“A Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God…Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest.” —Hebrews 4:9,11

Sabbath-keeping is more than just a day of rest; it is a way of ordering one’s entire life around a pattern of working six days and then resting on the seventh. It is an approach to living in time that helps us honor the rhythm of things—work and rest, fruitfulness and dormancy, giving and receiving, being and doing, activism and surrender.

Sabbath-keeping begins and ends with God, not with any one nation or tradition.  God was the first to establish a rhythm of work and rest at creation. Then when God called out a people for himself, he incorporated Sabbath-keeping into their patterns because it is such a good, God-honoring way to live.  Yes, the Jewish nation was the first to receive the invitation to live in sane rhythms of work and rest.  However, the Scriptures make it clear that this invitation remains open to us today and it is hardness of heart that causes us to reject something that is so good for us and so needed.

The day itself is set apart, devoted completely to rest, worship, and delighting in God, which means that the balance of the week must be lived in such a way as to make Sabbath-keeping possible. Paid work needs to be contained to five days of week.  Household chores, shopping and running errands need to be complete before the Sabbath comes or it needs to wait.  Courageous decisions need to be made about work and athletics, church and community involvement.

This goes for the minister as well.  Although we may need to be creative about when we take our Sabbath, there is no way we can lead others in this important practice if we’re not living it ourselves.

Living within Limits

The point of the Sabbath was (and still is) to honor the body’s need for rest, the spirit’s need for replenishment and the soul’s need to delight itself in God for God’s own sake. It begins with the willingness to acknowledge the limits of our humanness, taking steps to live more graciously within the order of things—and the first order of things is that we are creatures and God is the creator. God is the only one who is infinite.  I am finite which means that I live within the physical limits of time and space and the bodily limits of strength and energy. There are limits to my capacities relationally, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I am not God. God is the one who can be all things to all people.  God is the one who can be two places at once.  God is the one who never sleeps.  I am not.

This is pretty basic stuff but many of us live as though we don’t know it. If we dig down a little deeper we might see that our unwillingness to practice Sabbath is really our unwillingness to live within the limits of our humanity and honor our finiteness.  We cling to some sense that we are indispensable and that the world cannot go on without us even for a day.  Or we feel that there are certain tasks and activities that are more significant than the delights that God is wanting to share with us. This is a grandiosity that we indulge in to our own peril.  If we are willing to move beyond such grandiosity, we too can create a sanctuary in time that is set apart for the holy purpose of regularly resting ourselves in God.

Shaping Sabbath Time: What to Exclude

We can begin shaping Sabbath time by deciding what we should exclude from this day. There are at least three categories of things that do not belong on the Sabbath:

  • Work.  Sabbath-keeping requires us to be very thoughtful about what constitutes work for us and a commitment to not doing these things on the Sabbath. We may need to identify the challenges and temptations related to our work and establish clear boundaries to protect Sabbath time.One of my greatest challenges relative to Sabbath-keeping is having a home office, which means my work is facing me all the time.  It is a great temptation to check e-mail and voice-mail (just once) or to try to get writing and speaking prep done (just a little), and yet for me computers and most communication technology take me into work mode and are very deadening to my spirit.  While they serve a good purpose during the work week, they are a real intrusion on Sabbath time because they do not foster trust and rest. It has been important for me to learn this.It can also be important to notice whether or not a particular activity kicks up our activism, our need to be productive in order to feel worthwhile, or our feelings of indispensability.  Yard work may be restful for some, but for others it is one more thing to check off the to-do list — keeping us in work mode. There could also be a difference for you between working in the garden (replenishing) and mowing the grass (work). Real discernment is needed to recognize what constitutes work and to make Sabbath decisions accordingly.
  • Buying and selling.  On principle, if we are out buying, selling and engaging in the world of commerce, it means someone has to work and we are contributing to it.  It also feeds our consumerism–another aspect of life in our culture that needs rest on the Sabbath. The world of commerce functions on the basis of enticing us to think we need things we don’t really need and convincing us to buy things we can’t really afford.  It is a world designed to keep us over-stimulated so that we are never satisfied and able to delight in the gifts of God that money cannot buy.  To abstain from being a consumer on the Sabbath sensitizes us to the more substantive gifts of God in our lives.
  • Worry.  There are more kinds of work than just physical work.  There is also the emotional and mental hard work that we are engaged in all week long trying to figure everything out in our lives and make it all work.  The Sabbath is an invitation to rest emotionally and mentally from things that cause worry and stress like taxes, budgets, to-do lists, wedding planning, major decision-making, etc. If we observe Sabbath on Sunday, perhaps Sunday evening after dinner is a time when, from a more rested place, we can engage in some of the decision-making that needs to be done.

Shaping Sabbath Time: What to Include

What is to replace all that we are excluding from our Sabbath time?  The simple answer is: whatever it is that rests your body, replenishes your spirit, and restores your soul.

  • Resting your body.  What activities rest and replenish your body?  Spend the time you would normally spend working with activities that you find restorative:  a nap, a walk, a bike ride, wearing your favorite jog pants, a long bubble bath, eating your favorite foods (no dieting on the Sabbath), sitting in the sun, playing a pick-up game of football with your kids and neighbors, lighting candles, listening to beautiful music, love-making. Lauren Winner points out that in Jewish tradition, married couples get rabbinical brownie points for having sex on the Sabbath.  You’ve gotta love a religion like that!
  • Replenishing your spirit.  We can also pay attention to what replenishes the spirit and only choose those activities that renew us and bring joy. It is the most amazing thing to have permission to pay attention to what delights you and choose that on this day!  As you explore this aspect of Sabbath, try to learn the difference between those activities which merely stimulate you or fill time and those things that really replenish you.  Typically television and most things technological are not really replenishing; they are merely distractions from God’s more meaningful gifts.
  • Restoring your soul.  Some of the deepest refreshment comes from renewing the soul through worship and quiet reflection.  The soul is the part of us that gets most lost during the work week which is governed almost completely by the value of productivity.  Of course, worship in community is a priority for this day but it is also good to incorporate some aspect of worship that is more personal for you. You might be able to spend some extra time in silence and prayer, take a slow, meditative walk, read a book that God has been using in your life, journal about your week, do an extended version of the examen with particular attention to those things you are grateful for.As a family you can maintain a more spacious and celebrative feeling in your home on the Sabbath.  Find special ways to express love to each other on this day. Identify rituals or shared activities that create a spirit of reverence for God—a special meal preceded by a Scripture reading, light candles and go around the table and share where God seemed particularly present with you during the week, turn off the TV and talk with each other, take a walk together after dinner, play games, write or call long distance loved ones, open your home to friends, family or neighbors.

Do not make Sabbath keeping a weighty exercise.  Explore it with delight, as though you and God are learning together how to make the day special for both of you.  Be as intentional as you can about protecting Sabbath time but do not become rigid and legalistic about it, thus ruining the spirit of the day.  Remember, the Sabbath was made for us as human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.

What the World Needs Now

There is something deeply spiritual about honoring the limitations of our existence as human beings—physical beings in a world of time and space.  There is a peace that descends upon our lives when we accept what is real rather than always pushing beyond our limits and boundless joy that comes from delighting in God and God’s good gifts.

There is something about being gracious and accepting and gentle with ourselves at least once a week that enables us to be gracious and accepting and gentle with others.  There is a freedom that comes from being who we are in God and resting in God that eventually enables us to bring something truer to the world than all of our doing.

When we allow ourselves to be the creature in the presence of our Creator, we touch something more real in ourselves and others than what we are all able to produce.  We touch our very being in God. And that is what our world needs most—from each and every one of us.

Continue to Part 3

or Part 1, Part 4, Part 5 of the Leading in Rhythm summer series

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2013. Adapted from Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. Not to be used without permission.

Do you practice Sabbath regularly?  If not, why not?  If so, what difference does it make?

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