Celebrating Sabbath in a busy world
Sabbath is a way for God to care for us and us to honor God.by Carole Ricketts Corey
Pastoral students at the seminary are assigned a church to work with during their second year of studies; those students meet together weekly to provide counsel, support, laughter and tears together. I greatly appreciated my group of fellow students and felt closer to them than anyone in the seminary.
One of the students was Charleen Jongejan Harder, who is now a pastor with her husband in London, Ontario. As we shared different theological thoughts, experiences and challenges, we grew to listen and trust one another's counsel. Charleen continually brought up the issue of Sabbath keeping. I heard her but initially thought it was an outdated idea that was too idealistic. But since then, I have come to a better understanding and have even become a Sabbath advocate. I owe my renewed embracement to Charleen; I greatly respect her for her impact on so many people.
I thought the idea was crazy. I was knee deep in studies, swimming in a sea of deadlines, papers, presentations and classes. Would teachers really understand, let alone appreciate, the excuse, "Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t get that done because I was honoring the Sabbath. I'll get that to you tomorrow." Probably not.
But it wasn’t just me that was busy; we all are. We have our jobs, in which we push ourselves and our employers push us. We work more than we probably should and resist the idea of placing boundaries around our time to protect it for rest and family. Furthermore, our work does not end at 5 p.m. People bring home their work, blurring the lines between home and office. There is a second shift of work at home for families when their daily "9-to-5" is done.
Housework, managing finances, taking care of kids, and countless other domestic tasks compete for our time and drain our energy.
Single parents are at even more risk for being run ragged simply because the burden is on one party, not two. At times, I wonder how my own mother raised me. She worked an 11- to 12-hour day as an elementary school teacher and raised me as a single mother.
But now our society is guilty of extending this busyness to its children. I lament the overpacked schedule and lives of children and youth. It is wonderful when youth have extracurricular programs that promote wellness and exercise, art, music and other activities that help to make well-rounded young adults. But at what point do we push our children into booking every waking minute with teams and sports, arts and music programs, not allowing them to be kids and enjoy the comforts of home? Youth are learning from their parents, their models for living, that they must constantly be on the move, constantly doing something active.
Add to this the problem that we are conditioned to want more and spend more. We are taught to think that the latest gadget, the latest phone, the latest fashions must be ours. It’s as if our self-worth depended on these; in many cases our social self-worth depends on having the latest craze. One of the dangerous things about this marketing is that our ability to buy often is hinged upon our ability to have the money needed. Our need (whether truly our own or a product of marketing) means we must spend more and must work more and/or be in debt more. This has been heightened with the economic downturn. It is a scary time; one in which we need to pay particular attention to our spending habits.
It also can seem foolish to take a day off in this scary economic time when we feel we must work more because we must pay credit card bills, loans or mortgages, and our dollar won’t go as far as it used to. I can hear the practical thought bubbles from many people: "Well, Pastor, I can't take a day off because I’m behind on my [name-any-monthly-bill-here] and my six days of work aren’t covering it. So you go ahead and pray for economic change, but until then, I’m working."
This is what Dorothy Bass, author and ethicist, calls "one of the cruelest features of the American economy, which asks too much of many people [and] casts numerous others aside, leaving them without work." True Sabbath, she writes, "requires supporting underworked Americans as they wonder what Sabbath might mean for them.' We need Sabbath, even if we doubt we have time for it.
God requires and commands that we take Sabbath from our weekly work. This is firmly woven into the fabric of the Old Testament and is central to Jewish life and faith even today. In the creation story, God takes a break from work on the seventh day: "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation." (Genesis 2:1-3).
God rested because God felt contented with God’s work and, in the wise words of the Beatles, "let it be." God rested and made the day holy; we are called to imitate God. For that reason, we honor the Sabbath.
The Lord commands God's people to respect the day, as written in the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). In the two accounts of the Ten Commandments, there are two different reasons given. In the Exodus account, the Sabbath is tied to the creation story saying that God blessed it and consecrated it. In the Deuteronomy account, we are told to recall the Egyptian Exodus. Remember that you were once a slave, and the LORD commands you to rest.
Dorothy Bass makes a stunning summarization: "In Deuteronomy, the commandment to 'observe' the Sabbath day is tied to the experience of a people newly released from bondage. Slaves cannot take a day off; free people can. ...Sabbath rest is a recurring testimony against the drudge of slavery." From these two accounts, we remember and celebrate creation and salvation. Both teach us a fundamental truth about the God we serve.
In Exodus 31, the Sabbath is so important, so revered, that those who "profane" it are to be cut off from community and sentenced to death: Say to the people of Israel, "You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. .... It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel" Exodus 31:13-17).
The Sabbath points to a covenant; we remember creation and salvation and honor the God who is infinitely creative and infinitely powerful.
But if we are to celebrate Sabbath, we must understand what we mean by the term. Unfortunately there are some bad connotations for Sabbath. We must banish from our thoughts the legalistic understanding that we may have been taught as a child.
Dorothy Bass writes: "For many of us, receiving [Sabbath] will require first discarding our image of Sabbath as a time of negative rules and restrictions, as a day of obligation (Catholics) or a day without play (in memories of strict Protestant childhoods). Relocating our understanding of this day in the biblical stories of creation, exodus and resurrection will be essential if we are to discover the gifts it offers."
It is not a form of legalism. It is not a day to sit around and do nothing solemnly, without joy. It is not a day to refrain from laughter. Sabbath is a day to cease work; work can be defined as whatever requires changing the natural, material world. But it also can be a day to celebrate the fullness of God’s creation: surrounding ourselves with loved ones, going on a hike, doing anything relaxing that gives us ease—whether that means gardening or watching our favorite football team.
We live in a world that is anti-Sabbath. Participating in the Sabbath means going against the world. It will seem impractical and unnatural. Because of that, it means that Sabbath celebration is a spiritual discipline. It is a discipline to set aside time to cease work and stop worrying. For that reason we need to be accountable to one another. Particularly since this is challenging, it is helpful to have someone who is willing to ask us, "Did you take a Sabbath this week?"
My "Sabbath-partner" is Joanne Gallardo, my best friend. We let each other know when we are taking our Sabbath and provide support when we feel like something has to get done right now. We have devoted ourselves to being the voice of reason, the voice of God's covenantal promise.
It can get particularly difficult for those who must work on Sundays. We need pastors to work on Sundays, as well as doctors, nurses and pharmacists. There needs to be an effort to have at least one day in every seven devoted to Sabbath-keeping. When I work on Sundays, I either mark down the time I stopped working after worship and cease work until that same time on Monday, thereby honoring my 24-hour covenantal duty, or, more often, I take all of Monday as a Sabbath. I watch football, take a nap, have an extended conversation with my best friend on the phone, work on my knitting projects and, if it’s good weather, I take my dog for a long walk in the woods.
Honoring the Sabbath is an ancient practice that honors God and allows God to care for us. In the practice of the Sabbath, we are witnesses to God's care for us. The Sabbath allows us to stop, rest and be rejuvenated. God restores our bodies during this time. This is good for those with health issues as well as those in good health.
When I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia in 2003, I didn’t want to learn how to pace myself. I didn’t want to learn how to set aside time to rest because I felt as if I were saying, "I can't do it." But proper self-care is empowering. During Sabbath time, God restores our tired bodies to work another week with the bodies we were given, regardless of their condition.
Sabbath keeping is a discipline; it is a time of remembering the covenant and remembering and celebrating creation and redemption. We set aside our work, even though it's hard to release it; there will always be more work to do. It is a discipline to set aside time for rest, but we do so because it is a way for God to care for us and for us to honor God.
Carole Ricketts Corey is pastor at MSU Mennonite Fellowship in East Lansing, Mich.
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