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The Sabbath is not for Resting Alone

by Laurna Strikwerda

Scott Hoezee is off today. We welcome Laurna Strikwerda.  She lives in Washington, DC and attends St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church. Thank you, Laurna.

One of my strongest memories as a young adult was doing the crossword puzzle with my grandmother on Sunday afternoons. But it was always the Saturday puzzle, because the newspaper was never delivered to my grandparents’ home on Sundays. A Sunday paper would have meant that the newspaper delivery boy would have had to work, and that the day’s news would be read, and these activities were not meant to happen on a Sunday. Sunday was for Sabbath.

My grandparents, parents, and most of my aunts and uncles grew up in tight-knit Christian Reformed communities. Sunday meant going to church twice. Sunday was not for riding a bicycle, or for playing baseball, or watching television, or – for the most observant –lighting a fire in the gas stove, or for any exchange of money. The stuff of everyday American life, even commerce, came to a grinding halt on the first day of the week.

My parents felt stifled by this discipline. My mother remembers the frustration of watching neighbor children pull out a ball and bat on Sunday afternoon, and, moreover, was quick to point out that the Monday paper was actually printed on Sunday.

But while my mother and her generation might have felt confined by a traditional Sabbath, lately, the idea has come back in vogue. As our lives have become – or appeared to become – busier, Sabbath has come back into our vocabulary. The language of Sabbath now, however, has changed. Pico Iyer, in a recent article for the New York Daily News, writes about taking a secular Sabbath as “a free day” which “becomes a vast space I can walk through as through an empty cathedral.” Taking a Sabbath increases productivity: “By the time I return to my desk, the desk looks inviting and I’m seeing things differently.” It is telling that he uses the image of an empty cathedral – not one filled with worshippers. Sabbath has become a personal decision, and sometimes, simply another way to be more personally productive.

But when I think back to my parents and grandparents stories of a “traditional” Sabbath, it did not sound like a day of rest. You had to get up and walk to church, because God gave you two legs for a reason, and then walk home, and do the same thing all over again, several hours later. Women had to prepare a meal – sometimes without a gas stove, if you were part of a very strict community. And of course, your neighbors would know if you stepped out of line.

In sum, Sabbath sounded confining.

Trying to understand Sabbath for myself, I began reading John Calvin, whose teachings had shaped the theology my parents grew up with. One might think he wrote about productivity – this was after all the source of the Puritan tradition that gave us the Protestant work ethic. But, in reading Calvin’s writings on the Sabbath, I saw little about productivity. He wrote that the Sabbath was instituted to “cease from our own works and resign ourselves to the government of God,” and that included allowing rest for “those under the power of others,” including slaves. It was for the “preservation of ecclesiastical polity” – maintaining a community that would worship together.

What undergirded Sabbath for generations before me was not personal rest, but the submission of a community to God. It was not necessarily about being more productive on the other six days, but in remembering your own limitations and that you are part of a larger whole. As legalistic as my grandparents’ world may have been, they used the Sabbath for prayer, giving, visiting shut-ins, and preparing themselves to serve the rest of the week.

I have come to realize that Sabbath may not be about rest – or at least, not about rest alone. Sabbath is inherently communal, and inherently about humility. Yes, we need stillness, and stillness and quiet matter – but not only because we need to rest. Stillness on the Sabbath, even for a few hours is a reminder that we do not control the world around us.

In trying to understand my own religious heritage and its focus on Sabbath, I have realized that the heart of the issue is less about embracing rest on Sundays, and more about attaching myself to a community that serves as a space for worship, and for humility. Even the most stressful church council meetings are an essential part of Sabbath, because they are vital for community.

Sabbath is more about re-orientation than rest. If those of us who take a Sabbath have something to offer the rest of the world, it may be a reminder of that.

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