As a student minister, I served the tiny congregation in Crane Valley, Sask. (pop. 65). One of the legends told there was about the preacher who shut down a Sunday baseball game. It happened in the early 1950s. The final game in the tournament had been rained out on Saturday night and resumed on Sunday morning. The Crane Valley Blues were playing.
The preacher took note of his diminished flock that morning. He saddled-up and rode his horse to the ball diamond, situated in the shadow of the grain elevator on the edge of town. From his high horse, the incensed reverend harangued players and spectators alike until they abandoned the game and returned to the pews.
Following the service, two amendments were negotiated regarding local Sabbath conventions. First, baseball could be played on Sunday afternoons, but not mornings. Second, a place on the Crane Valley Blues’ roster would be henceforth reserved for the preacher. That’s how, in the summer of 1985, I found myself warming the Crane Valley Blues’ bench, sometimes on a Sunday afternoon.
They seem quaint now, those stultifying Sabbath restrictions our parents and grandparents endured. No card playing or dancing or car washing or shopping or laundry or lawn cutting. Sunday was the day of rest, for picnics, courting, quiet walks and family dinners.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20/Deuteronomy 5). It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Imagine if we were as cavalier about killing or stealing or coveting as we are about the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not one of the “Ten Suggestions.” Yes, Jesus worked on the Sabbath occasionally but he was healing the sick, not shopping for liquorice whips and televisions at Walmart. Jesus said that the Sabbath is a blessing not a burden.
With shift work, 24-7 shopping, the omnipresence of social media and frenetic recreational schedules, hardly anyone, including me, stops or even slows down to keep the Sabbath anymore. Who has time?
Conscious of his mortality, John Ames, the aging preacher in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, writes to his seven-year-old son. “Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it.”
With those words, Robinson captures the blessing of Sabbath keeping. The day of rest reminds us that there is a “silent and invisible life” at work in us, and in the world, that does not depend on our machinations or productivity or busyness. There is a mysterious creative force that is more powerful than anything we do.
Sabbath, in that sense, is revolutionary. To stop. To rest. It is subversive to defy the false urgency of cell phones, iPads, Snapchats, tweets and the relentless Facebook feed with photos of our friends’ lunches, kittens and kids, to instead be fully present to God in Creation and with the person across the table from us.
This is not a wholesale rejection of the modern world or of social media or even of busyness. It is a call to rest from accomplishment, competition, consumption and the often banal distractions of technology. It is an invitation to rest; to rest our bodies, minds and souls so that we can find our proper place in the world.
We aren’t all Christians. The times of a whole day of legislated common rest are over. We can keep Sabbath moments, though. We can rest and notice the remarkable green that awakens — not by any accomplishment or effort on our part. We can notice the warm rain in spring and take care not to trample on the life it is calling up.
Very Rev. David Giuliano is a former United Church moderator and a minister with St. John’s United in Marathon, Ont.