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Stories I ponder: We are necessary and superfluous

Thursday September 28 2017

Stories I ponder: We are necessary and superfluous

More than 30 years ago, my husband and I lived in Israel for 18 months, experienced the Sabbath day, loved it, and adopted a Sabbath pattern when we returned to the US. We did this entirely on our own. In the early and mid 1980s we didn’t know of any other Christians who were interested in the Sabbath except as a quirk of Jewish culture.

In the late 1980s and then into the 1990s, Christians began writing about the Sabbath. Both Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson were influential. After our years of observing a Sabbath with no support from others, Dave and I found this quite surprising and encouraging.

In the early 2000s, I wrote a chapter in a book on midlife spirituality about the Sabbath, describing Dave’s and my experience in Israel. After that I applied for, and was given, a contract for a book on the Sabbath. Writing it was such a delight because our experience had been so rich over so many years.

Around the time I was writing my book on the Sabbath, I re-read C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. The second book in the series, Perelandra, is set on a planet that has not yet experienced sin. Of course, all good plots involve tension, so a person from our world sets out to corrupt the two sinless dwellers of the planet. Another person from our planet, Ransom, the hero of the story, fights the evil man.

At the end of the book, after the battle has been won, Ransom witnesses an assembly of the angels who oversee each of the planets in our solar system. The various angels give speeches, and two of the speeches gave me language to describe one aspect of what the Sabbath had meant to me.

One of the angels says that God “has immeasurable use for each thing that is made, that His love and splendour may flow forth like a strong river which has need of a great watercourse. . . . I am infinitely necessary to you.”

Another angel replies that God “has no need at all of anything that is made. . . . I am infinitely superfluous, and your love shall be like his, born neither of your need nor of my deserving, but a plain bounty.” [1]

We are infinitely necessary and infinitely superfluous. Humans don’t do very well with paradoxes. Perhaps that’s why so many people resist resting in any form, including the Sabbath.

On the six days of the week, when we work in various paid and unpaid settings, we are infinitely necessary to the people around us and to God. We help God take care of the world God created as we tend to our homes and cars, and as many of us do jobs that involve taking care of the physical world.

We are also necessary because we help God take care of people: our family members, friends, co-workers, and the people we influence or care for at our jobs or in various volunteer ministries. As Lewis says, God’s love and splendor need a watercourse to flow in, and we have the privilege of being places where that water of life flows. Because we are called to partner with God in caring for the physical world and for the people God loves, we are infinitely necessary.

But what the second angel says is also true. God’s love comes to us as pure gift, “born neither of your need or my deserving, but a plain bounty.” We are infinitely superfluous. On the Sabbath day, we get to experience that we are completely unnecessary. God runs the universe for a day each week without our help.

Why is this important? Affirming both of these two realities that we must hold in tension – that we are both necessary and superfluous – helps us work hard without being dominated by ego. This paradox helps us pray diligently without taking ourselves too seriously. It helps us relax into our identity as children of a loving God who are called to partnership with God but not into equality with God. We are not God. Someone Else is.

I am convinced that the Sabbath is the best way to learn this reality. Week after week the Sabbath teaches us this truth experientially, without words, deep in our heart.

I am so grateful I happened to be reading Perelandra just as I was writing about my Sabbath book. C. S. Lewis gave me words to describe the blessing of the Sabbath in a way I never would have thought of myself.

Resources on the Sabbath

My book, Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest

My Bible study guide, Sabbath: The Gift of Rest

Articles I’ve written on the Sabbath
     A Day Without a “Do” List
     The Gift of Rest
     Sabbath Keeping – It’s Okay to Start Small
     The Gift of the Sabbath
     Stopping – The Gift of the Sabbath
     A Day off from God Stuff

Blog posts on the Sabbath

(Next week: how I changed my mind about women and ordination. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Illustration by Dave Baab.)

[1] C. S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York, Macmillan, 1944), p. 217.



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