The new normal and Sabbath keeping: practicing 24/6

In the last post, I observed what I’m seeing as a changing worship pattern – twice a month as the new normal.  While these trends in worship patterns are interesting data to observe, the more important question is about how we practice Sabbath.

The changing worship patterns are, in some measure, a reaction to the more legalistic notions of Sabbath keeping. If I’m honest, I’ve gladly allowed other “freedoms” to creep into a day of sabbath.  But how much of the good practice of Sabbath-keeping have I laxly lost?  I can’t help but think Eric Liddell (cf. Chariots of Fire) had something on us today with our lovely Sunday ease.  I wonder if a healthy pendulum swing back towards an intentional reclamation of the practice of Sabbath-keeping might be so needed for many of us, starting with myself.

The worrying thing behind the changing worship trends is what it says about our understanding of Sabbath.  Do we know how to practice Sabbath?  Has our hyper-connected, 24/7 pace of life created an indifference to the importance of this practice, an inability to stop and rest?  Maybe we value the rest part of Sabbath – we’re all for a day off.  But have we missed the vital role of prayer and worship in this practice?

One of the fine writers on Sabbath is the Jewish scholar/rabbi Abraham Heschel.  What Heschel emphasizes is the importance Scripture gives to time even over place.  He writes: “The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography. To understand the teaching of the Bible, one must accept the premise that time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space; that time has a significance and sovereignty of its own.”

The illusion of our clocks and watches is to convince us that all time is equal, simply a measurement.  But there is a created rhythm we are very much a part of, we are creatures in time.  How we need to better understand time, understand the gracious nature of Sabbath.  I love the biblical cycle of time, including the grace-saturated rhythm of sabbath.  And I can learn something from my Jewish spiritual cousins, as they begin their Sabbath in the evening with a shared meal and a night’s sleep, waking to a day not of our making.  Think of Sabbath as the gift of sacred, rest-filled time, a “good-for-nothing” day to be frittered away with God, beautifully wasted in prayer and play (but never a time to be killed).

I was listening to Eugene Peterson talk about Sabbath who wisely noted the social nature of Sabbath-keeping. “I don’t think you can keep the Sabbath by yourselves … it’s a social thing.  It requires a lot of relationship, a lot of help … There’s just too much going to distract you.  The most important thing we did in keeping a Sabbath is getting help.”

I know I need that help.  The people I’ve begun to live and serve with here in Toronto – busy city dwellers constantly pressed for time – they need help of others to do this.  I talked with someone who regularly has to work on Sundays, wondering how they and others like them, might find encouragement to this vital practice.

I think, together, this is possible.  There’s a fabulous example of this in the theatre district of New York City where a Jewish theatre troupe called 24/6 was formed for Sabbath-observant Jews.  Members in 24/6 are not required to rehearse or perform on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons, freed up to pursue their faith convictions and their vocations.

Are we serious enough about our Sabbath keeping to do something like that?  To surround those in our faith-community faced with tough challenges, providing creative solutions, even material support?  Does that seem too radical or has our work (or leisure) taken too high a priority?

How about we start simple – start encouraging one another to prepare for a Sabbath already on Saturday night.  Instead of a late night out, leaving us predisposed to take a rain check on corporate worship the next day, why not intentionally prepare to enter a sacred time of rest with a simple meal and a quiet evening?

Isn’t some of our changing worship patterns symptomatic of a diminished discipleship, a shallow Christian community, or a plain failure to practice grace, working it into the fabric of our week’s rhythm?

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  1. #1 by slapper7 on May 16, 2012 - 9:33 pm

    Great words Phil! Definitely something to strive for and something I’ve had an interest in pursuing. I’ve also written about the Sabbath myself – from the perspective of a depressed young mother with young children. Haha! Sabbath Rest? Yup! In Heaven, perhaps. ;)

    • #2 by phil on May 17, 2012 - 7:05 am

      Lucretia – busy, depressed, sleep deprived moms are exactly why we need to think of how we can help others to practice Sabbath. I’m sure you felt quite alone and a Sabbath seemed utterly impossible. What if the community thought through how Mom’s could experience a Sabbath? That’s the type of creative community and relational support that makes sabbath a possibility. Like Peterson says, we can’t do this alone. And it’s not just meant for heaven but a taste of that rest here and now! So I hope you’re experiencing tastes of that now.

      • #3 by slapper7 on May 17, 2012 - 4:06 pm

        I am definitely experiencing more of that now that the kids are older. Life just keeps getting better and better! I’ve also learned/discovered that “Sabbath rest” doesn’t necessarily mean “not doing things” so much as resting in and finding our peace and joy in God, no matter what we’re doing. Yes, the weekly rhythms of worship, prayer and fellowship are good and beneficial for a healthy spiritual life – but I struggle with how that has the potential to lay a sort of guilt, you could say, on the nurses, doctors, policemen, firefighters, etc who selflessly give up their Sundays to keep us all physically healthy and safe. That is…unless we’d all just rather not have any “good Christians” working in those fields. But I have a feeling that would be a far greater danger than someone not following the rules on a Sunday – if you get my drift. Even you as a pastor are technically “working” on a Sunday… what’s up with that, eh? ;)
        All joking aside – I think the guilt and shame behind it is what has bothered me most. I’m sure you agree that setting up man made rules to say you can or cannot do this or that on a Sunday is not beneficial to anyone – even Jesus chided the Pharisees for this! So how can we fully embrace this idea of taking a day of rest without the added weight of it all? A weight either placed on us by others or even by ourselves? I love the idea of a community coming together to mutually support and encourage one another in Sabbath rest. To come up with creative ways to do this together – so long as it doesn’t become something that we “have to” do, rather something that we “long to” do.
        And I suppose in some sort of weird way I see the idea of Sabbath rest as transcending time. It need not be limited by minutes, hours or days, but embraced to the fulness of eternity. Whenever, wherever you are – you are resting in God. Period. Then again – even God rested for a full day… hmmmm.

        Thanks for listening to some of my rambling thoughts… haha! I love talking about this sort of thing. Can you tell?

      • #4 by phil on May 18, 2012 - 7:02 am

        Lucretia – yeah, we definitely need to guard carefully how we set up practices (I think that’s the best term I’ve found that encourages a “no heavy” posture but still insists on the importance of a framework for our spiritual lives). I don’t think Sabbath-keeping is about rules – it’s about embracing the good life God offers to us.

        And you’re bang on with the idea of Sabbath rest transcending time – its rooted in the eternal rest gained for us through Christ. That’s the starting point of the Christian life – you don’t have to do anything to win God’s favour – you’ve got his love, his life. So how will you enjoy it and share that good news with others. Still, while saying that, I know enough about human nature to know that we do need structure and habits are powerful ways that shape and form us.

        So get rid of the guilt and shame – stop “shoulding” on yourself, as Brennan Manning says. But do intentionally think through how you can enjoy God’s gift of rest.

  2. #5 by slapper7 on May 19, 2012 - 5:47 pm

    Thanks Phil. I try to do that often – of course, life can get crazy busy – but I’m more intentional now about regularly taking a step back from life and looking at where I can cut back. It’s easier to say ‘no’ to certain things now than it used to be too. In Feb I cut back to working part time again because I was feeling overwhelmed with life and didn’t have time for family or friends anymore, let alone time to enjoy God’s rest. It’s most definitely something that we need to be intentional about. If we don’t shape our own habits, they will shape themselves – and usually not in a good way, either.

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