“Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“A world without a Sabbath would be like a man without a smile, like a summer without flowers, and like a homestead without a garden. It is the joyous day of the whole week”
Henry Ward Beecher
I grew up in a rather conservative Christian household. As a child I had a love-hate relationship with Sabbath.
There was some things that were definitely out on Sundays: no TV (we made an exception for the World Cup I recall!), no card games and certainly no shopping. Church (we called it chapel) was compulsory- after lunch we’d spend an hour in Sunday school then we’d have to sit quietly through a service. It was all Sunday suits and hymn-prayer sandwiches- even the children’s talk was a monologue with rarely a visual aid in sight. When I came to faith in my early teens my perception was transformed but in my younger years staying quiet for 75 minutes was the toughest challenge of the week for a restlessly active boy.
Once the religious bit was over the fun would begin. There were 14 of us cousins and a plethora of uncles, aunties and grandparents. We’d usually end up at my grandparents’ farm and the rest of the day would be eating, playing and exploring. No farm work, shopping or household chores beyond the minimum were allowed, so Sundays meant that the time was reserved exclusively for God, family and fun. For once in the week the grown ups weren’t busy so as children we could enjoy their company. They even joined us in our games and adventures.
Even at harvest time with corn to gather in we’d still keep the Sabbath and just trust that the Lord would honour the sacrifice. At times, this was particularly challenging for the farmers in the congregation. I can distinctly recall sitting in church and hearing the local farmer at harvest time, zipping back and forth on his tractor past the chapel carrying corn and bales of straw. He always seemed to rev up outside just to make a point!
Looking back I may have regretted the restrictions but the benefits of ring-fencing a whole day far outweighed what we may have lacked.
Over recent years my keeping of Sabbath has sadly fallen into decline. With two small children we’ve found that every day has tended to merge into the other. What with work, household chores and keeping the family clothed, fed and entertained we have often felt that we’re barely keeping our heads above the water. We have nearly always managed to get to church but beyond that we’d not made Sabbath particularly special.
Recently I’ve started to think again about Sabbath and why the Bible seems to make such a fuss about it.
Here are a few of my reflections…
Taking our bearings
Garrison Keillor writes: “Sunday feels odd without church… It’s the time of the week when we take our bearings, and if we miss it, we’re just following our noses”.
Time with God in nature is great- enjoying sport or family or friends is also a good thing. But when we join the community of faith in a deliberate act of worship we ‘immerse ourselves in the rhythms and stories of God’s work, get a feel for proper work, creation work… When we walk out of a place of worship we walk with fresh, recognizing eyes and a re-created, obedient heart into the world in which we are God’s image participating in God’s creation work”. (Eugene Peterson).
Ritual and tradition
Our culture has little regard for ritual, tradition or ceremony. But this neglect has made us all the poorer for we have little in our lives that binds our hearts and memories to the sacred rhythms where God can always be found. Children in particular find their identity and a sense of security and belonging in ritual and repetition. It binds them to the past so they can better navigate the present and feel confident about the future.
I don’t think I will ever forget the Sundays of my childhood. They rescued us from the tyranny of work, chores, shopping and entertainment and provided us with an anchor, every week, to stop, listen and enjoy. By making one day special it made the whole week special.
Where the art resides
I came across an article recently where the writer reflects on the importance of the pauses in music: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides” (Artur Schnabel)’ Few of us have any problem filling each of our days with a million different obligations or diversions. But to practice the revolutionary discipline of Sabbath, of stopping- well that takes real concentration and skill.
Sabbath is a great way to detox our lives each week from the obsessions and compulsions of modern life. For some of us it’s the 24/7 nature of our job and being constantly at the mercy of our smartphone. For others it could be some techno habit such as gaming or social media. Shopping is a major compulsion for many. Some can’t live without music or TV in the background. Sport, clubs and hobbies can rob many a family of precious time together. Too much of any good thing can quickly become an idol demanding it’s sacrifices.
Sabbath will mean simply stopping doing these things for a 24-hour period each week. Instead, we take time to connect deeply with our Lord, our loved ones and the created world. We change the pace; resist the intrusive, ignore the demanding, and say no to the compulsive.
Practicing Sabbath is a way of acknowledging that God is in control, that the world won’t stop if I do, that there are more important things in life than agenda’s, endless consumption, being entertained or needing to be productive. It’s an admission of humility and a getting in touch with reality.
By stopping we discover what our work means and not merely what it earns. Our work no longer defines us; we allow God to do that when we stop long enough to hear his voice.
The Lords Day
“Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy”. God had always clearly intended the Sabbath to be a blessing to his people. In the light of the New Testament, however, Sabbath takes on a whole new dimension. It is now the Lords Day. It is a weekly invitation for us to celebrate the resurrection and the new creation that it launched.
Like the disciples on the first Lords Day we are propelled into a whole new universe of wonder- into constant surprise and endless possibilities- into un-hoped for dawns and unforeseen horizons.
Sabbath, with Christ, is now an invitation to start each week, as DH Lawrence puts it, ‘dipped again in God and new-created’. We can face the new week with resurrection hope and renewed perspective. Sabbath tells us that the past doesn’t need to define us- that God can bring hope out of desperation- that God is making ‘all things new’.
Monday mornings need never be the same again.