“Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.” Psalm 104
I was born and reared in an ethnic and religious tribe which practiced Sabbitarianism religiously—sometimes self-righteously. I have no doubt that what we did or did not do on Sunday became, for those of us with bona fide Dutch surnames, a means by which to hold on to some identifying feature in the fierce boil of the American melting pot.
Last Sunday, my wife and I didn’t go to church. Instead, we hiked up Spirit Mound, where, 200+ years ago, Native people told Lewis and Clark they’d find little 18-inch devils,l little miniature people. It was a beautiful late summer afternoon, and the updraft rolling up the mound kept a dozen swallows more than happy. Watching them play in that wind just beneath us, was a joy. But there were no devils, no little people.
It must have been devilishly hot 200 years ago. Seaman, the huge, black Newfoundland Lewis bought for twenty bucks before he left, got himself overheated, so hot they sent him back to the Missouri River, about ten miles south.
Not so last Sunday. It was beautiful, and we were alone, overlooking land where Lewis and Clark first spotted buffalo herds. For a half hour or so, we just sat up there, in silence, the swallows swooping around us.
I’m tempted to say that our being there was kind of worship, but I won’t, even though it was. I’m so steeped in religious tradition that skipping church takes some doing, and I won’t deny that my justifying a Sabbath on Spirit Mound is, in great part, a means by which I can assuage plain old guilt: The fact is, I didn’t go to church.
Sabbitarianism, practiced faithfully when I was a boy, has left a mark on me, for better or for worse—that’s what I’m saying. Years ago, on a trip to the Netherlands, I realized that it has left a mark there, too, even though few Dutch-Americans consider the Netherlands a “Christian nation,” as so many them are proud of asserting about this country. On a Sunday, shops were closed, not because everyone was in church, but because not going to work kept families together—or so a Dutch historian told us. An interesting idea—laws created for families, not businesses.
And I’m thinking all of this this morning—it’s still dark outside—because my son fully believes, as I do, that part of the cause of his depression years ago was a year’s night shift at a local factory. He barely ever saw the sun. Spurgeon’s commentary on Psalm 104: 23, minces no words: “Night work,” he says, “should be avoided as much as possible.” I understand why Spurgeon says that—maybe better than he did himself. Then again, maybe not.
What’s clear in this verse, however, is the Bible’s arduous work ethic. Finally, 23 verses into this panorama of a psalm, man makes a cameo appearance, and what’s he doing? —backpacking among the mountain goats and coneys? worshiping? No, he’s working, doing his nine-to-five.
All of which reminds me of Weber’s argument about cause and effect between Calvinism and capitalism. It makes me think of night shifts in local factories, and what we might have lost in this country, making the Sabbath into any other work day—how easy it is, even for Christian believers, to believe in the godliness of work, and, as we have elsewhere, to shape virtue into self-righteousness.
Okay, maybe I’m still trying to justify not going to church. But one way or another, I really do believe my wife and I need more Sabbath rest, more silence, up on a hill, in the solitary presence of just a few playful swallows, nary a devil to be found.