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Presbyterians find that keeping the Sabbath brings balance to life

John Sonnenday says he hit a "turning point" in his spiritual life when he figured out that just because he had a blank spot on his calendar, he wasn't obligated to fill it.

Sonnenday, a pastor from McLean, Va., said he gradually began to realize that unless he made more time for God and for rest -- unless he said "no" to some of what other people wanted him to do -- he could not do his best at doing God's work.

He began to take seriously the idea of honoring the Sabbath in order “to protect my sanity. It was very much an issue of survival. I realized I couldn’t function working 24-7. I was pushed right up against the wall.”

The idea of regularly keeping Sabbath — of setting aside time every week for renewal, for slowing down enough to be refreshed spiritually and to listen for the voice of God — is beginning to be talked about more publicly. Some people are saying that a life filled only with responsibilities and work and interruptions is not a life that’s balanced or genuinely centered on God.

For Sonnenday, that pull to commit more time to Sabbath, to use his days off not just for errands and chores, led him to start spending Wednesday mornings at an Episcopal seminary near his home, where he discovered an 8 a.m. worship service that included Communion.

For a while, “I could not go to the (Communion) rail without tears,” Sonnenday said. He realized he felt constant pressure, “this incredible pent-up need to produce all the time and to be in charge. And I just had to let go.”

While there, away from his own parish responsibilities, “I could completely let down,” Sonnenday said. “I began to sense that my capacity to give came from somewhere — it wasn’t something I could generate from sheer willpower. I had to receive in order to give.”

Sonnenday was one of seven Presbyterians who served on a work group appointed in 1998 by the General Assembly Council’s Congregational Ministries Division Committee to study the biblical mandate for sabbath keeping and its theological significance. The work group reported to the 212th General Assembly last summer in Long Beach, Calif.

“There is a deep need today to rediscover the gift of Sabbath,” it said. That need is expressed both as an exhausted cry from within people whose lives are too rushed, and as “grief that we are moving faster and faster in our lives, but the only progress we seem to make is into a greater emptiness.”

In July, Kristine Haig, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Spiritual Formation, led a workshop on keeping Sabbath at the Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women. She said she was “flabbergasted” when 150 people showed up at each of the three sessions at which she spoke. People told her they felt that “I haven’t even known what was wrong, but this is it. This taps into a deep dilemma in my life.”

Haig first realized how pervasive the problem was, even for teen-agers, several years ago when she was leading a youth group at a church in Illinois. The teen-agers there, their calendars filled with music lessons and sports and jobs and extracurricular activities, were unable to find a weekend when all of them were available to go on a retreat. “Every single one of them was just booked up,” Haig said. “And of course somebody needs to be driving them to all of these places.”

Some children today grow up “not learning how to rest” and believing that “work is the only valid thing,” Haig said. “The whole pace [of their lives] has picked up. I look at these kids, and it scares me a lot.”

But in Genesis — after God separated the light from dark and the land from the water and created all the creatures — on the seventh day, God rested. And the Bible explicitly instructs us to set aside one day of seven to rest and honor God. “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,” says the 20th chapter of Exodus. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made Heaven and Earth, the sea and all that is in them; but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”

Keeping Sabbath “is not about some sort of legalistic, moralistic ‘What do you do on Sunday’ question,” Haig said, but about finding enough quiet time to refresh our spirits and turn our hearts back to God. “We’re sort of on the fast track to global, cosmic, economic burnout,” she said. “My sense is that our exhaustion is of the spirit, and this really is God’s way of drawing us back.”

Taking Sabbath moments

One of those who attended Haig’s workshop last summer was Marcia Slentz-Whalen, a mother and piano instructor from Mayo, Md., who’s also the organist for First church, Annapolis, and whose Sundays typically are packed with worship services, choir rehearsals and Sunday school obligations.

Her husband works for a company that requires overtime from its employees, and it’s a job to which he must commute, sometimes two or more hours a day. He teaches Sunday school and serves on several church committees. Their son — the youngest of their four children — dropped some of his many extracurricular activities this year because the requirements of practices and performances were too relentless. When Haig spoke of chronic sleep deprivation, Slentz-Whalen could immediately relate.

While her family spends hours at church each week, much of it doing work they feel called to do, Slentz-Whalen still feels a strong need for private worship time and for time that’s not filled with shopping or chores or things that need to be done. She tries to take what she calls “Sabbath moments” — pausing to bow her head and say a blessing even if she’s grabbing a sandwich alone, standing at the counter. “What our culture teaches us is that work is good and rest is not,” Slentz-Whalen said. Yet “God created rest,” and keeping the Sabbath “ranks up there with nine really big commandments.”

For her, honoring the Sabbath “is not about doing — it’s the ceasing from.” Even in prayer “you don’t always talk to God. You listen for God. Being quiet, and listening for the still, small voice.”

Where does the busy-ness come from — the push to fill the hours, to have and do more? It’s a complex stew, Haig said — mixing the demands of employers with consumerism and advertising, with our own ideas of what makes up the “good life.”

“As a society, we know well the statistics that delineate a particular form of progress,” the Work Group on Sabbath reported. In that vision of progress, “the ideal economic growth rate is 3 percent to 5 percent per year; adjusting for inflation, United States citizens spend more than twice as much for material goods and services as they did 50 years ago; we buy homes almost three times larger than we did following World War II and fill them with twice as many things; we work longer hours, more of us hold multiple jobs, and we now live to the full what some decades ago was proclaimed as ‘the gospel of consumerism.'”

But even as we keep on buying, many of us are aware that simply acquiring more isn’t enough. We need something more, something we can’t find on the shelves of a store. “People have a tremendous yearning for a sense that God is real and God is present,” Haig said. “But we don’t name it, we don’t identify it, and we keep buying more stuff.”

We also live in a world that does not presume that everyone is spending Sunday morning going to church.

Many stores are open seven days a week, and often extend their hours during the Christmas season to give people more chances to spend. In some towns, youth sports leagues routinely schedule games for Sunday mornings. And some people, both those with minimum-wage jobs and those with high-powered positions, are regularly expected to work weekends and sometimes holidays as well.

Those who do set aside a Sabbath day for worship, for quiet and for family time often are seen as countercultural. When Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman as his running mate, Lieberman, the first Jew to be nominated as vice president, explained to the entire nation how and why he observes the Sabbath every week, and why the nation wouldn’t fall apart if he did.

The price of working too much

Dorothy C. Bass, author of Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (Jossey-Bass, 1999), has established her own quiet rituals for celebrating the Sabbath. She begins her Sabbath observance at sundown on Saturday night — often sharing a meal with family or friends. She goes to church on Sunday mornings, sometimes inviting guests home after worship for a simple meal of soup and bread that she prepares ahead. She doesn’t shop on Sundays; she doesn’t pay bills nor do housework or laundry. She might garden — a pleasure for her, not a chore — or read a book or take a walk or a nap.

Bass, a historian of American religion and director of the Valparaiso University Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith, said she grew up Presbyterian, and “in the ’50s and early ’60s there was a difference between Sundays and the other days.” Some people, especially those with little economic power, may not ever have had much choice about when to work. But now, with “the 24-7 economy” tied to an Internet that never sleeps, even those with considerable wealth “can be forced to work all through the night,” Bass said.

Some contend that the price of working too much is not just sheer exhaustion. They see the questions of work and life balance shot through with theological concerns.

Too often, “as human beings our whole sense of self-worth is based on what we produce” and what we have to show for our work, rather than our relationship with God and with other people, Haig said.

And Bass writes that the way we speak about time, and about our use of time, often is laden with moral overtones. For example, we speak of a “Protestant work ethic,” the idea that “good” hard-working people rise early and get to the task, don’t dawdle or waste the day. Some people consider tardiness to be a “moral” flaw, and some feel guilty for taking time for themselves, to exercise, rest or even to spend quiet time alone with God.

But Bass questions the theology behind thinking that those who use time well are right with God, while those who waste time commit sin. In so doing, we advance the idea that we, not God, are the masters of time, she writes. “We come to believe that our worth must be proved by the way we spend our hours and that our ultimate safety depends on our own good management,” not on God’s grace.

For church professionals, or for lay people deeply involved in congregational life, questions of keeping Sabbath can be particularly difficult. Sunday is almost always a day of work for church staff people. And the needs of a congregation and a community can seem endless. When one is trying to do God’s work, how can one say no? Some pastors “feel too guilty to close their door and be in prayer at the church,” because people expect them to be available, Haig said.

And there can develop — in church life as much as in the secular world — a culture in which people see themselves as too indispensable to slow down, or take even one day off. Bass writes that she first glimpsed the need for more attention to Sabbath at a Saturday night dinner party with a group of teachers, when they began complaining about the mountains of papers that they had to correct the next day.

“And so we whined, [and] as we whined our complaints gradually shaded into boasts. Someone listening in might have thought that we were competing to see who had to grade the most, who worked hardest, and who was most put upon” by the demands of the job, Bass writes in Receiving the Day.

In some places of employment, including some within the church, “there is a perverse pridefulness at being able to work without stopping,” Haig said. Sometimes people who “complain” about not being able to take vacation time really are bragging about how important they are, and in church life, “that’s one of the ones that need to be labeled ‘sin,'” Haig said. When we start thinking that “God has no hands but ours,” then in effect “we’re saying it’s all up to us, which is functional atheism.”

How to ‘slow down’

Some are deliberately taking steps to slow down, to make room to walk in silence with God. When the Covenant Synod met in Toledo in November, the participants were given a Sabbath afternoon — some time off to “go out there and enjoy the goodness God has made” and to “sense again that we live in and by grace,” said Steve Doughty, executive presbyter of Lake Michigan Presbytery and another member of the Sabbath Work Group. While they take the work seriously, “we don’t have to do everything,” Doughty said. Even when they rest, “God continues and God leads.”

When Deborah Rundlett was called almost a decade ago to be pastor of All Souls parish in Port Chester, N.Y., that Presbyterian congregation was at a point of crisis. It was losing members and 84 percent of those who were left were 65 or older. The church had just enough money left to hire a full-time pastor for two years, and Rundlett came knowing she had limited time to build something new from the old.

The congregation poured their lives into the task, and after two years “were crispy-fried,” said Rundlett, who is now on the staff of Pittsburgh Presbytery. “We were burned out . . . . We needed to care for our souls.”

So All Souls’ congregation turned away from the ceaseless activity and towards an intentional focus on prayer, worship and discernment. Each August was declared a “Sabbath month.” “All we would do was worship and pray together;” there would be no committee or business meetings, Rundlett said. Through the year, the session met once a month for business, and another time each month just for fellowship and prayer.

From that time of prayer and meditation emerged some new ideas of what ministries the congregation was called to be a part of and what things they could give up — things the church had traditionally done that no longer seemed worth continuing.

“We are all God’s children, and as God’s children we all have a call, and that call is born of deep discernment,” Rundlett said. “Without keeping Sabbath, without slowing down enough to allow God’s word to speak both to our heads and to our hearts, we don’t find our lives are transformed by that encounter.”

With lay persons leading the planning, All Souls created a new, half-hour service with an emphasis on prayer held at 7 a.m. each Wednesday. And it began a new worship service at 5:30 on Saturday nights, a service with the Eucharist served every week, but no sermon; with candlelight and Scripture readings and often 10 or 15 minutes of pure, uninterrupted silence.

At John Sonnenday’s church — Immanuel church in McLean, Va. — some in the congregation have formed a group to support one another in keeping Sabbath discipline.

“It’s really hard to do it in our culture by yourself,” Sonnenday said. But “Sabbath is God-given” and “to rest fully is to rest in God . . . . It is one of the greatest gifts that our church has to give to society.”