For six days a week, we labor to make the world as it should be. On one day, we accept the world as it is.
A friend and ministry colleague repeated this comment from one of his students about what it means to keep Sabbath. Acceptance is difficult for each of us, since we are the kind of people who continually see injustice around us and feel driven to do something about it.
Sabbath to him is less about absence of work and more about the active discipline of acceptance and its most robust form — gratitude. It presents the challenge of spending a whole day ceasing to strive to right the wrongs around us and instead worshiping God and saying with the God of creation, “It is good.”
Bible scholar Jon D. Levenson writes, “The reality that the Sabbath represents — God’s unchallenged and uncompromised mastery, blessing and hallowing — is consistently and irreversibly available only in the world to come.” While we wait, the weekly day of rest gives us a foretaste of that future where there will be no injustice, no wrongs to right.
So why is it so difficult to simply rest and savor that foretaste?
Our society values overwork, argues Shannon Hayes in her book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. “Our nation’s cultural veneration for laboring has many of us convinced that we must be toiling from the time we rise until the moment we fall into bed,” she writes.
We fool ourselves into thinking what we’re doing isn’t work. Sending emails is connecting with people, we think, and reading reports and newsletters is staying informed. Even those of us who work for Christian employers often find ourselves pushing back against a culture that intrudes more and more on time for rest every day of the week.
I wrote in this column two years ago about the need for Sabbath in the midst of the culture of overwork, and since then have tried to be more diligent in my practice. I strive to set aside 24 hours of rest when it is possible, not necessarily from 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. Sunday. But it’s hard when my community doesn’t have clear-cut practices of Sabbath.
My colleague and friend J. Dana Trent’s book For Sabbath’s Sake: Embracing Your Need for Rest, Worship and Community offers ideas for welcoming Sabbath in our lives to whatever extent we can, setting aside a legalistic approach.
Yet, Trent writes, “the modern church’s lack of guidelines on sabbath praxis causes both veteran members as well as eager converts to not know what to do with the fourth commandment.”
There’s a tension even in our time together on Sundays. One couple in my Anabaptist community declines to meet for worship planning or committee discussion on Sundays. Before they told me that in a response to my request to gather for church-related planning, I honestly hadn’t thought of church work as work. Now I agree with them, though I can’t say I keep that boundary as clearly as they do.
My congregation is far-flung in where we live and work. So if we want to discuss church matters face-to-face, Sundays are often the best available time.
There’s no simple resolution. Not all of us come to Sabbath with the same needs. For some, church meetings on a Sunday might be a way of worshiping God and embracing community.
For myself, I’m trying to practice the Sabbath discipline of acceptance, saying of even the struggles of discipleship and the challenges of life together, “It is good.”
Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.