In our frantic, frenetic society, where first-graders are in football leagues and children carry phones and planners to keep up with elementary-school extracurriculars, we need to "remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy" (Exodus 20:8) more than ever. But do we? Most of us recognize those words from the Ten Commandments, but we don't know how, or even if, they apply to us today.
Karen-Marie Yust, a mother of three and author of Real Kids, Real Faith: Practices for Nurturing Children's Spiritual Lives (Jossey-Bass), says that in this overscheduled and overworked world, kids need to learn at an early age that they can take time to rest and focus on God.
"Our culture sends us the opposite message—if you're not frantically on top of everything, belonging to every imaginable club, and working all the time, you will be unhappy and unsuccessful," says Yust. There is real power, she adds, in taking a rest. Sabbath helps us learn that God is in charge, and Sabbath observance teaches us that taking a break is good. It's one way to say to your kids, "You will get into college even if you don't have that eighth extracurricular activity on your application."
A Family-Friendly Sabbath
Though Christian history is steeped with teachings about the Sabbath, we don't have too many contemporary models for Sabbath observance. Some of us might remember Sabbath-keeping from our childhood, when the stores closed on Sundays, and families spent leisurely afternoons lingering over lunch and napping.
But that model seems hard to square with today's world, where Sunday is often just another weekend day crammed with errands and chores.
Parents wishing to begin keeping Sabbath can start slowly (it's certainly not in the spirit of Sabbath rest to feel overwhelmed and stressed out about the Sabbath!). Dorothy Bass, author of Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (Jossey-Bass), reminds parents to focus on putting good Sabbath practices in place, rather than emphasizing what one can't or shouldn't do on Sunday.
Instead of making Sundays primarily a time when one can't work (or, as was the rule in my grandmother's house, can't go to the movies), make Sunday afternoon a family time for all those restful, enriching activities you never have time for during the week. In an age when many families don't eat breakfast or dinner together, make Sunday a time of a regular family meal, even if it's just a simple post-church BLT. At my church, several families and friends gather together for regular Saturday night meals: special, leisurely dinners that usher in the Sabbath.
But the Sabbath isn't only about family time. There should also be elements of Sabbath observance that draw the family's attention to God—attending church together, of course, is a good starting point. Singing a hymn at the beginning or end of a meal can direct us toward our Creator, whose rest we imitate on the Sabbath, and our Redeemer, whose Resurrection we celebrate on the Sabbath.
Karen-Marie Yust encourages parents to create a family ritual that helps children remember God's presence. She recommends lighting candles. Sabbath candles, a cornerstone of Jewish Sabbath observance, can also infuse the day with a special spirituality—and most kids love candles!
"Small rituals can help us focus on God," says Yust. "Children need to learn to be silent, not just quiet, but to practice silence as a way of seeking to be in God's presence." A minute of silence at the end of a meal, during which each person reflects on what he or she is thankful for, is a good way to introduce children to the discipline of silence. "Even young children can sit silently if they can muse on a question or watch a candle flicker," says Yust.
Negative disciplines—the Sabbath "thou-shalt-nots"—have their place, too. One wonderful—if, at first, difficult—Sabbath practice is to refrain from shopping. Simply giving your family a break from the hectic, grasping world of consumerism transforms the day.
Sabbath, after all, is very counter-cultural. It's a godly way of challenging many false assumptions that govern our broader culture. As Dorothy Bass says, "Sabbath-keeping forms habits of cultural resistance around pressure-points that are at the heart of our culture's distress: consumerism, time-famine, family fragmentation." For Bass, "decommericalizing the Sabbath is a key thing. I realized I needed to stop shopping on the Sabbath because shopping was one place where my own sin and the culture's need intersected. I was finding myself sitting in church thinking about getting a new piece of furniture rather than being properly attentive to God!"
Work, Play, and Rest
Parents know better than most people how badly we need rest, but parents also know the many obstacles to Sabbath observance. How can we keep the Sabbath when Janie has a soccer game and Junior has to head to his job at the mall?
Those are very real concerns—though it can be tempting to use soccer as an excuse for avoiding the discipline of Sabbath. One solution, of course, is to declare Saturday your family Sabbath—beginning Saturday morning and concluding with church Sunday morning, well before the soccer game.
It's also important not to be legalistic. Maybe your family heads to the soccer field after a Sabbath lunch together. Playing sports—and watching kids play—can be relaxing and joyful, after all.
Karen-Marie Yust reminds parents that a little activism never hurts: "I've seen a number of communities where like-minded parents banded together and successfully petitioned for the time and date of soccer games to be changed."
After-school jobs present problems too. Employers often expect their younger staff to work whenever the boss asks, including Sundays. Parents can help their children seek employment at businesses that will honor the family's Sabbath practices. But parents can also help their children ask whether it is truly necessary for a child to have a job. While sometimes the answer is "yes," many more young people work simply because we are greedy consumers.
Dorothy Bass cautions that there is a lot of unnecessary teenage employment. "High school's consumer lifestyle grabs these kids and won't let them go. Sabbath-keeping is addressed directly to people who are obsessed with the traveling soccer team or who want to work when they really don't have to. The practice of Sabbath calls us into a different kind of economics and a different kind of aspiration." Part of practicing the Sabbath means helping kids ask, "What do we really need? What's really important?"
Like most of parenting, Sabbath-keeping is a matter of modeling right behavior for our kids. Parents who discipline themselves to slow down, rest, and go to church one day a week will help their kids most of all. Keeping Sabbath with your family is not forcing an arbitrary "should" or "must" on your kids; it's helping them meet a deep human need.
Copyright © by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine. Click here for reprint information on Christian Parenting Today.