Why the day begins at dusk, and other biblical insights into how God works—and rests.

Many people simply cannot believe that there can be a large, leisurely center to life where God can be pondered. They doubt they can enter realms of spirit where wonder and adoration have a place to develop, and where play and delight have time to flourish. Is all this possible in our fast-paced lives?

I began asking this question out of my own life as a pastor. But I was soon asking the question out of the circumstances of my friends and parishioners, putting myself in their shoes, their ways of life, their vocations.

I decided that it is possible. It is possible because there is a biblical provision for it. The name for it is Sabbath.

An accurate understanding of Sabbath is prerequisite to its practice: it must be understood biblically, not culturally. A widespread misunderstanding of Sabbath trivializes it by designating it “a day off.” “A day off” is a bastard Sabbath. Days off are not without benefits, to be sure, but sabbaths they are not. However beneficial, this is not a true, but a secularized sabbath. The motivation is utilitarian: it makes us feel better. Relationships improve. We may even get more done on the six days than we would on the seven. But the day off is at the service of the six working days. The purpose is to restore strength, increase motivation, and keep performance incentives high.

Sabbath means quit. Stop. Take a break. Cool it. The word itself has nothing devout or holy in it. It is a word about time, denoting our nonuse of it—what we usually call wasting time.

The biblical context for understanding Sabbath is the Genesis week. Sabbath is the seventh and final day in which “God rested [sabbath] from all his work which he had done” (Gen. 2:3). We can learn from that sequence of days in which God spoke energy and matter into existence. We can also learn from the repeated refrain, “And there was evening and there was morning, one day … and there was evening and there was morning, a second day … and there was evening and there was morning”—on and on, six times.

This is the Hebrew way of understanding day; it is not ours. American days—most of them, anyway—begin with an alarm clock ripping the predawn darkness. They close, not with evening, but several hours past that when we turn off the electric lights. In conventional references to day, we do not include the night hours except for the two or three that we steal from either end to give us more time to work. Because our definition of day is so different, we have to make an imaginative effort to understand the Hebrew phrase “evening and morning, one day.”

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Beginning with quitting

More than idiomatic speech is involved here; there is a sense of rhythm. Day is the basic unit of God’s creative work; evening is the beginning of that day. It is the onset of God speaking light, stars, earth, vegetation, animals, man, woman into being. But it is also the time when we quit our activity and go to sleep. When it is evening, “I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep” and drift off into unconsciousness for the next six or eight or ten hours, a state in which I am absolutely nonproductive.

Then I wake up, rested, jump out of bed full of energy, grab a cup of coffee, and rush out the door to get things started. The first thing I discover (a great blow to the ego) is that everything was started hours—centuries—ago! While I was fast asleep—before I was even born—all the important things were set in motion. When I dash into the workday, I walk into a world in which God has been at work, an operation that is half over already. I enter into work in which the basic plan is already established, the assignments given, the operations in motion.

The Hebrew evening/morning sequence conditions us to the rhythms of grace. We go to sleep, and God begins his work. As we sleep, he develops his covenant. We wake and are called out to participate in God’s creative action. We respond in faith, in work. But always grace is previous. Grace is primary. We wake into a world we did not make, into a salvation we did not earn. Evening: God begins, without our help, his creative day. Morning: God calls us to enjoy and share and develop the work he initiated. Creation and covenant are sheer grace and there to greet us every morning. George MacDonald once wrote that sleep is God’s contrivance for giving us the help he cannot get into us when we are awake.

I read and reread these opening pages of Genesis, along with certain sequences of Psalms, and recover these deep, elemental rhythms, internalizing the reality in which the strong, initial pulse is God’s creating/saving word, God’s providential/sustaining presence, God’s grace.

As this biblical Genesis rhythm works in me, I also discover something else: When I quit my day’s work, nothing essential stops. I prepare for sleep not with a feeling of exhausted frustration because there is so much yet undone and unfinished, but with expectancy. The day is about to begin! God’s genesis words are about to be spoken again. During the hours of my sleep, how will he prepare to use my obedience, service, and speech when morning breaks? I go to sleep to get out of the way for a while. I get into the rhythm of salvation. While we sleep, great and marvelous things, far beyond our capacities to invent or engineer, are in process—the moon marking the seasons, the lion roaring before its prey, the earthworms aerating the earth, the proteins repairing our muscles, our dreaming brains restoring a deeper sanity beneath the gossip and scheming of our waking hours. Our work settles into the context of God’s work. Human effort is honored and respected not as a thing in itself, but by its integration into the rhythms of grace and blessing.

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Sabbath extrapolates this basic, daily rhythm into the larger context of the month. The turning of the earth on its axis gives us the basic two-beat rhythm, evening/morning. The moon in its orbit introduces another rhythm, the 28-day month, marked by four phases of seven days each. It is this larger rhythm, the rhythm of the seventh day, that we are commanded to observe. Sabbath-keeping presumes the daily rhythm, evening/morning.

We can hardly avoid stopping our work each night as fatigue and sleep overtake us. But we can avoid stopping work on the seventh day, especially if things are gaining momentum. Keeping the weekly rhythm requires deliberate action. Sabbath keeping often feels like an interruption, an interference with our routines. It challenges assumptions we gradually build up that our daily work is indispensable in making the world go. And then we find that it is not an interruption but a more spacious rhythmic measure that confirms and extends the basic beat. Every seventh day a deeper note is struck—an enormous gong whose deep sounds reverberate under and over and around the daily timpani percussions of evening/morning, evening/morning: creation honored and contemplated, redemption remembered and shared.

Pray and play

In the two biblical versions of the Sabbath commandment, the commands are identical but the supporting reasons differ. The Exodus reason is that we are to keep the Sabbath because God kept it (Exod. 20:8–11). God did his work in six days and then rested. If God sets apart one day to rest, we can, too. The work/rest rhythm is built into the very structure of God’s interpenetration of reality. The precedent to quit doing and simply be is divine.

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The Deuteronomy reason for Sabbath-keeping is that our ancestors in Egypt went four hundred years without a vacation (Deut. 5:15)—never a day off. The consequence: they were no longer considered persons but slaves, hands, work units—not persons created in the image of God but equipment for making bricks and building pyramids. Humanity was defaced.

Lest any of us do that to our neighbor or husband or wife or child or employee, we are commanded to keep a Sabbath. The moment we begin to see others in terms of what they can do rather than who they are, we mutilate humanity and violate community. It is no use claiming, “I don’t need to rest this week and therefore will not keep a Sabbath”; our lives are so interconnected that we inevitably involve others in our work whether we intend it or not. Sabbath-keeping is elemental kindness. Sabbath-keeping is commanded to preserve the image of God in our neighbors so that we see them as they are, not as we need them or want them.

The two biblical reasons for sabbath-keeping develop into parallel Sabbath activities of praying and playing. The Exodus reason directs us to the contemplation of God, which becomes prayer and worship. The Deuteronomy reason directs us to social leisure, which becomes play. Praying and playing are deeply congruent with each other and have extensive inner connections.

Being full by being spare

For 18 years, Monday was my Sabbath. Nothing was scheduled for Mondays. If there were emergencies, I responded, but there were surprisingly few. My wife joined me in observing the day. We made a lunch, put it in a day pack, took our binoculars, and drove anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour away to a trail head along a river or into the mountains. Before we began our hike, my wife read a psalm and prayed. After that prayer, there was no more talking—we entered into a silence that continued for the next two or three hours, until we stopped for lunch.

We walked leisurely, emptying ourselves, opening ourselves to what was there: fern shapes, flower fragrance, bird song, granite outcropping, oaks, and sycamores, rain, snow, sleet, wind. We had clothes for all kinds of weather and so never canceled our Sabbath-keeping for reasons of weather any more than our Sunday churchgoing—and for the same reason: we needed our Sabbath just as much as our parishioners needed theirs. When the sun or our stomachs told us it was lunch time, we broke the silence with a prayer of blessing for the sandwiches and fruit, the river and the forest. We were free to talk then, sharing bird sightings, thoughts, observations, ideas—however much or little we were inclined. We returned home in the middle or late afternoon, puttered, did odd jobs, read. After supper I usually wrote family letters. That was it: No Sinai thunder, no Damascus Road illuminations, no Patmos visions. It was a day set apart for solitude and silence, for “not doing,” for being there. It was the sanctification of time.

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We didn’t have any rules for preserving the sanctity of the day, only the commitment that it be set apart for being, not using.

My wife kept, off and on, a Sabbath journal for the 18 years that we did this. You would not be greatly impressed, I think, if you read the sporadic entries. Bird lists, wildflowers in bloom, snatches of conversation, brief notes on the weather. But the spareness records a fullness, a presence. For Sabbath-keeping is not primarily something we do, but what we don’t do.

Last year my work changed from pastor to professor. We moved across the continent from Maryland to British Columbia. With that change it became possible to keep a more conventional Sabbath. When I enter the church now, I no longer head for the pulpit; rather, my wife and I take our places in a pew on Sunday mornings and worship with a congregation of Christians.

Outwardly, it is a radical change: instead of carrying binoculars, we hold a hymnbook in our hands; instead of listening to warblers, we listen to the choir; instead of lunching on tuna sandwiches, we feast on the sacrament. But our Sabbath in the sanctuary is in some ways not much different from what it was in the woods: we enter a world of prayer, we loosen our grip, we don’t say much; we mostly listen and receive; we set the world and ourselves aside and cultivate attentive leisure before God.

But there is one striking difference—community. We are now in the Sabbath company of children and men and women, greeting and being greeted by Africans and Canadians and Japanese. There is an element of festivity here that we never had walking alone on the forest trails.

This celebrative element has been accentuated for us in an unexpected way. After the benediction in worship, we often go home, get some bread and fruit, and walk a couple of miles to Vancouver’s celebrated beaches and sea wall to eat our lunch. The place is alive with walkers and bicyclists, kite flyers and beachcombers, grandparents and children and parents, kayaks and sailboats, laughter and games and picnicking. The outdoor playfulness always strikes a chord of harmonious response in our hearts that have been so recently tuned to prayerfulness in the sanctuary.

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Vancouver is notorious for its non-churchgoing, but at least these people seem to know half of what Sunday means: “Quit your ordinary work; celebrate the creation; enjoy your family and friends!” North Americans are more used to observing obsessive Sunday shopping or addictive Sunday working among those who don’t go to church (also among some who do!). We have never before been among so many people who treat Sunday with such exuberant delight. This city plays on Sunday.

But I’m glad we don’t have to settle for only half.

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