It’s an old-fashioned idea: to halt the activities of normal life for a day. To rest. To cease.
In my Christian upbringing, I was taught that Sunday is the sabbath*, and it’s important to go to church on that day, but the degree to which you work or don’t work doesn’t matter as much. In late adolescence, though, I had a few teachers who told me, “You ought to have a day when you don’t think about school . . . you will be blessed by keeping the sabbath.” So I did. I took every Sunday strictly off. And I liked it.
A couple weeks ago, I started working at a restaurant. They most certainly want me to work Sundays. At first, I felt like I was desecrating the day. This day that I prized, relished: my church day, the one marked with years of memories of quiet afternoons at New England beaches and evenings painting, I was giving over for financial gain.
After a couple of Sundays working at the restaurant, I realized two things. 1) I needed to set aside time to rest in God again. 2) My Sunday sabbaths had been about me: Let me check off my “church” box. Then let me revel in all the things that I want to do.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a good thing to gather together with other believers, to remember God’s word, enjoy God’s creation. It’s easy, though, for those things to become activities, ends in and of themselves, rather than genuine God-worship.
In the midst of my Sabbath-crisis, I happened to read Isaiah 56 with some friends. In this passage (which pre-dates the coming of Jesus), significant promises are attached to keeping the sabbath. I asked my friend what they thought of these promises, and what sabbath means now. One answered, “I think making time for it is important, but any day can be a sabbath if you give it to God.” We noticed that the promises for sabbath-keeping have mostly to do with finding one’s reward in God:
“These [sabbath-keepers] I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.”
This week I decided to try something new. I found the only 24-hour chunk of time I had off during the week: 6pm Wednesday-6pm Thursday. I sought to fill those twenty-four hours with attention to God. I walked to three different prayer gatherings that were happening during that time. In the in-between moments, I read Scripture, journaled prayers, slept. I took a conscious absence from social media and email. In the final hours, I painted and called a friend, trying to paint in a spirit of praise and talk in a spirit of confession and reconciliation. To make a benediction of my holy day.
My Thursday Sabbath left my heart feeling like a well-watered garden. I could be excited about Jesus for the first time in a while. It had nothing to do with the sanctity of a certain day of the week. It was about choosing God over other things. In the words of St. Augustine, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Am I declaring Thursday the new ultimate Sabbath day? Do you need to toss out your plans to try it? No. I am declaring that making a habit of resting in God’s presence is worth your while. It was worth my Thursday.
*The Christian faith was born out of Judaism. In the Jewish tradition, the day starts at sunset, and the 7th day is holy to the Lord. God is said to have laid down the work of creating the world after six days, and so the people of Israel had shabbat, sabbath, rest, built into their identity. By the 4th century the majority of followers of Jesus–who was a Jew–had migrated their holy day to Sunday in honor of Jesus’ triumphant resurrection on the first day of the week. Today, the way Christians understand “sabbath” and emphasize “sabbath-keeping” varies significantly.