As a good Sunday school kid, I’ve always been able to offer a basic definition of the word Sabbath. Sabbath is a day of rest, a quaint Jewish practice that meant that no one cooked or walked far from home or did any other hard work for one day whole day each week. I gathered that as a Christian I was free from this tedious practice because I hardly ever heard any one talk about it. Along with eating shrimp and wearing cotton blend clothing, Christian liberty freed me to do whatever I wanted any day of the week. The suggestion that ceasing from work, or any other activity, for one day a week would make any difference in my spiritual life didn’t align with my mostly intellectual and disembodied understanding of my relationship with God.
As I entered my adult years life became more wearying. I tried to do more with every moment, packing my days full from morning to night. I was constantly disappointed with my own ineffectiveness even though much of my activity was directed toward doing things for God. At the same time, I was struck by how frequently Sabbath was emphasized in scripture. Sabbath keeping wasn’t a second order command. It began on the seventh day of creation in the Genesis. It was one of the Ten Commandments, which certainly still apply. Jesus even kept the Sabbath in the Gospels.
Sabbath is essential to the order of creation. It is a practice that informs and shapes us as people created by God and invited into his work and rest. He invites us to cease our striving to do things for him, ourselves, or others. In Sabbath rest we are simply able to be with God. As I learned more I desperately wanted to make Sabbath keeping part of my Rule of Life but I didn’t know where to begin.
And so I decided that I could only begin to understand Sabbath by trying it. An art teacher once so emphasized learning classical technique before you start improvising that I now apply that lesson to all of life. I began by studying Jewish practices for keeping the Sabbath, improvised a trial Sabbath rule, and decided to learn by doing the next weekend.
I cleaned my home, prepared dinner, and set things aside for the next 24 hours. The intention is to cease work at sunset on Friday and not to resume it until sunset on Saturday. A family prepares themselves and their home as though company is coming. In Judaism, the Sabbath is metaphorically spoken of as a bride who enters a wedding banquet and the guests celebrate her arrival. And so with the lovely glow of candles we ate dinner, put the dishes to soak in the sink, and ended the night by reading quietly. It was jarring simple in comparison to our usual frantic and ambitious pace.
Saturday was another story. My natural inclination was to wash the dishes, run some errands, and prepare for the upcoming work week. But instead we went for a walk, ate a simple meal that required little preparation, played a board game, did a little more reading and praying, then took a nap. It was getting tedious and I was itching for sunset. I felt like I hadn’t “earned” this much time off because clearly I had so many things I should be doing. And yet on the Sabbath we acknowledge fully that it is God who orders our days, meets our needs, and gives his beloved people rest.
My family doesn’t follow a strictly Jewish Sabbath practice anymore, in fact some weeks we don’t practice it at all. Our rule is to keep a 24 hour day of rest one day a week and we are seeking a better understanding of what rest looks like for parents of young children. I’m still not sure how to manage birthday parties, garage sales, future soccer games, and all the other things that tend to fall on Saturday in our culture. At times I feel lonely keeping a Sabbath in a world that invites constant busyness so I am seeking more ways to invite others in our community to participate in the joyful parts of our Sabbath day.
But I persevere because I find keeping a Sabbath to be the most essential part of my Rule of Life. Ruth Haley Barton, author of Sacred Rhythms, contends that Sabbath is the cornerstone of all the other spiritual practices because it ultimately reorders our whole lives toward the activity of God. I fail miserably many weeks but now that I have experienced God’s gift of Sabbath rest it will always be a part of my Rule of Life.
Learn more about Sabbath from Lynn Babb’s short and practical book Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest. And you download our Lenten guide for developing your own Rule of Life.