I come from a family of church-going people. I have fond summer memories of Sundays while visiting my grandparents in Mississippi. Preparing for Sunday would begin the day before with grocery shopping for Sunday dinner. Then, the focus would shift from meal prepping to getting me and my clothes together for church; making sure my church outfit was cleaned, pressed, and laid out for a smooth morning transition. Washing and pressing my hair in preparation for Sunday was a Black cultural, weekly ritual. Despite my resistance to this practice – because it interrupted my wild, carefree games of hide-and-seek in the woods with my cousins – my grandmother would call out, “Dana! Get in here so I can wash your hair,” and I knew exactly what that meant.
Without fail, my grandmother was the captain of the ship when it came to making sure my grandfather and I were pristinely clean and “sharp as a tack” for church, as she would say. She would have prepared a full Sunday dinner, cooked in marathon time before we left for church that morning. Fried chicken, catfish, rice and gravy, biscuits from scratch or cornbread, a little bit of collard greens, macaroni and cheese, you name it!
My grandmother, God rest her soul, was my heroine in this regard. Sundays meant the world to her. She loved God, her church, and her family. When it came to giving each of these loves her very best, nothing in her power would slip through the cracks. This was the model set before me. All the women in my family are hard-working, God-fearing women who have practiced my grandmother’s model of Sunday preparation all of our lives. All 50+ cousins of mine are familiar with this Sunday ritual.
Embodying this rich tradition of preparing for Sunday, I’ve always been curious about what the drive was behind my grandmother’s intentions. As an adult now, who has practiced this family tradition with my own children, I struggle to see the connection between our family tradition and the concept of rest, of sabbath.
My grandmother would always insist no “work” was to be done on Sunday — no ironing, no cleaning, no laundry, no chores, no labor, and especially no getting on her nerves. And yet, our Sundays were filled with activities. It began with Sunday school and morning worship — where my grandma was either singing in the choir, serving on the deaconess board, ushering, or tending to the needs of the congregation. After morning worship, we would then drive to the local hospital to visit sick community members. She and my grandfather would go from room to room, making sure not one person went unseen. And finally, we would begin the journey home around 2 p.m.
As a young child, I couldn’t understand her saying, “Sundays are for rest” when it seemed like all we did in preparation for and on Sunday was work! And this perception didn’t change as I grew older, eventually going to seminary and becoming the student-pastor of a church.
[In the church], the Sabbath confessed is not the Sabbath practiced.
When I served as a temporary interim pastor in 2020, my church needed more from me than I was contracted to do. I not only served as the weekly Sunday preacher but I created and taught weekly Bible study, wrote prayers, selected musical hymns, assisted in moderating session meetings, worked with the clerk to reconcile administrative church records, managed the church’s social media accounts, and more — all while being a full-time seminarian carrying an overload of courses. During this time, my mentors impressed on me that the Sabbath is an essential means of preservation and self-care. I was told without it, I would eventually become exhausted to the point of burnout. I was advised over and over again about the importance of taking sabbath in order to renew, refresh and create a healthy work-life balance. But the demands of the church didn’t make room for sabbath. My appeals for sabbath were challenged, and my cries for rest went unanswered. I was required to show up and perform my duties with no rest in sight.
So I began to study the theological meaning of sabbath as rest, and I noticed that in the church, the Sabbath confessed was not the Sabbath practiced. In churches that I grew up in, attended as an adult, and served as pastor, I’ve witnessed members of congregations and ordained servant leaders alike share testimonies of their daily suffering with pastors or other church leadership. In response, their prayer requests for healing and comfort have been spiritually bypassed with biblical platitudes like “God doesn’t give you more than you can bear,” “Suffering produces endurance” or “If God brought you to it, God will bring you through it.” My experience taught me that Christianity demonstrates that the Sabbath confessed is not the Sabbath practiced.
It became clear to me that I needed to redefine what the Sabbath meant to me and how it could be factored into my daily living, as opposed to a single day of reward. One way I did this was to change my relationship to the definite article “the” before sabbath. I believe “the Sabbath” is limited to a single day of rest, narrowing the possibility for expansion. When I considered sabbath without the definite article, I saw its meaning deepen, allowing me to explore sabbath as a frame of mind rather than a frame of time – a praxis in which we become the very nature of sabbath – carrying in our personhood the embodiment of rest, respite, refreshment, and renewal wherever we go and at all times.
When we practice sabbath as an embodied frame of mind, we are invited to become sabbath.
When we practice sabbath as an embodied frame of mind, we are invited to become sabbath. Seeing ourselves as sabbath, worthy of rest, will require us to push beyond the guilt, shame and trauma of living in toxic systems of society that demand production from us at all times. It will require us to transcend time and place in order to become the living testament of “Keep my sabbaths that they may be a sign between me and you that you may know that I am the Lord your God” (Ezekiel 20:20). Imagine, if we can begin to see ourselves as the living sabbath rested, peaceful, renewed, and refreshed, how impactful our engagements with one another could be.
Shifting my perspective about sabbath to a frame of mind rather than a moment in time has become my act of resistance. I am no longer bound by the yoke of the “StrongBlackWoman” that Chanequa Walker-Barnes writes about in Too Heavy A Yoke: the yoke of being “the woman who constantly extends herself on behalf of others … in her intimate and family relationships, in her job, and in her church and community … as a woman of (usually Christian) faith, if she needs help, it should come from only one source — God.” I realized that this yoke, this burden of strength, was too heavy for me to continue to bear and caused me to have a mental breakdown. A “day of rest,” the Sabbath, wasn’t going to be enough to heal my brokenness. I needed sabbath every day. I needed to feel the balm of sabbath on me at all times if I was going to continue living in this world.
A “day of rest,” the Sabbath, wasn’t going to be enough to heal my brokenness. I needed sabbath every day. I needed to feel the balm of sabbath on me at all times if I was going to continue living in this world.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston writes that Black women are seen as “the mule(s) of the world.” In embracing sabbath every day, I have rejected this label. I am no longer bound by the stress of deadlines and timelines, of working feverishly until my body caves in, of holding more than I mentally and physically have the capacity to hold. Sabbath has become a way of honoring my body – resting when it tells me to rest – setting aside all external distractions in order to hear my spirit-guided internal compass.
Embodied sabbath has empowered the authority of my voice in that “no” is a complete sentence. My physical, mental and emotional well-being have flourished as a result of my conscience effort of becoming sabbath. I love that people say to me, “There’s something about you that’s so peaceful when you enter a room.” I am no longer “conformed to the ways of this world” but instead, I am “transformed by the renewing of my mind” (Romans 12:2).
“No” is a complete sentence.
There’s a Negro Spiritual that says, “Every day will be Sunday, sabbath will have no end.” The common command to “Keep the Lord’s Sabbath” connotes possession. When we become sabbath, we offer gifts to others. Gifts of the healthiest versions of ourselves – mind, body, and spirit – while “loving your neighbor as you love yourself” (Mark 12:31). As renowned womanist scholar Renita Weems says, “Sabbath makes sure we have the time to do what’s really important and be with those we really care about.” Sabbath is a gift from God, inviting us all to “lie down in green pastures … beside still waters” (Psalm 23:2, 3).