Monday, April 16, 2012

Sabbath Home

Out of the days through which we fight and from whose ugliness we ache, we look to the Sabbath as our homeland, as our source and destination" (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath. 1951. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005. 29-30).
The idea of home, like all our most precious and fundamental ideas, is supposed to be sacred--that is it should consecrate and illuminate our identities, relationships, and work.  However, sacred is hard, and without care, reflections on sacred ideas can become saccharine and unreal.  I have kept this blog for more than a year now, and I have enjoyed discovering along the way how my sense of home both resembles and differs from those of my readers.

Today--and for most Mondays to follow--I want to begin exploring a practice that is fundamental to my understanding of home--remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy.

Like many aspects of my childhood home, resting on Sundays might have looked like a rule-based practice from the outside.  Growing up, I did not do homework or go to movies on Sunday. We did not go shopping or spend money in other ways. My mother would do only minimal cooking (usually something in the Crock Pot for lunch, and leftovers for supper). And of course, we would go to church.  However, the actual experience of observing Sunday as our Sabbath was one of extraordinary freedom. I would watch my parents, who normally worked from sunrise to sunset in their ministry to college students, sink into hours of quiet sleep. No one answered the phone, or put away laundry, or cut the grass.  We might walk or read, but never run nor study.

Because of these practices, I went to college with the expectation that I would rest on Sundays -- no homework, no Wal-Mart runs, no committee meetings.  It was here, however, that I first realized how strange it was that I kept a Sabbath at all. I knew, of course, that none of my friends from high school observed a Sabbath, but most of them were not Christians, so I hardly expected it of them. At Carson-Newman, however, I was surrounded by young men and women who knew the songs from the Baptist hymnal, prayed before meals, and went on mission trips. Yet they did not rest on Sundays. When we talked--rarely--about resting on Sunday, my friends would say, "That's fine for you, Bethany. You can always get your work done by Saturday night."  For the most part, I accepted this explanation. I was diligent six days a week, and Sundays were my reward for being hardworking and clever.

When I began graduate school, however, I was forced to reexamine my self-congratulating conception of Sabbath-rest. Suddenly, I no longer felt capable of working hard enough to "earn" Sundays off.  Suddenly, the idea of Sabbath changed from receiving a reward for my labor, to an act of faith.  Choosing not to work on Sundays during graduate school has been one of the most difficult choices I have made as a Christian.

I was thinking about all this last Thursday, when I attended a panel on "Keeping Sabbath in the Academy" hosted by the Baylor University Graduate School.  After the panelists shared their views on why Sabbath-keeping is an important--indeed, a non-negotiable practice of Christian life--the familiar questions began. "How do you prevent Sabbath-keeping from becoming legalistic?" "To what extent are we as Christians supposed to follow Jewish ideas about the Sabbath?" "How do you keep Sabbath when churches schedule meetings and activities all day?" For me, however, the most poignant question came from a grad student from the school of music.  "Everyone in our program expects us to practice every day," she said. "How are we supposed to keep a Sabbath if it harms the quality of our work?"  One of the panelists said--rightly, I think--that the student may find herself a better pianist if she learns to enjoy a weekly Sabbath.  However, I know from experience that the benefits of keeping a Sabbath might not be so directly correlated with her professional work.  I piped up and described my own struggle with that choice: how I realized, during my first year, that keeping a weekly Sabbath might be an obstacle to becoming a top scholar, and that I chose rest anyway. It is not a choice I made lightly, or without anxiety, but while I can find lots of admonitions to holiness in the Bible, I find few verses commanding me to strive after success in the world's sense--including success in the world's academy.  Yesterday, as I returned to Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath--a moving and beautiful account of Jewish ideas about the Sabbath--I found a passage that speaks directly to this anxiety:

"Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work (Exodus 20:8).  Is it possible for a human being to do all his work in six days? Does not our work always remain incomplete? What the verse means to convey is this: Rest on the Sabbath as if all your work were done. Another interpretation: Rest even from the thought of labor. (32).
Keeping Sabbath is a way of telling God that we remember our own finitude, and that we put our hope in his infinite and effective work on our behalf.

I mourn the fact that so few Christians have a vibrant, joyful conception of Sabbath-keeping. I cannot claim complete knowledge of how and why we should observe the Sabbath. In the weeks to come I will examine some of my own practices, and I may discover that they are unworthy or insufficient for a holy day.

I do know, however, that I greet each Sunday as one greets the arrival of a beloved friend. My heart lifts up when I think, "Sunday is coming." I want to share that joy with you.  

How do you "remember the Sabbath and keep it holy?" Do you think it is important for Christians to observe Sunday as a day of rest, and if so, how should we do this communally and individually? What are some of the challenges to setting aside a day of rest? What questions about Sabbath-keeping would you like for me to explore in future posts?


  1. Rose Bear taught me a lot about the importance of a Sabbath Rest. Through her example and teaching, I learned that no matter how much I have on my plate, I only have to make it 6 days before resting. I learned that a Sabbath is not a day where I *can't* do any work, but it's a day where I don't *have* to work. Observing a Sabbath is a way to keep joy in our lives as believers. Many believers feel that a Sabbath is a luxury they cannot afford, but Rose taught me that a Sabbath is a necessity that I cannot afford to skip. I am not always able to work as far in advance as I could before I began to keep the Sabbath, but I have access to more joy.

    Sabbath is a day I get the luxury of sleeping until my body is ready to wake up. Sabbath is a day on which I don't have to cook, but where I might cook a special dish that I typically don't make or don't take the time for (especially bread). Sabbath is a day where I choose my commitments carefully. Sabbath is a day that I can indulge in frivolous activities that I enjoy, but can't always justify doing during the week (such as cross-stitching, crocheting, and scrapbooking). Sabbath is a day to recharge and to rest. Throughout the week, when I drink tea, it reminds me to rest and look forward to that day when I can rest. I am student teaching next semester. I eagerly anticipate my Sabbaths from grading, writing lesson plans, and working.

    I reserve Saturday as my Sabbath. For me, Sunday has too many commitments, so I feel like I only have to rest between church services. Saturday is a full day of rest and I sacrifice a full day of potential studying. My husband works a Tuesday-Saturday job and teaches on Sundays, so for him, Monday is the only day of rest he gets. One benefit of a staggered Sabbath is that I cook on his Sabbaths and he can cook on mine.

    I have more difficulty visualizing Sabbath as a communal activity, partially since I reserve an atypical day as my Sabbath. On a personal level, I guard my Sabbath day against activities which would turn it into work and reserve activities for it which turn it into a special day of rest.

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  3. Refusing the gift of Sabbath is rooted in pride. I know. I have so many times overworked and under-rested because I've wanted to accomplish, to finish, to be acknowledged. I've so often allowed my mind to be filled with business and busyness instead of saying to myself, "Be still." I am convicted of the truth of Psalm 127:2, "It is vain to stay up late and to rise up early, to eat the bread of painful labor; for He gives to His beloved even in their sleep." Thank you for these thoughts, Bethany.

  4. I like to follow Rose Bear's admonition to "not do anything that feels like work." I was born with a gene that likes a clean house and that (sometimes) makes cleaning and straightening up enjoyable. (God makes all kinds, right?) I enjoy cleaning my house on Sunday because it feels like preparation for the new week ahead. Other times I'm content to wallow in my own filth if I'm not in the mood. I enjoy the liberation from obligation rather than the work itself.