More than self-indulgence and productivity

About 10 years ago, I decided to obey God by honouring his command to keep a Sabbath.

At my gym, they say that the first step to achieving your fitness goals is to commit to stop getting any worse; maintaining your current fitness level is the foundation for improving it. Accordingly, I began by committing to not get any worse at Sabbath keeping.

The next thing I did was take careful stock of how I spend my time. There are no extra hours in the week; if I was going to begin observing a Sabbath, I would need to begin by having the time to do so. I started by committing to spend one day every two months in rest, silence, and prayerful reflection at the local monastery and by spending one night a week at home.

That’s all: not 52 days a year, just six days and 52 evenings. My hope was that if I could begin to live into this rhythm of Sabbath keeping, I could gradually move up to 52 full days a year.

The next question was, what should I do during my Sabbath time? When I looked to my Christian community for answers, I found there were very few available. Few of my friends kept a Sabbath, and when they did, their practice didn’t extend beyond attending church on Sunday mornings where they would often cram in business meetings or other church-work-related activities to maximize their time. This did not seem to be what Sabbath keeping was all about.

Sabbath keeping in the secular world

I actually found more information on Sabbath keeping in the business world and in fashion magazines. Many business leaders know that there is money to be made by encouraging their employees to maintain some form of Sabbath because an employee who takes a day off is actually more productive than one who does not.

But this is not why God created the Sabbath*. God didn’t rest on the seventh day so he could work harder for the next six. Increased productivity may be a by-product of Sabbath keeping, but it is not why God commanded us to keep the Sabbath.

Fashion magazines also praise the idea of Sabbath. Take a bubble bath! Have some “me” time!

But Sabbath keeping isn’t meant to be “me” time. Sabbath is a time to both imitate and spend time with God. Exodus 20:11 tells us that God “blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Sabbath keeping certainly benefits us as individuals, but it is ultimately about the God who created us and loves us.

*Lauren Winner’s book Mudhouse Sabbath was foundational in helping me to understand my own thoughts and experiences. I highly recommend her book to anyone who is interested in exploring this topic further.

Sabbath keeping in Judaism

Next, I looked to Judaism. Over hundreds of years, Jews have managed to hone the art of Sabbath keeping into a series of intricate laws and regulations. If I had grown up in a Jewish home, my pre-Sabbath task might have been to pre-tear enough toilet paper for my family, because one of the things you are not allowed to do on the Sabbath is tear anything. This seems like a legalistic nightmare; why do Jewish people still find it so important?

My husband and I once had the opportunity to participate in a Sabbath dinner with some Jewish friends. It was then I realized why Sabbath is so important and why our Jewish friends think it’s worth all the extra effort.

The Jewish Sabbath begins when the sun goes down on Friday – at whatever time that might be. Up until that moment, there is a frenzy of activity to ensure everything is ready. When the sun is setting, a candle is lit and a blessing is said to mark the start of Sabbath. What follows is a leisurely meal filled with traditions enjoyed as a family.

One of the most beautiful traditions is the blessing of the children, at which time parents place their hands on their children’s heads and speak a blessing over them. Can you imagine the beauty of dedicating a time each week to blessing your kids? What effect might that have on a parent? On a child?

That evening, as we drove home, I felt a deep sadness and jealousy that I had not found a way to achieve that sense of peace, that sense of rest, that sense of communion with God and with those closest to me on a weekly basis.

I agree with Lauren Winner who sees beauty in the Jewish Sabbath but does not believe that Christians need to “embrace the strict regulations of the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath.”  We see all things, including Sabbath keeping, through Jesus Christ, and in Jesus, Sabbath has a new meaning. Paul says that the Sabbath and all other external signs of religious devotion, are not the things that save us. He writes to the Colossians, “Therefore, do not let anyone judge you…with regard to a religious festival…or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (2:16–17).

Marking a time of rest

There are still some things we can learn from the Jewish practice of Sabbath. One way in which the Jewish Sabbath differs from the average Christian Sunday is in the intentional marking of Sabbath as a time set apart and unlike any other.  All of the rituals and rules help to create a clear understanding that the Sabbath is different from the rest of the week, and a deep sense that the whole point of Sabbath keeping is to help us to connect with God.

Sabbath time begins and ends with the lighting of candles. As the sun sets on Saturday, Jewish people light a havdalah candle. Havdalah means separation, and the lighting of this candle marks the separation of Sabbath – time set apart for God – from the rest of the week.

There is a benefit to beginning and ending Sabbath time in a special way in order to mark that time as set apart from regular time. Sometimes I light a candle, other times I say a prayer thanking God for Sabbath. Reminding myself that Sabbath time is special time affects how I spend it.

Jewish rabbis say the emotion that should accompany any spiritual practice is kavannah, which means intent or direct purposefulness. To act with kavannah is to approach the things God commands us to do with the intent to honour God in our actions – whether we feel particularly close to God at that moment or not. If you wait to practice Sabbath keeping until you feel like observing it, you may never practice it at all. Sometimes, Sabbath is an amazingly powerful and emotional time of connection with God, and sometimes it’s not. But I evaluate the time based on my intentions, on kavannah, rather than on the quality of the emotional high I receive.

Getting started

The New England Puritans understood that, “Good Sabbaths make good Christians.”* If you do not already practice Sabbath keeping, it’s never too late to start. First, commit to not get any worse at Sabbath keeping. After that, there are two important things to remember:

*Lauren Winner’s book Mudhouse Sabbath, pg 12
  • Be intentional. Simply wanting to observe Sabbath will not make it happen.
  • Don’t let it become legalistic. Sabbath is a gift, not a burden.

Here’s an example of how I try to balance these two principles in my own life. My job requires me to work on weekends, so I don’t have a consistent Sabbath day; however, I schedule Sabbath time in advance and put it in my day planner. Another way I’ve tried to balance these principles is by not answering the phone, but checking my messages. If you’re calling about work, I’ll return your call after my Sabbath time. If you’re calling because you are in crisis, I will call you back immediately and do whatever I can to help.

Any step you can take toward a greater obedience to God is always worth the effort. God loves us enough to command that we look after our relationships with him and others by taking a day to rest and reflect. That makes him a God like no other, and that is why he is the God that I serve.

Rachel Twigg Boyce is the pastor of House Blend Ministries, an initiative of the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba. House Blend desires to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God in Winnipeg’s West End. When she’s not working, Rachel can often be found drinking coffee, walking her dog, or doing both at the same time.

Updated July 12, 2016: references added

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