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  • Writer's pictureWesley Snedeker

and keep it holy

Barbara Brown Taylor is a former Episcopal priest and seminary professor. These days, she writes books and mostly functions as an endlessly productive quote factory for mainline Protestant pastors racking their brains for sermon ideas. In 2009, she published a wonderfully unpretentious book called An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Loosely summarized, An Altar in the World is a series of reflections on certain spiritual practices, not formal ones but rather profane or earthy ones. In Taylor’s words, these are “certain exercise[s] in being human that require a body as well as a soul… In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life” (xviii). These practices include pilgrimage, fasting, and prayer, but also eating, singing, paying reverence, and bathing. It is a fine resource one can turn to when struggling to focus or recenter their perception of themselves or other things. Its eighth chapter is particularly challenging, entitled “The Practice of Saying No.” In it, Taylor explores self-preservation and self respect with an awareness that challenges both consumerist satisfaction with fatigue and burnout-friendly Christian ideas about zeal.

Taylor begins her chapter considering the “seductiveness” of the word “yes.” She does so without shaming the reader for wishing to work harder or be more open to opportunities. She presents with finesse the goodness of affirmation, but always keeps in mind the way pop-cultural and rhetorical forces compel individuals (particularly Americans) to hustle. In an economic and political society motivated by movers and spenders, folks are fed pervasive messaging that seeks to spur them into purchasing or toiling. This creates tension in an individual with needs, and Taylor effectively illuminates the tricky emotions that arise in people who feel they must work (or buy, participate, etc.) when they choose not to: confusion and aimlessness and fatigue and timidness. Owning inaction is anathema for consumerists. And so, Taylor suggests, for the good of the person, we restore the sabbath (she even goes as far as to recall the early apostolic church, the members of which observed both a day of rest, Saturday, and the day the Lord rose, Sunday). An Altar in the World is no shallow self help book. While accessibly written, Taylor draws from theological titans like Meister Eckhart, Karl Barth, and Abraham Joshua Heschel in establishing various intersecting arguments for sabbath. The individual, says Barth, is only free if they determine and limit their activity. God, says Heschel, declared a single day of rest holy before anything else, and it is therefore a “palace in time.” The sabbath, writes Taylor, is disruptive, taking dollars out of systems that seek to extract them and redistribute them upwards. It is a mark of dignity for workers and a signifier of worth for ecosystems and nonhuman animals. It is for freeing the slaves and living from the land. It is obedience to God.

The reality of the sabbath is utterly lost on many religious professionals. Seminaries seem to have realized its value in a shallow way, so they assign lengthy tomes on the subject and 4 hour long seminars on self care between classes. The lostness of the fourth commandment is understandable, though, and its misplacement comes not from apathy but concern. United Church of Christ ministers are called in their examination for ordination to be “zealous in maintaining the truth of the gospel.” Disciples in general are called to do the zealous, the extreme, the tireless—to take up their crosses and follow. In 2019’s attention economy, a sociopolitical stew that makes the struggles depicted in Taylor’s book seem quaint (she references Myspace, ha!), it is easy to conflate zeal with manufactured insecurity. Yes, the work of undoing injustice and overthrowing evil is difficult. No, we are not alone in it and cannot accomplish it by ourselves. And we certainly cannot work infinitely. A return to the sabbath is not a denial of the harsh realities of the gospel but rather a recognition of the finitude of the human, a return (in Bonhoeffer’s parlance) to imago dei from sicut deus. We stop thinking of ourselves as replacement gods and start reflecting again the image of ultimate care.

Coupled with the zeal of Christian gospeling in the UCC service of ordination is a call to maintain the peace of the church. Of course, this has political (knowing the UCC, anti-war and systemic righteousness) implications, but it is also a recognition of zeal’s dance partner: peace. One must find peace and safety from which to journey forth, proclaiming the earth shaking reality of the gospel. Without this opportunity to find rest, the work of the gospel cannot be done. This is not to say that all Christians work too hard (or, maybe especially, all ministers). Indeed, some of us rest in our complacency and look at the nothing we have accomplished and declare it good ourselves. Rather, it is to say that the work of advocacy, of care, of protest, of healing, of education, and of fellowship are ongoing, exhausting, and worthwhile. A willing servant of others who does not care for their own needs is not an effective servant, and so ends worthwhile ministry. So we rest. And in the peace of rest we find that we are not just workers and carers and servants but odd, squishy, needy people who hope to reflect God, who cannot and will never unseat her. People need to be fed as well as feed. We need to express freedom as well as seek it.

“When you live in the desert,” Taylor writes, “working twice as hard as people who do not, to lead your flock to food, and water, and shade, your day begins when they all lie down, no longer interested in following you but only in murmuring to one another until they can fall asleep and graze fields of clover in their dreams. Your day begins when you too can lie down by the fire, with nothing to do but trade tales with the others, or play a tune on your reed flute while the children watch for shooting stars over all your heads.

“And there was evening and there was morning, the seventh day.”

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