The Sabbath smells like AquaNet. In my earliest memory, Saturday morning in Pasadena smells like Old Spice and dry-cleaned polyester. It smells like shoe polish and musty wingtip loafers. It has the luxurious scent of an Oxford wide-margin King James Bible, its pages of silky India paper bound in supple calfskin leather.
That was a long time ago, now. So far away it might begin to feel like a myth complete with magical trees and talking snakes. But there’s a chemical precision about the fragrance of Old Spice that doesn’t decay with the decades. It’s not mythical, it’s scientific. Just a whiff is enough to bring to life a hazy, half-remembered world.
Suddenly there are familiar faces dressed up for church; the sound of a sermon by Herbert Armstrong, God’s Apostle himself, echoing through a gymnasium (with the chlorine smell of the natatorium next door); a picnic lunch on fresh green grass at the corner of Del Mar Boulevard and St. John Avenue; the heart-pounding hope of talking to a pretty girl in between church services; the snow-dusted ridgeline of Mount Wilson on a January morning against a brilliant blue sky.
If the Sabbath is anything it is a command to remember: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, for in six days the Lord created heaven and earth… Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.
By faith I believe this life is a story full of meaning, but the plot can be so hard to follow. There are recurring themes and the occasional dramatic scene, there is sometimes a single frame backlit with eternal light, rim lit and indirect, but no simple linear structure. There are no Hollywood endings. There is only the moment, framed between fragmentary memory and inarticulate longing.
There once was a garden. Someday there will be a garden again.
They say our memory is a story we tell ourselves, and it’s as much fiction as fact. We paint ourselves as the leading character, whether heroic or pitiful, and then we hone and re-shape the story of memory to justify our current action, reaction or inaction.
Of all the strange voices in my head, surely Tony Robbins is one of the most inexplicable. I’m allergic to pep rallies and motivational speakers. I’d rather walk on hot coals outside the convention center than join the crowd inside. Still, I heard him on NPR a while back talking candidly about his childhood pain, and about how the story of our life is something we have the power to create. We can embrace the lies we tell ourselves, or we can divorce the lies and tell the truth. We can reframe the narrative, he says. And for a moment, I’m sold, I’m ready to buy a ticket.
The Sabbath of my youth was many things. It was the singular test of true obedience to God. It was what separated the Church from the world. Observance of the right day was a banner that marked us as the one true Church of God. Strict observance came at the cost of jobs, opportunities, and relationships. In elementary school it meant no Saturday birthday parties. (In fact, no birthday parties at all, but that’s another story). In high school, it meant no Friday night football games or movies. As adults it meant explaining to your boss why you had to leave early on Fridays in the winter. It meant always knowing the precise minute of sunset, which was printed in the weekly church bulletin.
But my memory is a lie if that’s the only story I tell myself. Sabbath meant protecting 24 hours each week from all kinds of distractions, worthless diversions, and anxious concerns. It was an acknowledgment that God who created all things, including time, is the only true object of worship, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega. He is the frame of a story that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes dreadful, usually mysterious, and sometimes, for a moment, back lit by eternity.
. . .
So I want to take Tony Robbins advice. I want to choose the story I tell, and tell the story honestly as best I can. In the wonderful phrase of Miroslav Volf, I want to remember rightly. I want to put the plot lines in an honest frame. It’s true: I grew up in a fundamentalist, apocalyptic cult, in a time and place where cults popped up like psychedelic mushrooms. (Maybe it was something in the water.) I am the child of a broken home, raised in a time when that had been normalized by the insidious propaganda of The Brady Bunch. I am a cancer survivor who has lately taken up the foolish pleasure of a tasty cigar. I am (according to my best friends) sometimes aloof, unfriendly and a bit of an asshole. I am, by my own conscience, a wretched sinner. It has even been observed by some that I have a tendency to pout.
But there is also this: I am a contingent creature whose existence depends on the mysterious ground of all being that we call God. I am loved by friends and family. I am blessed beyond all deserving with work and comfort and material possessions. I am loved by Jesus, who long ago told his friends that he loved to pray for them and that he would never stop praying for those he loves. I am promised by him that nothing in this life, not my sin and shame, not even death, can separate me from his love.
The story, in other words, is what I choose to remember.
I have wanted to run as far as possible from the cultish isolation of my youth, its crushing embarrassment, its rigid Sabbatarianism, its weirdness. In an uncomfortable turn of a phrase, my old King James Bible says those who belong to Christ are a ‘peculiar people’ and when I recall the phrase I recoil. Suddenly I am 14 years old again, and the last thing on earth I want to be is peculiar.
But there is something I will never outrun. Out of exhaustion, the slow realization of its futility, and perhaps even the grace of God, I have determined to stop running, turn around, and remember. I will remember the Sabbath and let it become a frame for my story. It’s no longer a story that begins in the turmoil of 1968 in a place where fundamentalists and hippies all shopped at the same health food stores. And it didn’t begin when an ad-man-turned-prophet first broadcast his peculiar gospel over the radio waves in 1933. It didn’t begin when my father heard a voice on the radio in Cincinnati. No, in the beginning — the beginning I choose — God created heaven and earth and on the seventh day rested in the garden with the man and woman he created.
. . .
Today it is Sunday, a Sabbath on the wrong day. There are new smells. The smell of an approaching thunderstorm on a muggy Florida afternoon; the smell of chlorine from the pool that is quiet these days but used to be filled with the laughter of boys; the taste of Irish Whiskey and the rich, leathery taste of a fine cigar, a gift for my 50th birthday from a dear friend who spent her childhood in a fundamentalist Baptist school.
For a moment, the rush and hurry is stilled. For a moment, the promise of Jesus — “come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest” — for just a moment the promise is present. At the communion rail this morning I prayed with strangers, with tears, claiming (against all worldly hope) the promise of redemption and reconciliation. That we who were far off are brought near in Christ. Christ above us. Christ around us. Christ within us. Christ our righteousness. Christ reconciling us to himself, to each other. Christ healing every wounded and twisted memory.
The moment will flee. It will evaporate like a puff of cigar smoke, like this life itself. Tomorrow will be another day east of Eden. The weeds and thorns will crowd their way back into my restless heart. But there remains, in memory and in hope, a Sabbath rest for the people of God.
“Most baptist friends?” Huh. Not sure how i feel … haha. Hope you had a great Sabath and yes you are loved this side of Eden by many. GN my friend…M
Ha! I don’t get out much, obviously!
Tom Dunn says
Dannielle Williard says
Carn (Carniff) Catherwood says
I really appreciate what your wrote, Michael. Very meaningful. I’m still a little misty-eyed. Thank you from an old-timer who understands the journey.
Thank you for your kind words. Your voice is one I still carry with me, with gratitude. Blessings to you and your family.
Colleen Bailey says