All the World's a Classroom
I leave labor and load,
Take up a different story.
I keep an inventory
Of wonders and of uncommercial goods.
Wendell Berry, Sabbaths—1979, IV
If anyone is tallying up votes for the 2020 phrase of the year, “What day is it?” could give “You’re on mute” a run for its money. In quarantine, nebulous days, weeks, and months speed through us like a haze. And the cadence by which we previously signified time lost its rhythm, so it’s easy to lose track.
Along with the blurring of time, our various responsibilities also melt into each other as home becomes the command center of literally everything. We’re employees, employers, parents, teachers, and caregivers all at once, with thinning boundaries between each role.
Because of this, many are working longer and harder than ever before. When my workplace turns into a digital office, the net effect is, in fact, a more productive work force. Perhaps to compensate for our interrupted days, our work hours span a longer stretch of time.
This manner of working, I find, heightens a particular problem: it is hard to stop working.
When the end of the work day is undefined, and work hours can restart at any time of the day or night, you can really work until you drop. As a result, there’s a collective exhaustion that warns of an upcoming burnout, if it hasn’t happened already.
It is certainly not sustainable to live without boundaries. Is there a corrective, though, to our pandemic lives? I think there is at least one: the seventh-day Sabbath.
Sabbath as Technology for Living
For some of us, the ritual of the Sabbath—ceasing from work from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown—helps mark life’s newly obscured rhythm. Even though it is an ancient practice, it is a relevant technology for living today.
In a Washington Post opinion piece back in May, lawyer Jay Lefkowitz reflects on how the Sabbath helps delineate the days of the week during COVID. It also helps separate the sacred—like worship, family time, and reflection—from the common. As rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”
But more than just the weekly Sabbath, the practice of delineating time—the ritual of mindfully entering and leaving sections of the day—is necessary not only to make us more resilient, but also to maintain our humanity. We are not an automaton that can produce 24/7. We need restoration and demand a greater measure of our lives’ worth than just how productive we are.
In exercising these time limits, we are in fact exercising our humanity. The ability to stop working, willingly, and to act with purpose is a strength of our personhood. For we may work, but we should not be enslaved.
Ceasing as a Mark of Personhood
In the book The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, Sigve Tonstad highlights the relationship between our humanity and the act of ceasing labor. Speaking of the biblical creation account,
“The account reports both a beginning and a completion. [Karl] Barth notes that ‘God does not continue His work on the seventh day in an infinite series of creative acts.’ The cessation and completion are markers of personhood and of a definite purpose.”
The completion of creation marks two things: someone who has agency in planning the scope of the work and who knows when that purpose has been fulfilled. In a work-focused world, we know too well that declaring a work completed is extremely hard. There’s always more to do and scope creeps everywhere.
“Extending this thought, Jacques Ellul, the prolific French sociologist and theologian, emphasizes an understanding of Creation that attributes more than a causal role to God. A mere causal function does not have the means to stop the process. ‘A cause cannot cease to be a cause without ceasing to be,’ writes Ellul. ‘It must produce its effects to infinity. God is not a cause, then, for we are told that he decides to rest.’”
Here, per Jacques Ellul, he makes the contrast between a Being/person and an inanimate force/a cause. The cessation of God’s creation is an act of the will; no other force causes him to stop, like friction or a brake that decelerates a moving object. He stops, because He wants to stop. We may also call this, freedom.
Sabbath in the Time of Corona
Quoting Heschel again,
“Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty to remain independent of the enslavement of the material world. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”
Freedom. Independence. These are odd words to say in a pandemic. But in practicing the Sabbath—that regenerative time and space, guilt-free and restful—we may reclaim some of this freedom, even if it is just for one day.
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This is hands-down the best book I read in 2020. While the book is aptly subtitled “The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” you won’t truly appreciate the epic-ness of the story unless you delve into it. The Great Migration that Isabel Wilkerson is talking about is the migration of Blacks from the South to the North throughout the 20th century in America. For this book, she conducted more than 1200 interviews with individuals who either were part of the migration themselves, or those whose lives were touched by this phenomenon. Yet she packages her research beautifully in the story of three individuals, bringing us along the ups and downs of their incredible lives.
Don’t be discouraged by the book’s length–it is a page-turner. Further, this will be one of the most important books you’ll ever read in your life. Note: This book was also featured in my Reading Guide to Antiracist Books.
I would describe Hong’s writing as fierce, because first, she is so incisive in her analysis of the Asian American experience–both as victims and perpetrators of racist attitudes. Second, her analysis is weaved into poignant story-telling. To me, her sentences come blazing out of the page, and I relish the burn from this fiery book. Minor Feelings is an important contribution in the wider multi-way conversation on race.
This is a little-known, under-told history of the decades-long struggle for equity in my particular community of faith. I so appreciate Calvin Rock’s contribution in outlining the context of key events in the denomination’s history with regards to Blacks and Whites’ leadership. Before this book, I, like many others in the community of faith, had only superficial understanding (or rather, misunderstanding) of the racial dynamics in the church. This book is eye-opening, to say the least.
An Important read for you who are fellow Seventh-day Adventists, or others who may want to see an example of how race relations play out in a faith community.
As a member of a faith community that keeps the Sabbath ritual (i.e., ceasing from work from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown), I’ve always found it ironic that most of my favorite books on the Sabbath are by writers who are outside of my own community of faith. Often, Sabbath books in my church tend to be cerebral and academic, whereas my favorite ones tend to be poetic.
Well, this book bucks the trend. It is both resourceful in the academic sense, but also poetic and profound. It synthesizes wonderfully the many facets of the Sabbath, the various schools of theological thoughts on each facet, and the author’s commentary on the prevailing views. In an exhausting year that is 2020, Sabbath carries an extra special significance in retaining and restoring our humanity (more on this in an upcoming post), and it has been a welcome relief to immerse myself in the topic of rest.
Favorite Books Lists
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I’d like to introduce all of you, readers, to Read4Unity, an awesome Atlanta-based initiative to spread diverse books in the community, started by two enterprising women, Yenny and Sara. I have a personal connection here, since they are both Indonesians living in the U.S., and Yenny’s sister and brother-in-law are good friends from way back (see their photography work at enmuseart.com).
If my last posts on Children’s Books That Celebrate Differences and the Reading Guide to Antiracist Books appeal to you, then Read4Unity is right up your alley. They are taking real and important actions in their community. Please consider supporting their work (see below).
Read on for an interview with Read4Unity!
1. What is Read4Unity?
Our ultimate goal is to sustainably grow and expand Read 4 Unity’s reach to serve communities with much-needed diverse books NATIONWIDE!
2. What inspired you to start Read4Unity?
3. What is your vision for what you’d like to achieve in the near term and long term?
Near term (now and the next 3 months!):
2. Organizational partnerships: we will install our first 2 R4U libraries soon at Refuge Coffee in Clarkston GA and downtown ATL!
3. R4U champion program: we have been asked by so many people on how to volunteer with us. We need help in collecting and distributing books in your local areas. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM us on IG at Read4Unity for details!
4. We are in conversations with a major library and an institution for some exciting partnerships in the near future! Can’t wait to share them with you all soon.
Yenny, Read4Unity founder.
Sara, Read4Unity founder.
4. Since you’ve started, what have been the responses from people/communities?
5. What exciting things can we look forward soon?
6. How can we engage and be a part of Read4Unity?
What are you waiting for? Check our their pages, send over books, and get involved!