Sabbath – A day to pamper one’s soul – By Dave Holmes

Read all the sermons in this Sabbath series:

Scripture: Psalm 23

This is the last in our Sabbath series.  The last (for now) in our summer look at the Sabbath commandment, that gracious command to rest, that commandment that proves that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

So today I want to talk about happiness.

We all hope for happiness, don’t we?  But when we pursue happiness for itself, it always eludes us.  Instead, while we are engrossed in some other activity, it comes on us by surprise.  Do you find that?

Think about this for a minute:  where does happiness come from?

It doesn’t come from the marketplace, as we saw last week.  What a consumer society offers is actually a happiness substitute – something that looks like happiness, but actually leads us somewhere else.  The consumer marketplace offers us the satisfaction of desire.  It feels good, to acquire what we want – but of course, once one desire is satisfied, we simply move on to the next.  Buddhists call our desires “the hungry ghost.”  Always hungry, but unable to find satisfaction.  No matter how much it eats, it is never not hungry.  Consumerism won’t make us happy.  It’s not designed to.

So if happiness is not found in the satisfaction of desire, where might it be found?

Some folks seem to think that happiness is a matter of what happens to us.  It’s a matter of being lucky, in a way.  If good things happen to us we’re happy.  If bad things, we’re not.

But that doesn’t seem to hold, either.  Researchers find that happiness rises with fortune only until very basic needs are met – food, shelter, safety.  Beyond that, happiness doesn’t rise with wealth, or other types of good fortune, and doesn’t fall with misfortune.

I remember back when I was in seminary, I was terrified of hospitals.  In our “hospital ministry” class, we were just thrown out there – given a badge that said, “student chaplain” and sent to a ward at Vancouver General Hospital and told to talk to the head nurse about who we should see.  My head nurse said, “Oh!  You should see Mrs. Miller.  She’s dying of cancer.”  So, with great fear and trembling, I went to find Mrs. Miller.  She was there, propped up on pillows.  Radiant.  She was curious about me, smiled all the time, laughed easily.  After a while I said, tentatively, “Um… I’m just wondering… the nurse said you were dying?”  “Oh, yes,” she replied.  “Not long now.  But we all die.  Why should I be miserable about it?”

It’s a cliché, but happiness comes from within.

It really does.  It’s not what happens TO us, but how we respond to what happens to us, how we look at what happens to us.  It’s the attitude we bring to whatever life hands us.  Remember last week, when we looked at Jesus saying, “the eye is the lamp of the body.  If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.”

Mind you, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t get me much closer to actually finding happiness.  Because I can’t seem to change my attitudes, like changing stations on a radio.

From where does happiness come?

Here’s my hunch.  Our happiness, at root, is a function of the health of our soul.  Now that’s also a bit hard to get at – because I’m not sure I’m really clear about what “soul” is.  But it does give me someplace to start, because whatever else Sabbath is, it is a day to nurture our souls.

Yes to rest.  Yes to saying “no” to whatever distracts and stresses us out.  Yes to justice, yes to stepping off of the consumer treadmill.  But what do we step into, on the Sabbath?  What makes a day holy?

Sometimes, I think we figure that a day is made holy by going to church.  But I don’t want “going to church” to carry the whole weight of holiness.  For one thing, “going to church” and “worship” are not necessarily the same thing.  For a whole variety of reasons, it is possible for us to “go to church” and never really enter into worship.  Worship is something that requires attention, and practice, and a certain amount of skill.  Church is important, but it’s not the whole deal.

I believe it is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who said that the Sabbath is a day to pamper your soul.  Cool image, eh?  What would it mean to pamper your soul?  What is it that most feeds your soul?  If happiness comes primarily from within, what is it that most nurtures the source of your happiness?

As a way of approaching this, I’ve chosen the 23rd Psalm, one of the most famous and beloved passages of Scripture.

“The Lord is my shepherd.”  The psalm begins by describing a relationship, and that, I would say, is the central experience of soul and spirituality.  This is the essence of holiness, of the sacred – an experience of Someone, Something, greater than ourselves.  I will not in any way define that Someone or Something.  You may think simply of a “higher power,” a personal God, or of the Ground of Being, or the sum total of all that is.  People of all religions and atheists alike can have this experience of relationship with something greater.  My guess is that if you’re sitting here this morning, you’ve had at least an inkling of this.   It’s an experience of connection, of guidance, of worth, of meaning.  The Sabbath is a day to nurture that connection, that relationship.  What can you do to enter into that sacred connection?

Well…  “he makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside still waters.”  As a Calgarian, I can’t read these words without having images of the mountains in my head.  Last week Tim posted the most extraordinary pictures on Facebook, from a climbing trip to the Bugaboos.  Greg sent back some pictures from Sunshine Meadows.  Wilderness!  Outside!  Water!  There is a scientifically discernible benefit to our well-being when we get out into the world.  First Nations have been telling us this for generations.  How do you nurture your soul?   Get out in your garden.  Go swimming in a lake.  Get out to the mountains, to the wilderness, to Fish Creek.  There is a political/environmental message here, about the importance of wilderness, but for today this is a more personal message.  If you want to nurture your soul, connect with the land.  That may be counter-intuitive, but I’m betting you know it’s true.  Go outside.  Find some wilderness.  And your soul just might breathe deeply and expand.

“He leads me in right paths… and even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.”

One other Sabbath activity is the intentional journey within.  Yoga, prayer, meditation, reading for some…  Carl Jung used to teach about the human and collective unconscious, that part of our being that is too deep to reach with our conscious thought. I think this has a lot to do with soul, too.   Our conscious mind might touch our unconscious in things like dreams, or intuitive insights, or religious experiences – or attitudes, the stories and values and reactions we bring to what happens to us, the passions that well up from our depths somewhere.  Apparently someone once asked Jung, when he was teaching about the importance of this unconscious mind:  “So you’re saying that people are like icebergs, where 90% of our selves are ‘under water,’ so to speak?  Unconscious?”  “No,” Jung replied.  “The conscious mind floats on the unconscious like a cork on the ocean.”

Within each of us, and within our community, there are vast, important, dark depths.  Dark not because they’re evil (though there is evil there) but because there’s no light – we can’t see clearly.  To explore the vastness within is potentially as exciting as the travels of David Thomson, or the crew of Apollo 11.  It is a voyage of discovery.  It’s an adventure that shapes us.

I only met him once, but it was a profound meeting.  His name is Genjo Marinello, and he’s a Zen Buddhist priest and a Quaker Christian, both at once.  He showed up to our seminary for a spiritual direction program, in his orange robes.  He talked about meditation.  “Practice,” he said.  “Whatever your practice is, just keep doing it.  You will notice that the tangles and knots in your soul, the wounds and the broken parts of you and the fearful parts of you – they will gradually, in your practice, float up to the surface.  They will disturb you – but just keep practicing.  Don’t fix.  Practice. And you will see the knots gradually untangle, and the hurts heal, and the fears fade, all by grace.”  The difference between Genjo and I, the peace and depth he radiated, gave weight to his words.

On the Sabbath, we might go outside.  We might also go inside.  Do you have a meditation practice, a prayer practice?  A practice that allows you to explore the territory within?

“You prepare a table before me… you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows…”   Again, part of most Sabbath experiences is a special, festive meal.  Once again, it’s sensual stuff!  In a Jewish household, the Sabbath meal usually involves everyone’s favorite.  The best is saved for Sabbath!  Everyone gathers around, and we all enjoy good food.  Flavours, smells, conversation, being together…

I think there’s something sacred about being embodied.  A  Jewish Sabbath involves the festive meal, for married couples it’s supposed to be a time for making love.  The rituals often involve smells, or touch – the touch of hands in blessing, the smell of lavender – Sabbath is a time to revel in the senses, to be alive, to be with each other.  A big part of gratitude is appreciation, entering deeply into the experience for which we give thanks.  A big part of happiness, for me, is being present in the moment, entering fully into whatever experience I am in the midst of.  Part of nurturing our souls is being fully present in our bodies, and in our families, and with our friends, and appreciating the bodily life we have been given.   Oddly enough, to find your soul, honour your body.  Be present in your relationships, and in your family.

This is the last in our Sabbath series.  So let me leave you with what I hope is blessed homework:  don’t just think about Sabbath.  Do it! 

It may be a whole day, it may be just an afternoon or evening.  But take some time, set aside that time with a simple ritual, let it be a time when you step into a different kind of being, a restful time, a holy time.

  • Ask yourself:  what would be a perfect day?  What aspect of heaven – what heavenly here, now, and us – can I enter into right here?
  • Ask yourself:  to what do I need to say “no” in order to really rest?  Take those things and give them over to God, just for your Sabbath time, and then, if you must, take them back when your Sabbath is over.
  • Ask yourself:  what most feeds my soul?  What nurtures the source of my happiness?  That might tell you what to do on your Sabbath.

If we only live in the six-day world, we might just forget our essence.  We might lose our souls, lose our happiness, lose our God.  It is said, “Israel did not keep the Sabbath.  The Sabbath kept Israel.”  So remember the Sabbath.  Remember your depths.  Remember your essence.  Remember your people.  Remember what’s true.  Remember God.  Take your time.  Remember the Sabbath.  AMEN.

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