Sabbath-keeping: A life-giving practice

Rev. Dr. Ellen K. Jamir

Sabbath-keeping or observing Christian Sunday or “the day of the Lord,”is an important practice for those of us who profess to be believers or Christians. It is a practice that has taken various forms in the course of our faith history. Different denominations exist in our world today and although our emphasis or doctrines may vary, every group considers observing worship of God and living out our faith to be significant in the life of a believer. For those following our series, it has been expounded well what ‘Sabbath’ and ‘Sunday’ mean to us today. In this paper, I want to draw attention to the practical aspect of observing the day in our individual lives. As much as it is a corporate practice, I believe it begins with an individual’s intent and commitment. In our kind of society where collectiveness or togetherness defines our cultural practice, such norms are also seen in the way church life is organized. Not that this is negative, however in the emphasis for corporate religious practices, often times the role of an individual or ‘self’ can be missed.


From the Jewish perspective and practice, Sabbath is observed to acknowledge the mighty works of God in their life, namely their deliverance from the Egyptian slavery. In the process God and the Israelites established a relationship based on God’s grace and holiness (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Just as God is a holy God, a fine distinction made clear to the Israelites in the face of paganism, his people were also required to be holy. Exodus 20:8 reads: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The word ‘holy’ here is connected to God’s character and action. Therefore in ‘remembering’ and observing Sabbath, the people of God were reflecting God’s very character and his deeds. As Yong-Eui Yang succinctly puts it, “considering the holiness of and God’s Lordship of the Sabbath, it would be natural that the Sabbath provided an occasion for festal gathering in remembrance of their covenant relationship with God the creator and deliver.” (Yang, 300).


With the coming of Jesus, he further made his followers understand the true meaning of Sabbath. We see many instances of Jesus seemingly going against the tradition of his day, for instance often healing the sick on the Sabbath or picking grains (cf. Matthew 12:10, Mark 3:1-6, Luke 13:10-17, Matthew 12:11, John 7:23, Mark 2:23-28). When we carefully study Jesus’ intentions, he was against those practicing Sabbath for the mere purpose of following tradition, more of an outward expression focused on themselves rather than focusing on God and others. His teaching encouraged people to hold to a higher standard than mere legalism and also helped them to realize that keeping the law perfectly is an unreasonable proposition. Jesus exhorted his listeners to examine their hearts, their attitudes, as well as their actions, challenging them to bring outward practice and inner reality into alignment. (Keri Wyatt Kent, 17).


It is remarkable to note that people who received healing and grace from Jesus were peopleconsidered unclean, untouchable, unworthy, and basically isolated from the community because of their conditions. When Jesus reached out to them and healed them, Jesus was restoring them not just of their physical ailments, but also restoring them to the community, and in that sense, restoring them spiritually as well as socially. They were able to reconnect with others and no longer considered isolated beings. They received a new lease to life. They were restored, renewed, and reconnected. Jesus made his mission here on earth very clear, that “the spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” as seen in Luke 4:18-19.


Jesus also invites all those “that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens”, that he would give “rest” and that we will find “rest” for our “souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). Jesus in his life and ministry helped people understand that following the two great commandments (Matthew 22:35-40 and Mark12:28-34) – to love God and love others – involves devotion, intention, and deep sense of commitment, a practice devoid of legalism or mere outward expression.


If we are to truly keep Sabbath, it should be a life-giving practice and not just a religious activity we engage in. Our faith and practice should point us toward God. For example, our worship should be a response to what God has done, is doing and will continue to do. Based on what God has done for the world, it is a time to reflect on our own lives. When we genuinely reflect on our soul, our inner attitudes as well as our actions, we will be able to have a life-giving experience when we observe Sabbath. For this to happen, we need to be intentional, and open ourselves up to the workings of the Spirit.How do we make our Sabbath a life-giving practice? How do we find meaning in the day set aside? I would like to suggest a few things the might help us in this practice:


1. Remembering our covenantal relationship with God based on grace and holiness:

Sabbath is supposed to be a day set apart and observed contrarily to the rest of the week. Our weeklong activities may vary however for most people, we are engaged in “work” that requires our time and energy. When Sabbath day comes, we are so ready for a day off from our hectic schedules of daily life. It is a day where we remember God’s covenant, that we are His people saved by grace and He is our God. That taking a day offto entirely focus on our relationship with God, to worship Him, and to attune our lives with God’s intention is what Sabbath is about. Borrowing Abraham J. Heschel’s words, it’s “not the day itself but the essence of the day.” It’s not about counting heads, or if the church building is full, or if our Sunday attendance is regular, although these are of importance in the life of the Church, but what matters is how we observe the day. Is it mere religious practice, or is it an observance of sacred moments with a deep sense of spirituality? Are we able to experience holy moments when we connect with God, with others, and ourselves? Are we able to experience grace? Do we come away from worship services feeling alive, restored, and connected with God, others, and self?


I do think that it is a deep spiritual practice, to bring ourselves to God who is holy and full of grace, to allow ourselves to come to God with gratitude and vulnerability. Apart from being a physical and social being, we are also spiritual beings. We have spiritual needs that no material things can meet. There is something extraordinary about coming together with others in the act of worship. When we put ourselves in the presence of God, and center ourselves in the act of worship, our spirituality deepens. When we rest, for a day or just for a few moments, we are free to love and to notice the needs of others, needs which often are not material but spiritual. In a divine paradox, when we meet others’ spiritual needs, our own are mystically and supernaturally met as well (Kent, 31).


2. Understanding the rhythm of work and rest:

As seen in Exodus 20:8-11, God rested on the seventh day. Jesus himself while engaged in teaching and healing ministry also incorporated restin his life. When the apostles gathered around Jesus to tell him of all they had done and taught, he said to them, “come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while…” Mark 6:30-31. In Matthew 11:28-29, we see the words of Jesus “come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” As Bass notes “this is a command given by the God who not only created the big wide world but also made us, small and made of dust, but image-bearers nonetheless. God knows us and how we can function optimally: our bodies move to the rhythm of work and rest that follows the rhythm originally strummed by God on the waters of creation. As God worked, so shall we; as God rested, so shall we. Working and resting, we who are human are in the image of God.” (Dorothy Bass, 48).


Occupational stress (no matter what the job is, anything ranging from professional jobs to domestic work) is something everyone goes through at some point in his/herworking life. In the last half of the twentieth century, business and industry with their focus upon productivity have provided us with the concept of burnout (Fruedenberger, 1974) and specifically among health care workers, compassion fatigue (Figley, 1995). Burnout (Maslach and Leiter, 2016) is a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism, and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. The individual’s stress experience is within a social context and involves the person’s conception of both self and others. Demands on time and energy take a toll on our human body. It is not just our physical body that is exhausted but our emotional and spiritual health as well. We may experience a variety of discomfort such as weariness, loss of energy, depletion, fatigue, irritability, and the inability to cope with all that. Accumulation of stress over time can cause some serious health issues. There is also a link between burnout and depression. When we have little opportunity to rest, recover, and restore balance, we suffer.


We need to recharge our body, heart, mind and soul. We need time and space to reflect on what’s happening to our body, to our mind and soul. That way, when we spend time in reflection, we can be better at being ourselves. We become aware of what is stressing us, what can we do about the stressors in our lives, and the changes that needs to be made in order to become productive. Focus on spirituality and human nature through prayer, meditation, and religious services can be helpful. Taking regular breaks from work, dwelling on one’s spirituality, and dwelling on the positive aspects of life can have rejuvenating effects on our body and soul.


3. Plan, organize, and be intentional about Sabbath:

In order for Sabbath to be a life-giving practice and meaningful, it needs some planning, organization, and intention otherwise it will just be another mundane day of idleness or boredom, or just a routine or legalistic practice. No matter what the day, personally for me, Sunday works best as I can be on the same schedule as my family members and can maintain uniformity in our practice of Sabbath – I suggest setting a day aside to acknowledge the sacred in us and in our created world.


What are life-giving activities in your life? Identify them and engage in them. Whatever we do, I suggest we do them in such a way that we do not get stressed out. One spiritual practice that has been proved helpful in deepening our spirituality is “mindfulness” (Stahl and Flowers, pg. 1-35).Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which one can develop through the practice of meditation and through other means.It is a state of mind and soul where one fully attends to what’s happening and that involves the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and the surrounding environment. For example, I can be sitting with a group of friends, however my mind wanders off somewhere and I miss part of the conversation. Or, I can be very hungry and prepare a plate of food. After a while, I realize the plate’s empty and have no idea what the food actually taste like. Or, I can be walking aimlessly and end up at a place I did not intend to go. Or I may participate in a mass prayer, and before long I find myself saying ‘amen’ without remembering what all I prayed for. Being aware of what I am doing, or what I am feeling, is another way of caring and learning the art of being.Therefore, mindful practice of our worship and other activities we consider life giving for us, is key to having meaningful moments.


In conclusion, it is good to remind ourselves the purpose behind observing Sabbath – that it is crucial to set aside a day of rest, a pause. It is an opportunity to sanctify time, to create holy, sacred moments, to acknowledge holiness in our lives and surroundings, to abstain ourselves from “work” that causes us stress and anxiety, to reflect deep into our lives, and also reach out to others in solidarity. It should be a time of rest and renewal, the benefits which can help us live more meaningfully and productively the rest of the week. A regular rhythm of work and rest/pauseprevent us from a self-imposed bondage that we human beings are capable of cultivating. We have it in us the freedom to live a more fulfillingand blessed life!


References:

Bass, Dorothy, Receiving the Day (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

Figley, C. R. ed., Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress

Disorder in those who treat the traumatized (Bruner-Routledge, New York: Taylor and Francis, 1995).

Freudenberger, H. J. Staff BurnoutJournal of Social Issues. 30; 159-165

Heschel, Abraham Joshua, The Sabbath: It’s Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus

and Ciroux, New York: The Noonday Press, 1961).

Kent, Keri Wyatt, Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity (Grand Rapids, Michigan:

Zondervan, 2009).

Maslach, Christina and Leiter, Michael P. Understanding the Burnout Experience:

Recent Research and its Implications for Psychiatry. World Psychiatry. 2016 June 5. Doi.10.1002/wps.20311 (article online, accessed 10 April 2019).

Stahl, Bob and Flowers, Steve. Mindful Living Programs, a presentation during CPE

Residency at Norton Healthcare, Louisville KY, 2013.

Yang, Yong-Eui, Jesus and the Sabbath in Matthew’s Gospel in Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 139 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academia, 1997).

Rev. Dr. Ellen K. Jamir teaches Pastoral Counseling and Psychotherapy at Oriental Theological Seminary

This is the sixth article of the Sabbath/ Sunday Series, an initiative of Oriental Theological Seminary.