When I first started observing the Sabbath 25 years ago, it wasn't by choice. My husband and I lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, at the time, and everything in our neighborhood—stores, movie theaters, and restaurants—closed from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. Even the buses stopped running for 24 hours. Since we didn't own a car, this greatly affected our lives.
At first we struggled to find activities for Friday evenings and Saturdays. But after a few months, we began to enjoy a day with few entertainment options. We read, we walked, we talked. My husband sometimes went bird-watching in the field near our apartment. I wrote long letters. We napped. Sometimes we prayed together leisurely. We simply slowed down. We rested in God's love and experienced his grace.
Our Sabbaths in Israel became God's gift to us individually, and enriched our life as a couple. Through Sabbath-keeping, we experienced the truth that God's love for us isn't based on what we do. We yearned to keep growing in our ability to receive that unconditional love once we returned to the U.S.
Back in the States, our family decided to continue observing the Sabbath on Sundays. Our first son had been born in Israel, and our second son was born soon after we returned home. As a young family, we read to our children, took long walks, and went to the zoo and the park after church.
As the years passed and our children grew up, our Sabbaths changed. But two things stayed constant: a slower pace and no work.
Never did a culture need the Sabbath as ours does today. It pressures us to be productive 24/7. Everything we do has to look good and accomplish something. Nothing encourages us to stop. But the word "Sabbath" literally means stop, pause, cease, desist.
One young woman recently told me, "I'd like our family to observe the Sabbath. I've been reading books about it, talking with my husband and kids, and we're going to start soon."
"Great," I replied. "Tell me about what you plan to do and not do on your Sabbath."
"I love the idea of starting on Saturday at sunset with a festive meal," she explained. "I'd like to have special food, blessings for the children, prayers and candles, like Jewish people do. Maybe we could sing some songs. Then the next day, after we go to church, I hope we can read some Bible stories and do some crafts to help the kids center the day around God."
"What do you plan to stop doing on the Sabbath?" I asked.
She looked at me blankly. Slowing down hadn't figured into her Sabbath observance. She was focused solely on adding new activities.
As women, we can easily bring our culture's values into our attempts to observe a Sabbath. We so easily forget the core meaning of the Sabbath—stopping and resting—that we end up turning our observance of it into one more thing to achieve.
We certainly want to experience God's presence on the Sabbath, but we need to experiment with unforced ways to do it. "Simple" is a great word to describe the ideal activities for the Sabbath. As soon as we're working too hard to achieve anything on the Sabbath, we've violated the central idea of the day.
One Jewish tradition bans intercessory prayer on the Sabbath because it's viewed as too much work. In that tradition, appropriate Sabbath prayers are prayers of thankfulness. On the Sabbath, I spend time focusing on the beauty of the world God made and the good gifts he's given me in the previous week. I try to rest in thankfulness. While I don't try to be "hyper-spiritual" all day long, I've discovered a little thought discipline goes a long way towards giving me a day that's restful and rejuvenating.
Take the Day Off
In the Ten Commandments, the Israelites are commanded to keep the Sabbath day holy, or separate, from the other weekdays. The marker of that holiness is the absence of work. But the Old Testament doesn't give many specifics about what constitutes work. One of the few clear commands forbids lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3). This mandate assured that daughters, wives, and female servants wouldn't be expected to cook. All the food had to be cooked before the Sabbath began, and the dishes washed afterwards. The Sabbath granted rest to everyone, even the women who labored the other six days of the week.
In our time, what's the equivalent of "lighting a fire"? What are those actions that send us into work mode?
When we first returned to the U.S. years ago, I was a part-time student and stay-at-home mom. For me, work consisted of studying, housework, and shopping. For my husband, work involved anything from his paid job as well as house repairs and lawn mowing. We simply didn't do any of those tasks on Sundays.
Today, turning on my computer, balancing the checkbook, weeding my garden, and cooking put me into work mode. I know some people find gardening and cooking relaxing; those women have a different list of work activities to avoid on the Sabbath.
One woman who works at a desk job finds her best Sabbath activities involve vigorous exercise outdoors. For many people, being outside on the Sabbath—walking, riding bikes, flying kites, sitting on a park bench—helps them feel closer to God. Sabbath time outside can be a time of reflection and prayer alone, a time of relaxed conversation with a friend, or an exuberant playtime with family members or friends.
Many women also benefit from some silent time on their Sabbath day. One single woman who works in a people-intensive job spends her Sabbath afternoon entirely alone. Then she often meets up with friends at the end of the day for a special meal.
One mom with young children prepares a "Sabbath box" of special activities for her children. During one hour on Sunday afternoon, her children know they're expected to play alone, enjoying the delights in the Sabbath box while their parents get some silent time.
Some of the "work" from which we need a rest is mental. A woman I know tries to avoid worry on the Sabbath. She considers herself a worrier and feels overwhelmed at the thought of trying not to worry every day. One day a week, however, feels manageable. A day free—or at least mostly free—from worry has been a great gift to her.
Similarly, as a person who's disliked my body for as long as I can remember, I attempt to keep my Sabbaths free from obsessing about the way I look. On the Sabbath I don't try on clothes and I don't read novels with slim, beautiful heroines. When I find myself thinking negative thoughts about myself, I try to set them aside for the day.
My husband and I have received many gifts from our commitment to honor the Sabbath: a day to spend with our children—and each other—without needing to get something done. A day free of multitasking. A day free of striving for perfection and productivity. A day to rest in God's goodness. Over the years, these gifts have continued to bless us and grant us glorious freedom in Christ.
Lynne M. Baab is an author who lives in Washington. Her most recent book is Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest (InterVarsity).
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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