Be Still

first preached on October 2nd, 2011

When they left Egypt, the Israelites followed two pillars in the sky.  During the day, they followed a pillar of cloud.  During the night, a pillar of fire.  God was in these pillars, distant and majestic, appearing as unexplained meteorological phenomena.    The pillars in the sky didn’t follow the easy and logical way up to the land of Canaan.  The easy route, which followed the coast line, was guarded by Egyptian forts.  Instead the pillars drew the Israelites into the wilderness, towards a strange, marshy sea in the northeast, still within the bonds of Egypt.  There they camped, and when Pharaoh heard that they were there, he thought that they had made a ridiculous mistake.  With their backs to the impassable marshes, he would be able to quickly surround them, attack them, and capture the survivors.  He and his warriors drove forth to battle in their chariots, and the Israelites knew that they were coming.  They turned to Moses and said, “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?  What is this you have done to us to bring us out of Egypt?  Isn’t this the thing we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone, that we may serve Egypt, for it is better for us to serve Egypt than for us to die in the wilderness?’”1

Moses told them, “Do not be afraid.  The Lord shall do battle for you, and you shall keep still.”  It was then that, at the Lord’s command, he turned and parted the sea of reeds, and led the people through it, walking on dry land, and the Lord broke the axles of the Egyptians’ chariots, and panicked their horses, and then brought the water coursing in to drown them.

The Lord shall do battle for you, and you shall keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

After the Israelites had finished giving thanks for their deliverance, they wandered onwards, into the Wilderness of Shur.  They couldn’t find water for three days, until they came to a place called Marah, where there was water, but it was foul.  The people complained again, saying that they had been led out to die in the wilderness.  And the Lord showed Moses a tree, which he threw into the water, and the water eddied around it and turned sweet.  The Lord said to the people, “If you really heed the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in His eyes, and hearken to His commands and keep all His statues, all the sickness that I put upon Egypt I will not put upon you, for I am the Lord your healer.”

The Lord will heal you.  Keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

After that, Moses led the people into the Wilderness of Sin, where they complained that they had nothing to eat.  They said to Moses, “Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out to this wilderness to bring death by famine on all this assembly.”  And the Lord sent manna from heaven.  The people could pick it up and eat their full for the first six days, but they were strictly instructed not to try and store any of it, or even try to keep it overnight.  A few of them did, of course, and in the morning it was rotten and full of maggots.  But on the evening of the sixth day, they were told to collect all that they could and store it for the next day, for the next day was the sabbath, the day of rest, the day of stillness.  That was the first commandment that the Israelites encountered – honor the sabbath and keep it holy.  Only they’d really been encountering it all along – be still.

The Lord will feed you.  Keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

Then the Israelites came at last to Mount Sinai, and Moses went up the terrifying mountain, and received the other commandments from God.

  1. I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods beside Me.
  2. You shall make no idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  4. (Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.)
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your fellow man.
  10. You shall not covet.

The Ten Commandments are a moral code.  They tell us what do to in order to live a good life.  Actually, eight of them tell us what not to do, since eight of them are proscriptive.  The only two that lack a “shall not” are the fourth and the fifth.  Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.  Honor your father and your mother.  Both of these commandments are about gratitude.  The sabbath is a day that acknowledges and celebrates God’s creation of the cosmos.  We are grateful that the cosmos exists.  Our fathers and mothers brought us into being here on earth.  We are grateful to be alive.  The other eight commandments are all about not doing things.  Don’t worship other gods, don’t make idols to worship, don’t use God’s name unless you’re talking about something that actually has to do with God and God’s will for you, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t covet.  In other words, be still.  Be grateful, and be still.  God will protect you.  God will heal you.  God will feed you.  Be still.

I’m no better at following these commandments than other people.  Like most people, I’m able to be still and to be grateful one week, and then the next week I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off.  There is a reason why the sabbath commandment was the first one that the Israelites heard, back when they were eating manna, before they ever got to Mount Sinai.  God was trying to tell them that, in order to follow the other commandments, they had to learn how to follow this first one.  Be still.  And God realized that they couldn’t just hear this message once, and learn from it, and take it to heart.  They would have to hear it again and again and again, for thousands of years.  They would have to hear it, and accept it, and understand it every week.  They would have to practice it every week.  The sabbath wouldn’t be just a onetime event.  It would be recurrent.

There is a rhyming version of the ten commandments that was used by New England school children well into the 18th century:

  1. Thou shalt have no more gods but me.
  2. Before no idol bend thy knee.
  3. Take not the name of God in vain.
  4. Dare not the Sabbath day profane.
  5. Give both thy parents honor due.
  6. Take heed that thou no murder do.
  7. Abstain from words and deeds unclean.
  8. Steal not, though thou be poor and mean.
  9. Make not a willful lie, nor love it.
  10. What is they neighbor’s dare not covet.

I particularly like that sixth one – “take heed that thou no murder do.”  As if school children were so debased that, if they weren’t careful, they just might murder someone accidentally.  But this assumption fit with the Puritans’ overall view of life.  Human beings needed to be ever-vigilant, lest our corrupt natures take over and murder, thievery, and dishonesty come spilling out.  One New England meeting house had a giant eye painted on the pulpit – “a terrible and suggestive illustration to youthful wrong-doers of the great all-seeing eye of God.”2  You were supposed to sit there in church and listen to a two hour long sermon, and know, the entire time, that God was looking right at you and watching every fidget.

The Puritans spent a lot of time in church on Sunday mornings, but they weren’t advocates of stillness.  In 17th century Massachusetts, it was against the law to waste time.  If a constable suspected that you were a time-waster, you might be fined or even jailed.  For the Puritans, all time was God’s time.  To waste one moment was to waste a precious gift that God had given to you.  It was a Puritan who invented the alarm clock.  Puritans turned their houses into sundials, facing them south on a noon sighting and carving hours on the facing boards around the door.  They lived within time.  It was food and drink to them.  They didn’t know how to be still.

They went to church in buildings that also faced south, and because these buildings and the people within them were so aware of time, they arrived promptly and never shortened a service.  Many of the churches were also used as the town’s powder magazine, and therefore fire wasn’t allowed in church, since the spark from a candle could blow up the building.  In winter these clapboard churches were bitterly cold.  Babies were baptized in frozen water.  Frozen communion bread was placed into frost-bitten hands.  Services were never cancelled or shortened.  Sometimes people would stomp up and down to keep warm and then, and only then, would they have the true purpose of the sabbath roared down upon them by an irate minister: “Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God.”

Then they would become still on the outside, but on the inside they would be engaged in constant moral fidgeting.  Sundays were supposed to be a time for purification.  If you had sinned during the course of the week, you were supposed to stand at some point during the service and admit it, taking shame upon yourself.  Sometimes you might wear a sign to church, declaring your misdeeds, as one Elizabeth Julett did when she showed up for Sunday services with a paper pinned to her forehead that read “a slanderer of Mr. Zerobabel Endecott.”  If you were worse than a slanderer, you might smear dirt on your face and crawl on the ground in front of the congregation in a state of humiliation.

Sunday services went for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.  This may seem inordinately long to us, but Puritans weren’t allowed to do much of anything else on the Sabbath.  They couldn’t play, work, or travel.  If they did, they’d be indicted, as one man was for carrying a burden on the Sabbath, and as a woman was for brewing beer on the Sabbath.  In 1670 a young couple were brought to court for sitting under an apple tree on the Lord’s Day.

You were meant to be in church, and when you were in church, you were meant to be thinking over your sins and all the many ways you had fallen short of the grace of God.  The New England Puritans were as afraid of God as the Israelites had been afraid of the Egyptians.  They thought poorly of themselves, and they expected to be punished.  Their stillness, whatever stillness they managed to obtain, didn’t assure them of God’s grace or free them from their fears.  They took every commandment and made it into the harshest burden possible.

We tend to think of the commandments as a kind of self-help manual, rather than a burden.  Type the words “Ten Commandments” into Amazon, and you get books like The Ten Commandments of Money,  The Ten Commandments of Marriage, The Ten Commandments of Financial Happiness, The Thin Commandments: The Ten No-Fail Strategies for Permanent Weight Loss.  We’ve taken God out of the Ten Commandments, but we’ve still managed to make them all about being judged.  Judged for not having enough money, judged according to the health of our marriages, judged in terms of our body weight.  God isn’t judging us, but other people are, and maybe ten commandments can help us allay that judgement.  We’re as bad as the Puritans were.  Worse, really, because we don’t try to behave ourselves out of any concern for our ultimate well-being or the well-being of the universe.  We just don’t want people to think that we’re poor, fat, and lonely.  We aren’t still.  We’ve lost an understanding of God’s grace that could lead to stillness.

The Lord shall do battle for you, and you shall keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

The Lord will heal you.  Keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

The Lord will feed you.  Keep still.  Your needs will be fulfilled by God.  All you have to do is keep still and trust in God.

The ancient Israelites sense of stillness, their sense of Sabbath, was tied to their understanding of the grace of God.  The Puritans lost this somehow, and saw God as their judge, rather than their protector.  Most early twenty-first century Americans have lost both a sense of God’s grace and God’s judgement.  But there are ways of getting it back.  And the first way is the most ancient way.  The first way was known to the Israelites when they gathered manna in the wilderness.  Be still.  Be still and know that God is God.  Sustainer, protector, and lover of souls.

1translations of Exodus taken from Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: a Translation with Commentary. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004.
2Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1989, p. 118.

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