Thoughtful Pastor: How do I practice Sabbath today?

August 29th, 2016

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: You know how the Jews in the Bible were forbidden to work on the Sabbath? If I want to practice the Sabbath today, what is considered “work?” Would folding laundry be work? What about using appliances?

An ongoing tragedy of religious understanding takes place when something that was intended as good and life-affirming transforms into extra burdens and soul dryness.

The day of rest, known as the Sabbath, was the keystone of Hebrew distinctiveness. Sabbath declares, “We will honor our Creator who will watch over us while we enjoy together the goodness of the created world given to us.”

In setting up the Sabbath rest, God essentially says, “Learn to be satisfied with less stuff, less material comfort, less fear and more freedom to enjoy the gifts around you.”

If you are anything like most of us, you live with endless to-do lists, constant pressure, ever-enticing advertising encouraging you to consume more, 24/7 TV with its mindlessly high number of channels and mind-numbing programming, and very likely a family fractured by individual electronic devices and who have managed to fill every hour with some scheduled outing or practice or game or obligation.

However, in order to practice Sabbath properly, it must be done within your community and especially in your family. You can’t do this without larger community support or you will become miserable and make others around you miserable. 

I assume you don’t come from a Jewish background, so you don’t have the cultural structure in place. The structure includes the emphasis on the corporate joy of welcoming the Sabbath on Friday evenings, coupled with expectations of family and worship and play and conversation and food already prepared until the Saturday sunset.

I don’t know if you have ever heard of the “Sabbath elevator” but it is the perfect illustration. According to traditional Jewish law, lighting a fire is considered work, so any fires to be kindled have to be done before the Sabbath begins and then kept burning.

Orthodox Jewish scholars have decided that sparking an electrical circuit is today’s equivalent to lighting a fire, so adherents must refrain from starting anything electrical. This includes punching elevator buttons.

As a result, many high-rise buildings in Israel and other parts of the world with concentrations of Orthodox Jews have programmed their elevators to automatically stop at every floor on the Sabbath.

It may be a bit of an irritant to an impatient, non-Sabbath person who accidentally stumbles into one of those elevators. However, look at the other side and see the societal support for Sabbath: people are in this together. It becomes a community glue, a common practice, an exercise in trust.

Christy Thomas

The practice of Sabbath emphasizes the active pursuit of God in worship and community. It’s not meant to be a day of boring nothingness or endless “don’t’s.”

Instead, Sabbath offers life-infusing rest and love and stillness and joy and peace. It means leaving behind economic pursuits and competition with others and trusting God that you and those around you can find satisfaction in less physical stuff and in more soul-competence.

Truly, “sabbathing” is a luxury. One of the challenges entirely too many people face today is the lack of “slack” in our lives. “Slack” means space, flexibility, the ability to let down our guard for a while. Without it, whether there is no slack in finances, time, rest or emotional energy, life seems to endlessly and exhaustedly spiral downward.

Think of slack like white space on a page. An attractive printed page has white space, spots of quietness so the story or photo can be highlighted. A life with no “white space” is exhausting on every level.

An intentional, regularly practiced, no-excuses-permitted Sabbath puts the white space back into our lives.

Sabbath stands in opposition to the frantic screaming for attention surrounding us. It invites the joy of a book, a long story, a meandering walk, a simple meal shared with friends and family, games around a table.

Sabbath welcomes others to share that meal, to tell their stories, to play, to worship, or even nap with us, to rekindle love and care to the body and soul.

Sabbath says, “I have enough and I offer thanks to God for that gift.

Sabbath says, “It is time to lighten my soul and offer forgiveness and freedom to others.”

Sabbath says, “Be more aware of the world around us and how interdependent we are.” Perhaps your appliances would like a break. Perhaps the folding of laundry can be a joint joy, a time to thank your clothes for having done their work all week.

Move away from the “what” and into the “why” of Sabbath and see the mystery unfold.

An extra thought:

My first reader for many of my columns is a dear friend who lives alone. She wondered why I put so much emphasis on family and community in the answer to this question.

I realized yet again that the Bible was written in a world so radically different from ours — and that there would have been no such thing as a person living alone, particularly a woman. Everyone was embedded in some sort of family system — that was the place of residence, of identity, and of protection.

The societal isolation that is becoming more common today simply didn’t exist in that kind of Middle Eastern culture.

After my own retirement from active work in the pastorate, I rented an apartment where I lived alone. Although I cherished the privacy and deep quiet of this way of life, I also discovered how much I needed a group of friends whom I could name as “family” for my own emotional and spiritual health.

When I found myself in the delightful situation of having met the person that is now my husband, I wondered how I would deal with living with someone again. What I discovered was the real joy of living with someone who I respect so highly and who respects me as well. In our differences (I’ve written about some of them in the series, “When an ‘anyone but Hillary’ is married to an “anyone but Donald’”) we each grow and learn more about ourselves and each other.

The Scriptures very much speak truth in the statement “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Or the woman. And that is what the church is about. We do need each other.

Email questions to A version of this column appeared in the Friday August 26, 2016 print and online editions of The Denton Record Chronicle. Christy blogs at Patheos

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