online book group: Practicing Our Faith, chapter 6

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In this chapter, Dorothy Bass (editor of this whole volume) leads us through an exploration of the practice of Sabbath. This is one of my favorite practices. We live such incredibly busy lives, some of us rarely have time to breathe or catch up on the DVR let alone take a day of rest. But practicing Sabbath can be freeing and life giving, so don’t write it off just yet! Bass says, though, that in order to receive the gift of Sabbath many of us will first have to discard “our image of Sabbath as a time of negative rules and restrictions, as a day of obligation (for Catholics) or a day without play (in memories of strict Protestant childhoods).” It will also require us remembering and supporting underworked people–what does Sabbath look like in a community where some are so overworked they forget what their own living room looks like and some are so underworked that they spend all their time wondering how to make ends meet? Sabbath as a biblical concept rights this injustice as well, because it reminds us that we are ALL dependent on God (and on one another), not solely on ourselves–how can we make that a reality in a “sabbath-keeping community”?

Sabbath is a gift–at first, we see God practicing Sabbath in the creation story, where God works for 6 days and then, rather than start on a new project or make improvements to the previous day’s work, God rests and enjoys. I like to think that God played in the garden, watched that new grass grow, and enjoyed the sunset. Later in the story, we find that God tells the Israelites, newly liberated from slavery in Egypt, that the reason they are to rest for one day out of each seven is because it reminds them they are not  slaves–slaves don’t get to rest, but they do. No matter how much work there is to be done, we are not to submit again to slavery and we are not to think ourselves more important than God, who rested. “But what does it mean to keep a day holy, to refrain from work, to honor God’s creativity and imitate GOd’s rest, to experience the end of bondage?”

Good question. One people have wrestled with for millennia, which is how we ended up with blue laws and debates over what day of the week it should be.

Jews observe Shabbat from sundown to sundown, Friday-Saturday (aka, the 7th day of the week). Some in the Adventist Christian tradition do as well. We know our Muslim friends observe a similar practice on Fridays. Christians have traditionally observed Sunday, the first day of the week, because it is the day of Resurrection. Each Sunday is like a mini-Easter, a reminder of God’s re-creation (some call it “the 8th day of creation” in fact…). (aside: this is actually why Sundays are not included in Lent. Go ahead and count..you’ll find 40 days not including Sundays. interesting, eh?) On this day, we let go of the idea that we are in control, we gather together to worship, and we spend time simply letting things be. “All week long, human beings wrestle with the natural world, tilling and hammering and carrying and burning. On the Sabbath, however, we let it be. We celebrate it as it is and live in it in peace and gratitude. Humans are created too, after all.” So we literally let go and let God, in the words of the old cliche. We refrain from trying to control the world, and from all that is related to that–which may include commerce as well.

Having said all of that–who actually does that? Who stays away from restaurants and shopping, email and housework, the next week’s to-do-list, and all the other endless things that crop up on weekends? Sundays are often just as busy as every other day of the week, sometimes even more so. Gone are the days when the law promoted Christian Sabbath keeping. Now many of us barely have time to be at church for an hour, much less an hour of worship AND an hour of Sunday school. Add youth group or a family dinner and the whole day is out of control. Yes, we can limit things like meetings, and we might be able to avoid our work email another day, but how do we spend the whole day focusing on God and rest and re-creation?

And right here is where I think this chapter falls down. There is a great opportunity here for exploration of a variety of Sabbath practices, ranging from starting with a few Sabbath hours one day a week (not necessarily Sunday, either–maybe it’s Thursday afternoon or Saturday morning or Monday night). Maybe we start by not bringing work home with us on Wednesdays, and instead we gather with the church for a meal and time to learn and pray together. Insisting that we jump right into a full day with no work is unrealistic for many of us–though there may be something to be said for the sort of cold-turkey all-in approach–and makes even me, the proponent of the pajama days, want to shut the book and give up. How can we incorporate Sabbath into our way of life in small ways, working up to a whole day? In order for the practice of Sabbath to be liberating, to give us freedom, we have to also be liberated from Sabbath as a simplistic concept.

So: yes, come to worship. Gathering with a community is crucial in reminding us who we are and whose we are–we do not belong to ourselves, nor does the world belong to us. Worship is the time when we are re-oriented toward who God is and who God calls us to be, and we are reminded that the earth is the Lord’s, and if God can rest one day, so can we. We confess our pride and arrogance in thinking that the world will fall apart if we take a day off, and we hear God’s word for our lives today–21st century today, when things move quickly and strangely and we need new ways of being God’s faithful people in this world. We are reminded of the freedom God has given us and we are inspired to participate in God’s re-creation of the world each day.

Find a time when you commit to rest and play. It may be Sunday, it may not. It probably won’t involve shopping or working in any of the traditional senses, but it might involve spending time with friends, cooking a wonderful meal, watching a movie, or taking a nap. It might involve sitting in your pajamas for half a day (or a whole day, or even just an hour or two)–for some reason, that feels more restful than not-working-while-wearing-work-clothes. Try not to worry about things or think ahead–when to-do list items come up just note them and go back to enjoying the time. Maybe you read the Bible, maybe you read a novel. What’s important is to remember that God is the source of every good thing, and this gift is for you, not just for others. The work will still be there when you return to it in 2 hours or 2 days.

“Overworked people need rest, and they need to be reminded that they do not cause the grain to grow and that their greatest fulfillment does not come through the acquisition of material things. Moreover, the planet needs a rest of human plucking and burning and buying and selling. Perhaps, as Sabbath keepers, we will come to live and know these truths more fully, and thus to bring their wisdom to the common solution of humanity’s problems.”

In this Sabbath time, we can find an anchor for a way of life that embraces God’s vision for a just world with plenty for all–a way of life that makes a difference every day, not just the one day a week.

What do you think about Sabbath practice? How do you engage in a practice of rest and re-creation? What ideas do you have for beginning a Sabbath practice? If you already take a day a week, what do you do on that day? Can you imagine carving out two hours one week, three hours the next week, four after that, and so on, until you have a whole day, or at least two half-days, to rest, and to enjoy God and God’s creation? How might you do that?

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