Contemplative Life

Delicious Sabbath: From Obligation to Invitation

I still remember a couple of years ago when my family, all six of us–Tara, Liam, Iona, Karis, Maira, and me–had just returned from a wonderful vacation.  Whether you’ve already had yours or the last weeks of August still hold its promise, I hope you have or will experience what we did in Florida.  It was simply delightful, and deeply restful.  It was for us the chance to mindfully enjoy the many gifts of God, together, and thank God in the midst of it, together, and not work, but play, eat well, enjoy creation, rest, and have a lot of fun, together, with God.  This year’s vacation felt like a taste of what Sabbath can be and ought to be.  And it was delicious.

Mention Sabbath to many of us, and too quickly the response can be, “It feels like an impossibility.  It feels like another thing to do.  I’m too busy.  I don’t find it restful.”  These emotional resistances betray an anemic understanding of what Sabbath is and what it’s for, and who it’s for.

In this reflection, I hope to lead us to a place of understanding that, indeed, Jesus was not kidding when he said, “The Sabbath was made for people,” not the other way around.   Sabbath, rightly understood (like every other command of God), is for our joy.  Sabbath is for enjoying God, enjoying creation, enjoying people, enjoying yourself, enjoying everything because of God, and being mindful of his loving presence to us.  When we do it well, we live deeply into our very purpose for being created, to reveal God in the world, and claim our deepest identity as image-bearers.

God created the earth to reveal his character and create a place where his character could be revealed.   God created us to reveal God’s very self, steward his creation, be in a relationship with God marked with love, and be in relationships with other people marked by love.  And after God did all this work of creation, six days worth, he rested for a full seventh.

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.  And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2.1-3)

You can easily picture God, surveying all that he had made, all the wonders of creation and most of all man and woman, and simply enjoying them, without having to do anything except receive the good gifts of his own hand.  Dorothy Bass reflects on this, “Resting, God takes pleasure in what has been made; God has no regrets, no need to go on to create a still better world or a creature more wonderful than the man and woman. In the day of rest, God’s free love toward humanity takes form as time shared with them.”

God rested, God took a Sabbath, even consecrated it, made one out of seven days particularly holy, and if we want to reveal God in the world, in all his splendrous, diverse character, we’ll take a Sabbath too.  We will take one day, one stretch of time, lay down our labor and our work, and reorient ourselves to our creator and our design.  We’ll enjoy God and the good things he’s given us and the good things he’s made.  And we’ll remember, we’ll remind ourselves, we are not God.  We are created.

Ruth Haley Barton puts it well, “The first order of things is that we are creatures and God is the Creator.  God is the only one who is infinite.  I am finite, which means that I live within physical limits of time and space and bodily limits of strength and energy.  There are limits to my capacities… I am not God.  God is the One who can be all things to all people.  God is the One who can be in two places at once.  God is the One who never sleeps.  I am not.”

“I am not God”– this is the first statement Sabbath makes.  “I am made in God’s image” follows right on its heels.   Sabbath rest is one of the ways humans reveal God.

And yet many people find it a hard discipline to maintain and a hard command to follow.   God knew this would be so, and so this deep invitation is indeed a command, enshrined as centrally as in the Ten Commandments.  And even there we see the reason why we do it is in part because God did.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God… For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day…” (Exodus 20.8-11)

This command was required because things had gotten complicated by sin.  Everything good thing was affected, even our work, which is introduced before the Fall.  Before the Fall, we wanted what God did, relying on him.   After the Fall, we want what we do, relying on ourselves.

This is perhaps our biggest barrier to keeping the Sabbath.  Underneath the protests of “I’m too busy,” or “I’ve got too much work to do,” is a deep self-reliance rooted in a lack of trust in God.   “If I don’t do it, who will?” we think.  Or, “If I don’t get it done, it won’t get done.”  Dorothy Bass again, “To act as if the world cannot get along without our work for one day in seven is a startling display of pride that denies the sufficiency of our generous Maker.”

But so many times in my life, I’ve seen that something has been solved for me, after many hours of stress and much work, with prayer.  When I turn my anxieties about getting my work done into prayer asking for God’s help and lay it down for a season, it’s remarkable how consistently I come back to that same work with some new idea, or new vigor, or some profound provision that gets the work done faster than if I’d kept on working at it.  How much more can this be the case when we build into our lives this rhythm of reliance, also known as Sabbath.  This is when the adventure of relying on God more than ourselves begins.  It’s when God ramps up his miracles in the details of our lives, and the work of our lives.

So when Jesus came– and with him the New Creation recovering the design intended when God made the world, called it good, and rested– it’s not surprising that early in his ministry he is intent on saving Sabbath from back-breaking religious legalism and liberating it into the gift that it originally was and continues to be.  So he says to those committed to keeping Sabbath from being the joyful thing it was meant by making it a day of negatives and prohibitions, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2.27-28)  And more than clarifying that this day of rest is more for our sake than the sake of religious piety, he modeled it, with his own life a rhythm of work and rest, of action and prayer.  We see this so clearly in the Gospel of Luke, the so-called “activist gospel,” where, more than in any other gospel, we see Jesus teaching about the Sabbath and then modeling it by frequently leaving his work to rest and pray.

And my goodness, if Jesus needed a rhythm of rest, how about me?  Or stated better, if Jesus enjoyed a rhythm of rest, why not me?

Maybe why not me because I don’t know what the Sabbath, or rest, is for.  One thing is clear from the lips of Jesus himself…Sabbath is not primarily for the Law, or even for God.  Sabbath is for us.

Sabbath was given to us, created for us, to get us in line with our original purpose and keep us in line with it.  And rest is not doing nothing.  It’s doing what we were made to do:  imaging God and enjoying the gifts of God.

Rest is not doing nothing.  For many years, I thought that Sabbath was mostly the absence of something, a commitment to not do anything on a particular day, for God’s sake, to be with God in church and then in private devotions for the rest of the day.   You might remember that scene in the film “Chariots of Fire” where Eric Liddell confronts a young boy playing soccer as others are going into church.  “The Sabbath is not for playing football, is it?”  Liddell gently chides.  Often Sabbath as a spiritual discipline and rhythm feels distant and uninviting, not insignificantly because we think that its primary expressions ought to be absences– no work, no TV, no internet, no email, no shopping, get up early for church so less sleep, and so on.

But Sabbath better understood is marked by fullness, and goodness, and richness, with God for God’s sake and for our sake too.

Wayne Muller has written quite a beautiful book on this, titled simply, Sabbath.

“Like a path through the forest, Sabbath creates a marker for ourselves so, if we are lost, we can find our way back to our center.  ‘Remember the Sabbath’ means ‘Remember that everything you have received is a blessing.  Remember to delight in your life, in the fruits of your labor.  Remember to stop and offer thanks for the wonder of it.’…In Sabbath time we remember to celebrate what is beautiful and sacred; we light candles, sing songs, tell stories, eat, nap, and make love.  It is time to let our work, our land, our animals lie fallow, to be nourished and refreshed.  Within this sanctuary, we become available to the insights and blessings of deep mindfulness that only arise in stillness and time.”

That word “sanctuary” calls to mind another image for Sabbath, from the Jewish tradition (that has worked on this discipline more than any other tradition, for obvious reasons!).  One of the “Sabbath” activities I most enjoy is fly-fishing.  It’s quiet, it’s restful, it’s in nature and with God, and my mind is completely occupied with things that aren’t my work.  The only thing that makes fly-fishing better than doing it by myself is to do it with friends, or with my son.  So I was delighted to find a book on the spirituality of it, Fly Fishing–The Sacred Art:  Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice.   And I was glad to find in it some thoughts on Sabbath.

“Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the Sabbath ‘a palace in time’.  Six days a week we seek to create in the realm of space, wrestling with the world and seeking profit from the earth.  On the Sabbath we let go of the everyday in order to focus on existence and eternity.  We pray, we study, we spend time with loved ones, we eat, we live, we rest.  The palace of the Sabbath is like a fortress, a welcome day of respite from the challenges of existence.”   Ruth Haley Barton rightly predicts that when you rightly understand Sabbath, you find yourself longing for it.   “The heart of the Sabbath is that we cease our work so that we can rest and delight in God and God’s good gifts.”

When we rightly understand Sabbath, it becomes an invitation, not an obligation, one of the most obviously life-giving commands God has been gracious to give to us.  Wayne Muller reminds us that “God does not want us to be exhausted, God wants us to be happy…The Sabbath commandment comes from a kind, wise teacher who does not like to see us suffer.  Forgetting the Sabbath is like forgetting to unwrap the most beautiful gift under the tree.”

So Sabbath is for enjoying God, enjoying creation, enjoying people, enjoying yourself, enjoying everything because of God and mindful of his loving presence to us.  And we do so mindful that everything good we’ve been given is from God.  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1.17)

Enjoying God:  We spend time with God like we would with a good friend, walking, talking, sharing, just being.  We join with others to do the same in some sort of service of worship, prayer, Sacrament, and Word.  We think about his goodness, his greatness, and his great goodness to us, and we tell God, “Thanks!”  And we take time to listen to God, so that he can tell us what he’d like to say.  Sabbath is a great day to experiment with the spiritual discipline of silence, or mindfulness and attentiveness, realizing especially on such a day that we’ve hallowed for God because it’s holy, that he is the God who speaks.  We do anything that not only reminds us that God is loving us, but that encounters that love.

Enjoying Creation:  The natural world is one of God’s greatest gifts to the human race, and so also are many of the things that humans have created, for this too is part of our purpose.  So we get out, into the woods, onto a trail, head for the mountains, sit by a river, sit in a coffee shop or in a well-conceived park, and open our eyes, and ears, and heart, and take it in.  It won’t be long before we find arising in our minds the thought, “Wow, look at what God has done through his creation and through the creativity of his people!”   We receive the gift of creation and things created, nodding at God the Creator who made us to create.

Enjoying the Blessings:   We think, What has God given me?  And we enjoy those things with thanksgiving, perhaps receiving them more slowly so that we can remember the One who gave them to us.  We reflect on the blessing of our homes and maybe sit on the porch or in the backyard, aware that God has given us a place to live and a roof over our heads.  We reflect on God’s provision of food for us and make a point of eating well, maybe savoring the process of making our meals as much as enjoying them.  Maybe we even have a special something, a special food or drink, that is reserved for the Sabbath.   I think of the challah bread of the Jews, a sweet bread, satisfying and delicious, and all the more because it was probably homemade by loving hands.  And one of the biggest blessings of all that God has given us?

Enjoying People:  The people that God has given us to live life with and love and be loved by are precisely those we ought to make a habit of spending a portion of our Sabbath with: to live life, and love, and be loved.  But on this day, once a week, we’re especially mindful that while they may be our husband or wife, our child, our friend, even a stranger, they are even more deeply gifts to us from God, friends on the path and fellow-pilgrims on the journey.  Indeed, to be with another human being is to be closer to God than sitting alone at the ocean’s edge or hiking in solitude in any mountain.

“If man really is fashioned, more than anything else, in the image of God, then clearly it follows that there is nothing on earth so near to God as a human being.  The conclusion is inescapable, that to be in the presence of even the meanest, lowest, most repulsive specimen of humanity in the world is still to be closer to God than when looking up into a starry sky or beautiful sunset.  Certainly this is why there is nothing in the New Testament about beautiful sunsets.”  (Mike Mason, The Mystery of Marriage)

Enjoying Yourself:  One of the best gifts God has given you is you.  How has God made you?  Enjoy that.  Where do you find life?  Go to it and go do it.  And of course, things that are relaxing and life-giving are going to be very different for different people.  One person’s Sudoku puzzle will be another person’s stressor!  One person’s gardening might be another person’s yard work.  The form matters less than that we are conscientious of the things that lead us to life and thereby lead us to God.  So, we do life-giving things, attentive to God while we do them, doing them indeed together with him.  If I’m fly-fishing, unaware of God and frustrated because I’m catching more branches than brook-trout, I either need to adjust my attitude about why I’m fishing on that day, or do something else!

Taking these broad categories into account, one can see very quickly that the word that marks the Sabbath better than “Don’t!” is “Do!”  It is not a spiritual discipline of deprivation but rather one of abundance.   The Sabbath was made to remind us that God offers Shalom, fullness, and richness, rooted in relationship with him, manifest in a million different ways.  As we learn this and practice it here and now, we get ready for its full expression there and later.

As we practice Sabbath on earth, we get ready for it in heaven.  We look forward to its consummation, to use the language of Jesus who said the opening words of heaven are “enter into the rest of your Master.”  And to use the language of Hebrews 4: “So then there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from their works as God did.”  Sabbath now is whetting our appetite for Sabbath later… when we’ll enjoy God, enjoy God’s blessings, enjoy each other, image him, know him, be one with him and with everybody else, and continue to participate in his amazing acts of creation!

However we observe Sabbath, the point is to be with God, to do all things mindfully, to receive them gratefully, and there find rest.  And in doing so we honor God with our obedience, and by our living into who we were and are created to be—people who do what God does and by virtue of that, image God to the world.  It is to enjoy God and the gifts of God with God, with myself and with others, as a way of fulfilling my purpose as a human being to image God to the glory of God! Sabbath is a gift.  While it is an obligation, much more deeply it is an invitation.  And it’s delicious.

For further reading and reflection

Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, esp. Chapter 8

Wayne Muller, Sabbath:  Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight In Our Busy Lives

Dan Allender, Sabbath:  The Ancient Practices

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