Some pastors observe sabbath well. Their day away from work is markedly different from the other six, and there is something special and holy about what they doand don't doon that day. For others, the sabbath feels like another work day, another day of handling holy things thateven with the best of intentionsseems to have nothing particularly holy about it. It isn't set apart. It isn't even restful.
When you work with holy things all week long, what is it you are resting from when sabbath finally arrives?
Ben, the pastor of a small urban congregation in Seattle, keeps a Sunday sabbath. He is alone quite a bit during the week, so he relishes his time with people on Sunday mornings at church and with his wife's extended family in the afternoon.
For Ben, the heart of the sabbath is appreciating what God has given him. He makes an effort to walk slowly around the church building on Sundays in order to be present to the gift of the moment and the place. At coffee hour, he tries not to talk church business with parishioners. Instead, he tries to enjoy them. He does the same with his children. He figures six days a week is enough to try to shape his children and teach them. On Sundays, he simply enjoys who they are and how they are growing. He tries to do small household tasks like emptying the dishwasher so his wife can also have a sabbath.
Marva Dawn, a Christian theologian, writer and speaker, has described a Sunday sabbath pattern similar to Ben's. She is willing to engage in ministry on Sundays in the form of speaking or preaching, but she will not do any work of preparation. A Sunday sabbath affirms the connection between corporate worship and resting in God, but for many pastors, Sunday morning is such hard work that it doesn't provide the rest God intends.
Ann, another pastor of a church in the Seattle area, keeps a Friday sabbath. She has been a faithful sabbath keeper for more than 30 years. She found as she entered her fifties that she needed longer than 24 hours in order to feel rested. So she begins her sabbath at dinnertime on Thursday and usually continues her sabbath until bedtime on Friday.
For Ann, the heart of the sabbath is taking off all the roles she wears during the week: pastor, teacher, building administrator, worship planner, etc. On the sabbath, she slides gratefully into the role of beloved child of Godand nothing else. She describes it as comfortable clothes that she looks forward to wearing each week. She spends the time largely alone, reading fiction, walking on a beach, riding a ferry.
Over the years, Ann has negotiated sabbath practices with several roommates and vacation partners. Ann doesn't want questions or comments about work on her sabbath day. Abraham Heschel, in The Sabbath, suggests that we should cease from work and also from thoughts of work on this day of rest. Ann would agree.
Ann's sabbath is similar to the pattern Eugene Peterson describes in several of his books, a day of rest not connected to a Sunday worship service. When Peterson was a pastor, he and his wife, Jan, spent Mondays hiking. On the first half of the hike, they kept silence, and on the way back, they talked with each other.
Two sabbath commands
Ben and Ann have adopted practices that dovetail with the two versions of the sabbath command in the Ten Commandments. The nine other commands are very similar in the two versions of the commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, but the fourth commandment differs significantly, beginning with the opening imperative verb. "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy" (Ex. 20:8, NRSV). The second version begins with "observe" (Deut. 5:12). These two verbs capture significant aspects of the sabbath challenge. A healthy, obedient, and life-giving sabbath involves habits of observance as well as a commitment to remember.