Of California Rolls and the Sabbath
Three houses down from our home, our street, Good Hope Road, intersects with Rainbow Avenue. And there it comes to what is commonly known as a “four-way stop,” authoritatively indicated by one of those red, octagonal signs with the word “STOP” (in all capital letters) on each of the four corners.
In virtually all driving codes, the law expects drivers, coming from any of the four directions, to bring their vehicles to a “full and complete stop” at such an intersection. (This excepts, of course, emergency vehicles with sirens and flashing lights, but even they are expected to approach a four-way stop with caution.)
Human nature being as it is, however, it is hardly surprising to notice, maybe in one’s own behavior, varying conformity to a four-way stop. As may be casually observed through our own kitchen window at any time of day or night, drivers of vehicles at Good Hope Road and Rainbow Avenue seem to exhibit differing response to those four plain stop signs. Some slow down to a full and complete stop; others slow to a cautious near-stop; and some cruise, it is assumed with a quick look in every direction, through the intersection, barely slowing at all from their approaching speed.
Interestingly, the act of not bringing one’s vehicle to a full stop—to the point at which the speedometer reads “0” at an indicated sign—has come to be known in our culture as a “California roll.” The terminology does vary some in other communities, which may attach their own locality to the term, but “California roll” remains fairly universal.
I remember my first awareness of this expression when, sometime in the mid-1970s, I was pulled over and handed a citation from an officer on La Sierra Avenue, who said only, “California roll” and returned to his vehicle, lights still flashing. Until that moment, though I had somehow passed driver’s tests and been driving with a license for 10 years, I had somehow missed “the letter of the law” with regard to stop signs.
And since that time, I’ve occasionally thought about this idea of “the letter of the law” in a significantly different context. In what way does this principle apply, if at all, to God’s law? For most of the listed Ten Commandments carved out there on Mount Sinai in God’s own hand, the principles seem to be very clear to anyone reading them. Murder is murder; adultery is adultery.
But there is, for some interpreters of Scripture, some ambiguity as to the ultimate meaning of some others. Are they to be taken literally? Rationally? Figuratively?
When God says, “‘Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy’” (Ex. 20:8, KJV), what exactly does that mean? To what extent is this principle to be observed in real, everyday life?
A foundational answer to this question should first address attention to the single word remember in that fourth commandment issued by God Himself to Moses there in the Sinai wilderness. When God inscribed the word translated today as “remember,” He was referring to the institution of the Sabbath back at the very creation of humankind.
The Sabbath is not merely a religious custom with its origins in Jewish tradition. At the end of the six literal days of Creation week, “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. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Gen. 2:1–3, NIV). This is what God meant when He told the people of Israel in the wilderness that they were to “‘Remember.’” The Sabbath was to be a celebration of rest in recognition of humanity’s origin as created beings from a loving God.
But, in their fervor, the Jewish people have wrestled with what it means, then, to keep the Sabbath in a way that God expects. The specific standards they have drawn up for themselves have sometimes been quite exact. Even today, those who consider themselves orthodox Jews include some surprising restrictions for themselves on the Sabbath. They choose not to write—or erase. They do not ride in any vehicles. They do not conduct any business transactions or do any shopping. They avoid turning on or off anything electric: lights, radio, television, computer, air-conditioner, alarm clock.1 These, and some further restrictions, are the result of an effort to understand and interpret what is meant in “‘you shall not do any work’” (Ex. 20:10, NIV).
To the casual reader, outlining examples like these, may seem to suggest a kind of disdain, but this is not its intent. The commitment out of which such studied principles emerge must surely be a response to God’s love. But it also suggests the importance of discernment.
When God commanded—it is one of His commandments, after all—to remember the Sabbath, it wasn’t a suggestion. It was one of the 10 principles that make up, together, His Law. And, in iterating an application of the Sabbath commandment, rest from work, certainly broad interpretations are fairly easy. But living out this commandment in the personal, everyday life is still there.
One such consideration, for example, may be how to keep—how to observe—the Sabbath in terms of time. In no fewer than four places in the writings of Ellen G. White appear the words, “Guard the edges of the Sabbath.”2 This refers to the importance of remembering the Sabbath as a period of time from sundown on the sixth day of the week till sundown on the seventh, just as it was observed in God’s resting during this period of time in the original Creation week.
Is it too much a stretch of the imagination to make a comparison to the careful observation of the beginning of the Sabbath day without the possibility of a kind of “California roll”? To what degree should one expect to draw to a close one’s everyday, secular activity, whatever kind of work it may be, as the beginning of the Sabbath—sundown—comes on? There it is in plain black and white print on that neat calendar made available annually by the church: Friday sunset, 6:58 p.m. How full and complete a stop must be made at that moment?
As the sun goes down at 6:58—or any other seasonal time throughout the year—“how full and complete” is entirely the wrong question. In fact, it shouldn’t be a question at all. Remembering the Sabbath day is not a checklist of requirements that must be fulfilled to achieve in that way a keeping of the fourth commandment.
Slowing to a full and complete stop—braking—at a four-way intersection does not fulfill the law. It does not in any way entitle the driver to receive some kind of reward. Instead, it is an acknowledgement by the driver that there is a clear and rational reason for the law itself, a recognition of the authority of the government to protect the safety and security of others. In its purest sense, a full and complete stop at a four-corner intersection is an expression of love for others, for their ultimate wellbeing.
And, in addition to any other principle on which the Sabbath was established by God back there at the end of the first week, to “guard the edge” may be considered an opportunity to show one’s love for God Himself.
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