A Unitarian Universalist Sabbath Manifesto

My congregation is contemplating the theological theme of Sabbath this month. Let’s all unplug and turn off our phones in honor of the Sabbath, with some help from the folks at Sabbath Manifesto.


My dad was a competitive swimmer. He was on the swim team in high school. State Champs, Olympic trial caliber stuff. When I was growing up it was cool because he was always doing those Rodney Dangerfield Back to School Triple Lindy type of dives with three and a half somersaults off the high dive board at the public pool.

He was also always teaching swimming lessons. He was always teaching my swimming lessons. How’d I learn to swim? Dad held me, jumped off the dock down at the wharf down the street from my grandmother’s house in Mattapoisett, MA and we swam to the beach. Gurgle. Gulp.

Learning to float was harder than learning to swim. You had to float a lot in swimming lessons. I hated floating. Water got in your ears and up your nose. I love floating now, but I hated it then. I didn’t like the water getting into my nose and ears and I was, well, afraid. I was afraid I was going to sink. I was afraid of what was under me in the ocean or the lake. And there’s the instructor, who’s my dad, telling me I’m not going to sink, I’m going to be okay, that he’s got me and that I’m not trusting him and every time I get scared about him having me I flinch and I stop floating and get more water in my ears and nose and mouth.

“Stop fighting the water,” he finally says one day, “And the water will hold you up, you don’t have to do anything.”

Floating is like that. If you stop trying you do it, if you stop fighting the water, you float, especially in the ocean with the salt water. No struggling, lots of floating.

The idea of Sabbath is like this for us in the modern world – a mandatory time out when we’re asked, some would say commanded, to stop struggling and just float. But we can’t do it. We don’t trust it. Just being and not doing means we’re not getting anything done!

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man essentially says that the Sabbath has always been about humanity’s relationship to time. Our technology from the primitive to the present day helps us conquer space, but the Sabbath is about our battle with time. The only way to win this battle with time is to stop struggling to overcome it – to just stop and be.

This is illustrated by the old joke about the rabbi who is approached by the person who tells him, “Rabbi, I just can’t find the time to pray. How much do you pray, rabbi?” And the rabbi says, “I pray for an hour every day, unless I don’t have any time and then I pray for two!” The rabbi in this joke has moved the idea of Sabbath into his daily life. When we find ourselves most busy and most pressed is the time we most need to schedule time out.

Why are we so pressed for time? With what do fill our time? What is on our schedule? Is it all so important? What do our schedules say about our priorities? And we need to be careful because our schedules may lie to us. Our schedules may be filled with many things related to our children or our career, but do we ever stop and think if our children or our careers really need all these things? Do our children ever have time to just be? Do our children have time to just be children and investigate the world at their own pace instead of being in this class or that lesson or that activity? Do we ever have time to just be ourselves? Who is that person, we might ask if we slow down, that I might find out I am if I just sit be once in a while? Maybe there’s value in just hanging out with our children or our friends and not having to accomplish anything.

I’ve been struck lately at how difficult it is for us to practice Sabbath even in the ebb and flow of congregational life as if the busyness and business of the congregation is why were all here and not the spiritual deepening and the opportunity to serve others this place provides. I’ve attended a lot of meetings in the last month and I’ve been really impressed by the incredible work being done by the teams and committees here at the church. It’s a joy to see. Yet something is a concern for me as well. Very often at all these meetings, the meetings either do not begin with a time of prayer or reflection or sharing or mediation or if they do, it is a pro-forma time of prayer or meditation. Most often if there is anything at all, it is a chalice lighting (hey we are Unitarian Universalists) and a very brief reading that someone has brought to share. This happens very quickly at the beginning of the meeting and I am grateful when it happens, please don’t mistake me, but I think it’s a missed opportunity. The lighting of the chalice and a shared reading happens so quickly it reminds me of my Catholic days when I, like so many others, would cross myself or genuflect before an altar – quickly, briefly, almost absent mindedly out of obligation, but with no real thought as to why. There’s a brief pause to make sure a nod is given to reverence, but then it’s own to the real important stuff – the business at hand.

What if we brought the concept of Sabbath to our service on church committees and teams and used this time at the beginning as a sacred time to stop. We could recognize who is involved in the ministry and service with us. Actually share thoughts on the words or meaning of the reading or chalice lighting, do a check in to see how every one is doing and then and only then, when the mini-Sabbath is over, when the real reason for being at church is finished – the spiritual connection and deepening and recognition of service has been done, then do we get to the business. Perhaps we wouldn’t fit as much on the agendas, and that’s okay. It would force us to have better agendas and use time more wisely, it would focus us more deeply on our mission and reason for being together and we would get better at holding to time limits and making things wait until the next meeting. Serving on teams and committees at church would start to become a respite and change of pace to the otherwise hectic life we all lead. Our teams and committees would slowly begin to become sources of support and comfort, not just people we do business with at church. This would add depth and more meaning to our service. We would have to do this intentionally, but this would also help us make our service to the church a spiritual practice as repetition, depth and intentionality are the signs of a spiritual practice!

(See Rev. Erick Walker Wikstrom’s wonderful book and video series Serving with Grace: Lay Leadership as Spiritual Practice for more thoughts and ideas on how to practically make the agenda, the minutes and other components of church committee work more prayerful.)

Many progressive folk come to UU churches for their children, so that they’ll be better able to raise their family in a community of people with like-minded values, but you can’t give children what you don’t practice yourself. Unitarian Universalists are not just a community of progressive thinkers we are a liberal religious community. We can’t pass on to our children the values of liberal religion if there’s not a place for religion and spirituality in our own lives. If our children don’t see us making it a priority, they certainly won’t.

In the Jewish community, Sabbath time is traditionally, family time. If you and your family don’t practice Sabbath how will your children learn to? If we are to take up the practice of Unitarian Universalist Sabbath keeping, you and your have to value matters of the heart and spirit and Sabbath, so our children learn to do so.

Perhaps we can start by doing two things, taking up the Sabbath manifesto – vowing to keep Sabbath – a day set aside for rest, community, family, friends and worship, unplugged from technology and think about how we will spend that time. Here there is much to learn from the Jewish celebration of Sabbath.

The traditional Jewish celebration of Sabbath (and note it is a celebration not a chore or something else to fit into our already packed agenda) includes a meal and the meal includes a blessing and lighting candles – we might light a chalice. Perhaps we might buy some local, organic food (I shop the Keller Farmers Market) and spend some time preparing a meal with friends and family and eating together at home instead of going out to eat. In the Jewish tradition, although there are synagogue services, Sabbath is a home celebration.

The parts of the Biblical story recalled on the Sabbath include the creation story, the Exodus from Egypt and the commandment to keep the Sabbath. These are still our theological themes and our transcendent values – the interdependent web of existence, the ever present struggle for freedom and justice and yet the need to stop and rest. All worthy things to do on the Sabbath, tend the earth, tend the cause of justice, and tend to self-care.

Going to synagogue is part of Sabbath. Part of Unitarian Universalism is coming to church. Yet part of our liberal religious tradition also seems for some people to include the caveat, if I feel like it. This comes in large part from the fact that many of us come from other religious traditions where we attended religious services under threat of hellfire or other pressure. What if the responsibility to attend Sunday worship was part of the free decision we made to be part of a free community and the covenantal understanding that we can’t be community without each other. You won’t go to hell if you aren’t in church, but we will miss you and we will be lesser for your absence. We can’t make community alone, it needs all of us to work for all of us. We also need to create systems that allow all of us to be present, not require some of us to be in the office counting money, or otherwise not able to join in the community celebration. Being with a community that values your values including the value to be together and lift up what you value – that is the definition of worship. What else can we do on Sabbath: take a walk without a destination, read and study, plant and garden, play games, make love. Yes.

It’s really about intimacy. The Sabbath calls us to intimacy of all types, with ourselves, with those closest to us, with those we should be closest to – family, friends, community, it’s about stopping time long enough for deep sharing. We’re teaching OWL, human sexuality education here this year, so I will even tell you that it’s a mitzvah to make love to your spouse on the Sabbath. In their book Living A Jewish Life, Anita Diamant and Howard Cooper give a translation of a traditional song, Y’did Nefesh, that makes the connection between the spiritual and the physical:

Draw me to you with the breath of love

Swifty shall I come to stand within your radiance

That I may attain that sweetest of all intimacies

My Soul aches to receives your love

Only by the tenderness of you light can she be healed

Engage my soul that she may taste your ecstasy

It is unclear whether the speaker is talking about a divine or human lover, but does it matter? The simple fact that a Sabbath manifesto calls us to make time to be with both, is a call we’d all do well to hear. You can turn on your phones now (and continue surfing the Net).

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