As early as I can remember, I recall being surrounded by religion.
I kind of see myself as a “living room floor theologian,” because that is where my story begins – the living room floor.
“‘Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you’- Deuteronomy 5:12,” my grandmother would say at breakfast every morning.
We weren’t a happy family, but we were a faithful family. The Sabbath was observed staunchly.
On my mom’s good days (she had cancer) we would go to a church…many churches:
Allen A.M.E. Church in my hometown, Oxford, PA
The Pentecostal Church in Maryland
The Apostolic Church in Kennett Square
The Baptist Church up the street for VBS…
There were church picnics on college campuses, and secret meetings of laying hands in houses of the sick, baptisms in bathtubs, and much prophecy. My mother was at the center of it all, teaching me the ways of a spiritual woman, going wherever she was needed, even while standing at the mouth of her own grave.
On Sundays when mom felt weak, she would slowly glide over to her favorite easy chair, and call the family together. My brother, Matthew, thirteen years my senior and my sister Rachel, seven years my senior would groan as they shuffled in flannel pajamas, early Sunday morning, to the living room.
I remember having my own little bible when I was five. I scrawled “I ❤ God” in it.
“We will only sit for ten minutes today, because I don’t feel good,” Mom would usually say, much to the relief of my brother who was nursing a hangover and my sister who had an insatiable desire to paint artwork solely devoted to Prince. She was always in the middle of painting his mysterious countenance, but never really made time for God.
Ten minutes of The Bible would turn into one hour. One hour would turn into two hours. I begged to read passages from the King James Version and became frustrated when I stumbled over “thine, thou, whilst,” and other phrases that made no sense to me at all.
Sometimes I would get bored and sneak over to the book shelf that my grandmother built and pull down the belly dancing and yoga books and pretend I was turning quarters on my stomach or pike my legs high in the air, arch my feet and push my legs over my head. I would picture God as the blur and bursts of light behind my eyes as the blood rushed to my head.
Finally, at the end of our theology session, my grandmother would get up and begin preparing Sunday dinner, filling the staleness of the house with the warmth of soul food. She would bake or fry chicken, prepare mashed potatoes from the potatoes that were grown in our garden. This was the Sabbath as I understood it. While there were many wonderful things about being deprived of television, the astringent and oftentimes abusive interpretation of the Sabbath shaped the way I observed the day for many years. I can still hear my grandmother’s taciturn, authoritarian tone and the inevitable beatings that followed to enforce the laws of God that still hurt me deeply.
What hurts me about the memory of the Sabbath from my childhood is that my grandmother was not able to access the peacefulness, the joy or quietness of Christ or the whispers of The Holy Spirit. Instead she battled mental illness from the horrific losses in her life. She didn’t give herself permission to grieve her pains and release them the The Holy One. She didn’t take a day, she enforced a day:
“But the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” Mark 4:19.
For a very long time, the Sabbath meant punishment and deprivation, so I didn’t observe it for many years. As a little girl, I had some idea of what Sabbath observance could mean, without it being obscured by the shadow of my abusive grandmother, although it was out of my reach. Looking back, I could have asked God to help me, but I struggled with asking for help for most of my young adulthood, and still have to remind myself that it is okay to need help.
Now, I see the opportunity of Sabbath observance in every moment that I breathe in God’s grace in Christ as oxygen. I breath Him and the prayerful devotional life in very deeply and exhale everything else that doesn’t serve my highest good very slowly and measured as if I am disposing of toxic waste.
Holy Quietness: the beautiful awe, the outpouring of the pressures and burdens of a lifetime…this is retreat. This is Sabbath.
When Jesus took the cup and said to His disciples to drink of Him, the cup of life, they were renewed because they were filled with something different – the Holy Spirit. They had to leave their lives, as they knew them, to follow and be filled up by Him; the disciples had to be emptied.
Every day we are filled with information in some form or fashion in addition to the good old fashioned stimuli of having a life. There is work to be done. We toil. We expend our energy and absorb the energy from others. This is God’s will, but why?
On the Sabbath, it is our opportunity to leave our world behind and empty ourselves so we can be filled with the contents of the cup of life. Perhaps this is what the creation story is really telling us: the framework of life is to work so that we can come to know and appreciate the awesomeness of God in such a way that it compels us to rest.
Now, I am a wife and mother with a family. I work diligently for my family, our home is our sanctuary where we can rest in the Spirit of God knowing that there has been divine permission given to us to rest even if we cannot grant ourselves permission. Giving ourselves permission to rest is so very difficult!
The Sabbath is the day of the To-Don’t list, yet it comes with the responsibility to reconcile the weight of humanity that is on our spirit. The Sabbath is our quiet place to pray and just be.