pontificate but lacked roots in reality.

Full Confession: I did a lot of thinking and talking about sabbath that didn’t actually result in much sabbath-ing.

I needed a tutor to invite me into the practice, show me what to think (or not think) about in quiet hours, give me a vision for how I might actually join God in sabbath.

And then I read Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry, born in 1934, is an American novelist, poet environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. He writes poetry, novels, and essays as “a person who takes the Gospel seriously.” Berry writes in This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, “We are to rest on the sabbath also, I have supposed, in order to understand that the providence or the productivity of the living world, the most essential work, continues while we rest.  This is entirely independent of our work, and is far more complex and wonderful than any work we have ever done or will ever do.  It is more complex and wonderful than we will ever understand.

Berry’s description of sabbath as complex and wonderful, inspires me to explore it more deeply.  If, like me, you need a sabbath tutor, Berry is a good place to start.

Here’s why:

You can’t read Wendell Berry fast.  I’m a speed reader, and it serves me well in some situations.  But, sabbath is about slowing down, turning off our consumptive tendencies, and breathing with God. Sometimes I read one of Berry’s lines ten times before I move on; his artistry with words makes slowing down worth it. 

The mind that comes to rest is tended

In ways that it cannot intend:

Is borne, preserved, and comprehended

By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by

Your will, not ours. And it is fit

Our only choice should be to die

Into that rest, or out of it.

-Wendell Berry, “Another Sunday Morning Comes,” A Timbered Choir

You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out – perhaps a little at a time.’

And how long is that going to take?’

I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.’

That could be a long time.’

I will tell you a further mystery,’ he said. ‘It may take longer.’

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

You can’t overlook nature when you read Berry, and sabbath’s best is inherently linked to creation.

I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a “hypaethral book,” such as Thoreau talked about – a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread.

-Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace:  The Agrarian Essays

Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.

-Wendell Berry, Citizenship Papers

You cannot conclude from Berry that sabbath is highly individualistic.  Berry invites readers to join a cosmic sabbath journey, but he firmly roots the journey in a specific place and with specific people. His sabbath tutoring reminds me that every walk we take and every bite we eat is connected not only to God but also to creation and others. Sabbath is not merely about God and me; it’s about God and us. 

There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.

-Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

. . and we can say without presuming too much that the first principle of the Kingdom of God is that it includes everything; in it, the fall of every sparrow is a significant event. We are in it whether we know it or not and whether we wish to be or not.

-Wendell Berry, “Two Economies”

You can’t read Berry without confronting your relationship with work. Berry puts work and rest in right relationship, a central Sabbath principle. 

One thing work gives

is the joy of not working,

a minute here or there

when I stand and only breathe,

receiving the good of the air.

It comes back. Good work done

comes back into the mind,

a free breath drawn.

Wendell Berry, “Reverdure”

My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.

-Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace:  The Agrarian Essays

You can’t read Berry without laughing. Sometimes, he is just plain funny.  He’s certainly cantankerous. And he’s ironic, poking a bit of fun at us, often causing us to think deeply with his witty wonderings. He reminds me: sabbath must include humor.

Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.

-Wendell Berry, Farming: a handbook

Thinking is the most overrated human activity.

-Wendell Berry

A number of people, by now, have told me that I could greatly improve things by buying a computer. My answer is that I am not going to do it. I have several reasons, and they are good ones.

-Wendell Berry, “Why I Am Not going to Buy a Computer”

Novelty is a new kind of loneliness.

-Wendell Berry

Some of the best things I have ever thought of I have thought of during bad sermons.

-Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

We lead such hectic lives, rushing by sabbath opportunities as if they are disposable, our eyes so fastened to screens that we miss the wonders of community and creation and God.  We are such frantic consumers that we no longer recognize what has worth in this world.

I needed a tutor who provided an experience in slowing down, tuning in to nature, and realizing the fruitlessness of consumerism and individualism.  I needed help in my search for sabbath.

Many thanks Wendell Berry.

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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