Exodus 20:8-10a, 11 and Psalm 131
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8-11 – NRSV)
1LORD, my heart has not become haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither have I walked in grandeur, nor in wonderful things above and beyond that which pertains to me.
2Rather I have quieted myself and caused my soul to become silent, that I might be as a child that is weaned of his mother, as one who is weaned from my own life.
3Let Israel wait for the LORD from now on and for ever. (Psalm 131 – The Jubilee Bible 2000)
In May of 1968, Thomas Merton wrote the following in his journal:
“In our monasteries we have been content to find our ways to a kind of peace, a simple, undisturbed, thoughtful life. And this is certainly good, but is it good enough?
“I, for one, realize that now I need more. Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read, to cultivate…a holy leisure. There is need for effort, deepening, change and transformation. Not that I must undertake a special project of self-transformation or that I must ‘work on myself.’ In that regard, it would be better to forget it. Just to go for walks, live in peace, let change come quietly and invisibly on the inside.
“But I do have a past to break with, an accumulation of inertia, waste, wrong, foolishness, rot, junk, a great need of clarification, of mindfulness, or rather of no mind—a return to genuine practice, right effort, need to push on to the great doubt. Need for the Spirit.”1
With his characteristic honesty and directness, Merton reveals his understanding of Sabbath as something more consequential than a vacation, or “spending time in nature,” or a “mental health day,” all of which are good. For Merton, though, Sabbath involves intentional silence, stillness, awareness of and love for the world in all of its beauty and all of its brokenness. Sabbath also involves confession and a disciplined openness to “the great doubt,” which I interpret as a reference to the natural limits of human beings to comprehend God. And in that incomprehensibility—in that ambiguity—we begin to inhabit the realm of true holiness.
Faith and doubt are hardly opposites. Indeed, they are mutually inclusive. And the more one learns to lay the thin comfort of certainty aside, the more one enters the frontier of trust in which, paradoxically, God takes on new and deeper reality in the midst of that rich, spacious, and sanctifying “doubt” which is not unbelief, but faith itself. When we welcome holy ambiguity, we may discover that God has always been incomprehensibly larger than we ever imagined. And through patient grace, God has been continually reaching out to us, inviting us to experience the fullness that is God—Who is Love. Incarnate, relational, and perfectly merciful Love.
Thomas Merton’s wisdom is helping me to understand and plan for my summer Sabbath. I’ll use the first month as a time of complete disengagement, a time, as Merton said, to “break with” my own “accumulation of inertia, waste,” and so forth. So, I’ll keep my phone turned off as much as possible. I won’t check email or participate in social media. I’ll read for pure fun. I’ll ride my motorcycle as much as my less-than-perfect back will allow. Late in June, my extended family will gather down in Asheville and, finally, hold a memorial service for our dear Aunt Marcia who died two years ago. I’ll accompany Marianne to GA when she goes there to help care for her mother. All in all, June will be a time, as the psalmist says, to be “weaned from my own life.”
Now, in September, I really want to return to you with renewed energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. So, in July, I’ll begin trying to discern what new directions and purposes God may have for me—and for all of us. Early that month, I’ll attend a week-long storytelling workshop with Donald Davis. I’d love to include more stories in my preaching. Through that workshop, I also hope to rekindle my love for writing so that I might remember and create stories that will help all of us to enter the biblical story with deeper appreciation for the relational nature of God.
For the rest of July and the month of August, I plan to try to follow Merton’s advice and “return to genuine practice, right effort…[and] push on to the great doubt” in which the Spirit lives, and moves, and has its being (Acts 17:28) within and among us and all of Creation.
When I met with the Langleys to talk about today’s baptisms of Burton and Charleston, Mandee asked if I might find a place in the service to include a poem by the Austrian poet, novelist, and mystic, Rainer Maria Rilke. The poem appears in a collection entitled Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. The untitled piece Mandee showed me dovetails beautifully with the baptismal journey, the journey of faith, the journey of Thomas Merton’s “great doubt.” In one stanza, Rilke mentions an embodying of God. And isn’t that something that both Sabbath and sacrament teach us?
God speaks to each of us as he makes us
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.2
As my sabbatical begins, I offer to all of you a heartfelt THANK YOU! Your encouragement, prayers, and your very generous gifts mean more than words can express. The opportunity for an extended Sabbath is something that I do not take for granted, and I will strive to be a faithful steward of that time.
Finally, I want you to know that I have complete confidence in the session, the staff, the ministry teams, and in your sabbatical supply pastors, Kaye and Lee, to lead Jonesborough Presbyterian for the coming three months. One thing is clear to me: you are a community of faithful, dedicated, and joyful servants. You are a family, a village, a sign of God’s presence in the world. And God is always extending an inviting and invigorating hand to all of us—and to others through us. So, as St. Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
I will continue my prayers for all of you. Please do the same for me and my family.
May God’s peace and joy be with all of you and all whom you love.
And I’ll see you in September!
1 A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals. Ed. Jonathan Montaldo. Harper One, 2004. p. 151.
2Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Riverhead Books, NY. 2005. p. 119.