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Silence, Solitude, Sabbath

By Rev. Christopher Chandler, Pastor

The Fourth Commandment Reads:Rev Chris Chandler

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don’t do any work — not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day. Ex. 20: 8-11


Throughout my ministry, I have observed two types of Christians striving to be faithful: One is, by temperament, even-paced and more often than not balanced in his or her life’s obligations, hobbies and pursuits.  The other person is similar to the first, in that this Christian is also reflective and prayerful.  But I’ve noticed a distinct difference between the two in their capacity to be still, to slow down, to cease and to rest.  The first is well on the way to developing a healthy practice of Sabbath observance, by worshiping regularly, being open to setting one day aside as unique among the six other days, and taking personal retreat time to get alone with God.  The other individual gives verbal assent to this desire for Sabbath rest, would like to renegotiate his priorities and recognizes the need to cultivate time with God. Yet, he is unable to see how life can make room for much more than a single hour on Sunday morning. We know that, in God’s economy, the discipline of Sabbath is one that tunes our spiritual senses to God’s whisper so that, amid the noise of suburban traffic, we genuinely are able to hear the still small voice.   People often ask, “Why can’t I hear God’s voice?” This results, in large part, because amid all the noise in our lives, we have not cultivated our capacity to know what God’s voice sounds like.


In Scripture, the Lord invites us to “be still and know that I am God.”  How this divine invitation, “to be, to still, and to Know God” shapes a person’s inner life, is related to the extent in which they decide to cultivate a practice of being quiet – the kind of quiet that is attentive and expectant, a quiet watchfulness that is present to His Presence.  I have always loved the way Eugene H. Peterson captures Psalm 27 in “The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language”:


“I’m asking GOD for one thing, only one thing: To live with him in his house my whole life long. I’ll contemplate his beauty; I’ll study at his feet. That’s the only quiet, secure place in a noisy world, the perfect getaway, far from the buzz of traffic.” (Ps 27:4–5)


Not only is this an image I long to see in the lives of those with whom I pray, it is an image that I long to personally realize more fully.

In the midst of soccer games, piano practices and dance recitals, in the midst of a world that is growing more competitive and less relational, more secular and less sacred, one might seriously wonder how such stillness, silence and Sabbath is even possible.  Stillness, in a cultural current swiftly flowing through the varied facets of life, simply does not seem feasible or even practical.  In India, there flows the Mandakini River. “Mand” means calm and unhurried, and Mandakini thus signifies “she who flows calmly.”  This image from the East illustrates the sort of living God makes possible for us.  Surely, this is why at the very start of life itself that God carved out for humanity the holy gift of Shabbat – meaning to cease, to desist.  In her book “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly,” Marva J. Dawn reminds us:


“Sabbath is not only a time to cease from work itself, but also from the need to accomplish and be productive, from the worry and tension that accompany modern criterion of efficiency, from our efforts to be in control of our lives as if we were God, from our possessiveness and enculturation, and finally from the humdrum and meaninglessness that result when life is pursed without God at the center.”


Might observance of the Fourth Commandment, to keep the Sabbath Holy, be at least part of the remedy we need to heal our spiritual ailment? I believe so. There is within the belly of humanity a longing for the Holy, and yet it seems we continue to live life as though there is no real satisfaction to quench our spiritual hunger.  Like Mick Jagger, we exclaim far too often, “I can’t get no satisfaction.”  Frequently, however, we are like ignorant children who are distracted by “making mud pies in the slums” when a “holiday at the sea” has been offered to us (“The Weight of Glory” by C.S. Lewis). Sabbath gives us the joy of experiencing this holiday at the sea .


In the book “The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith,” authors Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich encourage not only priests or pastors but also everyday followers of Christ to set aside time to walk, to listen to God’s voice, to think, to feel, to slow down and to reflect.  We cannot realize Holy movements  if all we do is race around and defend our busyness or our work  in the name of success, achievement, security or progress. Of course, it is not as though any of these tensions is new to the human condition. Saints such as Julian of Norwich addressed this angst in the 14th Century.  Julian lived in England during a period when plague epidemics were rampant.  Events in her day included the Black Death, a series of peasant revolts, the Hundred Years War. In this climate came her text, titled “Revelations of Divine Love,” in which she reminded us that only when a soul sets out to have Him who is everything, will we finally receive spiritual rest. Our pursuit of Him who is everything, therefore, must include attentive time with God.


Sabbath rest, this attentive time, it is not magical, it is not even sufficient. But it is necessary to the soul’s health. The sure oddity I have noticed is that, the more I personally practice this spiritual discipline, the deeper my longing for God becomes. The more intentional I am about incorporating this simple element into the rhythm of commonplace life, the more fulfilling I find life and ministry to become.  On the flip side, because I sometimes cower to the tyranny of the urgent, it can still be difficult to faithfully set aside an entire 24-hour period.  My hope and prayer is that, over time, I will more fully receive the restorative and recuperative gift God has offered because, only then, can I most wholly lead those with whom I journey.

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