The Gift of Rest

By Lynne M. Baab

“I’d like to observe the sabbath in our family,” the young woman said. “I’ve been reading books about it, talking with my husband and kids, and we’re going to start soon.”

“Great,” I replied. “Tell me about what you plan to do and not do on your sabbath.”

She said, “I love the idea of starting on Saturday at sunset with a festive meal. I’d like to have special food, blessings for the children, prayers and candles, like Jewish people do. Maybe we could sing some songs. Then the next day, after we go to church, I hope we can read some Bible stories, do some crafts, really help the kids to center the day around God.”

“What do you plan to stop doing on the sabbath?” I asked.

She looked at me blankly. Stopping, slowing down, had not figured into her consideration of the sabbath day. She was focused solely on adding new activities.

My Own Story
My husband and I lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, for 18 months more than 20 years ago. We were forced to observe a sabbath each week because everything stopped in our neighborhood from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. Stores, movie theaters, and restaurants were simply not open. We didn’t have a car, so it really made a difference that the busses stopped running for those 24 hours. At first we had a hard time finding things to do on Friday evenings and Saturdays, but after a few months, we found ourselves enjoying a day with few options for entertainment.

We read, we walked, we talked. My husband sometimes went bird watching in the field near our apartment. I wrote long letters. Sometimes we prayed together in a leisurely fashion. We napped. We simply slowed down. We rested in God’s love and experienced God’s grace.

Our sabbaths in Israel felt like a gift from God, and when we returned to the U.S. we wanted to keep on receiving that gift. The sabbath had brought us an experiential understanding that we are loved by God quite apart from what we do, and we wanted to continue to grow in our ability to receive love from God in that way. The sabbath blessed us as individuals, connecting us with God’s unconditional love, and it enriched our life as a couple, giving us relaxed and spacious time together.

We decided to observe a sabbath on Sundays, embracing a slower pace with fewer options on that one day each week. Our first son had been born in Israel, and soon we had a second son. I remember those Sundays sabbaths as a young family with great fondness. After church, we read to the kids, we walked, we talked. We went to the zoo and the park.

We had to think carefully about what was the work we would avoid on the sabbath. For me, a part-time student and stay-at-home mom, work consisted of studying, housework, and shopping. My husband’s work involved anything from his paid job, as well as house repairs and mowing the lawn. We simply didn’t do any of those tasks on Sundays.

As the years passed and our children grew up, our sabbaths changed. Two things stayed constant: no work and a slower pace.

Stop, Pause, Cease, Desist
In the Ten Commandments, the people of Israel are commanded to keep the sabbath day holy, or separate, from the other days of the week. The marker of that holiness is to refrain from working on the sabbath. No one is supposed to work. “You shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates” (Exodus 20: 10).

The Old Testament does not give a lot of specifics about what constitutes work. One of the very few clear commands forbids lighting a fire (Exodus 35:3). No fires for a day assured that the daughters, wives, and female servants could not be expected to cook. All the food had to be cooked before the sabbath began, and the dishes washed afterwards. The sabbath granted rest to everyone, even the women who would usually be productive seven days a week.

As we consider sabbath keeping for our time, we women in particular need to remember our need for rest. The word “sabbath” means stop, pause, cease, desist. Never did a culture need a sabbath like we do today. The messages we hear from our culture encourage us to be productive, to get things done, 24-7. Everything we do has to look good, to accomplish something. Nothing encourages us to stop.

Women can easily bring our culture’s values into our attempts to observe a sabbath. We can turn the sabbath into one more thing to do perfectly, one more task to achieve. We can plan elaborate meals and creative Bible studies. We can have high expectations of the ways our family will cooperate with our sabbath agenda.

The command in Exodus says, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” What constitutes work for women today? What work do we need to confine to six days each week?

The Sabbath as a Gift
My husband and I received a gift from our commitment not to work on Sundays: a day to spend with our children – —and later with each other – without needing to get something else done. A day free of multi-tasking. A day free of the need to achieve anything. A day to rest in God’s goodness. Over many years, that gift has continued to bless us and give us freedom in Christ.

We established our sabbath without any of the encouraging books that people can now read about the sabbath. Those books have wonderful suggestions, drawing on the Jewish sabbath traditions, for a celebratory meal after sunset, complete with blessings and candles and special prayers. Those books suggest many activities for parents and children.

All of those suggestions are good things, but a significant danger lurks within them. We can so easily forget the core meaning of the sabbath—stopping and resting—and set up the sabbath as one more thing to achieve.

In our time, what is the equivalent of lighting a fire? What are the actions that send us into work mode? Each of us needs to consider what those actions are, and how to stop them for 24 hours, perhaps by doing them ahead of time, if we want to keep a sabbath.

For me, turning on my computer, balancing the checkbook, and weeding in the garden feel like work. Shopping for food, running errands, doing laundry, and some kinds of cooking also put me into work mode. I know some people find gardening and cooking relaxing. Those people will have a different list of “work” activities to avoid on the sabbath.

Having high expectations for family time also feels like work, whether we are expecting a perfect meal, a wonderful Bible study together, or a deeply spiritual experience as we talk. As more people take on the gift and challenge of sabbath keeping, we need to keep considering and discussing the simple disciplines that can help us draw near to God without moving into perfectionism and a feeling of working hard.

“Simple” is a great word to describe the ideal activities for the sabbath. We certainly want to experience God’s presence on the sabbath, but we need to experiment with gentle and unforced ways to do it. As soon as we are working too hard to achieve anything on the sabbath, we have violated the central idea of the day.

A short prayer time or Bible reading can be helpful in keeping the focus of the day on God’s goodness. Being together with family members or friends in a relaxed way, perhaps playing games, reading, or eating a celebratory meal, can give a sense of simple abundance that speaks of God’s grace.

Creative Sabbath Ideas for Women
For many people, being outside on the sabbath—walking, riding bikes, flying kites, sitting on a bench in a park—helps them feel close to God. Sabbath time outside can be a time of reflection and prayer alone, a time of relaxed conversation with a friend, or an exuberant playtime with a group of family members or friends. A woman who works at a desk job finds that her best sabbath activities involve vigorous exercise outdoors. Being in nature invites us to notice God’s care and creativity in the beautiful creation.

Many women benefit from some silent time on their sabbath day. One single woman spends the afternoon of her sabbath day entirely alone. She needs a block of quiet time because she works in a very people intensive job. Often she meets up with friends at the end of the day for a meal together.

A woman who has young children prepares a “sabbath box” of special activities for her children. During one hour of Sunday afternoon, her children know they are expected to play alone, enjoying the delights in the sabbath box, while their parents get some silent time.

One single woman I know tries to avoid worry on the sabbath. She considers herself a “worrier,” and she feels overwhelmed at the thought of trying not to worry on a daily basis. One day a week, however, feels manageable to her. A day free – or at least mostly free – from worrying has been a great gift to her.

I’m a person who has disliked my body for as long as I can remember. I try to keep my sabbaths free from self-disgust about the way I look. On the sabbath I don’t try on clothes, and I don’t read novels with very slim and beautiful heroines. When I find myself thinking negative thoughts about myself, I try to set them aside for the day.

In fact, I try to avoid most negative and stressful thoughts on the sabbath. When I find myself starting to consider whether or not we should remodel a part of our home, I try to set it aside. When I start to think about something I disliked in my childhood, I try to stop my mind from going there.

In one Jewish tradition, intercessory prayers are not allowed on the sabbath because they are viewed as too much work. In that tradition, the appropriate prayers for the sabbath are prayers of thankfulness. On the sabbath, I spend some energy focusing my thoughts on the beauty of the world God made and the good gifts God has given me in the past week. I try to rest in thankfulness. I don’t try to be “hyper-spiritual” all day long, but a little thought discipline goes a long way towards giving me a day that is restful and rejuvenating.

Because I’ve been an enthusiastic sabbath keeper for so many years, I am delighted that so many Christians are rediscovering the gift of the sabbath. I long for my Christian sisters to experience true joy and rest on that day, rest from the striving for perfection and constant productivity that our culture stimulates in us.

(To access six other articles I've written about the Sabbath, click here. This article was originally published in Today's Christian Woman, September 2005.)

For Further Reading
Lynne M. Baab. Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest. Downer’s Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press. January, 2005.

Dorothy Bass. Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Tilden Edwards. Sabbath Time. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2003 (revised edition).

Wayne Muller. Sabbath. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.

Don Postema. Catch Your Breath: God’s Invitation to Sabbath Rest. Grand Rapids, Mich.: CRC Publications, 1997.