When I was a kid, our family would often visit the family farm to check on my grandmother and pick up some free mutton. There were four of us kids in those days, and surprisingly we did sometimes play happily together. One year my Dad had taught us a card game and up at the farm we enthusiastically honed our skills; most of Saturday was spent playing, and as soon as we got home from church on Sunday, we got back into it. Imagine our shock when my bossy cousin removed the cards, telling us Gran wouldn’t let us play on Sunday. We were disappointed, annoyed and rebellious, and never forgot that first experience of some people’s idea of Sabbath rest.
Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8)
I’ve known that commandment my whole life, but it’s the one I feel most ambivalent about. At theological college I learned that God introduced it to the Hebrews in the Ten Commandments, a set of community laws designed to mark them out from the pagan nations around them. I knew that in Jesus’ day this law had been interpreted so narrowly you couldn’t even wear shoes with nails in on Sabbath. But I also knew that Jesus promised a new approach to the law, a way of freedom and grace, and that those who follow him are not under the law but live by grace. For me, the legalism some people applied to buying Sunday bread or running the washing machine didn’t fit with Jesus words that “The Sabbath was made for humankind” and not the other way round.
Twelve years ago I studied in Israel for two months, and saw what it was like to live under a Jewish Sabbath. You see, although many people in Israel are not practising Jews, everyone has to keep Shabbat. It’s part of the constitution. At dusk on Friday night the buses stop, the restaurants close, and the shops pull down their metal shutters. People go home early to prepare for Shabbat and quiet descends on the streets. I was staying in a Catholic Study Centre, with easy access to the Palestinian territories (this was before the Wall) so we were not as constrained as we would have been in the Jewish part of Jerusalem, or in Tel Aviv, which is where my friend Lynne Baab lived for eighteen months. Like me, Lynne and her husband experienced the wonder of living in the Holy Land, and walking where Jesus walked, but unlike me, they discovered the gift of rest. Because everything stopped for 24 hours, Dave and Lynne were forced to observe Sabbath. She says:
After a few months, we found ourselves enjoying a day with few options for entertainment. We read, we walked, and we talked. Dave went bird watching. I wrote long letters. Sometimes we prayed together in a leisurely fashion. We napped. We simply slowed down. We rested in God’s love and experienced God’s grace.
Sabbaths in Israel felt like a gift from God, a weekly reminder that we are loved by God quite apart from what we do.
I reread Lynne's story this week in preparation for our GROW series part five, about Finding Rhythm and Rest. In this chapter of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Peter Scazzero writes about Slowing Down by keeping Sabbath. I found this topic enormously challenging personally, and confessed to the congregation that even a day off for me is often a matter of the same busy-ness, just on different tasks. This sermon, I said, is being preached to me as much as to anyone else. I am pretty good at selfcare, and do intentionally slow down, and say No, but rarely do I stop, which is what Biblical sabbath practice is about. What I didn't tell them was that straight after Sunday service I was heading home to continue working on a talk I was giving to Baptist College students the next evening. Being on sermon duty had meant I had got my week so out of kilter, my husband and I did not even get to have our usual after-church espresso.
Dorothy Bass writes in Receiving the Day, her book on Sabbath and other time-related Christian practices, about a group of teachers whining about a big load of papers they had to mark before Monday. She suddenly she realised that they were "hatching plans to violate a commandment... (she) could not imagine this group sitting around saying I'm planning to commit adultery or I think I'll steal something.... we had become so captivated by our work, by our own indispensability, that this command had simply vanished from our consciousness." I know what she meant and it's not a good feel. In preparing to preach on this theme, I realised that my concern for freedom from legalism, and wanting to live abundantly out of grace and hope, may have meant I've missed something precious.
God himself was the first rester; he ceased from labour and was refreshed. He didn’t need to, but chose to set the precedent of a rhythm for us to follow. Scazzero says it’s a "countercultural, powerful declaration about God, ourselves, our relationships and our values". Sabbath - and its mini-version, fixed hour prayer - help us to stop, and to rest delight, and contemplate. Sabbath reminds that only God is indispensable, that we don’t have to run the world. Resting helps us embrace our human limits and accept that God loves us even when we are not "doing". Gordon Macdonald says Sabbath rest is like a liniment that penetrates deeply; Scazzero says it’s like recalibrating the GPS -– an entirely new way of being with God in the world. "It is only through God’s gift of the sabbath that I feel in my heart and soul that God loves me apart from anything I do," says a reader of Lynne Baab's book, Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest.
One inspiring example I read in my sermon preparation, but that didn't make the final cut , was the story of William Wilberforce, nineteenth century social reformer. His huge success in promoting the abolition of slavery was very much dependent on him keeping a Sunday routine; there was a regular time in his private world where he rested. At one time when he was up for a cabinet post, he found himself furiously fantasizing about the future, but that day he wrote in his journal: "Blessed be God for the day of rest wherein earthly things assume their true size". Lest you think everyone in that era took Sunday off, note that Wilberforce also writes, in his diary, of other MPs who "never cease from their political ruminations", and of two who took their own lives: "with peaceful Sundays' he sas, "the strings would never have snapped as they did." In other words, Establishing a block of time for rest on a regular basis will help keep life in its proper perspective and prevent burnout or breakdown. True then and true now.
I don't want to minimise the difficulty of practising Sabbath rest when you have young children, but underline that in the context of grace, its a tool not a rule. Lynne Baab says it doesn’t have to be perfect for us to gain from it. Her book has suggestions for starting small in keeping a sabbath. "We can begin by letting one heavily used appliance rest for 24 hours, or by choosing not to multitask for 24 hours," she writes. Some authors recommend beginning with a half-day sabbath, or even one hour; one of our parishioners told me about having to stay in her room for an hour on Sunday afternoons while her parents had a sleep. She hated it, but perhaps it was never adequately explained to her. Baab again: "The sabbath is not about duty. The sabbath is about learning how to receive from God, having a day to focus on how blessed we are rather than what we lack, a day to thank God for his blessings and rest in his abundance."
To Chew Over: How are you imitating the God-given pattern of a rhythm between work and rest? Is there something you can change to bring more space into your day and week?
What makes a fire burn
Is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs packed in too tight
can squelch a fire,
can douse the flames
almost as surely as a pail of water can.
We need to practice building open spaces
Just as clearly as we learn to pile on the logs.
It’s fuel, and absence of fuel together, that make fire possible.