The New Sabbath

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When I was a seminarian almost 40 years ago at Yale Divinity Scbool, the star on the faculty was Henri Nouwen. I enjoyed listening to him, but a course centered on silence did not play to my strong suit, shall we say. Years later I heard from a Trappist that when he was on his yearlong retreat to Genesee monastery, he would talk to friends after dinner via the guesthouse phone until his privileges were withdrawn by the abbot. He was ADD too, and searched most for what he felt he had least, like all the rest of us. It was comforting, I must admit, and made him to less a remarkable person.

As the least likely messenger, I am perhaps the right person to offer a word about keeping Sabbath. To be sure, there were debates about its specifics in our tradition. Anglicans, for example, in contradistinction from Puritans, allowed games on the village green on Sunday; play was a form of rest (what they would have made of the NFL, however, is another question!) There was a similar debate among missionaries in east Africa, which we recall, about working in your garden. But for all Christians, including Episcopalians/Anglicans, until recently, it was a given that Sunday should have a different feel than other days. Until fairly recently, returning to Church for evensong, after Church in the morning and family dinner, was standard operating procedure.  

All of this comes to mind after reading an article by Andrew Sullivan, formerly of the New Republic, about his struggle to overcome an addiction to internet, phone, etc. He claims that the besetting sin of our time is not hedonism, as many claim, but distraction (I would have said obsession with ourselves undergirds both). In such a world, he predicts, restaurants may soon market themselves as places where there isn’t WIFI. In such a world there is surely an evangelistic opening for the rediscovery of silence as a part of Christian contemplation. And in a world where we eat together less, race our children around more, etc. the Sabbath will come to be crucial too.

Of course the Lord God did not institute the Sabbath to ease our jangled nerves. He created it so that we would worship Him, and in so doing come to be what we were created to be. But as with all apologetic and evangelistic matters, the latter is not totally unrelated to how Sabbath would be good for us. But its purpose in putting God first must remain first in our minds.

All this is a special challenge to those of us who work on the Christian Sabbath. It affects how we rethink Sunday as ‘work.’ It must drive us to find some analogue elsewhere in our week. For those of us quiet-challenged the modest first step is good - a discipline of deliberate quiet, even ten minutes in our day. Therein we recollect ourselves, and in so doing have a space to recollect God who is with and among us, the God who calls us to be ‘silent and recall that He is God.’



Saying the Same Thing in a New Way

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I am back from the House of Bishops in Detroit and the Diocese of Michigan, who showed great hospitality in a city on the rise. I continue to be impressed with our Presiding Bishop and in particular his gifts of personal relationships and encouragement. As you doubtless know, he has sought to encourage the Church by re-describing it as the “Jesus movement,” and it is this which I would like to reflect upon.

The expression is helpful in two important ways. First it places Jesus Christ himself at the center of the Church's life and thereby distinguishes Him continually from all the human traditions and institutions of which the Church consists. The idea is not new - it is really a way to speak of what the Reformers, following Paul, called “justification,” but a fresh way to say it can be good. To be sure, it is through the Church, traditions and institutions and all, that we have access to Him; “spiritual but not religious” is a mirage borne of our hyper - individualist age. But it is valuable to put first things first (and I imagine “movement” is a more appealing way to say it for many these days.

Secondly the Jesus movement is a new way to underline the properly ecumenical nature of the Church. Every community devoted to Him is related to the others – “all who are not against us are for us.”  This doesn't mean that debate over what we believe and how we should relate to the world should end. But it is good to challenge our received  divisions.

At the same time it is good to pose our queries to the phrase, to shore it up where necessary. The phrase is meant to be a big tent - fair enough.  But it is the Jesus of the Scriptures whose movement it is, and He died for our sins and has risen from the dead to inaugurate the coming of the Kingdom. The phrase mustn't blur atonement and eschatology, the doctrine of the last things.

Another way to make my point is this:  the phrase means to hearken back to the spiritual springtime, the days of the apostles.  But it is a 19th century myth that the earliest days had a simpler message of Jesus the prophet and teacher alone. From the first the apostolic preaching centered on his shameful death and its vindication in His resurrection. (As the great C.H. Dodd made clear in his writing on Acts). “Jesus movement” can and should be a new way to say the same creedal truth. I suspect there is a place for the Church's evangelicals and traditional Anglo-Catholics in holding this reminder before the Church.



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