The Gift of the Sabbath

By Lynne M. Baab

"Sabbath keeping is God’s gift. But, as with any gift, it must be received, opened and used.” Danna Van Horn, associate pastor at Bellevue First, wrote those words in response to the Sabbath Renewal Project that she is participating in.

Tom Salmon, pastor at Inglewood, another participant, reflects,

“As Calvin suggests, we rest from our work so God can do God’s work in us. The sabbath is about letting go of control and allowing God to get a word in edgewise, being fully at rest so that one can be fully present to God.”

Doug Early, pastor at Queen Anne, says that through the project he learned how important the sabbath is and how much we have lost by giving it up. He believes that our motivation to keep a sabbath shouldn’t come primarily from a desire for health.

“Yet look at our society and all the harm that comes from stress and speed and rushing,” he says. “We’ve given up a tremendous means to health. We’ve also given up a tremendous way for God to communicate to us.”

Four others join Danna, Tom and Doug in the Sabbath Renewal Project, offered through Princeton Seminary: Sheri Edwards Dalton, co-pastor at Mercer Island; Rob Caudillo, co-pastor at Marcus Whitman; Randy Butler, pastor at Trinity; and Beverly Shrumm Metzger from Presbyterian Counseling Service, who functioned as facilitator of their small group. All seven of them traveled to Princeton three times in 2003 and 2004, joining clergy from other presbyteries to receive teaching on the sabbath. The project was funded by the Lilly Foundation, and continues through 2005.

The Seattle group has met monthly for the past 18 months. In many ways, the monthly small group has been the highlight of the experience for the participants. Tom Salmon says,

“The group has become a safe place for us to talk not only about sabbath keeping as it applies to our lives, but it’s become a fellowship united in our love for Christ and the bond we share in our common vocation. We study together, pray together, laugh together, weep together. In short, we are the church together.”

Keeping a sabbath is a huge challenge in our culture. The small group has provided an opportunity for participants to brainstorm specific questions about the sabbath, and has been a place of encouragement when members felt they were continuing to work too much without a rhythm of rest built in. Sheri Edwards Dalton says, “We’ve really helped each other in the ups and downs of keeping sabbath.”

Sheri was interested in participating the sabbath project because she is constantly trying to discern how to find space in her life to be still. When she participated in a two-year project on spiritual direction, she found it helpful to have a structure for learning and accountability. She hoped for the same thing when she heard about the sabbath project.

“More than anything,” she says, “it’s kept the concept of keeping sabbath on my screen. I haven’t come out keeping it perfectly, but I’ve learned a lot.”

Each of the participants covenanted to create a sabbath group in their congregation and to have teaching times in their congregation about the sabbath. At Mercer Island, the teaching times were so well received that some of the women leaders decided to focus the fall women’s retreat on sabbath keeping. The leaders of the retreat got a lot of positive feedback about the value of the topic.

Randy Butler says that his thoughts during the project centered not so much around the specifics of what to do and not do on Sunday, but on seeing the sabbath as a way to understand work and rest.

“It’s about a quality of life,” he reflects. “There’s a sense of sabbath that infuses work and rest and leisure and play. The whole week becomes different when we focus on having a balance of work and rest, when we focus on being a rested person.

“I’m experiencing more freedom in finding and taking time to slow down without feeling guilty. The more rested I am, in the best sense of rest, the better pastor I’ll be. Congregations don’t want harried pastors.”

Yet Randy acknowledges that if we spiritualize the concept of sabbath, making it focus entirely on being a rested person rather than the specifics of having a weekly day of rest, then we’ll fall into the trap of believing we don’t have to take any time off work. We may very well become compulsive about work again. He experiences a back and forth movement between emphasizing the actual day of rest and emphasizing a quality of daily life.

Before Doug Early got involved in the Sabbath Renewal Project, he experienced a clear weekly rhythm involving a set-apart Sunday afternoon and evening. For many years, he and his wife and children have gathered on Sundays with his wife’s family, and Doug has always enjoyed those extended family times. The Sabbath Renewal Project has brought him several new emphases on Sundays.

On Sundays he now particularly tries to focus on enjoying his children rather than trying to shape them into the people he wants them to be. He got that idea from one of the other participants at Princeton. One of the long-standing principles of sabbath observance is to focus on enjoying what is, and thanking God for it, rather than trying to shape or change things. The way Doug enjoys his children on Sundays fits in this long tradition.

Doug also tries to make the day easier for his wife.

“The sabbath is brutal on moms,” he says. “I sometimes do things on the sabbath that I consider work so my wife won’t feel she has to do them. When I get home from church I try to unload the dishwasher if it’s clean, before I go to join the family gathering, because I know my wife dislikes having a dishwasher full of clean dishes. If I don’t do it, she will empty it at night before she goes to bed. I want Sunday to be a day of rest for her.”

Doug has also made changes in the way he relates to the congregation on Sundays. He makes a conscious effort not to schedule meetings on Sundays and not to talk church business with congregation members at coffee hour. He consciously walks at a slower pace around the church building on Sunday mornings. He tries to notice when he catches himself hurrying on Sundays. When he slows down his pace of walking, it gives the day a totally different feel.

Several of the participants in the Sabbath Renewal Project emphasized that it wasn’t flying to Princeton for seminars that has made a difference in their understanding and embrace of the sabbath. The changes came from setting aside time with others to look at this practice and support each other in exploring it.

(To access six other articles I've written about the Sabbath, click here.)

Originally published in "The Spirit," newsletter of Seattle Presbytery, January 2005