Give Us Pause

November 25, 2007




© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine

University Congregational Church

November 25, 2007

Reading: I Kings 19: 9-13 (NIV)

Then he (Elijah) went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Sue Bender wrote of her friend, Yvonne, in a book entitled, Everyday Sacred. “We all need a certain amount of fallow time, Yvonne reminds me. Watching the grass grow, sitting on the hillside, staring out the window daydreaming. When we don’t have it, there is a deeper intelligence that won’t come forth. Mine is a racehorse rhythm, and once I get started in the morning it’s difficult for me to stop. Now I can see that a pause – even a very small pause – is extremely useful. These ‘little Sabbaths’ replenish my body – and my spirit.”[1]

As we rush into the holiday season I want to encourage you to pause and take a little Sabbath. I confess that when I look at my own schedule, and the schedule that many of you are trying to manage, it seems that all of us are attempting a racehorse rhythm. I do not think that a racehorse rhythm would be so bad except for the fact that someone keeps moving the finishing post further and further ahead. And the problem with horses is that you can ride them into the ground. They are faithful steeds who respond to the whip of expediency and opportunity. And they will burst their hearts to make their rider a winner.

Like the prophet Elijah, we are rushing hither and thither, serving cause after cause. It may be the cause of our work, the cause of our children, the cause of our community, or the cause of our church. Like Elijah, we enter valiantly into the fray of life seeking the good and the overthrow of evil in the service of sacred masters. We will take on the whole empire, exerting every ounce of energy and much of our resources.

At the end of the day we are often amazed to discover that our spouses or partners have become strangers to us, and that our children do not understand us – or we them. In fact, we are even a little bitter that the rewards of our racehorse rhythms have not paid off better. Our children are just about average and make the same mistakes in life that we worked so hard to prevent. The corporations that we work for seldom – if ever – notice our passing. The world continues to figure out ways to over-populate itself, over-pollute itself, or just blow itself up despite all of our efforts to save it.

Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we are so caught up with the intrigue and politics of our lives that we sometimes question the meaning of our own existence. His soliloquy in Act III begins with, “To be or not to be – that is the question.” Hamlet wonders whether it is best to accept the suffering of life or to fight the troubles that confront us. Death would mean an end to “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” But there is one problem with death. While it would end our suffering we do not know what follows this life. No traveler has returned from the other side of life to assure us that there is a future beyond this mortal coil. Our will to live is often propelled by the great anxiety of our mortality. Hamlet concludes that the fear of death and judgment eventually weakens the human resolve to action and decisiveness. We become morally reticent however busy we remain. Dare I say, our humanity diminishes in the rush to ambiguity?

Indeed, some have argued most persuasively that the fear of death is the mother of all religion. I suspect that on many levels that is quite true. I also suspect that much of the racehorse rhythm of our lives is nothing more than a sprint against the reality of our dying. As I grow older the specter of death looms ever greater in my consciousness and I often ponder the time I have left and what I might accomplish.

But I wonder if we have not made a fatal error? Do we really believe that the frantic pace that so many of us are trying to maintain satisfies the fear of death? We know in our minds that death is inevitable. Does it really make sense to try to rush ahead of it? Is it not the fact that death always keeps pace? And maybe – just maybe – the racehorse rhythm is nothing less than death’s own courser. We are riding in the saddle of death thinking we might get ahead of it. We are whipping to frenzy the very beast that will ride us into the grave; the beast that will rob our children to time with them; the beast that will steal time from our mates; the beast that will wear our own bodies, minds, and souls into oblivion.

While work we must and earn our bread, I submit to you that the racehorse rhythm is a dead heat on a hiding to nowhere. Like Elijah, we must learn that life and meaning is found in the still small voice. The very values that give our lives purpose are found in the whisper of life, not its wind, earthquake, and fire. As Sue Bender suggests, we need fallow time. We need little Sabbaths to do nothing more than be thankful – respectful – joyful.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay, Circles:

“It is the highest power of divine moments that they abolish our contrition also. I accuse myself of sloth and unprofitableness day by day; but when these waves of God flow into me I no longer reckon lost time. I no longer poorly compute my possible achievement by what remains to me of the month or year; for these moments confer a sort of omnipresence and omnipotence which asks nothing of duration, but sees that the energy of the mind is commensurate with the work to be done, without time.”[2]

Emerson is suggesting that the divine moments that some call prayer, or meditation, or in Thoreau’s words, “sauntering,” are little Sabbaths when we are free from the driving demands that we make better use of our time – that we try harder and work harder to accomplish more. Emerson suggests that these divine moments, when God flows through him, are a reminder that his achievements pale before eternity. The real confession is not what he has failed to achieve, or should achieve. The real confession is the pride that suggests that he ever could in the first place. It is more important, says Emerson that he spends time in the presence and knowledge of the Creator. For out of that bond Emerson’s mind finds the deeper intelligence of life and work; an intelligence that is timeless. Likewise, the Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The Sabbath as a day of rest is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and become fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.”

As an instructor at Phillips Theological Seminary, one of my greatest concerns for students is that they never learn to take the little Sabbaths. Most of them rush between full time jobs, families, church activities, and graduate school. While many actually read the material assigned to them, there are few that have really taken the time to reflect, absorb, and integrate it. They have no time to incorporate it, to bring it to the corpus of their minds. And I fear that the frenetic pace of their lives creates a false model of faith and ministry that they replicate for the churches they serve. I know this scenario all too well. I have practiced it to a fault.

It is not unlike the dangers of email. The Internet allows us to receive vast amounts of information in a very short period of time. We can communicate with people all over the world in seconds. But sometimes the speed gets ahead of the thought and we find ourselves sending messages that needed a little more consideration. We respond instantly to a question or concern when patience would have been a wiser course. The speed of words has not enhanced their meaning and that very speed may cause us to say things we really do not mean.

Just as television sets have a “V” chip to block material unsuitable for children, our computers need an “R” chip for “reconsideration.” The reflection chip would delay all sent messages until we took the time to review what we said and what we meant to say. It would block out curt and catty comments, or rude and inappropriate ones, at least until he had taken the time to decide that we really meant to be rude.

With the Christmas holidays now upon us, I encourage you all to take your leisure this season. Cock your ear to the whisper and ride the waves of God. Take time to saunter. Robert Fulghum wrote:

“My wife and I try to live Sundays as if they were a different kind of day. I take this concept more from the Jewish tradition than from the Christian. We don’t go anywhere; we don’t have any obligations; we don’t do any work. Instead, we listen to music, we read, we go for walks. We try to set ourselves aside from our busy lives on this day, allowing ourselves to simply enjoy being alive. We’ve noticed that having one sane day a week really makes a difference. We don’t always manage to observe the Sabbath in this way, but when we do, it is indeed a special day.”[3]

What would it look like for you and your family to take one day a week with no obligations and no work – yes, even during the shopping madness? Okay, how about half a day? Would you settle for an evening? Do not turn on the television, but do something together. Take time to read together, play board games, listen to music, and go for walks. At some point in your reverie sit quietly and reflect. You might even daydream. You might think through an issue that you are having at home or work. You might keep a journal and record a new vision. Maybe you will slip into the hammock and take an afternoon nap in the cool air. Don’t feel guilty about it. You probably needed it.

Take the little Sabbaths this holiday season. Take time to wander the stream of God’s flow. Bathe yourself in the deeper intelligence that is timeless. The little Sabbath will bring to you a fuller appreciation of life. If you will give pause you will decide that some things are not worth fighting about. You will find the grace to let things go. If you will give pause you will recover thankfulness. If you will but hear the whisper you will discern the meaning of it all. Allow yourself one sane day a week so that you can make sense of the rest of it.

In her poem, The Avowal, Denise Levertov wrote:

As swimmers dare

to lie face to the sky

and water bears them,

as hawks rest upon air

and air sustains them,

so would I learn to attain

freefall, and float

into Creator’s Spirit’s deep embrace,

knowing no effort earns

that all-surrounding grace.[4]

Slip away from the office parties, the family gatherings, and the charge for bargain prices. Stand in the still small voice. Put wind and earthquake and fire in their place. Give pause. Freefall and float.


[1] Sue Bender, Everyday Sacred, as found in Spiritual Literacy, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, eds. (New York: Scribner, 1996), p. 257.

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: AMS Press, 1979), Vol. II, p. 317.

[3] Robert Fulghum, Handbook for the Soul, as quoted in Spiritual Literacy, p. 256.

[4] Denise Levertov, “The Avowal,” Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 2002), p. 142.