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:
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.
"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).
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?