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December 3, 2004
About sixteen years ago, author Eugene Peterson penned an article entitled “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker.” The piece included a mock mug-shot of Peterson holding a prison number against his chest. All of us could probably imagine our own faces in that photo. For while we are firm defenders of the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11), we all struggle in practice with how to keep it in today’s more secular society.
Staff workers, as religious leaders, can even piously rationalize workaholic behavior because we are engaged in the Lord’s work. Where can we get help on keeping the Sabbath?
First, we can consider God’s intent in giving humanity this gift. It is part of his plan — missio Dei — that people live in trustful dependence on him. One way to express that dependence and trust is to let go of our daily cares and focus our worship on him on a regular basis. God calls the Sabbath “holy,” and we honor him when we treat one day in seven with special reverence.
Seneca, a first-century Stoic philosopher, considered the concept of Sabbath absurd—a way for Rome’s backward Jewish population to “waste a seventh of their life in inactivity.” What Seneca failed to grasp is that the Sabbath is God’s gift to us—a counterbalance to self-reliance and a corrective to living only in the now.
This gift of organized non-productivity is particularly needed in our culture today, where reflection and quietude are in short supply. Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel turns Seneca’s logic on its head: “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living. . . . It is an opportunity to mend our tattered lives; to collect rather than dissipate time.”
I first started consciously observing the Sabbath while in law school. By reserving a 24-hour block of time (usually commencing at sunset on Saturday) for quiet, I found that my perspectives, passions, and priorities came into better order. I became more spiritually centered and, surprisingly to me, a better student.
A second formative experience involved working on an Israeli kibbutz. Shortly after our wedding, Mary and I took off on a five-month trip that ended with a stint picking peppers in the Negev desert. Our secular host family regularly worked on the Sabbath. However, when grandpa arrived for a visit, everything changed.
An Auschwitz survivor, the patriarch insisted upon formal Sabbath observance for his children and grandchildren. Though Mary and I were goyim, we were invited to join family observances and so we kept the Sabbath, too. The richness of those traditions deeply impacted me.
I refer you to two contemporary writers who have thought about application of the Sabbath to modern life. The first is a former staff worker, Lynne Baab, whose book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (published by IVP) has a thoughtful chapter on “Resting in God: Sabbath Keeping.” The other is Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting, by Marva Dawn, who spoke at the Grad/Faculty Following Christ conference last year.
These are people who know us well and who understand both our desires to follow Christ and our tendencies toward legalism. Today, I gear my Sabbaths around church, walks, bike-rides, journaling, and calling my mom. Very simple stuff. I shun email, avoid the office like the plague; and, if I must travel or speak on a Sunday, Monday often becomes my Sabbath. Sabbath observance may look different at your house, but any way we go about it, honoring the Sabbath requires intentionality—in our personal lives and in our teaching to students.
*The Joy of Sabbath*
I will close with another quote from Abraham Heschel. “The Sabbath is no time to remember sins, to confess, to repent or even to pray for relief or anything we might need. It is a day for praise, not a day for petitions. Fasting, mourning, demonstrations of grief are forbidden. The period of mourning is interrupted by the Sabbath. . . . One must abstain from toil and strain on the seventh day, even from strain in the service of God.”