three reflections on Sabbath

A couple weekends ago, Transfiguration held its annual parish retreat, up at the Bishop’s Ranch in Healdsburg, which is a lovely and particularly Episcopalian place to hold a retreat, nestled in the middle of wine country as it is. The theme was Sabbath, and we spent time in activity and conversation and reflection, thinking about all the different ways you can experience Sabbath: as rest and relaxation, but also in playfulness and silliness, community and solitude. These are mine.

I. On weekend mornings, growing up, my family would gather for breakfast. When we lived in California, we’d eat outside, venturing into the yard to pick an orange from the orange tree before returning to the picnic table. Much later, when we had moved to the Netherlands, we had a backyard with a little patio area in the back, and weather permitting (or, honestly, weather not permitting—my mother loves the outdoors and we would put on sweaters and join her, suffering more or less in silence), you would find us there. I’m pretty sure these were not all the kind of breakfasts memories are made of, as I’m also pretty sure there were plenty of arguments and tears and words said that perhaps needed to be said and perhaps did not need to be—that is how my family is. But we come together around the table.

I think of Christmas as my father’s holiday, and Easter as my mother’s. This may not at all be accurate, mind, but it’s a categorization my brain finds helpful, so, I run with it. I think of of Christmas as my dad’s and Easter as my mom’s, not because of any religious significance—both my parents are very lapsed Catholics that raised us with art, and music, and books, and science, and curiosity about the world around us, but not with religion—but because my father loves the magic of Christmas, the trees and carols and the presents you’ve picked out for each other. And my mother loves Easter breakfast and will load up the table with a million different little dishes and we’ll all have coffee and tea and fresh-squeezed orange juice and the butter will probably be shaped like a rabbit or there will be little fluffy chicks on the table. I distinctly remember feeling so homesick after skyping with my mom the first Easter I spent in Utah, because I had met Loel, and I knew I wasn’t going back to the Netherlands in any permanent capacity, as least for a good long while, and I knew this would mean I would not be sitting at my mother’s Easter table next year or the year after that, and I knew I would miss out.

When I converted and began to structure my life around church, all of us were still living at home and Sunday breakfasts were still happening. Every week, we’d say we’d start breakfast early enough so I could eat before church, and every week, something would happen and you would find me at nine o’clock, frantically biking to church, sometimes still with breakfast in one hand while I tried to pedal and breathe and eat at the same time. (It was good practice for weekday mornings, when I’d bike with my notes for that day’s French or Greek or Latin test in my one hand and half-eaten toast in the other.) I’d arrive feeling rushed and out of sorts and betwixt and between—no longer fully part of my family but also not an insider in this new community—as evidenced by the fact that I’d be the last in our pew at nine twenty (or, God forbid, nine-twenty-five, doing the shuffle of shame along with the other people too unrighteous to get to church at least fifteen minutes before the service began).

My family has found a good balance, I think, in accommodating my religious practices and keeping up old traditions. I usually attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, but not both, choosing to spend the other hours doing the things we always do—sing carols on Christmas Eve, squeeze orange juice in our pajamas on Christmas morning. We’ll pick out a music-filled late service for Christmas Eve, and one or all of them will come with me. Sabbath is where I first learned this balance—that sometimes I would pick church over family, and sometimes Sabbath meant skipping church and going camping, or to a museum, or listening to musicians play Bach with my dad, or sleeping late and eating breakfast in pajamas with my mother and my sisters. Sometimes I skip church and go adventuring with Loel, and sometimes Loel comes with me and sings the hymns but skips the prayers and the creed, and we laugh at the antics the kids get into together, and then stop at the board game and/or book store on the way home. It works, is what I mean, and it mostly works because Sabbath isn’t about rules and what you’re supposed to do, but a kind of reset and a way to practice what you preach and express the things you hold dear.

II. I know Sabbath is often supposed to be relaxing, and I try to leave it free. You’ll often find me on my bike on Sunday afternoons, cycling up the rolling hills of Portola Valley or Woodside, or on the wonderfully flat Bay Trail, or walking Josie, or at the library, or just sprawled on the couch, watching Jane the Virgin or NCIS or some weird documentary. But in a very important way, Sabbath isn’t relaxing for me. Sabbath is an interruption, and I think that is the way it should be.

I am an introvert. I am an introvert in so many ways, and Monday through Saturday I live an introverted life. I like it that way. I see friends, I see co-workers, I do not cut myself off from human contact, but after work most days? I read and I do puzzles and I go out on my bike by myself to recharge. I write, sometimes more successfully than otherwise. Loel and I go out for dinner and both bring a book (this sometimes puzzles the servers, and sometimes they love it). But on Sunday, I take a deep breath and enter into community.

In a lot of ways, the Episcopal Church is perfect for an intellectual introvert like me. I love liturgy. I love that everything we do has a meaning (even though I would be the first to admit I still need to read up on why, exactly, we do what we do). I love that some of our hymns celebrate nature, and others celebrate learning and knowledge and books, and I love that we are sometimes given complex music, and sometimes we sing a children’s song and find meaning in that. I love knowing that after the prayers of the people we move into the Eucharist and after the Eucharist follows the post-communion blessing and that the sermon will be short and meaningful and that I can participate in a way that works for me. Except for two things: the passing of the peace, and the Eucharist itself. Both terrify me and both have me coming back for more.

The passing of the peace is the most terrible thing you can do to an introverted, shy, socially awkward newcomer, because that is the moment you see community happening, and that is the moment you have to plug yourself into it and greet people you don’t know but that are still your brothers and sisters in Christ. (Honestly, usually I greet those directly around me but am too shy to move beyond my pew like other people do, freely hugging people on the other side of the room. How other people do that so confidently is beyond me). The other is the Eucharist, when we all move up to the front and receive the bread and wine from those presiding—there is no hiding in the pews there either. I’ve gone to churches where you receive communion from the priest, and to churches where it’s passed down the pews. The latter is safe, and that is why I prefer the former. This may only make sense if you’re made like me, but to receive something as meaningful and grace-filled and complicated like the Eucharist directly from someone’s hands, someone who knows you and will greet you by name, and then to walk back to your seat, tasting the bread and wine…it breaks down all my walls and defenses and makes me both confront my need for human connection and feel so, so loved. At that moment, I’m not thinking about the roles I have (grad student, wife, sister, daughter, teacher, nerdling), I’m not letting myself be defined by those roles or worrying about what I’ll do when one or the other falls away. I just am. It is, I think, the closest I get to feeling like enough, like I can just be present for a moment without worrying or planning or trying to control what is going to happen tomorrow or next week or next year.

And then Monday I go right back to my overachieving, type A ways, but if I’m really lucky, I can remember that feeling of being God-oriented, of being part of a story bigger than myself, and let go a little bit. Sabbath is the interruption that shocks me right out of my comfort zone and into a community trying to be his people in the world.

III. In some ways, I think Christianity itself is an interruption. In a theological sense, sure, in that the way I read it, Christianity is about siding with the marginalized and subverting existing power structures and feeding the hungry and giving voice to those that don’t have one but need to be heard. I’m a liberal for a lot of reasons, and one of them is my religion. When done properly, I believe that religion interrupts our cozy, comfortable little lives, in which everyone is like us and we can ignore those who aren’t. Religion forces me to see the divine in everyone I meet, whether it’s Loel or my best friends (easy) or that one co-worker I’d love to banish to the moon (harder) or a strict complementarian promoting patriarchy with simplistic theology (ugh, don’t get me started) or even Donald Trump proclaiming hate and walls and the gospel of greed (so hard. I fail at this, most of the time). Christianity is about seeing that we are all Other, and therefore no one is. N.T. Wright once wrote, “all are equal at the foot of the cross,” and that is the kind of theology that keeps me coming back for more.

But Christianity is also an interruption on a deeply personal level. I have tried so many times to quit church, to stop going and declare it all irrelevant to my life and move on and become spiritual but not religious or agnostic or a None. Church can trigger me and bring up all kinds of deeply traumatic and panic-inducing memories, and I have left the service crying more than once, or fled out the back hoping no one would notice. Some days, I want to proclaim that I quit and I will find meaning somewhere else (most likely in a library because forget Disneyland, those are the happiest places on earth). But I don’t. Because it keeps pulling me back. There are enough Sundays when I wonder whether I should be saying the Nicene Creed, whether I believe enough of it to say it, when I wonder if I would ever pass a litmus test if it was administered, when I wonder whether my baptism still counts since my theology has shifted so radically and I’ve changed so much since 2004. And then I take communion, and realize it doesn’t matter, because I am here and I am showing up to do the work and I am trying to be God’s hands and feet in the world and that it is worth it and that I hope I never stop. Christianity is an interruption in that it confronts me with my brokenness and moves me towards grace and wholeness. It—God—asks too much of me, sometimes, and sometimes it—God—gives me so much that I can barely hold the grace and the brokenness in one body and I marvel at it all.

3 thoughts on “three reflections on Sabbath

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