Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, September 24, 2010


"The Sabbath is an organizing principle. It is a socially reinforced temporal structure." Them's fighting words for folks like my mother, who have powerful instincts when it comes to what we used to call "sabbath observance." The Sabbath is certainly not "temporal," not if you read the Bible.

But her son can't help feeling that it is. I'm finding Judith Schulevitz's The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order fascinating and thoughtful. By her reckoning, the Sabbath, as we know it, is, in fact, a "reinforced, temporal structure"--and she's even Jewish, not Dutch Reformed. By way of my wooden-shoed perspective, it's really more of all of that--more "reinforced" and "temporal" because the Ten Commandments, interpreted in an OT perspective, the perspective in which they were delivered, would have pointed sharply, militantly, at the seventh day, or Saturday. Not Sunday.

I know, I know--somewhere along the line (Schulevitz tells the story, by the way) Christians simply determined that we could red-pencil that commandment and edit in a new specified day, Sunday, the first day, and still live under the mandate of the divine directive. But it's impossible, really--rationally, at least--to argue that that determination wasn't made by someone outside the circle of Christ's disciples or apostles. Some other guy hundreds of years later first thought that through, some guy to whom we don't impute Holy Spirit-generated writing power, the divine vision of "scripture." It wasn't Jesus who edited the commandment; we did.

Here's Schulevitz: "Either you want to be organized in this way or your don't," she says, and I think she's right. But then she goes on, "or, if you're like me, you do and you don't." Yeah, she's speaking for me there too. "But if you're like me you can't quite forget what it feels like to have a Sabbath." I have to remind myself that her name is Schulevitz and not, well Schuller. "You can tell when it's missing, even if you don't necessarily miss it." No kidding. What I'd like to know is how on earth did this Jewish woman worm her way so successfully into my Calvinist psyche?

I don't shop on Sunday. I'm not militant about it, but I just don't head down to Wal-Mart, even though I could, and even though I have done it when my ox falls in a ditch. To get a plunger, for instance--when by chance, I met my son-in-law, who was just as guilty about being there as I was. Fortunately, I had that plunger in my hand. Can you think of a better symbol for sheer necessity?

I attend church, twice, in fact, most of the time. My old Arizona friends used to think I was in a cult.

Two weeks ago I took a long walk with my grandson on the Sabbath and the two of us missed the evening service. As righteous as such bonding moments might be, it's in me to feel a bite of guilt anyway. That's how deeply "reinforced" Sabbath observance is in me.

And I'm okay with that. I'm a good enough Calvinist to say that a little guilt can be a blessing. Besides, the next Sunday I was there at worship, twice. This week too, maybe. A little hiccup in the ritual ain't going to despoil me or violate the commandment, methinks.

I remember playing ball just a block away from home on Sabbath afternoons when I was a kid and sweating up a shirt full. What I had to do back then was stop somewhere between court and home, in a stand of trees maybe where no one could see me, sit there awhile, and dry myself off before going home, lest my sin be discovered. Of course, back then, I couldn't watch TV either--until Vince Lombardi came along and ruined the Sabbath for most of the state of Wisconsin. Today, my mother, who would have wondered where her son had gone wrong years ago, can likely list the Packers' latest draft picks. She wouldn't miss a game for anything. I'm spotten when I say it, I know, but some might even say that, come Sunday afternoon, she watches the Packers religously. Sorry, Mom.

There are lots of reasons why I find Schulevitz a joy, but finally there's this--even though she claims "the Sabbath" is a "reinforced, temporal structure," she'd just as soon live with its strictures, and even a spot or two of guilt, which I guess isn't the sole province of Calvinists. Some Jews must have it too.

I like that, living in between. I think she's right. I sound like the last of the existentialists maybe, but it seems to me that we've got to find our own way on such things. The dangers are clear: on one side, the parable of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," people so driven by a tradition that they're incapable of thinking about it rationally; and on the other, life without rest and peace and, most importantly, devotion.

Somewhere in between lies the path--or paths--most all of us walk, day to day.

And for the record, this Hawkeye still loves the green-and-gold. Go Pack.

See you in church.


David said...

Do you know Marva Dawn's Keeping the Sabbath Wholly? Amazing woman; thoughtful, joyful book; cheesy title. I think she did for me (to the extent that I have the will and the mind to do it) in regard to the Sabbath what John Piper did thirty years ago in regard to theology--he helped me drop the adjective from the self-descriptive term "reluctant Calvinist". Thanks for your posts (at least most of them).

Anonymous said...

ANd so it is, Matt. 12... Christ came to redeem us of our legalistic ways.."for the SON of mans is LORD of the Sabbath. We should NEVER feel guilty anymore for what Jesus has done for us. NEVER!!!! I realize now after many yrs. that we are completely made WHOLE for what he has done. SO......whether we attend 1 or 2 services, or NONE, it is of noe consequence. WE CANNOT earn our salvation. PERIOD.

Anonymous said...

Who said that the Sabbath/Sunday is about earning salvation? It's about worship, fellowship and rest! (re:anonymous). It has been recognized that the early Christians worshipped on the "Day of the Lord" that being the first day of the week, i.e. Sunday. That's enough justification for having our Sabbath then. But not legalistically! As for not going to church not having any consequences, I think Anonymous is under-appreciating what a life-time of worship and listening to - good - sermons can do for a person. A.L.S.

Rick and Monique Elgersma said...

It surely doesn't take the Sabbath not to go to Wal Mart (Either Saturday or Sunday depending on your tradition).

Anonymous said...

Anon #1. I guess I must apoligize. I never knew that not going to a sevice was a "SIN." SORRY!