Friendship, Listening, and Empathy: A Prayer GuideTwo Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian LifeSabbath Keeping FastingA Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationPersonality Type in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

The Sabbath and prayer

Lynne Baab • Tuesday June 27 2023

The Sabbath and prayer

John is in touch by email with friends from all over the world who work in various missions and ministries. Every time one of them sends him an email with a prayer request in it, he prints off the email and puts it in a stack on his desk. On Sundays, his Sabbath, he goes to church in the morning and in the afternoon he prays through all the requests in his stack of emails.

Sam goes to Bible Study Fellowship. He saves up all his homework for the week and does it on Sunday afternoon, his Sabbath. He knows that’s not what the BSF leaders intend, but he finds Sunday afternoons to be a rich time of Bible study and prayer, in contrast to the other days of the week filled with work. Because the Bible and prayer are so closely connected to each other, this combination of Bible study and prayer stands in a long Christian tradition that links them.

For Ann, her Thursday Sabbaths are a day to set aside the various roles of her life—pastor, daughter, sister, aunt—and simply enjoy being a child of God. She spends a lot of time at beaches. For her, prayer on the Sabbath is simply resting in the joy and peace of being God’s beloved for a day. No need to be productive! And no need to pray intentionally.

Jason and his wife have two school-age children, and their goal on their Sunday Sabbaths is to enjoy their children. Jason says, “Six days a week my job as a dad is to help shape my children into responsible human beings. I pray for them, discipline them, and encourage them. On Sundays, I simply enjoy them and have fun with them.” For Jason, praying for his family is part of the work week. On Sundays, he can set that work aside.

For my book on the Sabbath, and then later for the Bible study guide and numerous articles I wrote, I interviewed well over 100 people who keep a Sabbath. The difference in their approaches to prayer on the Sabbath is striking. When we talk about Sabbath keeping, we need to provide a wide array of options related to prayer. If we mandate certain patterns of prayer as a part of the Sabbath, we violate the heart of the day. The word “Sabbath” comes from a Hebrew root that means stop, desist, or rest, and in the Bible, Sabbath stopping relates to work. The Sabbath day isn’t a time to try to force ourselves to do something. Instead, it’s a day of celebration, healing, joy, and restoration. The Sabbath provides us with space to lay down our burdens, let go of the anxieties and responsibilities of our daily lives, and take comfort in the God who nurtures and supports us.

The Sabbath creates spaciousness, and for some Christians, it feels great to use that wide open time for Bible study and/or prayer. You heard about two of those people above. In my interviews, the single most common Sabbath activity was getting out in nature: walking in the neighborhood or on a beach, sitting in a garden, hiking, sailing, skiing, biking, or throwing a Frisbee for a dog. For many Christians, nature calls them to praise the God who made it, so all those outdoor activities might include joyful moments of prayer. But praying while enjoying being outside is not the same as feeling pressure to sit down with the Bible and a list of prayer requests. Any pressure we put on ourselves for the Sabbath brings work into the day.

In the Jewish tradition, the Sabbath begins and ends with prayer, but intercessory prayer is not encouraged on the Sabbath. Instead, feasting, family time, and simple enjoyment are at the center of the day. Married couples are encouraged to make love. I’ve heard the term “praying with our bodies” to refer to making love, so even sex is not necessarily disconnected from prayer. But there is a difference between intentional and spontaneous prayer.

When I was ordained as a pastor in 1997, I began taking Monday as my Sabbath. It worked well because my husband Dave was then working only four days a week, and he had Mondays off. For many years we went on a long walk, then prayed together in a slow, leisurely fashion. I have continued to have a Monday Sabbath ever since, and Dave and I still spend 30-45 minutes praying together on Monday mornings. It is a highlight for both of us. From the beginning, we began with many minutes of thankfulness prayers. Calling to mind things we could thank God for, and then expressing our gratitude, seemed to fulfill the spirit of the Sabbath because those prayers lifted our hearts in joy. In the past few years, partly inspired by pandemic pain, we have often begun our prayer time with lament. Those lament prayers feel cleansing. Then we move to thankfulness, which re-orients our thoughts toward God’s blessings, and intercession, which enables us to lay our concerns in God's hands.

I hope the variety of models presented in this post will give you food for thought about both Sabbath keeping and prayer on the Sabbath day. For some Christians, the challenge is to consider having a Sabbath. Others hold expectations for a day filled with activities that feel holy, and this creates pressure that violates the intent of the day. Jesus’s boldness in healing on the Sabbath speaks of the Sabbath as a day of healing, freedom, and abundant life.

Creator God, you rested on the seventh day of creation, not because you needed to but because the world was so abundantly provisioned that you could rest. Thank you for modeling the way that work and rest are both part of a rich and full life. Guide us into patterns of prayer for all the days of our lives, including the Sabbath day.

(This is the seventh post in a series on spiritual practices and prayer. If you’d like to learn more about spiritual practices and see a list of all the posts in the series, the first post of the series is here. Next week: Prayer and practicing the presence of God. Illustration by Dave Baab: kite festival, Nelson, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Articles on the Sabbath:

Additional articles here and blog posts on the Sabbath here. My book, Sabbath Keeping, is now available as an audiobook, as well as paperback and kindle.

Last week I was interviewed on a podcast for moms of special needs kids, talking about holding grief and gratitude in two hands. “Take Heart, Special Moms” is a marvelous podcast, a deep resource for special needs moms who deserve so much support. 

If you’d like to grow in your ability to pray about friendships, I recommend my latest book, Friendship, Listening, and Empathy: A Prayer Guide. This book will also help you grow in praying about your listening skills and your ability to empathize. The book contains 29 beautiful watercolors by Dave Baab, and I am thrilled with how well they printed up in the paperback version of the book. A wonderful gift and a book that will enhance your prayers.

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