If I could sum up what Sabbath means to me, it would take just three words: He says stop.
Every Sabbath starts in the shuk.
Or so it seems, if you're in Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon.
The shuk is an open-air market, a rabbit's warren of tiny shops where colorful jumbles of produce are piled, unwrapped, at your elbow. There are plums and melons, peaches and grapes, and small mountains of cucumbers and tomatoes, the ubiquitous Israeli salad vegetables. There are cold-eyed fish reposing odorously on ice, heaps of shiny-crusted rolls, trays of pastries, bins of fresh-roasted nuts, blocks of ground sesame seed candy, and towering pyramids of spices. You can watch pita bread roll off the press, sample toffee-like dates, or purchase a gooey, sugar-dusted cube of Turkish delight.
The shuk is a dizzying place at any time, but never more so than on a Friday afternoon, when everyone is between a rock (the need for food) and a hard place (the end of shopping as Sabbath approaches). Everyone else's elbows are likely to be in your ribs, carts of empty produce boxes in your way, and voices ringing in your ears, bellowing the merits of one shop's bananas, onions, or olives over another's. "Shabbat shalom," the shopkeepers say cheerfully as they bag up your bunch of fresh parsley or tie up your flat of eggs, accepting a few shekels in return.
Within a few hours, this place will be deserted: lock, stock, and barrel. Even the light bulbs are unscrewed for safekeeping.
With a few short hours, horns will sound all over the city: deep, mellow tones that say sunset is almost here. Prayer areas will be full and the streets quiet, but for last-minute knots of folks hurrying home for supper. If you have no place to go, chances are that someone will take you in, because (culturally odd as the comparison may be) spending Sabbath alone in Jerusalem is as unthinkable as spending Christmas without family, anywhere else in the world.
* * *
Sometimes they start cooking on Thursday.
And well they should, for there is plenty to do: chopping potatoes, onions, carrots, and spinach for a rich, slow-simmered vegetable soup. Assembling lasagna. Creaming roasted eggplant into a smoky-flavored dip for the plump bags of pita that have just come home from the shuk. Dicing tomatoes and tiny, crisp cucumbers for the Israeli salad. Setting the long, white-cloaked table with china and glass while the aroma of baking challah bread floats through the air. In the kitchen, a deep, dark chocolate cake waits to be garnished with coconut sorbet and strawberries.
After walking the short distance from a neighborhood or two away, the children and grandchildren have arrived. Our hostess, a petite grandmother with short brown hair and bright brown eyes, lights twin candles, and kisses our cheeks. "Shabbat shalom," she says. Our host washes his hands, breaks the braided bread, and blesses God for the fruit of the vine.
It's official: Sabbath has arrived.
In the next 24 hours, we will feast, sing, pray, sleep, worship, and sit at the table talking about God — just because we can.
* * *
If I could sum up what Sabbath means to me, it would take just three words.
He says stop.
In fact, that's more or less what the Hebrew word shabbat means: to repose, desist from exertion, cease, celebrate, leave, put down, rest, be still.
Even God, who never tires, decided to take a break after six days' work on the world. I can only imagine that He delighted in every moment of that unfathomably complex creative activity. But still He stopped.
So I stop, too.
Stop what? There's a lot of discussion about what I should be refraining from today, but maybe it's not so complicated. The Bible says, "Six days you shall labor and do all your work." I know what my work is. That's what I'm supposed to stop.
But it's not just stopping - it's stopping in order to.
In order to debrief and defrag from the busy week. In order to remember who I am, and who my Master is. (Not money. Not man. And not myself, thank God.) I stop in order to focus on the Center of my world. Reset my clock by atomic time. Reorient my compass to true north. Renew my mind, lest the insistent world squeeze me into its mold.
And be refreshed. After my Creator completed His work and saw that it was very good, He stopped. And in that pause, the Hebrew tells us, He was refreshed as if by a breath of air.
This week I opened an e-mail from an acquaintance, and chuckled — then winced, slowly realizing that what first appeared to be a humorous comment was actually a sarcastic attempt to cover some real hurt. Hurt I had inflicted.
This week, I dipped down into depression, and up into God's grace. I left a wavering trail behind me of work, and escape from work; faith, and lack of faith; kindness and complaint.
Unlike God, I can't always look back on my week's work and say that it was good, let alone very good.
And still, Sabbath comes.
What else can this be but sheer grace? I am free to rest, not because of what I do, but because of Who I know — and what He did! In keeping Sabbath, I reenact my salvation story: once I was slave; now I am free!
Sabbath is God's permission to say no to the tyranny of the urgent. He knows I wouldn't stop if He didn't command me to do it. He knows that in my world, there's always one more thing to do.
Sometimes it seems selfish to stop. But the greater the demands, the more I need to fill my reservoir. When my body is begging for a break, when my temper grows short, when my resistance to temptation is getting low, I'm responsible to refill my physical, emotional, and spiritual reserves.
But how? It doesn't come through me time, nor does it come from being pious. (Believe me, I've tried). There's just one source, and it's the same one that transformed those ordinary, uneducated first disciples.
They had been with Jesus.
They went walking in the field with Him, munching on fresh-picked wheat kernels. They sat at the table with Him. They followed Him around, listening to Him talk about the Word, asking Him questions, and watching Him do good.
(Good, in Jesus' book, was practicing mercy, healing, saving lives, and making people whole.)
Is there any reason to doubt that His presence will do less in my life? After all, He custom-designed this day for my sake. With the same emphatic word used by a Jewish groom when he takes a woman as his wife, this oasis of time is set aside for Him. And yet He carved it out for me.
Today He gives me the freedom to do good. The tearful single mom who needs help moving? The heartbroken friend who just needs someone to listen? I don't have to check my watch or clear my schedule. If time is money, then today I'm a millionaire.
If time is money, then all week I'm a pauper. Are you like me? Week after week and year after year, mentally hoarding up pastimes that just don't fit into the daily grind. At the top of the list is more time with Jesus. "Someday," I tell myself, "Someday I'll really stop, be still, and know that He is God." And Sabbath is already there, a standing date with the One who loves me best.
But wait. Often when it comes right down to it, I don't want quiet; I want distraction. I don't want to be awakened; I want to be amused. I don't want to address my needs; I want to drown them out. God wants me to savor time; I want to spend it, fill it, and even kill it.
At other times, I'm longing for Sabbath, but I can't seem to get inside it when it comes. My mind won't quit racing, my heart won't cease aching, and I'm completely unable to stop.
Like all good things, quiet doesn't come by accident: Sometimes it really is labor to enter into the rest He's bought for us. On a practical level, it helps to have something different — a song, a meal, some candles, some time to voice God's faithfulness — something that informs my spirit and emotions that now is the time to rest. There's so much from the world, the flesh, and the devil to harry and annoy, distract, alienate, and overwhelm. Sometimes it's enough to pray for that rest. Sometimes others must pray for me. And always, always I have an ally in my Good Shepherd, who enables me to lie down in green pastures, and leads me by waters of rest. The way to that place is something I learn from Him.
Just come, He says.
"Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden." I don't know about you, but sometimes my heaviest burden is my self. The complaints, the aches, the foibles, the litanies of disaster, the jealousies, grudges, and grumps: sometimes I heartily long for a vacation from all that stuff.
I can have one.
As I learn from Jesus, who is gentle and lowly in heart, my load becomes curiously light. Unlike my own expectations for myself, His commands are not burdensome. He freely gives me refreshment and rest for my soul. An intermission. A pause. A heart at leisure from itself.
In Jesus' company, each Sabbath is different. It's an adventure to start out the day with Him at the helm, not knowing where He will take me. With self-indulgence mercifully excluded from the schedule, today is sure to contain an embarrassment of riches. After all, His plans for me are crammed with good — more good than I know how to plan for myself.
* * *
Never mind the fact that I had a million things to do: I was stuck on a bench in a tiny park in Jerusalem.
Around me swirled my hurricane of impending tasks, but I was in the eye of the storm, where all was still. Peacefully, I thought over a recent church service. As if my mind was a zoom lens on a video camera, I began focusing in. I saw the people in the pews, concentrating on singing. Moving towards the front, I saw the musicians on one side and the pastor, arms outstretched in worship, on the other. Between and behind them, two little girls held hands and danced a simple dance. It was good; it was very good, but it wasn't the heart of what was going on.
Behind them all was one little girl, sitting on a bench and softly clapping her hands with a sound I imagined, like quick, quiet rain. It was as if she was saying, "Yay, Jesus! You're getting it right!" And that was the heart of the matter.
Being still and worshiping Him.
Just because we can.
I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
Copyright 2009 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved.