My brothers and I were quietly playing Monopoly in the lobby of a lodge in Montreat, North Carolina, a Presbyterian conference center. For three elementary-age children to be calmly playing together was a rare event. An older woman came up to us and said that we should quit playing the game because we were using dice and it was Sunday. I was confused. We were not disturbing anyone, and our parents were fine with us playing a board game. So what were we doing wrong?
If our image of keeping the Sabbath is a list of things not to do, then we are in for a pleasant surprise in Carol Bechtel’s engaging study Celebrating Sabbath. As an Old Testament professor at a seminary, she had studied and taught about the Sabbath but then began to embrace Sabbath as part of her life. She found that it was a lot of fun. “Fun” is not a word that I have ever associated with Sabbath keeping. As Bechtel explains, the celebration of the Sabbath in Judaism is gathering with people that you love and joyously welcoming Sabbath as a bride. A surprising and delightful Sabbath prayer is: “Come, my Beloved, meet the Bride!/ Let us go and welcome the Sabbath!/ Come in peace, crown of God,/ Come with joy and cheerfulness,/ Amidst the faithful, precious people/ … Come, Beloved, meet the Bride.”
We may understand the Sabbath as a day of worship and rest. However, Sabbath rest and restoration is largely ignored by Christians. We go from worship to the grocery store or sporting events for our kids or grandchildren. Many people have to work on Sundays. Each lesson in Celebrating Sabbath invites us to take some baby steps toward integrating Sabbath practices into our lives. The first small step is to stop, whether for an hour or for a day. Sabbath means “ceasing.” Each chapter begins with this prayer: “Stop within the circle of time called Sabbath. Set aside your responsibilities; they will wait.”
To set aside one’s responsibilities is to gratefully acknowledge that we are not what we produce. Our responsibilities do not own us, though it is easy to feel driven by them. Setting our tasks down can give us perspective on what is really necessary to accomplish and what God would have us do or not do next.
God created the Sabbath as a day to enjoy all that God had made. The Sabbath is the crown of creation; a day in which we are invited to enjoy the exquisite creativity of God. As such, we are invited into intimacy with God. I was visiting a friend and she showed me several hymns that are meaningful for her. In doing so, she was inviting me to see what touched her mind and heart and, thus, to know her better. To enjoy the Sabbath is to experience more deeply that in which God delights and to know God better. God creates light, sky, sun and moon and stars, water, trees, plants, birds, creatures of all kinds and people in kaleidoscope colors and infinite variety. To hang out with God in creation is to experience what God describes as very good.
Sabbath is a time to be reminded that, as those who are created by God, we are to depend on God for what we need. Given the human propensity to take matters into our own hands, surrendering to God’s care is a tricky business. Bechtel lifts up Exodus 16 as an example of both God providing and people’s unwillingness to follow basic instructions. God gives manna for the wilderness-wandering people of Israel to eat. The people are instructed to gather enough for a day, except the day before the Sabbath in which enough manna is gathered for two days. Of course, the people get greedy and find that manna has an incredibly short shelf life. After one day, manna is worm ridden and rotten. The grace of the Sabbath is to examine what we truly need and to unhook momentarily from a culture that tells us to insatiably gather more and more stuff. Sabbath time is to stop incessantly wanting more and realize we have more than enough.
Carol Bechtel engages us in looking at the Sabbath from various angles to bring out insight and depth. Part of God’s good creation is giving human beings good work to do. What is good work and when does work become servitude is one question that Bechtel raises. Other questions emerge. Do you ever think that to keep Sabbath is to be engaged in the work of justice? How is Sabbath related to welcoming the stranger and building community?
Celebrating Sabbath is an invitation to not only study the Sabbath but to explore how Sabbath practices can be life-giving for us.
Rosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.
You can purchase the PW/Horizons Bible study book through the PC(USA) Church Store.