24 Jun Monthly Practice: Sabbath, a Rhythm of Grace
The high-pitch, electronic beeping is the first sound of my day. It’s not pleasant. In fact, jarring and invasive are words that come to mind. But it’s needed: a 5:55am call to attention, forcing me out of bed and into active mode ahead of my usual Wednesday morning running workout in the Auckland Domain. At this point in my life—training for a marathon with teammates, working full time, adjusting to and enjoying a new husband, spending time with friends and family—the working week is full. At times, it’s unclear whether I’m getting the most out of my day or simply feeling drained by it.
Something like this may feel familiar to you. It raises an assortment of questions around the shape and rhythms of the Christian life: at what point in the day am I able to spend time in stillness, prayer, and Scripture with God? What does it mean to rest in the love and assurance of God? What does it mean to rest physically? If all these aspects of the working day are outworking a sense of vocation, how much is too much? What type of life is God calling me and my family into?
These questions can be difficult to work out, but they also offer an invitation—to turn our face towards the ways of God. We can see God’s rhythms of work and rest in Scripture, the person of Jesus Christ, and the practices of the Church. Unlike the blaring alarm clock, God’s invitation is gentle and firm: come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden, he says, and I will give you rest—true rest. And unlike a packed daily schedule, God offers rhythms and practices that put work and time in their rightful place. The practice of the Church that we’re most encouraged to live into—the one that reframes my full life and allows me to turn my work day and rest back to God—is Sabbath.
Sabbath is the practice of life and rest. It’s the invitation to set aside the pressing tasks of the week so that we might turn our face again to God’s ways and proclaim the truth that Jesus Christ’s redemptive work is finished. The Sabbath is about being satisfied in our labours and enjoying the fruits of our work. It’s about relationships, and serving your local church, and good food. It’s a practice that’s less about what not to do (although that’s present by default) and more about how to live in the fulness and joy of life in Christ.
Keeping the Sabbath is the fourth commandment, a distinctive practice God calls his people to. But where we divorce Sabbath from its context in creation and redemption, it becomes distorted. Either we reduce it to a technique for a “balanced” life or it becomes a burdensome adherance that we try to use to gain God’s approval. This was not God’s intent: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27). Sabbath is designed to protect a space for us to enjoy unencumbered friendship with God. Because of this, our practice of Sabbath needs to adapt and grow across the course of a changing life. To embrace the Sabbath wisely means taking account of our life circumstances and season so we can discern how to rest with God every seventh day. Parents can’t take a day off from their work of raising children, but families can learn to Sabbath according to the stages of children’s growth. Adults in their 20s typically have time and opportunity to learn and innovate with Sabbath rest: to learn how to Sabbath, and to learn what resting with God does to the rest of life, and so on.
The Practice: Discerning Sabbath
What might it look like for me and my household to enter into Sabbath rest? Let us begin with two basic elements.
First, which day? It’s important to find a day that works to keep the Sabbath. For many of us, it will be our day of fellowship and worship with the gathered body, often a Sunday. It is possible to Sabbath while serving, teaching, and leading at our local church. In fact, it’s encouraged. Those who minister or do shift work on a Sunday, however, might need to Sabbath on another day.
Second, following the biblical pattern, we might like to consider starting our Sabbath at sundown, finishing at sundown the following day. This pattern means we begin our sabbath-keeping with sleep, with our body, mind, and spirit first resting in the assurance of God’s love and sustaining care for us. It also means we end 24 hours later, a whole day of rest. Either way, the Sabbath is 24 hours, one day in seven, in a steady rhythm across the year.
To extend our discernment journey, I want to turn to the strong and ever-gentle words of Marva Dawn. This beautiful Lutheran theologian, who suffered a variety of physical ailments including blindness in one eye, a kidney transplant, and crippled legs, lived a life of wholeness, joy, and participation in the life and love of God. In her book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, Marva outlines a four-step movement that can help us discern how we might enter the Sabbath in our individual lives, and it’s this movement I want to offer here. You’ll need a pencil, paper, and your Bible.
We begin with ceasing. To cease is to trust in the Lord’s provision and love. It is to say: my effort or work is not essential to my salvation, nor to the salvation of the world—I can’t work my way to true freedom; this is Jesus’s work. To cease is also to acknowledge our creatureliness; we are created beings, with limits to our time and energy, and it is good. We are made in the image of God, who showed us the rhythm of true life by ceasing from his work on the seventh day. We’re called to do the same. A general rule here is to cease activity that advances something for your own personal gain. Sometimes, this also means ceasing from good works of service or care for others as the busy activity can emerge from a desire to be needed, to feel a sense of value or importance, or even to “save” those you love with your works. God asks for it all.
Take a stocktake of your Sabbath days over the past month. What have these days been made up of? Did I go grocery shopping or out for lunch with friends after church? Did I exercise or play with my children outside? Did I have a nap? Did I catch up with work or study?
Prayerfully consider these: what do I notice? What is shaping my approach to Sabbath at the moment?
God invites me to trust him, to entrust others to him, and to enjoy resting in him. What do I need to stop doing in order to step into Sabbath rest?
Only in ceasing from activity are we then able to rest. In rest, we move beyond stopping and enter further in to the life of God, the true rest of God. Here, Marva draws to mind Psalm 23, verses 4–6:
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
The Lord is our Shepherd; he is the one who provides. In rest, we put our intellectual work, our emotional work, and our relational work to the side. We relinquish those things that we might otherwise look to as the source of our life, and we linger in the knowledge that our lives are a gift from God and fall under his care.
Reflect: what stops me from resting deeply in God?
What might it look like to rest trusting in God’s loving provision? Pay attention to what answers come to mind and talk to God about them.
The next movement is called embracing—to deliberately choose and take up God’s ways. After we’ve ceased from certain activities and work then rested in trust of God, we’re given room to positively embrace the goodness of God. We’re called to intentionally embrace our Christian communities gathering on the Sabbath morning for worship. We embrace our time of worship together, and we choose to provide for one another through meals, conversation, prayer, and friendship. By embracing the Sabbath, time is given back to us as a gift rather than an authority or ruler over us. On the Sabbath, we’re able to intentionally pour into our lives with God, with others, and with the world around us.
To embrace the goodness of God and to love those around us will mean abstaining from those things that—if not checked—want to assume a central place in our lives. Technology is, of course, something to consider here. I try not to spend time on social media on the Sabbath after noticing the warping of time and scattering of attention that comes from spending time on the various platforms. I am, however, happy to read books on my Kindle or watch a film with my husband, knowing these are activities that bring rest and time with those I love. My husband will often want to go for a bush walk on the Sabbath, embracing the gift of God’s good creation and the time to enjoy it.
Ask God what habits or rhythms in your life lead you away from trust in God. Commit these ways to God and ask for his help to lay them aside.
Then prayerfully reflect about what you might pick up instead. You might feel a tug to embrace the values of fellowship and worship in the Christian life or to give to those around you without requiring something in return. You might feel called to intentionally embrace time with people, not for any other reason than to enjoy them.
Consider: what things will I do to embrace the love and life of God on my Sabbath?
The final movement is fun—feasting. The Sabbath is about joy and enjoyment! We feast because the Sabbath is a special day set apart by God for God’s people to imitate him. To feast is to acknowledge and remember God’s good creation, made out of an overflow of God’s love. This is the day to gather with others to give thanks for God’s goodness, to worship him, to ponder Scripture, and to break bread in fellowship together. It’s a day to enjoy the fruits of our labour—to enjoy good food and drink—because we know God loves and gives abundantly. In feasting, we also remember the redemption that Jesus Christ won for us, giving us the gift of true freedom. On the Sabbath, we worship with the gathered church and feast at the Lord’s table, remembering the ways our sin has been forgiven by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, in feasting, we’re proclaiming Jesus’s promise: that he will come again to make all things right. This is good news! One of the small ways I feast is by getting a coffee with friends after a run on the Sabbath. A good habit is to buy a coffee or food for a friend, or invite a family over for dinner. The love of God has been poured lavishly upon us; we can do the same through Sabbath feasting with those around us.
Our local church gathered for worship might feel strained, tiring, or frustrating. What are some of the ways I might reframe my worship with my local church in light of Sabbath feasting?
Prayerfully reflect: who might I invite over for a Sabbath dinner, drink, or walk over the coming weeks?
If hosting feels overwhelming or you don’t have a home to invite people into, it’s good to feast on the delights of creation. A good walk along the beach, time spent in the sun on a park bench with friends, or a bike ride with your family can be helpful places to start. What might you do to delight in God’s gifts of creation and redemption?
Over the coming weeks, I encourage you to go through this discernment journey with a good friend, your spouse, or a spiritual mentor. I’d also encourage you to purchase a copy of Marva’s book, perhaps to read over the coming weeks of Sabbath. Our hope and prayer is that you will also become more aware so as to see the depth, breadth, and height of the love of God as seen in the gift of Sabbath.
Further reading and encouragement:
Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (Grand Rapids: Michigan, 1989).
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (City of publication: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005).
Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of Now (New York: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017).
Wendell Berry, The Gift of Gravity: Selected Poems 1968–2000 ( Golgonooza Press, 2002)—Berry’s book includes his many Sabbath poems, meditations on learning to keep a Sabbath.
(Image by Klara Kulikova, CC Zero)