On Sabbath Keeping
An excerpt from Jerusalem Greer's new book, At Home in this Life.
Listen! The Lord, the Eternal, the Holy One of Israel says,
In returning and rest, you will be saved.
But you refused.
- Isaiah 30:15 (voice)
Keeping the Sabbath is one of those spiritual disciplines that for years seemed antiquated, elusive, and somewhat misogynistic to me. My first impressions were formed by a little story in a children’s biography of the missionary Lottie Moon, a Southern Baptist missionary to China in the early 1900s. As a girl growing up in the Southern Baptist world, I found each and every story of a strong woman leader within our tradition compelling. And I loved Lottie best.
She was my kindred spirit, a woman doing work for Christ in her own way, fighting for women to have a voice in leadership, giving away all her food and money to the point of dying herself from starvation. The story I remember most vividly is of Lottie breaking her family's strict no work on Sunday Sabbath rule. This rule prohibited any cooking, the result being only cold sandwiches or leftovers from the larder could be served. Lottie, thinking the rule was old-fashioned and silly, feigned illness and stayed behind from church one Sunday in order to prepare a large, hot, delicious meal for her family.
Of course Lottie's choice landed her in a lot of trouble, but I thought it was magnificent. Reading about her rebellion, my budding little feminist-self cheered her on, excited to see her break the Sabbath, which seemed to me just another meaningless rule by men to bind and hinder women from making their own choices. After all, what did God care if one cooked on Sunday or not? Wouldn’t God be more in favor of you serving your family joyfully rather than being miserly and falsely pious? Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath. Why were religious people always trying to make extra rules?
For a while, this is how I thought of the tradition of keeping a Sabbath: falsely pious; rigid; rooted in legalism; and not of any interest to Christ.
That is, until I had kids. Years and years later, a mother myself, getting up to make another round of breakfast and lunch and bottles and pots of coffee, it occurred to me that perhaps it had been women who had made this rule, and perhaps Lottie’s mother enjoyed having the day off from slaving over a hot stove! I began to see there was some wisdom in the idea of a Sabbath. Ironically, though, it would take me another decade to create intentional Sabbath practices in my home, as I was far too tired to try any sooner.
In those days of snotty noses, sippy cups, potty training, working full time, and never having enough money for All the Things, Nathan and I instituted a practice we called International Nap Time. There are only two rules for International Nap Time: 1) Everyone in the house MUST lay in their bed for the duration of the entire nap experience—no matter what; 2) children may not get up until they are told INT is over, UNLESS there is excessive blood, fire, or puking. No exceptions. No getting up to ask me questions about the universe, no asking me to fix your flashlight, no coming in “one last time” to tell me you love me. Just no.
International Nap Time was sanity for me. I waited all week for Sunday to arrive, because I knew that after church and lunch came rest—a beautiful, long, deep, bone-healing, sometimes three-hour-long period of rest. Those naps saved my life more than once. But as our kids grew, International Nap Time fell away and became a memory—our pace of life increasing, moving so fast that we wore the bottoms smooth out of our going-shoes. We – and by we I mean me – went so fast that I eventually crashed, breaking my foot in three places. A break that sent me to my couch where I began to reassess every choice and habit and attitude I had, choices and habits that had landed me in this state of brokenness and forced stillness. During those months of semi-confinement on the couch, I traveled down a path of contemplation, as I began looking for ways to live a slower, more present, more sustainable life.
As I began wrestling with the question of what spiritual disciplines we should put into practice, (because I knew this would have to be a Spirit-led sort of change) Sabbath rose to the top of my list. I knew that if we were really going to learn how to love our life and try to redeem it where we were, we were going to need to follow the pace of life God seems to proclaim all throughout scripture. We would need some sort of Sabbath practice; but I needed a new way to think about it and approach it—a way beyond Lottie Moon and grumpy old men with their grumpy old rules.
This is what I imagined when I daydreamed about keeping the Sabbath: The day begins with sleeping late, warm and snug under a gloriously fluffy duvet and very clean sheets. When I finally wake up, I feel ten years younger and find myself joyously in an empty house. I spend most of the day lounging around eating rich cheeses, grapes, and really crusty French bread, followed by some dark chocolate truffles. I read my favorite books uninterrupted, and a bottle of red wine is always at my elbow. Off and on during the day I might take a nap, or two, go for a walk, or doodle with paints in my craft room. The day ends with a hot bubble bath and one more truffle, then I blissfully drift off to sleep with great ease, immediately in peaceful REM.
Apparently what I wanted was a spa retreat for me, not a Sabbath practice for my family. When I thought of what it would look like trying to keep a traditional twenty-four-hour Sabbath as a family, I imagined all the pushback I would hear. All. Day. Long.
Why can’t I play on the Xbox? It’s not “work.”
Does this mean I can’t listen to music on my phone either? You let me listen to music at bedtime and that’s restful!
What about watching football? This doesn’t apply to Sunday football, right?
What about Netflix? Can I watch Netflix? Lots of people watch movies to rest.
What about my homework? You know I have to use the laptop for my homework.
Why do I have to take out the trash? Isn’t that work?
Does this mean I don’t have to do my homework?
What time is this over?
I really did not want to go to battle with my family. I didn’t see much benefit in trying to force something that was supposed to be restful.
“It does seem to me that at least some of us have made an idol of exhaustion,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor. “The only time we know we have done enough is when we are running on empty and when the ones we love most are the ones we see the least.”
When I broke my foot and landed myself on the couch for three months—stuck in a place I didn’t want to be, confronting a mess of a life of my own devising—I had to confess that I had made an idol of exhaustion, and I had to admit that the model of Christianity I followed had done the same. Somewhere along the way, Sold Out for Jesus had become Worn Out for Jesus. We had begun to equate busyness with our worth; we measured and judged our lives, our families, and our marriages by how many extracurricular activities we were all participating in. We measured our obedience to and love of God by how many small groups, ministry teams, mission trips, retreats, service projects, and church sports leagues we joined. Even the things we started as recreation became work. Our frenetic pace as we tried to Do It All made our play exhausting and our worship drudgery. We have made an idol out of exhaustion in the name of Jesus, Amen—a modern Christian martyrdom rising up to help us to justify our newest golden calf.
“Don’t let all those so-called preachers and know-it-alls who are all over the place there take you in with their lies. Don’t pay any attention to the fantasies they keep coming up with to please you. They’re a bunch of liars preaching lies—and claiming I sent them! I never sent them, believe me.” God’s Decree! (Jer. 29:8–9 msg)
God’s entire message to the Israelites in Jeremiah 29, verses 1–14 seems to be: Be Here Now. Be content and invested in the life you have, instead of wishing for a different life. But much like me, the Israelites have a hard time receiving this message, and instead of digging in where they are, some of them even look to “false prophets and diviners” seeking a different answer, perhaps looking for a magic formula to get what they want out of God.
For me, and maybe for you, the fantasies and lies I choose to believe—the messages I take in from so-called preachers and prophets of culture, social media highlight reels, church programmers (of which I am one) and marketing companies—are the ones that say busyness is next to godliness. And this idea, that we should strive to Do More, Be More, Have More, and Work More in order to have The Perfect Life, has fed into my core belief that I am not enough—that where I am is not enough, and that my life is not good enough.
If we are to believe both our culture and our religious institutions, the only way to succeed in life is to run ourselves and our families so hard, so relentlessly, so ragged, that we become shredded, depleted, shadows of who we are created to be: whole, loving, thriving people.
Like so many others around me, I had fallen for this lie of the get-happy-quicker- gimmick-sellers, of the grass-is-greener-soothsayers, and I had nearly driven myself and my family off the brink of sanity. I was no better than the Israelites in the book of Isaiah. I had refused to rest, refused do my life at a sustainable pace, and most of all refused to live the life God was offering me.
So what was the answer to this busy-is-better lie? How could I wean myself off my habit of running myself (and everyone around me) ragged, often in the name of Christ? What would it mean to rest in what was, instead of always chasing what could be?
In his book The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon writes this:
The world exists, not for what it means but for what it is. The purpose of mushrooms is to be mushrooms, the purpose of wine is to be wine. Things are precious before they are contributory. To be sure, God remains the greatest good, but for all that, the world is still good in itself. Indeed, since He does not need it, its whole reason for being must lie in its own goodness; He has no use for it; only delight.
The purpose of a raspberry is to be a raspberry. The purpose of a cloud is to be a cloud. The purpose of snail is to be a snail. Things are precious first. God has no use for them, only delight in them. How amazing. Could this mean that naps can be just naps? And not a pit-stop before the next event. If Capon got it right—and it resonates so deep within me I cannot help but think so—then perhaps the purpose of rest, the Sabbath sort of rest, is to just rest. Just because it’s rest.
Perhaps the reason we get Sabbath wrong— or have abandoned it altogether—is that we came to see resting as a highly inefficient way of acquiring fuel to do more, instead of a sacred call to restoration and wholeness. Maybe, before we can celebrate the Sabbath as God intended, we must first be willing to see rest as a precious gift instead of a useful tool.
Both my husband Nathan and I grew up as “PK’s” (preachers kids) and for most of our married life, we have both served at church on Sunday mornings—he in the band and I on staff or leading in some way. Because of this, our Sundays have looked both similar to and different from those of our childhoods: cooking large Sunday dinners was out, but naps stayed in. I wouldn’t call this Sabbath keeping, not in the way I understand Sabbath to be. Those naps are not luxurious pockets of rest; they are desperate attempts to recoup all the sleep I have forfeited during the weekend trying to be as productive as possible. I take these naps in order to work more, work harder, get more done. This, my friends, is not resting; this is called fueling up. Rest and fuel are two very different things.
Which is why I decided to go back to the beginning and look at the first Sabbath. I went back to Genesis and read the story of creation again, falling in love especially with the phrasing in The Voice translation:
Then God surveyed everything He had made, savoring its beauty and appreciating its goodness. Evening gave way to morning. That was day six. So now you see how the Creator swept into being the spangled heavens, the earth, and all their hosts in six days. On the seventh day - with the canvas of the cosmos completed - God paused from His labor and rested. Thus God blessed day seven and made it special - an open time for pause and restoration, a sacred zone of Sabbath-keeping, because God rested from all the work He had done in creation that day.
- Genesis 1:31–2:3 (VOICE)
Savoring its beauty and appreciating its goodness. An open time for pause and restoration. Thus God blessed it. And God rested.
Blessed. Rest. Pause. Restoration. Savoring. Beauty. Appreciation. Goodness. These are the ways the purpose of Sabbath is shown to us. What if we celebrated Sabbath through these ideas? What if these were the touchstones for creating a Sabbath practice in our home?
In his book, God in My Everything: How an Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God, pastor Ken Shigematsu writes, “The golden rule for the Sabbath is to cease from what is necessary and to embrace what gives life.” I began to wonder: Instead of trying to reserve a whole day for a Sabbath, would it be possible—as a family and as individuals—to capture moments, minutes, and occasionally hours to embrace that which gives us life?
How could I, alone and with my family, intentionally choose to pause and rest? To savor beauty? To appreciate goodness? To cease living and dying by our To-Do List and to instead embrace all that is good? How could we celebrate and enjoy what God has created? And not seek anything productive from the experience? Could we enjoy eating an apple for the sake of its being an apple, instead of for its fiber benefits? Could I sit on my couch and simply appreciate the goodness of its softness and presence? Could we have a picnic on our back porch and savor the juice of the rotisserie chicken as it runs down our chins? Could we sit there in silence side by side or in laughing conversation until the beauty of each family member is so obvious that we cannot do anything other than call the moment good? Could we put down our devices, lay down our heads, turn off our alarms, and rest until our bones are restored? Not in order to be strong enough to work again, but simply because rest is precious in and of itself? And if so, might this be a place we meet God, entering into the same rhythm and way of interacting with creation—through celebration, enjoyment and delight?
I was willing to try. We began—slowly, occasionally, imperfectly, messily —to keep the Sabbath as a family. I am probably the least qualified Sherpa for this experiment, as Doing What is Necessary has been my modus operandi for as long as I can remember. But Nathan and I did our best to be mindful as we looked for openings through which we could create Sabbath moments at home.
We stopped homework and chores to run and jump in our blow-up pool. Nathan set aside his very long honey-do list to help Wylie build a wooden sword. We took walks, we sat on the front stoop of our house and enjoyed the way the light filtered through the trees on a spring afternoon. We ate dinner around the table without our phones, laughing over who could tell the dumbest jokes. We sat on the porch swing and watch the chickens peck, peck, peck. Miles asked if he could make a smoothie and I said, “Yes! Sure! Mess up the kitchen! Enjoy the blender because it’s a blender!” We had living room picnics and media-free evenings—which meant no media of any kind for anyone, adults included, between the dinner hour and lights out. We made cookies in the middle of the week, we skipped church and slept in, we took long Sunday drives to the country, and we took naps. Long, glorious, luxurious naps. Just because we could.
We began to embrace what gave us life instead of what made us productive. Keeping the Sabbath, albeit unconventionally, we created pockets of time to celebrate rest, creation, and each other throughout our week. And miraculously, these little pockets of celebration spilled over into our attitudes and habits, helping us to take down our idol of exhaustion, burning it in a fire of repentance, allowing a more whole way of living to rise from its ashes.
Reprinted with permission from Paraclete Press, 2017
“At Home in this Life is the story of how everything I thought would make me happy came undone, and then how I found a way to make myself at home in this beautiful, messy, amazingly tender, completely unbalanced life, by imperfectly practicing one spiritual discipline at a time—smack in the middle of raising kids, mending the sweaters, and burning the bread.”
In addition to being a writer, Jerusalem is also a minister and speaker. She lives with her husband and two sons in Arkansas and is the author of the books At Home in this Life: Finding Peace at the Crossroads of Unraveled Dreams and Beautiful Surprises and A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting and Coming Together. As a family they are attempting to live a slower version of the modern life. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. She writes about all of this and more at jerusalemgreer.com.