Growing up, I remember sermons where we were led to feel guilty for doing anything but going to church on Sunday. Work and sports, especially, were not to be done on the Sabbath. Never mind that mom still didn’t get off the hook for cooking – or if we went out to eat, we might simultaneously judge the waitress for working but thank her for the juicy steak.
Of course, this points to several dilemmas with regard to the Sabbath, some of which date back thousands of years: What exactly is allowed on the Sabbath? Can we eat? Walk? Can donkeys be led out for water (Luke 13:15), or are they not to do any work at all (Deut. 5:14)? Can we pull our horse (or car) out of a ditch? Go shopping? Pull the weeds? Mow the grass? And of course, which day is the Sabbath? The Jew or Seventh-Day Adventist will say Saturday, while most other Christians say Sunday; however, the fact that the Western world predominately functions on a five-day work week (wherein many work on Saturday or Sunday and then take other days off throughout the week, even), further complicates the matter with regard to its original intent (especially since Genesis 2:2-3 says nothing about going to any kind of house of worship).
Honestly, I’m not quite interested in these questions at the moment, but a different one: namely, why is practicing Sabbath so hard? This notion of taking a break or rest from our regular routine of work is considered by many people—whether religious or nonreligious—to be extremely important for one’s health and overall quality of life. So why is it so hard to do implement or incorporate into one’s life?
This brings me back to the sermons. Not only did such sermons make me feel guilty for playing baseball or football on Sunday (never mind that baseball and football stars who were Christians were always the plenary speakers at our youth events), but one’s lack of practicing the Sabbath was always blamed on some (sinful) drive to find one’s identity in work, on greed for a bigger paycheck, on addiction to technology (TV, movies, music, internet, cell phone). Us adults have become too serious, the preacher says, too preoccupied with the ways of the world, the value system of secular liberalism. We need, instead, to become like little children who know how to enjoy life, play freely, be spontaneous, and rest quietly in the arms of Jesus.
Now it’s not that I don’t recognize elements of truth in the words I have inserted into the mouth of the preacher. I no doubt often base my identity and significance in working toward the next accolade (an award or publication) or waste too much time scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed. But I wonder if the difficulty of Sabbath is more primordial than this, more rooted in how we function as humans than some intentional desire to break the 4th commandment. Most of us sleep at night, and most of us plan vacations, so we obviously recognize the importance of rest.
Then it dawned on me as Amber was recounting a conversation with Emerson the other day. Emerson at three years old still has little sense of time (e.g., an hour, day, month, year don’t really mean anything to him), but he has a pretty good handle on the days of the week. Amber was giving a little quiz: “What happens on Sunday?” E: “We go to church!” “And on Monday?...” Emerson could make out his entire week: Monday and Wednesdays, he knows, he goes to Lydia’s house; Tuesday and Thursday Lydia comes to our house; Friday he’s home with mom; Sunday we go to church. And Saturday. . . a blank stare. Saturday’s a black hole for little E. How can anyone not grasp Saturday, the best day of the week?
Amber and I had this same conversation the night after I went to a parent orientation at Montessori where E will be going to school next year. In the morning, they kids are all in the same classroom with the same teacher, while in the afternoon they have “specials” – art, PE, music, etc. – with other teachers. For this reason, the presenter was emphasizing that for little kids it is often best just to do half days: “Parents really like specials,” she said, “Three year-olds don’t. They like the routine and consistency of the classroom.”
Routine. Consistency. The Mundane. We often rail against these things. We often say these are the things of the Establishment, the things that crush creativity and spontaneity. But for Emerson—or any three year-old—the lack of routine is the very reason Saturday is a black hole to
him. The reality is, while it is certainly true that children are far more imaginative, playful, spontaneous, and creative than adults (although whoever said they rest quietly hasn't been around many three year-olds), these things only reveal themselves within routine: wake up, wake up mom and dad, breakfast, play time, snack time, nap time, lunch time, library trip, park time, dinner time, see neighborhood kids outside time, pajamas and watch Curious George time, bed time. Saturday is an anomaly for a three year-old, a blip in the week when parents don’t stick to the routine.
The reality is we all like routine, whether we’re three or thirty. The habits and daily movements of our lives our not only ingrained on our bodies—whether it’s taking a shower, working X amount of hours, driving to the story, eating dinner at a certain time, etc.—but they’re ingrained into the very fabric of who we are as persons and shape the way we come to expect or anticipate the future. This is why adding or changing something into our weekly mix is so difficult. But the more substance and definition that change has, then the easier it is for it to become readily recognized and assimilated into our lives. If, for instance, Saturday was routinely something like: wake up, pancakes, go to the grocery store, nap time, lunch time, Dad does yard work, special family time, bed time—then perhaps Saturday wouldn’t be such a black hole for little E.
Which brings me back to the Sabbath. Regardless of whether its Saturday or Sunday (or whether Sabbath is something for every day), whether one condones sports on that day or doesn’t, whether one’s off day is Monday instead, or whether or not one’s Sabbath practice includes some religious function, the poetic rest of Sabbath is so difficult for us, I think, because it often so nebulous, so ill-defined, and thus, so difficult to place into our everyday lives as a ritual and rhythm. If Sabbath is simply defined by the “nots” (Do not work, do not play, do not. . . ), if it is thus defined as nothing, it means nothing. We must give Sabbath a name, a form, and shape if it is to have significance and meaning, like Adam expanding his world and giving significance to it through the naming of the animals (Gen. 2:19). As philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes, “For the child the thing is not known until it is named, the name is the essence of the thing and resides in it on the same footing as its colour and its form.” We cannot know the Sabbath, let alone practice it, unless we know what it entails.
Now again, this could mean something different depending on one’s (non)religious background. Perhaps Sabbath entails practicing certain spiritual disciplines: prayer, meditation, silence, and so forth. Perhaps Sabbath simply means doing the things that bring refreshment, life, and energy, which could be anything from taking a walk at the park, having friends over, a long nap, reading a book, taking part in a hobby, or even doing yard work. However we describe it, Sabbath rest only comes when we can name what gives us rest and conscientiously incorporate that into our weekly (even daily) rhythms. To do so, however, Sabbath cannot be understood quite simply as a break from the routine—that leads to the view that we can simply fill up on rest (or spirituality or God) one day so we can do whatever we want the rest of the week, thus dualistically separating the practice from life and alienating rest/spirituality from the daily grind. Sabbath itself must have a routine, must have its own meaning (as must our weekly activities) so they can mutually inform and permeate each other with fruitful significance.
And now that that Eureka moment has passed. . . how do I do this in my own life?
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