“Looking Through the Curve”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
8 Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy.9 Six days you may work and do all your tasks,10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (CEB)
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. 26 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? (CEB)
Moses is leading the Hebrews through the wilderness. For somewhere between 200 and 400 years, the only existence the people had known was as slaves in Egypt. And now they’re wandering through unfamiliar territory toward a land they they’re being told is “home.” Imagine how otherworldly the concept of “home” can be to people born into slavery or oppression.
The drawn-out journey means learning how to survive in a barren environment. It means birthing and burying loved ones haphazardly along the way. It means, as Jesus will teach, saying no to themselves and a radical yes to God. And the Hebrews’ journey eclipses the experience of any one group of people. Theirs is the human experience of becoming who God invites and empowers us to be. And that experience involves learning to live in community, and learning to trust God, who is not always as evident as parting seas, a pillar of cloud, or morning manna.
I am the Lord your God, says Yahweh. Trust me and only me. And approach this journey, difficult as it may be, as one of creativity and discovery. And to do that, you must rest. One day a week, you, your kids, your servants, even your animals must drop everything, and rest.
The rest to which God refers is more than sleeping in or sitting in air-conditioned comfort with a ball game on. Holy sabbath involves ceasing to strive for wealth, power, and status. Sabbath is about saying no to ourselves, and releasing everything that the ego regards as productive and worthy so that we learn to trust God alone.
The so-called Puritan work ethic created a culture of run-away meritocracy which, for the most part, sidelines grace and in which people who claim to follow Jesus equate material surplus with evidence of God’s favor. And in that furious push for certainty, sabbath becomes a day for more work—for adorning sanctuaries, delivering sermons, performing anthems, and for being present and presentable so as to avoid being the subject of gossip.
Sunday also becomes a day in which children, being seen and not heard, are told “Don’t run in here! This is God’s house,” the implication being that God is in here and not out there. So out there, the neighbors, the neighborhoods, the earth itself all become fair game for exploitation. So, anyone can use anything out there to acquire more “proof” of divine partiality.
Now, if all that sounds foreign to your experience, I am genuinely grateful. There’s truth to it, though. And I think those attitudes are symptoms of reducing sabbath from life-giving rest to Sunday production. They also contribute to the church’s diminishing relevance.
I think Jesus includes sabbath concerns when he says that all who would follow him must “say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow [him]…Why,” he asks, “would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?” As I’ve said before, Jesus doesn’t come to prepare us to be dead, but to be alive! This life is about living in holy communion with God, and sabbath is crucial for experiencing that union.
And now, a stark irony: If I learned anything about sabbath while on sabbatical, it’s that sabbath takes work. On the front end, it takes preparation and commitment to set aside and guard real sabbath time. And not observing sabbath can lead us down potentially dangerous paths. In coming weeks, I’ll sprinkle in stories about my experiences. And today I’ll share one from Saturday a week ago.
As I said last May, one thing I wanted to do was ride my motorcycle as much as possible. And in June I made lots of day trips. Then, in July, out-of-town ventures, the death of Marianne’s mother, unfolding family concerns, and a flat rear tire hindered my riding plans. When I finally got a new tire and other aspects of life settled into new routines, I got to take a longer ride.
About noon on Thursday, August 25, I met my friend Mark, another Presbyterian pastor and rider. We met at the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and between Thursday and Friday, we rode about 450 of the more-than 600 miles of that trip. On Saturday morning, at Mark’s house near Hendersonville, I geared up, and we headed toward Black Mountain, NC. Mark followed me in his car since he was going on to Asheville to make a hospital visit.
To Black Mountain, we took Highway 9, and it’s great for motorcycles and sports cars. It rises and falls, winds and twists through beautiful countryside. In early July, I took an MSF “Experienced Rider” course, and was getting more confident—and having more fun. That Saturday, I was also getting really, really tired. Riding 450 miles takes a lot more out of you than driving 450 miles.
About 15 miles before Black Mountain, I approached a curve. As I got closer, I saw that the curve, obscured by some trees, was sharper than I had perceived. I also saw that the curve began where the asphalt of the highway met the concrete of a bridge. That junction often has a bump, and when that happens in a curve, a vehicle can lurch toward the outside of the curve. And that lurch can be a bit more consequential on two wheels than on four. In my fatigue and surprise, I fixated on the bridge. I didn’t think about setting myself up for the proper outside-inside-outside trajectory for negotiating a curve. I also forgot Rule #1: Look through the curve. Don’t look immediately in front of you. Throughout the curve, look completely through the curve, because a motorcycle always goes where the rider is looking.
At that moment, weary and fixated on the bridge, I ran wide in the curve, and when the car coming the opposite direction and I passed each other, we were in the same lane—his lane. He saw me in time, and I was able to correct just enough, so it wasn’t a paper-thin margin, but it was way too close. And it was my fault. I didn’t look through the curve.
I now call that experience on Highway 9 my learning curve.
When Moses led the Hebrews through the wilderness, he had to keep looking through the curves because the people he led were fixating on them. All they could see were the discomforts and dangers of the moment.
When the prophets called Israel to faithfulness, they had to keep looking through the curves because the Israelites had fixated on themselves.
Jesus had to keep looking through the curves throughout his ministry because the Pharisees and even his own disciples, fixated as they were on matching Roman violence with violence of their own, kept running headlong into oncoming traffic.
There’s a correlation between spiritual weariness and the dangers of object fixation. And those dangers manifest as preoccupation with budgets and buildings, dogmas and decorum. All-too-easily people of faith forget how life-giving—and how life-saving—it is to practice sabbath. Moses at the burning bush, Elijah in his cave, Paul in Damascus, Jesus at his Temptation are all practicing sabbath so that they can avoid object fixation during the miles and miles of curves before them.
Over the last couple of years, I quit looking through the curves and have been running wider and wider. Taking a sabbatical only began the work of re-learning sabbath and restoring well-being.
Each of us, our congregation, the wider Church, and people of all faith traditions face roads full of curves and oncoming traffic.
Remembering that God is already where we’re going, let’s look all the way through the curves, to where God is leading us. And we’ll know that place as one of reconciliation, justice, and joy. And along our winding exodus we will participate in revealing that place—a home place in which all whom God loves are welcome.
And for the record, that leaves out no one.