Have you ever been driving and inadvertently blown right through a stop sign? It happened to me recently. Anne and I were down in San Francisco meeting some friends, I was driving in unfamiliar territory and there were multiple 2-way or 4-way stop intersections. One of them had a garbage truck pulled over near the intersection, and it partially blocked my view. I nonchalantly drove through the intersection, which blessedly had no other cars at or approaching it.
Anne glanced over at me and said “You know you just drove through a stop sign, right?” I had no idea. But besides feeling grateful there were no consequences, I spent the next few minutes thinking about the “what-ifs.” What if there had been cars, or pedestrians or bikers? It would have been devastating. Stop signs serve a very important purpose, keeping us all safe. It’s not just about following a municipal law, it’s about everyone being able to thrive. The consequences of ignoring them can be catastrophic. Don’t miss the stop signs.
I’m thinking that God is way ahead of us on this, as usual. Even in those early moments of creation week, God built in a stop sign. He called it “sabbath,” which indeed quite literally means “stop.” Cease. Desist. Rest. The fourth commandment is found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. It’s interesting that God enacted it way back in Genesis but didn’t engrave it on tablets until the Exodus.
This means he underscored it in a big way for…who? The slaves in Egypt? No. I’m pretty sure they were working jobs with terrible conditions and no days off. But after they were freed by an act of God, sabbath was then emphasized. Sabbath is for free people. It is to be a unique mark of God’s people that we practice it. This is the point at which many of us start to look down and restlessly shuffle our feet. DO we actually practice sabbath? Let’s talk about this in a few ways.
A Commandment and a Gift
First, let’s note that sabbath-keeping is a commandment which, from one angle, simply requires obedience–a word we are not fond of. Sabbath doesn’t come to us as a suggestion, a good idea, a principle or something interesting to consider. We are commanded to obey God by keeping sabbath. We can bristle all we want about that, and we will because we don’t like to be told what to do…but the command to obey by resting is still in place.
But secondly, sabbath comes to us as sheer grace, a gift. Some of us still bear scars from conservative traditions where sabbath was legalistic and somber–and if you were a kid, incredibly boring. Instead of looking forward to the Sabbath as a special day, a holy-day, it was dreaded. Shame on us if that’s what we’ve done to sabbath. It’s not what God set up.
Sabbath is a gift, not a burden. It is for relief, rest, change in routine, recuperation, friendship, blessing, worship. There is all sorts of room for people and communities to be creative and try different things by stepping off the gerbil wheels of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Sunday, or whatever day you practice sabbath, is a day to “pray and play,” as Eugene Peterson liked to say. It’s a gift…which many of us leave unopened.
Drew Hyun is the pastor at the Hope Churches in NYC, and I heard him speak at a conference recently. Drew said he has always been a workaholic with an insatiable desire to achieve, and that living at breakneck speed without relief in ministry nearly ruined him. “Seriously. Sabbath-keeping saved me,” he said. Drew described it partially in terms of changing his fundamental rhythm, from the one we are inevitably drawn to–work, work, work, work–to the one God designed us for–work, rest, work, rest.
An Open Door to Transformation
Thirdly, sabbath can open a door to transformation. Usually we hear that word and think of instantaneous and spectacular things happening. Maybe, but I’m not really thinking of that. Sabbath comes every week. When we practice sabbath, we offer the rhythm of our lives to Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath.
We open ourselves up more to God’s agenda and less to our own. And as Sabbaths stack on top of each other, over a month and then months, over a year and then years, something happens. It is long and slow work, but it is deep soul work that transforms us. Transformation by trickle, by accumulation. Transformation that shows itself in a closer walk with God, and sustainable ministry over the long haul.
Sometimes when I speak on sabbath-keeping, people recall that just a few decades ago you couldn’t buy gas or go shopping on Sunday because everything was closed. No soccer games or school events or anything else was scheduled.
But the truth is, our culture moved past that long ago and it’s not going back. If Christians quit shopping on Sundays, I highly doubt all the malls would close. But sabbath is a gift for God’s people.
If we intentionally practiced sabbath, it would utterly change our lives. It would cause us to be more relaxed, more grateful, more invested in relationships, sleep better and work better. These things are statistically true in study after study.
Practicing Sabbath as a Family
As a pastor, it’s hard for me to sabbath on Sunday, so I’ve normally taken Mondays. I’ve had many different seasons, with the specific practices changing a number of times. My earliest efforts were inconsistent and legalistic. Claiming space is always challenging, and countercultural. When our kids were still at home, we tried to practice family sabbath. In that season, we utilized Saturday evening until Sunday evening.
I remember explaining it to the kids for the first time. Our oldest son was in junior high school, and a very active kid. He didn’t want anybody messing with his schedule (see: “don’t tell us what to do,” paragraph #3 above). He wanted Saturday nights and Sunday after church to be with his friends, do his homework, play sports or read. We agreed, but said “Sabbath means you’ll have to do your homework before Saturday night, or later Sunday night…but those other things can be part of Sabbath.” The light bulb started to go on. “You mean…from Saturday evening to Sunday evening…I am not allowed to do homework?” Yep. “You won’t let me?” Nope.
So Saturday evenings, we would gather at the table or in the living room. Take a deep breath. Light a candle. Read scripture, pray together and start a different time, different than the whole rest of the week. It wasn’t perfect, but it was something, and occasionally profound.
Blocking out a consistent space over a long period of time pays dividends. I’ve always admired our Jewish brothers and sisters with regards to sabbath practices. Life in a Jewish household, from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown, are very different. Life slows. Work stops. Prayers, reflection, worship, games, music, beauty. People gather for a meal, candles are lit, guests are greeted. Often sabbath begins with a prayer of confession: “Days pass and years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.”
In terms of sabbath-keeping, followers of Jesus often walk sightless as well. In the process, we miss the miracle of God’s presence. When we ignore the stop signs, the gift remains unopened and the transformation stalls because we are preoccupied. Sabbath helps us pay attention. Perhaps that’s why the Lord of the Sabbath says “this was made just for you.”
Dan Baumgartner is currently pastoring The Cove Fellowship in Santa Rosa, CA, having
previously served as senior pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian in LA and Bethany Presbyterian in
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