If your religious experience has been anything like mine, perhaps you grew up with an image of “Sabbath” like the one this cartoon is poking a little fun at. But the rules I was raised with for “keeping Sabbath” seemed arbitrary and often left me feeling board and wrestles rather than rested.

Both versions of the Ten Commandments recorded in the Hebrew scriptures (Exodus 20:1-17 Deuteronomy 5:4-21) offer the command to honor the Sabbath day and keep it Holy. In the Exodus account the rational for Sabbath keeping is grounded in the sacred Hebrew creation myth: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:11).  If this were the only instructions and rational we had for keeping Sabbath it might make since to think of it as a day of individual rest as it was in my household. My siblings and I were not allowed to cross the road to play with our friends. Sundays were reserved for a few different things. There was Sunday morning worship of course. We would sometimes have family (especially my Grandma on my dad’s side) or people from church over for Sunday dinner. We would often watch a movie or television programming of my parents’ choosing (I remember lots of Star Search and Elvis movies). And then we would spend the rest of the day each of us “resting” in our own way: My brother played with toys. I spent the day with my headphones on listening to music. My sister sat in her room. My mom took the day off from cleaning to read Guideposts and my dad would read hunting and fishing magazines.

That was only during the 7 years or so that we were part of a conservative church in the Wesleyan tradition. Once my family began attending a non-denominational “seeker-sensitive” mega church, we were reminded of Jesus’ words: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Sunday became a day to be “filled up” in able to go out rejuvenated for another week. We worshiped God “in Spirit and in truth” and so whatever activity we found restful or worshipful was now permitted: playing with friends, swimming, etc. I have since learned that the traditions about Sabbath from  my childhood were quite “liberal” when compared with some of my friends who grew up in the Reformed tradition. Things like tv, headphones and secular magazines or books would not have been allowed for them. What we often find we do share is that Sabbath was a day of individual rest that sometimes led to a feeling of isolation.

However, we should keep a few things in mind about Sabbath:

  • The Sabbath is not Sunday
  • Sunday is the day for Christian worship because it is the day Jesus rose from the grave
  • As such, Sunday is not only the beginning of the week but of a new epoch in human history
  • Jesus did challenge arbitrary and legalistic notions of keeping Sabbath
  • However, Christians are still heirs to the Hebrew scriptures and invited to a life of Sabbath keeping

Perhaps it would help us to remember that in the Deuteronomy version of the Ten commandments makes no mention of “God’s day off.” Though the creation narrative may be presumed, another story takes precedent in providing the rational for Sabbath: Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:15).  Sabbath is not primarily a day of individual rest, but a day of communal recollection of God’s redemptive work and our deliverance from bondage. In this case I think it is fitting that we associate Sabbath with our day of worshiping Jesus in whom we find our deliverance. But I am still not convinced that Sabbath is about hard and fast rules of when we should rest and recall our deliverance: Whether Sunday, Saturday (the actual Sabbath day) or some other day. For instance us pastors do a lot of our “work” on Sunday so another day for Sabbath keeping is often necessary.

All that said, I have a confession to make. I suck at keeping Sabbath. I am not sure I have really done it most of my life. And I think I have suffered for it in various ways. I am very good at keeping busy. I am also much better than I would like to admit at sloth. But I hope at least that I have made a convincing case that Sabbath is not equivalent to inactivity. Actually the verbs “remember” and “keep” both imply activity of some sort. So let’s enter into conversation about this together:

  • What were your early or childhood impressions of Sabbath?
  • How has that notion shaped your practice of Sabbath for good or for ill?
  • What do you presently do to keep Sabbath?
  • Are other people included?
  • For pastors especially, if you practice Sabbath on a day other than Sunday – when perhaps spouses are working or children are at school – how do you still make your Sabbath a communal practice?

2 thoughts on “Sabbath

  1. I don’t know if I am very good at it, either. As often as possible, Friday is the day my wife and I are quiet and reflective together, and when we have our “date night.” I would hope that there is some communal recollection of God’s redemptive work for us in that.

    1. James, thanks for your reading and commenting. I take some comfort in knowing that more experienced (and perhaps wiser) pastors than myself are still trying to figure this Sabbath thing out. Time with a spouse and “date night” certainly seems like a fitting way to me to recall God’s redemptive work in our lives with our closest neighbor. I can’t begin to count the ways my wife has been a redemptive presence in my life and the ways in which our marriage has been sacramental, in that it has been one way God has consistently communicated divine grace in my life. Now if only we could recover the “date night” tradition which we kept so well the first 5 years of our marriage. Between children, the business of seminary and now being a part time bi-vocational minister, it is a tradition that we have often failed to keep.

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