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The Sabbath itself is a sanctuary in which we build, a sanctuary in time. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
We were hours into the trip, with hours and hours still ahead of us. The flat Ohio horizon stretched out to the north and south, and the Turnpike unfurled sluggishly ahead of us to the west. My wife and I whiled away the hours listening to favorite albums (by The War on Drugs, Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, and The Roots) and the podcasts we keep in frequent rotation.
Somewhere north of Akron, we stumbled on a sage interview the late Eugene Peterson did with Krista Tippett for NPR’s On Being. One of the most fascinating portions of Tippett’s conversation with Peterson was when she inquired about Peterson’s own practice of prayer. In his gravel drawl, Eugene Peterson described how the Psalms shape his daily communion with God — and, in particular, how he’d picked seven (rather lengthy) Psalms — one for each day of the week — to memorize and pray as he began each day. The cornerstone Psalm for this practice, for Peterson, was praying Psalm 92, as it’s designated “a psalm for the Sabbath Day.”
Our interminable trip was bearing us to the West Michigan lake shore for a sorely-needed season of rest — of Shabbat — for our family, so my interest was piqued. I determined to try on Peterson’s psalm-practice for myself, and to spend some time with this sabbath-song.
Over the next number of days, I began memorizing Psalm 92: savoring and internalizing its sentences, metabolizing its cadences, musing on its movements. As I’d sip black coffee and wander the Lake Michigan beach in the early morning:
It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
To sing praises to your name, O Most High…
While I’d jog along South Shore Drive:
…to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
And your faithfulness by night…
As we’d sit on the deck in the evening, and watch the sun dip below the horizon:
…the LORD is upright;
He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
Psalm 92 has an extensive history of use by God’s people in welcoming the Sabbath. It’s one of the few psalms assigned to a particular occasion, and the only one assigned to a particular day. In Jewish Temple worship, one psalm was assigned for use in daily liturgy for each day of the week, corresponding to the seven days of the Genesis account of creation. These seven culminated in the praying of Psalm 92 on Shabbat, accompanying the morning sacrifice of a lamb (“[it is good] to declare your steadfast love in the morning”). In post-biblical Judaism, it continued to be included among Sabbath prayers.
After the birth of the Christian movement, early followers of Jesus continued the praying of this well-worn Sabbath song. The sixth-century Rule of Benedict observes that primitive Christians, from the very early generations of the Church, would chant Psalm 92 at daybreak on Fridays –the day on which the true Lamb was sacrificed, in recognition of Christ’s work to bring ultimate rest to God’s people (Hebrews 3.7-4.11).
Recovering a Deficient Practice
As I immersed myself in the movements of Psalm 92 over those weeks, they re-introduced me to the focal practice of Sabbath-keeping. And, being honest, my Sabbbath-keeping had gotten pretty deficient. Like lots of American Christians, my high-minded sabbath-intentions get seduced by that urgent email, corroded by the voicemail from the congregant who really, really needs to meet, distracted by the ever-present beeps, dings, and alerts letting me know that there’s work waiting for me.
And I don’t think I’m alone. In 2010, the Economic Policy Institute released a study revealing that, assuming a 50-week work year, a middle-income person in America now works 428 more hours in the year than in 1979. A Techcrunch survey in 2012 researching technology’s impact on work habits discovered that 80% of its respondents continued to work after leaving the office for the day; 38% would check email while at the dinner table; and 69% of people surveyed couldn’t go to bed at night without checking their email. And these studies were all conducted years before the onset of COVID-19, in which remote work was normalized among many more of us.
Now back into the regular rhythm of work and family commitments, school days and board meetings and sermons to write and preach, I’m trying to continue having Psalm 92 keep company with me week by week as I re-learn to keep Sabbath (for me, on Fridays). As I’m practicing this weekly rhythm of ceasing, it’s grounding my working in the larger landscape of God’s working in creation and salvation. And, it’s giving me a weekly taste of the Great Day, when “the kingdom of this world (will) become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Revelation 11.15). After all, the mishnah Tamid says of Psalm 92, “It is a psalm and a song for the era to come, for the day that will be entirely Sabbath, for eternal life.”