The Israelites had been freed from slavery in Egypt and were headed to the promised land of freedom and prosperity. Moses was leading them towards a new life. We are told that after they had been journeying for three months, they arrived in the desert of Sinai, where God calls Moses to the mountain top to establish a new covenant, a new relationship, between God and the people. God offers these commandments as an invitation into new relationship. We likely know them as the 10 Commandments, though there are more than 10 and there is some discrepancy between various Christian practices, and Jewish tradition about the order and which ones are most important. But central for both traditions is the observance of Sabbath.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy! For six days you will labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath for Yhwh. Do no work on that day, neither you nor your [children], nor your worker, nor your animals, nor the foreigner who lives among you. For in the six days YHWH made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that they hold, but rested on the seventh day; this is why YHWH has blessed the Sabbath day and made it sacred.”
This covenant appears in two places in the Torah, or Old Testament. They are nearly identical, but here in Exodus it says, “Remember the Sabbath” whereas in Deuteronomy, the other place it appears, it says “observe the Sabbath.” Orthodox Judaism has many mitzvot for how the Sabbath, Shabbat, should be observed. There many things that one is prohibited from doing, (turning on lights, driving, cooking, writing, playing an instrument) and many things one is supposed to do. As Lauren Winner, who was raised Jewish and converted to Christianity later on, writes in her book Mudhouse Sabbath, “You are commanded, principally, to be joyful and restful on the Sabbath, to hold great feasts, sing happy hymns, dress in your finest. Married couples even get rabbinical brownie points for having sex on the Sabbath.” Christianity, which grew out of this Jewish tradition, has always had a more relaxed approach to Sabbath. Jesus even challenged the Sabbath laws by healing and teaching on the Sabbath, one of the changes that was leveled against him when he was arrested.
So what does Sabbath look like for us? Why is a Sabbath practice important for us? Many of us will recall a time or experience when a restrictive sort of Sabbath was enforced, either by our families or by laws and ordinances. Where I grew up everything closed on Sunday, even the McDonalds was closed. And my parents were adamant that we would not, could not, go shopping on Sunday. A household practice that they have since relaxed. Many cities had, and some still have, Blue Laws, that prohibited the sale of alcohol. Even to this day, when I head back to Indiana for classes on Sunday, I have to remember to buy wine in Ohio before I head back across the border to Indiana because you can’t buy alcohol of any kind in any store on Sunday. I know of families who have a strict observance of Sabbath and they won’t watch TV on Sunday, or read anything other than the Bible. So, we may experience some resistance to a Sabbath practice because of these restrictive experiences where it felt more like punishment then refreshing.
As a culture, we have moved away from Blue Laws and stores being closed on Sundays and have, perhaps, swung too far the other way. A 2016 study the Washington Center for Equitable Growth found that not only are Americans working longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept, but we are also working longer hours than anyone else in the industrialized world. Bureau of Labor statistics found that in 2016 the average work week for employees, ages 25 – 54 was nearly 43 hour, and a 2014 Gallop poll found that nearly 40% of the American workforce works more than 50 hours per week. All the while, workers in other countries have had their hours cut back by legislation focused on preventing work from infringing on private life and ensuring they have ample vacation time and parental leave, Americans have been going in the other direction. From a 2011 Mother Jones article, based on statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than British, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans.” And the only countries that do not offer new parents paid time off for birth or adoption, New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, Swaziland and the United States. Our consumerist economic culture is forcing low-income folks to work two or three jobs to make ends meet because we do not have a living wage in this country. As a culture we are failing at recognizing not only our spiritual need for rest but our physical and humanitarian need as well.
In a time of overworking someone once told me that if I think I can work without a day of rest, if I push myself that hard and think that I am above the need for Sabbath than I am essentially saying that I am better than God, because even God took a day to rest. Is it reasonable for us to ask that of ourselves or others simply for the sake of maintaining our national “productivity?” In this sense, a Sabbath practice becomes not only a spiritual practice to create room to witness and experience the Divine in our lives, but it becomes an act of resistance, a statement and act of resisting the cultural economic systems that value profit over people.
So, what does Sabbath look like when it’s practiced somewhere in between the restrictive and overworking? Sabbath as a time apart can offer an opportunity to step into mindfulness and away from mindless business. To step out of perform, accomplish, and produce and into the radical act of be-ing. Sabbath offers us a different pace of time, slower, more intentional, working towards less stressful. A healthy and attainable Sabbath practice can be a form of self care, of family care, of marriage care, relationship care, of spiritual care. It can offer us a window of time where we can quiet our minds and bodies so that we can listen and connect with the Divine. Sabbath can offer space for us to notice the ways the Holy shows up in our life.
What have been your experience with Sabbath as restrictive? How do you observe yourself overworking?
A few years ago, it was actually when I first started thinking about starting a church or faith community, I invited a couple friends over to our house for dinner on Friday night each week. We agreed that when they arrived all of our phones would be turned off, we would eat, light a candle, we would have lively conversation, we could play games, but for those hours we would disengage from technology. After they left, I did my very best to leave my phone off until the next morning, offering myself 12+ hours without text messages or social media. It meant that no matter how beautiful our dinner was, or how great our game was, I would experience it in the moment and I couldn’t pull out my phone to document it on Instagram. If we would find ourselves in a debate about some fact or detail, we had to either duel it out or let it lay because we weren’t going to consult Google. Something as simple as turning off our phones offered us, forced us, to be present in the moment and with each other in a way we didn’t otherwise. We got together weekly for Sabbath Friday for over a year. Last year when I provided maternity coverage for a pastor friend at a church in Portland I knew I would need to find ways to bring balance, rest and Sabbath into my life in a real intentional way. I started taking Monday as a Sabbath day. I won’t check my work email, I won’t tackle items on my to-do list, I won’t meet with folks, I try not to respond to text messages, and I don’t work on school work. At first I struggled because I was overwhelmed by what I felt I “should” do instead. I was staying in bed to late, I wasn’t praying enough, I wasn’t reading enough, I would get distracted and just wasn’t resting well enough. It almost became stressful! A friend encouraged me to set myself some broad and flexible parameters of what Sabbath rest meant to me. They have allowed me to enjoy the freedom of the day while not being overwhelmed.
Move something. Yoga, walk, run, move my body in some way.
Bake something. I started baking bread on Mondays.
Read something. Preferably not a theology book.
Grow something. It was March when I started this so I would go outside and work in my garden.
For me, these offered me some structure, some practices to embrace that allowed me to fully engage and enjoy the time apart that Sabbath can offer. Over the next few weeks, five, to be exact, we will explore a few different practices that are often part of Sabbath. Mindfulness or paying attention. Play. Reflection, Meditation or Prayer. We won’t explore these as obligations or expectations, but as an invitation to explore what might be meaningful for you. In the margins of my Bible for the text from Exodus there is a note that says; “…the ‘you’ is always singular: the commandments, which the Jewish tradition calls the ‘ten words,’ are addressed to the individual, not the nation.” Sabbath is personal. You can practice it as a family, but it is unique to you, what it means for you and your family to “keep it holy” may be very different than what it means for me and my family. Even down to the day you choose to practice is entirely personal too. For me, trying to keep Sunday as Sabbath would be impossible so I practice a solo Sabbath on Mondays, but lately, I find myself needing to work on Mondays too so I modify. Lu and I try to keep Saturday as a day for us to be together, and I carve out time on Monday too. Maybe you can’t offer a whole day, start with an hour, or a just the morning. Maybe Sunday doesn’t work for you, try Friday night. A Sabbath practice should be meaningful for you, if it isn’t, do something different.
Do you currently have a Sabbath practice? If you were to look at your week ahead, what day or time might you be able to carve out for rest and Sabbath?
This week I invite you just notice when you might be able to create space for Sabbath. You don’t need to do anything specific during that time right now, you don’t even need to observe it, but just note, if I were to embrace a Sabbath practice this is the time I would set aside. The Divine is ready to offer peace, rest and relationship whenever, wherever, and however you are ready.