Having grown up in Michigan and Indiana, there are inevitably a few words in my vocabulary that sound funny in my current Canadian context. Admittedly, some of it is the exaggerated nasal “a” that shows up from time to time, or the difficulty I have with saying ‘process’ with a British long-O sound. Even when I say it ‘correctly’ around here, people can still tell its not natural for me. But there is another set of uniquely pronounced words in my vocabulary that simply reflect a misplaced emphasis. The most obvious one is insurance. Most folks, place the emphasis on the second syllable, in-SUR-ance, and enunciate all three syllables. But not me, somewhere along the way I started to place my emphasis on the first syllable, followed by a contracting of the last two syllables as if the word only has two syllables instead of three: IN-sur’nce.
Too often, I’ve come to realize, our Sabbath practices have been like my funny sounding words and misplaced emphases. Even when we manage to adhere to the expected standards, its obvious something is still off.
While my parents were pretty relaxed when it came to Sabbath do’s & don’ts, the Christian community around us was a bit less forgiving. Not only was occupational work taboo – unless in the medical or residential treatment fields – but activities that could be construed as work were off limits as well. For some of these prohibitions, I was thankful: No mowing the yard, cleaning cars, or vacuuming the living room. But others made less sense to me: No biking, swimming, or talking on the phone. These excluded activities were sidelined not simply because they could require you or someone else to work, but because somehow physical exertion, even when play-based, laughter-inducing, and relationship enhancing, was perceived to be a direct violation of one of the 10 commandments. Rest, defined primarily as inactivity, was the only activity expressly permitted; and so, anything that required too much exertion to be considered “rest” was deemed inappropriate and unfitting for Sabbath behaviour.
But placing such a heavy emphasis on constraining activities is akin to emphasizing the wrong syllable in a word. At times, we even place so much emphasis on what we are not doing that the rest of Sabbath gets contracted. No doubt, there is a place for communal constraints and personal restraint in our Sabbath keeping and making. But such attention is at best a soft-syllable in a more robust and complex expression. One of the first, and frequently repeated steps, I’ve needed to take this year has been to learn to put less emphasis on the do’s & don’ts of Sabbath keeping and more emphasis on the heart and purpose of Sabbath.
Learning a New Emphasis
Tim Keller’s article on Sabbath has been really helpful for me in this regard. He says that Sabbath is more than refraining from certain kinds of activities. The Sabbath roots go back to God’s activity on the 7th day. “God did not just cease from his labor; he stopped and enjoyed what he had made. What does this mean for us? We need to stop to enjoy God, to enjoy his creation, to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The whole point of Sabbath is joy in what God has done.” In order to Sabbath well, our emphasis needs to land on the joy aspect of Sabbath more than on the ceasing aspect. It’s not that rest and “inactivity” is somehow irrelevant or optional. Rather, “ceasing to work” is only a part of Sabbath, and it is not capable of holding the riches of Sabbath by itself. The emphasis of Sabbath is on receiving and enjoying life – our lives and life in the world around us – as a gift from God. Sabbath is primarily about joy.
Keller highlights 5 types of practices or rhythms that help us to enjoy Sabbath more fully. (I won’t go over them all here.) Not surprisingly, Keller includes “sheer inactivity” in this descriptive list. He asserts that we need consistent space that is “unplanned and unstructured, in which you can do whatever you feel like doing.” Notice that the emphasis of sheer inactivity is not simply sitting silently in a chair. Sheer inactivity is much more than ‘avoiding work’. Rather, its about giving ourselves the freedom to engage life within the absence of structured and planned activities.
This small shift has been enormous for me this past year. I have found myself hiking, puzzling my way through sudoku, writing poetry, sleeping, making an elaborate lunch, and even wandering through a shopping mall. On more than one Sabbath day, I’ve not gotten dressed for the day until after noon. Sabbath inactivity is more about stepping out of the constant mantra of productivity and efficiency that dictate our use of time during the week, so that we can once again start to see time (and life itself) as a gift we receive. When we reduce Sabbath to keeping a particular set of do’s & don’ts, we only perpetuate the misplaced cultural emphasis on measuring our productivity. Sabbath is an invitation to receive all of life as a joy-inducing gift from God.
Keller also talks about how Sabbath calls for three different types of avocational activities: contemplative, recreational, and aesthetic. I get the contemplative. We need room to be still and let our brains settle, seemingly random thoughts emerge, and burried emotions to well up, wash over us, and subside. There is plenty of research on the benefits of meditation and relaxation techniques to support the need for contemplation. I frequently keep a small sketchbook with me on my Sabbath days. It’s not so much that I can draw – though I do sometimes – but more so that I have enough room to scribble out the random thoughts that come to mind, drawing big arrows and colorful circles around new thoughts and ideas.
Having a recreational component to our Sabbath practices makes sense to me as well. G. K. Chesterton supposedly remarked “I think God is the only child left in the universe, and all the rest of us have grown old and cynical because of sin.” We need spaces to play and laugh and let our imaginations run wild. If my kids our any indication of what this looks like that usually means some sort of sweat and a healthy dose of dirt will be involved. Exertion – not to see if I can get a personal best on a 5km run or if I can bike farther than I have before – but exertion for the sake of simply moving and playing and digging and being seems somehow fitting for us. We were after all created after everything else, with the incredible gifts of gathering food and hanging out with God as our first activities (Genesis 1:29-2:3)
Even more renewing has been the emphasis on aesthetic activity. One of the more debilitating and dehumanizing aspects of our cultural emphasis on productivity and efficiency is that we lose our capacity for wonder and our delight in beauty. Not only do resources, but ultimately other people and even ourselves, become diminished to a matter of utility and consumption. How can it benefit me? How can it produce something I need? How can I get the most out of this relationship, this situation, this opportunity? So this past year, many of my Sabbaths have included time sitting at the foot of a waterfall, noticing the colors of the rocks, the way the reflections dance in the pool, how leaves ride the surface of a rapid, or how the trees stretch their roots into the water while still clinging to the edge of a river bank. Something about looking at 100+ year old trees and rocks tossed and shattered in the last ice-age has a way of reminding me that God’s ways and God’s timing are much bigger and much more creative than I imagine in my normal day-to-day living.
This aesthetic approach to Sabbath opens my eyes and my heart to attend with more wonder and awe to the world and the people around me. Somehow, I inevitably end up taking myself less seriously in the process. And perhaps that’s been the most significant part of Sabbath. It’s not that I’ve somehow reimagined what Sabbath can look like, but that somewhere along the way, the Sabbath practices started reimagining me.
Couple Other Resources
Besides Keller’s article noted above, two other resources that have been quite helpful to me as I have learned a different Sabbath emphasis this year.
1. Brady Boyd’s Addicted to Busy Boyd, a pastor in Colorado, reflects on his own addiction to busyness and the call to embrace Sabbath rhythms and practices as a source for our lives. Boyd argues that minister out of the rest that God gives us instead of receiving the rest for our productivity in God’s kingdom.
2. Eugene Peterson’s article “The (Un)busy Pastor” While not directly about Sabbath, I found this article exposed a lot of my own tendencies toward busyness and why I have resisted Sabbath practices. Quite provocatively, Peterson writes: “The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.”
What resources have been helpful to you as you have considered the place of Sabbath in your life? Feel free to leave a comment below so that others can benefit from what you have encountered and learned along the way.