I remember very clearly the moment when I first glimpsed the possibility that my Christian faith might be a source of guidance through the time crunch that was my life. It was a Saturday night, and a few teachers were sitting around a dinner table. Tomorrow, we complained, would not be a happy day. Great piles of papers needed grading, and we had promised our students that we would return them on Monday. And so we whined, and as we whined our complaints gradually shaded into boasts. Someone listening in might have thought that we were competing to see who had to grade the most, who worked hardest, and who was most put upon by the demands of his or her job.

That's when it hit me. "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." This was a commandment, one of the ten laws in the basic moral code of Christianity, Judaism, and Western civilization, and here we were, hatching plans to violate it. I could not imagine this group sitting around saying, "I'm planning to take God's name in vain"; "I'm planning to commit adultery"; "I think I'll steal something." Yes, we might occasionally break one of the other commandments ("You shall not covet" is an especially hard one for me), but if we did, we would hardly boast.

Our approach to the Sabbath commandment was different. We had become so captivated by our work, so impressed by its demands on us and by our own indispensability, that it had simply vanished from our consciousness. We were in the habit of churchgoing, though our whines included a little complaint even about this. But I knew in my bones that we were a long way from keeping the Sabbath holy. I began to wonder what that meant and why it mattered.

This "aha!" moment set me off on an exploration of the ancient practice of keeping Sabbath. Though I had never used the expression "keeping Sabbath" much, the practice was not altogether unfamiliar to me. The Sundays of my childhood, though not governed by strict rules, had the quiet atmosphere of a traditional Protestant Sabbath, complete with Sunday school, worship, a family meal, and quiet hours of reading or play. A great many things have changed since I was a child, however, and I knew that whatever Sabbath practice I might discover for today could not be shaped by nostalgia.

When we keep a Sabbath holy, we are practicing, for a day, the freedom that God intends for all people. We are practicing life outside the frantic pace set by financial markets and round-the-clock shopping and entertainment venues. We are practicing independence from the forces of injustice. We are trying on a new way of life as we begin to allow our weeks to be changed in response to God's promises. We are practicing—pun intended. Like a novice learning to play a musical instrument, we may be off-key at times. It may be years before we are in harmony, and we will never get it perfect. But that need not stop us. Besides, stopping is less a problem than getting started.

During the years since the Saturday night when my friends and I whined about our work, I have talked with many people who engage in this practice in one way or another, and I have tried taking a few steps of my own as well. The forms of Sabbath keeping that bring joy in creation, freedom from bondage, and the experience of new life will vary from household to household. Each person needs to consider what forms this practice can take in his or her life, and each local community, family, or institution needs to discern the life-giving shape of Sabbath within its own unique context. With this in mind, I humbly offer the following suggestions as resources for this process.

A REST FROM COMMERCE

One Sunday at noon, my twelve-year-old daughter received a very appealing invitation. A friend, and the friend's parents, wanted her to go along for an afternoon at the mall. Sunday afternoons are relaxed times for us, and our kids often get together with friends. But the mall? As my daughter knew, I don't shop on Sundays; stepping out of the rat race of consumerism is an important part of my Sabbath practice. I said that she couldn't go.

Article continues below

"But Mom, I won't buy anything," she pleaded. "I'll just look." When I did not give in to her pleas, she stormed for a few minutes in her disappointment, first at me and then alone. But after a little while, we had one of our best conversations ever. What kinds of feelings are stirred up in us when we "just look" at the displays at the mall? We start to want things, but do we need them? Is this wanting good for us and for others? If we were poor, how would we experience the mall?

Perhaps my daughter will remember our conversation in the future, during a weekday shopping trip. She and I will not be withdrawing from contact with the mall by any means. I hope, however, that we can help each other visit it equipped with a degree of spiritual independence from its gaudy promises. It is this sort of independence that keeping Sabbath can help us form. Although I have yet to develop the independence for which I yearn, I know that there are a number of needless things that I never got around to buying simply because I would not shop on Sundays.

This episode set me to thinking about all the ways in which time and possessions tug against each other. In The Overworked American, Juliet Schor describes the treadmill of working and spending on which we scurry: work more, buy more, then work more again. And the work hours expended for the purpose of paying off credit-card balances represent only a fraction of the time we give to our possessions. Shopping, maintaining, storing, fueling, fixing: these, too, absorb hour after hour. Moreover, a Sabbath pattern of resisting consumerism awakens the parts of ourselves that cannot be nourished by possessions. When these are awake, the whole week looks different.

A REST FROM WORRY

Abraham Heschel tells the story of a pious man who took a stroll in his vineyard on the Sabbath. He saw that his fence was broken through and decided that he would come back the next day to fix it. That evening, however, he changed his mind: "Since the thought of repairing the fence occurred to me on the Sabbath I shall never repair it." His resolve arose from an ancient interpretation of the Sabbath commandment: "Rest even from the thought of labor."

Trying to take Sabbath rest this far would be difficult, particularly for those of us who find that the more we try not to think about something, the more it is on our mind. But there are ways to structure at least part of this story's wisdom into our own Sabbath keeping. We can refrain from activities that we know will summon worry, activities like paying bills, doing tax returns, and making lists of things to do in the coming week.

On Sundays, one wise woman deliberately refrains from thinking about people who make her angry, practicing letting go of the slights and grudges that accumulate over the course of any week. And we can cultivate those forms of engagement with nature, ideas, and other people that really get our minds off of the week ahead. For my son that means shooting hoops with a friend, and for me, watching him do so.

Unfortunately, it is often the church itself that habitually misses the wisdom of Heschel's story by filling Sunday afternoons with church committee meetings. "We will have a short service today so that we can get straight to the business meeting," one preacher announced. Of course it is difficult to find time to meet during the week, but part of the point of Sabbath is to cause shifts in weekday priorities. In many churches, it is the generous people who serve on the committees who most need to be reminded of this. Resisting the temptation to meet on Sunday would help them say to one another, "God intends rest and liberation for you, during at least one-seventh of your time." Eating, playing, and taking delight in nature and one another in the hours after worship, however, would be wonderful ways for congregations or groups within them to keep Sabbath.

Article continues below

A REST FOR CREATION

Jürgen Moltmann, an eminent German theologian, ended his book on the theology of creation with a radical suggestion: "The ecological day of rest should be a day without pollution of the environment—a day when we leave our cars at home, so that nature too can celebrate its Sabbath."

Fifty years ago, before the building of the freeways and the suburbs, many American Christians might have found in this suggestion a satisfying endorsement of their way of life. Then, churches had small parking lots and served neighborhoods or parishes, and people walked. But things have changed. In recent decades, the lack of adequate parking space has been a significant factor in the withering of many urban congregations, while suburban megachurches have prospered in part due to the efforts of parking stewards who volunteer to direct the traffic flow across acres of asphalt. A few of my friends have chosen to live where they can walk to church, unknowingly emulating the walk to synagogue that is imperative for Jews of the strictest observance.

For most of us, getting to worship, and also enjoying many of my other suggestions for keeping Sabbath, would be impossible without our wheels. I wonder, however, whether we should consider the possibility that there is a relationship between the drivenness of our lives and the fact that we so often drive cars, even when we could walk. Visitors from other countries are often astonished at the degree of Americans' reliance on automobiles; one recently pointed out to me that you know your neighborhood differently when you walk it. Moreover, minutes spent walking are open in a way that minutes spent driving are not. The space of the sky and the span of the minutes stretch out, free, before us.

As the earth grows fragile under the pressure of human misuse, we need to consider how we can spend our Sabbaths practicing a way of life that is good for creation, even if we cannot or will not abandon our vehicles. Doing this will require discernment, as well as attention to the particular situations in which we live.

For example, I find gardening a happy part of many Sundays. But is gardening "work"? For someone who does most of her labor with books and computers, gardening feels like a form of meditation on the wonders of nature, an opportunity to ally with the soil and the sun that is absent during the week. Others find similar renewal in walking or swimming or visiting a park. The important thing is to discover in the freedom of this day a place to allow our love of the earth to be rekindled: to notice its beauty, to enjoy its colors and shapes and smells, and to experience how our bodies move among its waters, rocks, and breezes.

Keeping Sabbath not only brings us closer to the earth but also begins the process of healing it. Refraining from work on a regular basis is a way of setting limits on behavior that is perilous for the well-being of the planet itself. Just as overworked Americans need rest, both from work and from the illusion that they themselves cause the grain to grow, the earth also needs rest from human burning and buying and selling. Perhaps as Sabbath keepers we will come to live and know these truths more fully and thus to bring their wisdom to the common solution of humanity's problems.

Article continues below

A REST FROM WORK

Work comes in many varieties and can take on many guises. Each of us must determine, in conversation with others, what work needs to be relinquished if we are to enter the practice of keeping Sabbath.

Some Christians have been more clear than I am about this dimension of Sabbath keeping. Among the most serious of these were the Dutch Calvinists who settled on farms in the American Midwest. A son of this tradition tells the story of a costly but blessed form of this practice in his poem "Obedience."

Were my parents right or wrong not to mow the ripe oats that Sunday morning
with the rainstorm threatening?
I reminded them that the Sabbath was made for man
and of the ox fallen into the pit.
Without an oats crop, I argued,
the cattle would need to survive on town-bought oats
and then it wouldn't pay to keep them.
Isn't selling cattle at a loss like an ox in a pit?
My parents did not argue.
We went to church.
We sang the usual psalms louder than usual—
we, and the others whose harvests were at stake:
Jerusalem, where blessing waits,
Our feet are standing in thy gates."
God, be merciful to me;
On thy grace I rest my plea."
Dominie's spur-of-the-moment concession:
"He rides on the clouds, the wings of the storm;
The lightning and wind his missions perform."
Dominie made no concessions on sermon length:
"Five Good Reasons for Infant Baptism,"
though we heard little of it,
for more floods came and more winds blew and beat
upon that House than we had figured on, even,
more lightning and thunder
and hail the size of pullet eggs.
Falling branches snapped the electric wires.
We sang the closing psalm without the organ and in the dark:
Ye seed from Abraham descended,
God's covenant love is never ended."
Afterward we rode by our oats field,
flattened.
"We still will mow it," Dad said.
"Ten bushels to the acre, maybe, what would have been fifty
if I had mowed right after milking
and if the whole family had shocked.
We could have had it weatherproof before the storm."
Later at dinner Dad said,
"God was testing us. I'm glad we went."
"Those psalms never gave me such a lift as this morning,"
Mother said, "I wouldn't have missed it."
And even I thought but did not say,
How guilty we would feel now if we had saved the harvest.
The one time Dad asked me why I live in a Black neighborhood,
I reminded him of that Sunday morning.
Immediately he understood.

On this stormy Sunday in harvest season, the poet's parents not only went to church; they "sang the usual psalms louder than usual." In spite of their economic loss, their steadfast adherence to a practice that was central to their identity exhibited a strength that makes the pragmatic alternative of skipping church seem weak and oddly ineffectual. Years later, the son, though no longer much of a Sabbath keeper, realized that he owed the vigor of his own moral life to his parents' example.

This poem about the formation of a boy's character portrays a form of Sabbath keeping far stricter than my own. And some of its details suggest that it is distant from contemporary need: it is set in the vanishing culture of the family farm and the country church, and the father's idea that the storm was God's way of testing these good people troubles me. Even so, this family's refusal to let the marketplace govern their lives inspires me to reflect more honestly on my claims that I simply cannot afford the time for keeping Sabbath.

A habit, deeply ingrained across decades of Sunday morning regularity, sustained the integrity of this Dutch Calvinist family. Churchgoing was one beat within the rhythm of a whole way of life. Our rhythms of life and work today are rarely so steady, nor is our way of life so neatly integrated into a whole. In an ordinary week, I tell myself, I do keep Sabbath. The problem is that there are so few ordinary weeks—partly because of my own scatteredness and partly because the worlds of work and home and church are not nearly as integrated into a single way of life as they were on that Dakota farm.

Article continues below

In my family, travel to conferences is what most frequently upsets our rhythms; for people in business, it is travel to trade shows or sales meetings. I try to handle these conflicts by nurturing steady habits for the Sundays that are more or less ordinary and by declining weekend conference invitations as often as possible. I would like to report that I also take a compensatory day of Sabbath when I miss the ordinary one, but instead I will only say that I think I should. Perhaps next year.

WORSHIP THE LORD

One Monday morning, a pastor in Chicago got a phone call asking her to check the pews for someone's mislaid gloves. She found the gloves. She also found the previous day's bulletin, marked to show the exact number of minutes and seconds occupied by each element of the worship service. Opening hymn, 3:38. Old Testament reading, 2:32. And so on, right down the page.

Joyful worship that restores us to communion with the risen Christ and our fellow members of his body, the church, is an essential part of a Christian Sabbath. Contemporary culture militates against this, however, both by insinuating that worship is not a very efficient use of time and by importing habits of clock bondage into a gathering where the clock has no place. What is in the deepest sense a festival, a spring of souls, a time of freedom not only from work but also from condemnation becomes instead one more carefully measured appointment.

Some services seem by their nature to invite us to pick up one of those little pew pencils and doodle. When hymns drag, elders judge, children fuss, fancy clothes constrain, and the minutes tick slowly by, we can forget that Sunday worship is a way of taking part in the activity by which God is shaping a new creation. Worship can and should be crafted in ways that make plain that it is a foretaste of the feast to come. "This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!"

Just as frequently, however, the problem lies not in the service but in the distorted dispositions we bring to it. These are dispositions we need to replace. One step is suggested by the growing number of worshipers who go to church without their watches. Many observant Jews do not carry timepieces on Shabbat. Learning from them, and remembering how the clock can beat us down, we might also declare our availability to God by removing the little machines that link us to commercial time from our bodies, at least during worship.

Doing so, we would experience at least an hour within what anthropologists call "event time," time that flows in accordance with the activity at hand rather than to the beat of a mechanism imported from another realm. I find that doing this increases my capacity to hear the Word, to enjoy the feast, and to notice the new creation coming into being. Sometimes I smile at myself when I realize that it also eliminates my capacity to deliver an informed opinion that the preacher went on too long.

POINTS OF RESISTANCE

For many families, the most urgent question about Sabbath is this: What about soccer and baseball and ice hockey? John Cardinal O'Connor, archbishop of New York City, recently made the news by criticizing the young altar servers who use their Little League games as an excuse for getting out of church. The New York Times visited the city's parks the next Sunday and reported on parents' reactions, which ranged from "He's out of touch" to "The first priority on Sunday is rest and worship; it's not easy, but we fit everything else around that."

Article continues below

Actually, children playing ball in the park while parents watch and chat is a fine image of Sabbath, as far as I'm concerned. "Do not play" is not a theologically astute interpretation of the Sabbath commandment, and it is said that even John Calvin, the Protestant reformer, liked to bowl on Sunday afternoons, a bit of history suppressed by his theological heirs. A friend who grew up among Dutch-American Calvinists tells me that the children in his family invented a Sabbath nongame called "sidewalk tag." You pursued your prey by walking (running was forbidden on Sundays) along the sidewalk (going on the grass was forbidden as well) very fast.

Making children sit still and stay on the sidewalk—or adults either—is not necessary. At the same time, in the overheated reality of contemporary American sports, participating usually entails much more than strolling down to the park after Sunday worship and lunch. Children and their parents can be swept up in demanding requirements that have little to do with play, including fundraising and travel to distant competitions. Worse, they can get the idea that athletic prowess is the supreme measure of personal worth.

Parents need to set some limits, and the practice of keeping Sabbath provides a structure for doing so. The Massachusetts Council of Churches, which encompasses 15 Protestant denominations, has begun a campaign to urge parents, coaches, and parks departments to protect Sundays until 1 p.m. as a public time of rest. Though this policy does not address every objection that might be raised, it does signal resistance to the ultimacy of sports in our culture and take the pressure off at least a few hours of each week. It also invites parents to think more carefully about how the shape of time forms their children in and for a way of life. Ideally, parents and others who care for children will work together to create livable and life-giving schedules for working things out in a busy, pluralistic society. Some times, however, we will need to say, simply and clearly, "That is something we cannot do today."

SATURDAY, SUNDAY, AND MONDAY

When I talk to people about the practice of keeping Sabbath, they love the idea of sheltering one day each week for rest and worship. But often they protest, must it be Sunday? It's a good question, particularly in light of the social forces arrayed against it. We live in a society where many people simply do not have the economic or vocational freedom to take this day off. At the same time, the 2,000-year-old Christian pattern of gathering to celebrate Christ's resurrection each first day is not something to discard readily. Nor should we sell too cheaply the consensus of Jewish and Christian Scriptures and traditions that God intends for us not just "Sabbath time," scattered wherever we can catch it, but a Sabbath day each week.

My own need for flexibility has led me to a certain kind of inventiveness. Here's my reasoning: biblical days run from sundown to sundown. Thus a Christian Sabbath begins on Saturday evening and ends with Sunday supper. Therefore, time with friends on Saturday night is part of the Sabbath. Ergo, on Sunday evening, after supper, teachers like my husband and me may return to work, preparing for the week ahead. In this rendering, the Saturday night dinner I shared with the whining teachers was actually a Sabbath meal, though we should have avoided the whining.

While guarding the importance of shared weekly worship that is tied to a celebration of Christ's resurrection, Christians can and should be creative in claiming a Sabbath day. Worship services on Saturday evening and Sunday evening provide appropriate alternatives for people who cannot worship on Sunday morning. Indeed, these alternatives suggest that the Christian Sabbath can spill into Saturday or Monday, an idea hinted at by two leading theologians.

Article continues below

Jürgen Moltmann makes a theological distinction between Saturday (Judaism's Sabbath of creation) and Sunday (Christianity's messianic feast) while also wanting to strengthen the living relationship between the Christian feast and the Jewish Sabbath. His suggestion is to let "the eve of Sunday … flow into a Sabbath stillness." As for the bustle that follows Sunday, the reflections of the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann are suggestive. The earliest Christians, he notes, held their resurrection feast not on a day of rest but on the first day of the working week. "By remaining one of the ordinary days, and yet by revealing itself through the Eucharist as the eighth and first day, it gave all days their true meaning."

Trying to keep Sabbath for one full day each week goes against the grain of how most of us live, and it is possible that further social change will soon make this Christian practice even more difficult than it already is. Even so, holding up a Sabbath day as an ideal is important. This gift of time is not meant to be nibbled at in bits and pieces as our convenience allows. It is a gift that has ancient roots, and it is a gift best received in community. Opening it, we find not only time but also the stories, the meals, the gatherings, and the songs that prepare us to cherish creation, to resist slavery in all its forms, and to proclaim new life all week long.

Can we even imagine weeks in which every human being is free to accept God's gift of one full day, a day of sacred time shielded from work and worry, a day that is open for worship, rest, and play? In one sense, our society's problems with time make this seem like a distant dream. Yet it is an image that can begin to take on flesh even now, in partial, experimental, but deeply freeing forms.

Imagine supporting faith communities different from your own in observing holy days established by their traditions and explaining to them why you need a Sabbath day. Imagine becoming more independent of consumerism and work obsession because you practice resisting them on a regular basis. Imagine how your freedom may contribute to the freedom of others and to the well-being of the natural world. Imagine looking forward to a full day of deep rest each week. As we try on these images, letting them alter the patterns of our lives, we practice each week what Sabbath perceives: time is the gift of God.

The Christian practice of keeping Sabbath is also the gift of God. It offers welcome, not condemnation, losing its power if it is imposed on the unwilling or grasped self-righteously by those whose circumstances make it easy for them to keep Sabbath. Receiving this day, after all, means joining in the song of creation, which renews our love for the earth and our gratitude for the blessings God grants through it.

Receiving this day means joining in a worldwide song of liberation, a song whose vibrations cut through our own forms of bondage and awaken us to the need of all people for freedom and justice. Receiving this day means singing Alleluia and being renewed in faith, hope, and love. It is the eighth day, and the future God has promised is breaking in. No other days can be the same, after this one.

Dorothy C. Bass is director of the Valparaiso (Indiana) University Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith. Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a company of John Wiley & Sons, from Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time. © 2000 by Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers. This book is available at all bookstores, online booksellers, from the Wiley Web site (www.jbp.com), or by calling 1-800-956-7739.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

Tags:
Issue: