A REST FROM WORK
Work comes in many varieties and can take on many guises. Each of us must determine, in conversation with others, what work needs to be relinquished if we are to enter the practice of keeping Sabbath.
Some Christians have been more clear than I am about this dimension of Sabbath keeping. Among the most serious of these were the Dutch Calvinists who settled on farms in the American Midwest. A son of this tradition tells the story of a costly but blessed form of this practice in his poem "Obedience."
Were my parents right or wrong
not to mow the ripe oats that Sunday morning
with the rainstorm threatening?
I reminded them that the Sabbath was made
and of the ox fallen into the pit.
Without an oats crop, I argued,
the cattle would need to survive on town-
and then it wouldn't pay to keep them.
Isn't selling cattle at a loss like an ox in a pit?
My parents did not argue.
We went to church.
We sang the usual psalms louder than usual—
we, and the others whose harvests were at stake:
"Jerusalem, where blessing waits,
Our feet are standing in thy gates."
"God, be merciful to me;
On thy grace I rest my plea."
Dominie's spur-of-the-moment concession:
"He rides on the clouds, the wings of the
The lightning and wind his missions
Dominie made no concessions on sermon
"Five Good Reasons for Infant Baptism,"
though we heard little of it,
for more floods came and more winds blew
upon that House than we had figured on, even,
more lightning and thunder
and hail the size of pullet eggs.
Falling branches snapped the electric wires.
We sang the closing psalm without the organ
and in the dark:
"Ye seed from Abraham descended,
God's covenant love is never ended."
Afterward we rode by our oats field,
"We still will mow it," Dad said.
"Ten bushels to the acre, maybe, what would
have been fifty
if I had mowed right after milking
and if the whole family had shocked.
We could have had it weatherproof before
Later at dinner Dad said,
"God was testing us. I'm glad we went."
"Those psalms never gave me such a lift as
Mother said, "I wouldn't have missed it."
And even I thought but did not say,
How guilty we would feel now if we had
saved the harvest.
The one time Dad asked me why I live in a
I reminded him of that Sunday morning.
Immediately he understood.
On this stormy Sunday in harvest season, the poet's parents not only went to church; they "sang the usual psalms louder than usual." In spite of their economic loss, their steadfast adherence to a practice that was central to their identity exhibited a strength that makes the pragmatic alternative of skipping church seem weak and oddly ineffectual. Years later, the son, though no longer much of a Sabbath keeper, realized that he owed the vigor of his own moral life to his parents' example.
This poem about the formation of a boy's character portrays a form of Sabbath keeping far stricter than my own. And some of its details suggest that it is distant from contemporary need: it is set in the vanishing culture of the family farm and the country church, and the father's idea that the storm was God's way of testing these good people troubles me. Even so, this family's refusal to let the marketplace govern their lives inspires me to reflect more honestly on my claims that I simply cannot afford the time for keeping Sabbath.
A habit, deeply ingrained across decades of Sunday morning regularity, sustained the integrity of this Dutch Calvinist family. Churchgoing was one beat within the rhythm of a whole way of life. Our rhythms of life and work today are rarely so steady, nor is our way of life so neatly integrated into a whole. In an ordinary week, I tell myself, I do keep Sabbath. The problem is that there are so few ordinary weeks—partly because of my own scatteredness and partly because the worlds of work and home and church are not nearly as integrated into a single way of life as they were on that Dakota farm.
In my family, travel to conferences is what most frequently upsets our rhythms; for people in business, it is travel to trade shows or sales meetings. I try to handle these conflicts by nurturing steady habits for the Sundays that are more or less ordinary and by declining weekend conference invitations as often as possible. I would like to report that I also take a compensatory day of Sabbath when I miss the ordinary one, but instead I will only say that I think I should. Perhaps next year.
WORSHIP THE LORD
One Monday morning, a pastor in Chicago got a phone call asking her to check the pews for someone's mislaid gloves. She found the gloves. She also found the previous day's bulletin, marked to show the exact number of minutes and seconds occupied by each element of the worship service. Opening hymn, 3:38. Old Testament reading, 2:32. And so on, right down the page.
Joyful worship that restores us to communion with the risen Christ and our fellow members of his body, the church, is an essential part of a Christian Sabbath. Contemporary culture militates against this, however, both by insinuating that worship is not a very efficient use of time and by importing habits of clock bondage into a gathering where the clock has no place. What is in the deepest sense a festival, a spring of souls, a time of freedom not only from work but also from condemnation becomes instead one more carefully measured appointment.
Some services seem by their nature to invite us to pick up one of those little pew pencils and doodle. When hymns drag, elders judge, children fuss, fancy clothes constrain, and the minutes tick slowly by, we can forget that Sunday worship is a way of taking part in the activity by which God is shaping a new creation. Worship can and should be crafted in ways that make plain that it is a foretaste of the feast to come. "This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!"
Just as frequently, however, the problem lies not in the service but in the distorted dispositions we bring to it. These are dispositions we need to replace. One step is suggested by the growing number of worshipers who go to church without their watches. Many observant Jews do not carry timepieces on Shabbat. Learning from them, and remembering how the clock can beat us down, we might also declare our availability to God by removing the little machines that link us to commercial time from our bodies, at least during worship.
Doing so, we would experience at least an hour within what anthropologists call "event time," time that flows in accordance with the activity at hand rather than to the beat of a mechanism imported from another realm. I find that doing this increases my capacity to hear the Word, to enjoy the feast, and to notice the new creation coming into being. Sometimes I smile at myself when I realize that it also eliminates my capacity to deliver an informed opinion that the preacher went on too long.
POINTS OF RESISTANCE
For many families, the most urgent question about Sabbath is this: What about soccer and baseball and ice hockey? John Cardinal O'Connor, archbishop of New York City, recently made the news by criticizing the young altar servers who use their Little League games as an excuse for getting out of church. The New York Times visited the city's parks the next Sunday and reported on parents' reactions, which ranged from "He's out of touch" to "The first priority on Sunday is rest and worship; it's not easy, but we fit everything else around that."
Actually, children playing ball in the park while parents watch and chat is a fine image of Sabbath, as far as I'm concerned. "Do not play" is not a theologically astute interpretation of the Sabbath commandment, and it is said that even John Calvin, the Protestant reformer, liked to bowl on Sunday afternoons, a bit of history suppressed by his theological heirs. A friend who grew up among Dutch-American Calvinists tells me that the children in his family invented a Sabbath nongame called "sidewalk tag." You pursued your prey by walking (running was forbidden on Sundays) along the sidewalk (going on the grass was forbidden as well) very fast.
Making children sit still and stay on the sidewalk—or adults either—is not necessary. At the same time, in the overheated reality of contemporary American sports, participating usually entails much more than strolling down to the park after Sunday worship and lunch. Children and their parents can be swept up in demanding requirements that have little to do with play, including fundraising and travel to distant competitions. Worse, they can get the idea that athletic prowess is the supreme measure of personal worth.
Parents need to set some limits, and the practice of keeping Sabbath provides a structure for doing so. The Massachusetts Council of Churches, which encompasses 15 Protestant denominations, has begun a campaign to urge parents, coaches, and parks departments to protect Sundays until 1 p.m. as a public time of rest. Though this policy does not address every objection that might be raised, it does signal resistance to the ultimacy of sports in our culture and take the pressure off at least a few hours of each week. It also invites parents to think more carefully about how the shape of time forms their children in and for a way of life. Ideally, parents and others who care for children will work together to create livable and life-giving schedules for working things out in a busy, pluralistic society. Some times, however, we will need to say, simply and clearly, "That is something we cannot do today."
SATURDAY, SUNDAY, AND MONDAY
When I talk to people about the practice of keeping Sabbath, they love the idea of sheltering one day each week for rest and worship. But often they protest, must it be Sunday? It's a good question, particularly in light of the social forces arrayed against it. We live in a society where many people simply do not have the economic or vocational freedom to take this day off. At the same time, the 2,000-year-old Christian pattern of gathering to celebrate Christ's resurrection each first day is not something to discard readily. Nor should we sell too cheaply the consensus of Jewish and Christian Scriptures and traditions that God intends for us not just "Sabbath time," scattered wherever we can catch it, but a Sabbath day each week.
My own need for flexibility has led me to a certain kind of inventiveness. Here's my reasoning: biblical days run from sundown to sundown. Thus a Christian Sabbath begins on Saturday evening and ends with Sunday supper. Therefore, time with friends on Saturday night is part of the Sabbath. Ergo, on Sunday evening, after supper, teachers like my husband and me may return to work, preparing for the week ahead. In this rendering, the Saturday night dinner I shared with the whining teachers was actually a Sabbath meal, though we should have avoided the whining.
While guarding the importance of shared weekly worship that is tied to a celebration of Christ's resurrection, Christians can and should be creative in claiming a Sabbath day. Worship services on Saturday evening and Sunday evening provide appropriate alternatives for people who cannot worship on Sunday morning. Indeed, these alternatives suggest that the Christian Sabbath can spill into Saturday or Monday, an idea hinted at by two leading theologians.
Jürgen Moltmann makes a theological distinction between Saturday (Judaism's Sabbath of creation) and Sunday (Christianity's messianic feast) while also wanting to strengthen the living relationship between the Christian feast and the Jewish Sabbath. His suggestion is to let "the eve of Sunday … flow into a Sabbath stillness." As for the bustle that follows Sunday, the reflections of the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann are suggestive. The earliest Christians, he notes, held their resurrection feast not on a day of rest but on the first day of the working week. "By remaining one of the ordinary days, and yet by revealing itself through the Eucharist as the eighth and first day, it gave all days their true meaning."
Trying to keep Sabbath for one full day each week goes against the grain of how most of us live, and it is possible that further social change will soon make this Christian practice even more difficult than it already is. Even so, holding up a Sabbath day as an ideal is important. This gift of time is not meant to be nibbled at in bits and pieces as our convenience allows. It is a gift that has ancient roots, and it is a gift best received in community. Opening it, we find not only time but also the stories, the meals, the gatherings, and the songs that prepare us to cherish creation, to resist slavery in all its forms, and to proclaim new life all week long.
Can we even imagine weeks in which every human being is free to accept God's gift of one full day, a day of sacred time shielded from work and worry, a day that is open for worship, rest, and play? In one sense, our society's problems with time make this seem like a distant dream. Yet it is an image that can begin to take on flesh even now, in partial, experimental, but deeply freeing forms.
Imagine supporting faith communities different from your own in observing holy days established by their traditions and explaining to them why you need a Sabbath day. Imagine becoming more independent of consumerism and work obsession because you practice resisting them on a regular basis. Imagine how your freedom may contribute to the freedom of others and to the well-being of the natural world. Imagine looking forward to a full day of deep rest each week. As we try on these images, letting them alter the patterns of our lives, we practice each week what Sabbath perceives: time is the gift of God.
The Christian practice of keeping Sabbath is also the gift of God. It offers welcome, not condemnation, losing its power if it is imposed on the unwilling or grasped self-righteously by those whose circumstances make it easy for them to keep Sabbath. Receiving this day, after all, means joining in the song of creation, which renews our love for the earth and our gratitude for the blessings God grants through it.
Receiving this day means joining in a worldwide song of liberation, a song whose vibrations cut through our own forms of bondage and awaken us to the need of all people for freedom and justice. Receiving this day means singing Alleluia and being renewed in faith, hope, and love. It is the eighth day, and the future God has promised is breaking in. No other days can be the same, after this one.
Dorothy C. Bass is director of the Valparaiso (Indiana) University Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a company of John Wiley & Sons, from Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time. © 2000 by Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers. This book is available at all bookstores, online booksellers, from the Wiley Web site ( www.jbp.com), or by calling 1-800-956-7739.
See Dorothy Bass's related article from the September 1, 1997 issue of Christianity Today: " Rediscovering the Sabbath | The Sabbath is the most challenging—and necessary—spiritual discipline for contemporary Christians."
Bass's earlier book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, was reviewed by Robert W. Patterson in Christianity Today. The review, "Putting Belief and Practice Back Together | How to renew the American church," appeared in the magazine's. the October 27, 1997 print issue.
Virtue, a now-defunct Christianity Today sister publication, published a few articles on rest and Sabbath, including: "Seizing the Sabbath" (Aug/Sept 1998) and "Rest for the Journey" (June/July 1999).
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