One of my strongest memories of my youth is that our family always made sure that Sunday was a special day. We were Dutch Reformed; for us, Sunday was the day we went to church. Nothing got in the way of church. We went twice each Sunday, morning and late afternoon. The rest of the day was spent in family activities: playing games, picnicking, reading quietly. Stores weren’t open, and even if they were, we wouldn’t have been allowed to go.
One year, my grandmother visited us from Holland. As a Dutch Calvinist, she was even more strict about keeping Sunday than my parents were. Sundays were a day when we were supposed to think about God. For three weeks, we had to stay in our Sunday clothes. We were not allowed to play games. We were not allowed to play outside. We had to follow the fourth commandment very strictly, “keeping the Sabbath holy”.
As you might imagine, an 11–year–old boy was not very happy about this state of affairs. Nor were my younger brothers and sisters.
We’ve lost much of that these days. Our society doesn’t keep sabbath. Everything is wide open all the time. Stores, shopping malls, hockey rinks, restaurants — there is so much which entices us to keep busy, to keep running around on weekends as well as during the week. We’ve lost any sense of taking some time out.
Sabbath has to do with rest, with renewal, with taking time out from the routine round of work to renew ourselves. The word “sabbatical” comes from sabbath. The online dictionary defines a sabbatical as an extended period of leave from one’s customary work, usually for rest, to acquire new skills or training. Sabbath rest is a gift to the world, to give us space from our everyday business and busy–ness to rest, to be renewed, to let go of our need to control life.
About 20 years ago, Marva Dawn wrote a wonderful book called Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting. The subtitle gives a vital clue to her understanding of what it means to keep the Sabbath holy — and wholly (what a wonderful pun!).
To be holy means to be set apart. Sabbath is a day set apart from the other six days. We keep Sabbath holy by ceasing and resting. We spend so much time striving, trying to be better, trying a little harder, giving our all, and then giving a little more. All around us, voices entice us to upgrade, to get the new and improved model, to do more and achieve more.
So what does it mean to take some sabbath time, to keep the sabbath holy and wholly?
First of all, it’s a time simply to stop. We take a break from our competitive lives. We lay aside our need to win. We take time just to be rather than to do. Sabbath gives us time to enjoy the blessings of our lives. We stop to marvel at snow–covered mountains and the streams running in their banks; we take time to nurture relationships and pursue those activities which give us joy. Sabbath is a time of ceasing.
Secondly, sabbath is a time of resting. When she talks about resting, Marva Dawn means more than just stopping our activity and doing nothing. For her, resting has to do with renewal. To rest is to be renewed physically and spiritually, relationally and internally.
When we keep sabbath, we renew our relationships with others and build new connections. How many times have you said to someone, “We really should get together more often” after an evening of good food and conversation? Sabbath provides an excellent opportunity to do just that, to relax with good friends, enjoying relationships that are mutually nurturing. It’s a time to nurture relationships with your spouse, with your children, with your friends.
It’s also a time to nurture our relationship with God. Sabbath brings spiritual renewal. Life is more than just consuming, competing, and worrying about our stock portfolios. We need to pay attention to our spiritual lives, and that’s becoming increasingly difficult in this competitive, consumerist society.
Psalm 23 can be read as a song which celebrates keeping the sabbath. Near the beginning, the Psalmist says that “God restores my soul”. That happens in so many ways. In the beauty of green pastures and walking beside still waters. In a table spread before me. In the security and safety of knowing we are held. In the profound trust that our lives are filled with goodness and mercy. In the certain knowledge that even in the most difficult circumstances of our lives, God is with us.
Ceasing. Resting. Renewing. These two aspects of keeping sabbath are necessary things for us to have a whole and healthy life. I’ll save the other two aspects — embracing and feasting — for next week.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook