words

Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

17 January 2011

so

Every so often I start out on a new plan of reading the Bible daily. Usually, such resolutions last a couple of weeks or months and then peter out. Then follows a spiritual dearth, eventually jolted into vibrancy by some close-by tragedy. Then a renewed resolution to read daily.

I can never seem to get the bookness of The Book out of my head, and I always start at the beginning. Consequently, I have read the first chapters of Genesis probably a hundred times, always with the same desire for new enthusiasm. And the story of the beginning of everything never disappoints me. I cannot exhaust this book, not even the first chapter. I always find something new and important in it.

Today it is this. God rests on the seventh day only after he has completed his work of creating. Rest, in other words, follows directly from the completion of work. Here’s the passage: “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 2:1-2 TNIV, my emphasis)

It would be nice if I could argue the causality evident in this and a few other translations—that God was finished working, so he rested. Unfortunately, however, most translations that I have looked at translate that so as a mere and. Also, I did some research on the word used here—actually the ubiquitous Hebrew morpheme waw, which, added to a verb, links it to a previous verb—and I discovered that Hebrew linguists (read: biblical researchers with agendas) fight wrathfully over whether the word actually implies causality or mere sequentiality and they use their theories to argue such hot theological topics as evolution vs. creationism and what, exactly, God's promised rest is and other questions of importance to them. In this particular passage, for example, the waw-question is whether God ever finished resting and moved on to some other work or rather, as a passage in Hebrews suggests, having finished his work, continues to rest to this day. I don’t want to get into that waw stew, nor am I equipped to do so.

Let me say this, though, from my entirely unschooled reading of the Genesis writer's overview of the creation story (which for me begins in the first chapter and ends with the third verse of the second chapter): God only rested when he had finished his work.

This is a totally new idea for me. Revolutionary, even. And worth looking at closely.
Not having finished my work is my main resting deterrent. I wake in the night worrying about some part of my current work that I have yet to do or that I forgot to do or that I was in the middle of doing when I went to bed.

Also, I have an abiding sense of never being finished with my work. Never. As soon as I have finished some consuming project—grading a pile of essays, for example, or writing a chapter of my current book—I am suddenly overwhelmed, it seems to me, with all the other things I wasn’t able to do while I was working. Exercising. Grocery shopping. Taking my mother-in-law grocery shopping. Buying Charlotte a steamer so that she'll feel more motivated to eat vegetables (her idea). Patching the pair of jeans Lulu wanted me to fix for her. Gardening (spring is on the horizon, and for spinach and peas, it's now or never). Spring cleaning. Soon, within minutes, I think, I am making to-do lists and seized with stress. How will I ever get it all done?

Judging from the number of books out there on the subject of rest, I suspect many share my problem. Not long ago I read one such book called Sabbath Keeping, by Lynne Baab. It was a good how-to book on the Sabbath: inviting, rather than prescriptive, for the most part, with exercises at the ends of the chapters that really made me examine the stress of my life and desire opportunities for respite. I found it particularly challenging that the sort of activity Baab recommends against doing on the Sabbath was accomplishing anything—that is, getting something done, even if it’s something you enjoy. If you find yourself thinking, I just need to finish..., then whatever would finish the sentence is a bad choice for the Day of Rest. Sabbath keeping, for the most part, became another job, of sorts: the daunting task of sacrificing one’s desire to get done.

I don’t know and honestly don’t care if God has finished his rest and moved on to another project—although my guess is that, in the spirit of Ecclesiastes, God’s rest and work come in spells, seasons, a time for each. But I do know this: God did not get stressed immediately upon completing the creation of the world and everything in it. He rested. Ceased, as the word is translated in some versions of the Bible. He stopped working. Stopped thinking about it—about the plants and animals and creatures of the sea and sky, each according to its kind. Stopped looking at it. Stopped talking about it. Stopped blessing it and calling it good, probably, since those actions appear to be key elements of God's creative work.

God could have taken naps here and there throughout the process. He could have slogged through it, as I often do at the computer, making himself a cup of tea with which to pretend to rest while he continued working. Instead, he finished his work completely. And then, for some unknown period of time, he stopped. Totally. Entirely. Gloriously.

Think of it. Stopping. It is hard for me even to imagine. I envision a sensory deprivation tank, in which I am forcibly prevented from accomplishing anything, and the thought nauseates me. Not just the forcible part or the nasty microbes and fungi that probably live in those tanks. Not the claustrophobia or the metallic smell of the water or the dark. Simply the inactivity. The helplessness of it.

Some part of me longs for it, though. For resting that comes as a natural consequence of being done, rather than as an artificial or sacrificial activity of its own. Resting that is not something I do, but something that just happens, like how, when we were first married, Kris and I used to sink into the most refreshing sleep at night after a long day of weaning calves and trucking the bulls to the sale barn. Or after raking and baling a field. Or after spearing the bales, one by one, onto the bale trailer, then toting them off to wherever we were storing them that year and, one by one, lining them up in tidy rows for the winter.

Something about farming was conducive to the kind of rest I’m thinking God takes. Getting done. Perhaps it’s because the tasks of farming are so much like God's work in the first place. Globbing everything together into a formless dark mass of cattle or cut grass. Separating them into male and female, young and old, fescue and good clover, windrows and bales, square bales and round bales, each according to their kind. Looking at them. Blessing them. Pronouncing them good. Getting our check at the end of the day, or knowing the cows would have plenty to eat when the weather got cold.

Getting done, totally done, I'm thinking, is the key to rest. Not just stopping. Before we can honor the Sabbath—an act of holiness so important in the old law, mind you, that not honoring the Sabbath was punishable by death—we have to actually finish what we're doing. How to do that is my next struggle, in the area of rest. But for now, it’s just good to be finished thinking about it.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Yeah, I never finish it all.