altSabbath, by Dan B. Allender (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2009)

Mystical poets who enjoy attempting to express the inexpressible may find working through Allender's Sabbath a productive exercise, but those looking for a practical, rational discourse on how to honor the Sabbath Day will find themselves banging their heads in frustration.  I know I did.

It's clear that Allender has experienced an otherworldly delight in his own celebration of the Sabbath; unfortunately, like many mystics of old, his attempts at sharing that experience fall flat.  First, there is a language barrier.  Poetical prose as a literary device can work, but like straight poetry it takes effort to make out the sense, and even then you're not sure you've got it right.  When you're expecting an informative book, the attempt at poetic language quickly becomes annoying.

Second, Allender appears to inhabit a different world from me.  When he diagnoses a problem, and recommends a cure, he loses me at the first step.  How can I trust his cure when he seems to be describing a different patient?

Finally, he persists in using the term "sensual" when his meaning would be better served by "sensuous."  I'll admit I'm nitpicking, but he uses the word so frequently that it presents a significant distraction.

Sabbath is not without merit, and what were stumbling blocks for me may be stepping stones for others.  Even I found some worthwhile ideas, especially the question with which I am still wrestling, "What do I find delightful, and why?"

The Sabbath is the day to experiment with beauty that teases your hunger to know more glory.  It is a day of study and silence on one Sabbath, a cutting out of a new kite pattern to fly on a wild breezy Sabbath another. It is crawling through wetlands below your home like hunters stalking big game in Patagonia or an exploration of string theory and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle as it relates to quantum physics on the next.  What intrigues, amazes, tickles your fancy, delights your senses, and casts you into an entirely new and unlimited world is the raw material of Sabbath.

If the Sabbath sends us anywhere, it is to nature.  To spend the day entirely inside on the Sabbath is to forget the sounds of bird twill, the rush of the wind, and the warming fragrance of the dawn.  It is to forget God even if we are indoors thinking about him.  We must enter the earth to be struck dumb by the beauty of the Trinity.  Our task is to plan to be near the face of God, in his creation, and then allow our plans to take shape as we are made alive by the surprise of his world.

Even in the nonhuman kingdom, play is part of the creational mandate.  Diane Ackerman says, “The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play.”

To play in the fields of God will vary from Sabbath to Sabbath.  There will be countless Sabbaths spent indoors in front of a fire, reading a novel; and there will be others on the side of a stream watching a bull trout meander with feckless disregard as fleeing cutthroat escape their most potent rival.

An example, though far from the most egregious, of the language that makes my head spin.

We are divided, and the day of reconciliation seems farther away than the bright moon that still shines in the early morning sky.  Division always enlists, forms, and feeds new communities.  Division breeds new alliances that provide us with the ability to survive the heartache.  We tell our story to a friend who suffers the injustice with us.  This friend sides with us to some degree, and as a result he judges the one who brought the pain.  The new alliance spills out to others through gossip, and deeper fissures are created in relationships much the same way that an earthquake tears a landscape to bits.

And one of the "diagnosing the wrong patient" problem.  Say what???

Envy is the craving to possess what another owns in order to fill our desperate emptiness….  And it is usually not enough to have something similar or slightly less than what they own—it has to be bigger and better….  When one looks deeper into the dark hole of envy, it is far crueler than merely the desire to better oneself….  The deepest envy desires to take from the other what they possess in order to bask before their humiliation.  We have determined that our destitution will only be resolved if we can simultaneously deprive our rivals of their goods and possess what they own.

How do we articulate the difference between labor that gives life and work that extinguishes hope?  It may be as simple as saying all labor is done to create something that goes beyond the completion of a task—it seeks as connectedness to someone for something greater than mere compensation.  Work is painting a wall; labor is starting a painting business so that one can choose how a job will be finished with integrity.  Work is taking a literature class; labor is writing a poem to address the death of one’s parent.  Working allows us to control the outcome and therefore achieve our manageable dreams.  Labor calls us to risk our dreams without much control to create something that goes beyond what we can imagine.  It is labor, not work, that we hate.  We prefer to kill the hope of what labor may bring forth rather than to risk so much for possibly so little.

Allender does tie in (though not expressly) some of the ideas I gleaned from Josef Pieper's In Tune with the World, for me a needed reminder of good ol' New Year's Resolution #2.

David Ford writes, “All the senses are engaged in a good feast.  We taste, touch, smell, see, hear.  Salvation as health is here vividly physical.  Anything that heals and enhances savoring the world through our senses may feed into a salvation that culminates in feasting….Jesus went to meals, weddings and parties and had a feast-centered ethic….That combination of sharing and celebrating is, perhaps, the most radical of all the implications of the teaching and practice of Jesus.”  Jesus is the presence of superabundance.  The Sabbath is the weekly entry into a taste of lavish, sensuous delight.  [Note here the use of “sensuous” rather than “sensual”; thank you, Mr. Allender.]

One Sabbath night in Ethiopia, my wife and I had the privilege of being at the home of our translator….  It was abundantly clear that we were eating an extravagant meal that may have cost what the family would spend on food in a month.  The sacrifice of the family was part of their joy; there was no way to reciprocate other than to join in their joy and to add to their immense sacrifice, our humble gratitude in being so undeservedly blessed.  Jesus’ way of being with others was a feast ethic.  All meals, and all joy around a table, are a reminder of the feast of the coming kingdom.

Legal Blather Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Edit
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Does either justify the idea that sabbath is for play and fun? Not too long ago play was deemed inappropriate for the sabbath. Why the change?

Posted by IrishOboe on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 7:57 am

I like your "wrong patient" analogy - I've felt like that with lots of books.

Posted by Kathy Lewis on Sunday, May 01, 2011 at 11:56 am

Oops, I never answered your question, IrishOboe. The answer is yes, both books justify fun and play on the Sabbath. And also no: they (especially Allender; Pieper's book isn't as fresh in my mind) have a view of play that sounds like more work than work to me! Either I'm misinterpreting Allender, or it must get easier after a while.

Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 8:45 am