A few weeks ago, on a first blessed weekend away for our little family since becoming fully vaccinated, while my daughter napped, I sat soaking in the sun and gentle sea breeze with a slim book in hand that’s been on my list for years.
Reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic text of Jewish spirituality The Sabbath, a quip attributed to E.B. White came to mind that’s resonated with me for a long time:
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
As a community developer and organizer, and a guy whose ego defaults to Enneagram 1 tendencies, I feel the acute crisis of this tension each day. I long to just be. To read, play, eat good food, lounge with loved ones, and spend half of every year thru-hiking the world. And yet, at the same time, I find my mind, body, and soul riddled with disgust for the brokenness and injustices of this world, duty-bound to participate in its transformation. I don’t particularly resonate with the word, but I’m what some would call an activist type: my identity is largely tied to struggling against bad things in this world in solidarity with folks on the margins. And there’s some white guy burden in both halves of this bifurcated psychology, no doubt.
One imbalance in my theology that I’m becoming self-conscious of is an over-indexing of my presentation of (and relationship to) shalom into something that could be expressed like this:
(a) Shalom is what God wants,
(b) **waves at everything** shalom sure ain’t what we got right now, and
(c) faithfulness is about the work of bringing shalom about.
What this misses — and why mysticism is such a crucial bedfellow to theologies of liberation (a pairing which most liberation theologians, in fact, demonstrate brilliantly but is lost in the vernacularization of their praxis) — is a theology of Creator and Creation that recognizes shalom breaking into present reality literally everywhere.
For early Christian theologians, God was present in all things all the time. Creation is, in their telling, a continuous outpouring of the Trinity’s love-dance: matter is grace enfleshed. Jesus’ archetypal intercession for the earth to be as it is in Heaven wasn’t meant to be a distant hope. It described the new reality unfolding in and through Christ, the outflow of the incarnation and resurrection through which “all things are new.”
As NT Wright and some missiologists helped popularize, there is a profound paradox to the present order of things. Redemption has already happened. Redemption is an economic term not to be spiritualized in our imagination, but rather it belongs alongside phrases like “forgive us our debts” (a quite literal need in our debt-driven inequitable society) or “liberation from bondage” (since much bondage then and now is precisely economic and debt-based). However, obviously, this redemption is not yet fully realized. In fact, many of us feel most of the time that if this is redemption (**again, waves dismally at everything in the racial capitalist landscape of colonial-modernity**), it royally sucks.
Still, it’s precisely that already/not yet that leaves our human nature feeling so conflicted and in agreement with EB White. Joy, celebration, and brilliant creativity have always been hallmarks of cultures carved out under oppression. And yet for many folks like myself (i.e., white progressives who must continually wrestle against the temptations of narcism, cynicism, and nihilism), the struggle remains real. Can we waste time savoring the already? Or must we pour our days into extending the Kingdom of Heaven into all those structures where sin, death, and oppression still seem to reign supreme?
For Heschel, this challenge is precisely as White described: it is a problem of time.
How shall we spend these hours? To what shall we give our attention today? What does the love of God and love of neighbor look like in this moment — this precise moment in which we live? For, he reminds us, it is only this time, unlike the unchangeable past or uncontrollable future, in which we have agency to act.
For the Jews, Heschel teaches, God offered an “architecture in time” through which the paradox has been upheld since the first week of creation. The Sabbath has always stood to remind us that beneath whatever cruelty we humans can squeeze into history, the fundamental essence of reality remains exactly as it was those first few days: goodness.
And goodness is, indeed, meant to be savored. You don’t cook a great meal just to put it on the shelf and keep cooking. You set the table, bring loved ones together, and take time to marinate in the goodness. And through the savoring, we find our strength, our renewal, and arrive, in this very moment, at the joy set before us.
“What is so luminous about a day?” asks Heschel. “The seventh day is a mine where spirit’s precious metal can be found with which to construct a palace in time, a dimension in which the human is at home with the divine; a dimension in which man aspires to approach the likeness of the divine.”
The Sabbath is the day of holy pleasure in the presence of the Divine. It is a day to simply rest in Christ. To take in all the good things the Creator provides. It is a day to remind ourselves and practice the truth that, while the Kingdom of Capitalism insists rest is simply made for the purpose of recharging to return to work; in the Kingdom of Heaven, work is there for the purpose of the Sabbath. To put it theologically, we are teleologically oriented not toward endless wage labor but toward the Sabbath rest where all have what they need to thrive in union with God and communion with a creation freed from enmity. Walter Brueggemann has called Sabbath the practice that most definitely resists the exploitative economies of empire—a rejection of Egypt’s gods of exploitation and selfish accumulation for Israel’s God of mutual care and communal sufficiency.
“The seventh day is the armistice in man’s cruel struggle for existence, a truce in all conflicts, personal and social, peace between man and man, man and nature, peace within man; a day on which handling money is considered a desecration, on which man avows his independence of that which is the world’ chief idol. The seventh day is the exodus from tension, the liberation of man from his own muddiness, the installation of man as a sovereign in the world of time. In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity.”
Six days a week we work in solidarity with God and the oppressed to cultivate shalom in violent places scarred by settler-colonists and their death-dealing plantations.
On the Sabbath, we partake in the shalom that already is—that is the truth beneath everything that is.
Six days a week we struggle for freedom.
On the Sabbath, we sit in the liberating truth that we are already free. And as we dwell in Sabbath freedom, the freedom of Sabbath comes to dwell in us.