Sabbath, Lent, and Jayber Crow

Sabbath, Lent, and Jayber Crow

If you haven’t read Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry, you should. I’d wager most anything written by Berry is worth reading, but especially this one. (At the risk of a quoting a passage that is entirely too long for a blog post) Here is Jayber Crow—an old, single, barber—who lives outside the fictional town of Port William, alongside a usually quiet river. Quiet, except for the weekends:

It might seem to you that living in the woods on a riverbank would remove you from the modern world. But not if the river is a navigable, as ours is. On pretty weekends in the summer, this riverbank is the very verge of the modern world. It is a seat in the front row, you might say. On those weekends, the river is disquieted from morning to night by people resting from their work.

This resting involves traveling at great speed, first on the road and then on the river. The people are in an emergency to relax. They long for the peace and quiet of the great outdoors. Their eyes are hungry for the scenes of nature. They go very fast in their boats. They stir the river like a spoon in a cup of coffee. They play their radios loud enough to hear above the noise of their motors. They look neither left nor right. They don’t slow down for – or maybe even see – an old man in a rowboat raising his lines.

The fishermen have the fastest boats of all. Their boats scarcely touch the water. They have much equipment, thousands of dollars worth. They can’t fish in one place for fear that there are more fish in another place. For rest they have a perfect restlessness.

I watch and I wonder and I think. I think of the old slavery, and of the way The Economy has now improved upon it. The new slavery has improved upon the old by giving the new slaves the illusion that they are free. The Economy does not take people’s freedom by force, which would be against its principles, for it is very humane. It buys their freedom, pays for it, and then persuades its money back again with shoddy goods and the promise of freedom. “Buy a car,” it says, “and be free. Buy a boat and be free. Buy a beer and be free.” Is this not the raw material of bad dreams? Or is it maybe the very nightmare itself? (Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 331-332)

His description of the hurried pace of our “rest” is unflattering and uncomfortable, isn’t it? People in an “an emergency to relax,” resting at “great speed.” Even the fishermen can’t be satisfied, “for fear there are more fish in another place.”

Sound like the folks at your church?

Sound like you?

I recently did a survey of members at Highland, where I serve. So much of the feedback was encouraging. Members are growing spiritually, serving, making connections with each other. Great stuff.

But one number stood out among the rest: 81%.

81% of our members feel busy, stressed, or tired.

The temptation is to tell them to “stop it.” Maybe you’ve seen the old Bob Newhart sketch, where he plays a psychiatrist who counsels a woman afraid of being buried alive in a box, by just yelling at her to “stop it.” When she doesn’t like that approach he adjusts his tactic:

“Stop it, or I’ll bury you alive in a box.”

But it’s not that easy, is it? This is what Jayber (or Wendell Berry) observes and understands as he stands there on the banks of that river. This is what ministers would be wise to pay attention to as well.

Business is the toil of an unseen slavery. The enslaver, in this case, is “The Economy”—that power that convinces us we always need more. More stuff requires more money. More money requires more work. More work requires more energy. Energy we hope to recover out on the river. But so enslaved are we, that the “grind of endless production,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it, even affects our fishing!

This is no radical revelation. The revelation is that altering that 81% number doesn’t require stronger instruction (“Stop it!”), it requires full-scale emancipation.

Or better yet, exodus…

In preparing for Lent this year, I read Walter Brueggemann’s little book, Sabbath as Resistance. In it, he reminds us that the Ten Commandments are given within the context of Israel’s recent emancipation from Egyptian slavery (Exod 20:1).

So, these are not just good things to do. The Ten Commandments are practices that distance Israel from Egypt and The Economy of slavery. That Economy was dedicated to making more bricks (Exod 5), to build more storehouses, to stockpile more grain (Exod 1:11-15), all at a relentless and restless pace. More requiring more.

But God seems uninterested in more. God is not relentless or restless. So, as a reminder of the new Economy he has “exodused” Israel into, he tells them to take a day off. A “Sabbath to the Lord your God” (20:8-11). Each week, they will rehearse their exodus from slavery by doing slavery’s opposite—rest.

In this way, Sabbath is emancipatory (not just a pleasant idea).

I suspect that most in your churches are tired too. They are overcommitted. Working too much. Stretched too thin.

As a way to introduce Lent to your congregation, and initiate a new exodus for them, consider encouraging your members to try some form of Sabbath in this coming season.

If nothing else, their fishing may improve.

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