Practicing the Better: Sabbath #1

Even though we have only scratched the surface regarding the Covenant, we have linked the practice of the better to quite a few important things–so many, in fact, that we might be feeling a bit overwhelmed.  God must have sensed the same possibility for the Israelites. Long lists of expectations can create a downward spiral of interest and energy, leaving us to ask, “Really?” 

There are so many ways to practice the better, we can find ourselves wondering, “Does God expect me to do all this?” By the time of Jesus, the list had proliferated into an estimated 613 rules and regulations–too many even to remember, much less perform.  If we don’t recognize what’s going on, we will turn the practice of the better into a soul-draining perfectionism, contaminating the intended life of grace with a performance-oriented fatigue, which the ego can exploit into a measurable meritocricy (“I am doing more than others, and doing it better”).  Jesus called out this horrible pseudo holiness in the contrast between the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).

To prevent this, the Covenant added the saving grace called sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11).  Notice that the command to keep the sabbath is by far the longest of the ten commandments.  In an activistic, over-worked and sleep-deprived 24/7 planet, we too often live as if the sabbath commandment were never given.  But one thing the Covenant makes clear is this: “keeping on keeping on” through an unceasing round of unrelenting activities is not what it means to practice the better.  In fact, Merton called this kind of spirituality a form of violence. [1]

Instead, Dr. Susan Muto has written about “the pace of grace.” [2]. The first time I read her words, I thought to myself, “I didn’t even know grace has a pace.”. But it does, and my astonishment was because far too often I had “put the pedal to the metal” and exceeded the speed limit of life.  The practice of the better does not ask for this, and by no means requires it.  Recognizing this is so important that we will extend our look at the sabbath-principle and its relation to practicing the better. [3]

[1] Thomas Merton, ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ (Image Books,1968), 86.

[2] Susan Muto, ‘Meditation in Motion’ (Image Books, 1986), 34.  The entire book is a guide to overcoming the soul-drain of activism.

[3] Like many other aspects described in this series, sabbath is too big to be explored in blog-length posts.  For a more complete picture, read Wayne Muller’s book, ‘Sabbath.’ And with that foundation, look at Walter Brueggemann’s ‘Sabbath as Resistance.’

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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