Braking for the Sabbath
By Audrey Stallsmith
“The Moslem day of rest is Friday,” G. K. Chesterton writes in Come To Think of It, “and, when I was in Jerusalem, very quaint results sometimes followed from the three religious festivals coming on the three successive days. It was complained that the Jews took an unfair advantage of the fact that their Sabbath ceases at sunset; but, anyhow, it was highly significant of a universal human need that the three great cosmopolitan communions, which all disagreed about the choice of a sacred day, all agreed in having one.”
Unfortunately, everybody doesn’t seem to agree on that anymore. Although most dedicated Christians attend church on Sunday, some seem to believe they can use the remainder of the day for finishing all the chores they didn’t get done on Saturday.
That is unfortunate since, as Jesus pointed out, the Sabbath was made for man. I don’t think it’s importance lies in which day of the week it is, but in that it should be observed once every seven days. It gives a person time to concentrate on what is really important—God—and take a rest from the rest.
Of course, once people get caught up in the momentum of doing, having to switch gears to not doing can make them twitchy. In The Great Omission, Dallas Willard advises, “Attend to what is around you. Learn that you don't have to DO to BE. accept the grace of doing nothing. Stay with it until you stop jerking and squirming.”
Sabbath observance isn’t difficult for those of us who have been trained to practice it since our youth, though I must admit that I wasn’t as enthusiastic about Sunday afternoon naps in those days as I am now! In fact, slowing down on Sunday used to be an almost national habit, due to the fact that everything shut down then.
Abraham Lincoln believed that “As we keep or break the Sabbath day, we nobly save or meanly lose that last best hope by which man rises.” In other words, back then almost everybody got reminded of God at least once a week, whether they wanted to be or not!
The lull in work and business gave them time to stop and think about the direction in which their life was headed. Even if that made them wish—as in Johnny Cash’s song about “Sunday Morning Coming Down”—that they were stoned instead! These days, when Sunday is as full of activity as the rest of the week, many people can drug themselves with busy-ness instead to block out the voice of conscience.
Granted, Sabbath observance may have been too stringently enforced at the time. In Letters to a Diminished Church, Dorothy Sayers comments dryly, "They have transferred the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, and, feeling that the original commandment ‘Thou shalt not work’ was rather half-hearted, have added to it a new commandment, ‘Thou shalt not play.’"
Even back in the good old days when most businesses were closed on Sunday, however, one drug store in each town usually remained open for emergencies. Unfortunately, the pendulum has now swung to the opposite extreme with almost all of the stores and restaurants open and business cranking full speed ahead. Before you decide which activities are appropriate for Sunday, ask yourself whether or not they require that somebody else work so you can play.
For example, going out to lunch after church may prevent your having to fix a meal, but it requires that there be cooks, waitresses and busboys on hand to serve and clean up after you. None of that is really necessary these days when so many ready-to-eat foods are available. On Sunday, our family’s meals usually consist of what is fastest and easiest to make, often hot dogs and instant potatoes for lunch and canned soup or leftovers from previous days for supper. That way, neither we nor anybody else has to slave in a kitchen to feed us.
Of course some people, for whom cooking is a hobby, may find it relaxing to prepare a special meal for their relatives on Sunday. And the Sabbath should be a day when we can do what we find most relaxing.
For me, that often includes reading, taking a walk, napping or snapping photos of the flowers in my garden. No, I don’t weed them on Sunday. Instead, since I often take a bouquet with me to church, it’s the day I and others get to enjoy what the Lord—and weekday weeding—have made. “Sabbath observance. . .” Wendell Berry notes in Living the Sabbath, “invites us to delight in the world’s beauty and abundance.”
“The secret of Sabbath keeping, Hannah Whitall Smith points out in First Steps of Faith, “is in the absence of burden bearing. (Jeremiah 17: 21-22). . .There can be no true Sabbath-keeping when burdens are freely brought into the precincts of the soul. . .Care will break the rest of the soul as much as sin does.”
Sunday should be the day we give all the cares we’ve accumulated during the week to God. It should also be the day that we acknowledge that our worth doesn’t derive from all that worry or busyness or the work we do.
As Walter Brueggemann puts it in Journey to the Common Good, the Sabbath “is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being.”
In God In My Everything, Ken Shigematsu acknowledges that, “If we take time to honor the Sabbath we may actually find that we are less productive than we were before. . .God's provision for us as we honor his rhythms may be the grace to accept being passed over for a promotion, while gaining a greater sense of fulfillment as we do our work more aware of God, ourselves, and the people around us.”
Granted, some types of work must be done on Sunday, including preaching, care of the sick, etc. Therefore, pastors and nurses who have to work that day frequently choose another day of the week as their Sabbath. Unfortunately, most dairy farmers like my father didn’t get that option, as cows have to be milked every day of the year, though Dad refrained from field work on the Sabbath. These days, when the only livestock on hand are hogs and beef cows, his Sunday chores are much less demanding.
Back in the Old Testament, fields themselves got a rest every seven years, which would probably benefit some of them these days when harsh chemicals attempt to push them into high production all the time. Such ceremonious holidays as sabbaths, land sabbaths, and jubilees not only gave Jewish families and fields a break, but proved that God’s will came first with them. Providing, of course, that those families actually kept those holy days—which many of them didn’t!
Perhaps it’s just as well that so many people ignore Sunday now too, if they aren’t going to defer to God’s will during the rest of the week. As George MacDonald reminds us in Donal Grant, “Where every day is not the Lord’s, the Sunday is his least of all. There may be sickening unreality where there is no conscious hypocrisy.”