Last Sunday I went to the mall. Now-a-days we don’t really think anything of it; of course the malls will be open. However, I remember when this wasn’t the case. I also remember when this changed. I remember people speaking of how this was the worst thing that could possibly befall any community. At issue in these conversations was an understanding of what it meant to observe the Sabbath. The argument held that working or shopping on Sundays negated the command to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. If you were working at the GAP then you obviously couldn’t be at church on Sunday mornings. This was then extended to all areas of commercial or secular life. Breaking the Sabbath was seen as anything that kept one away from going to church. Shopping, football games, hockey practices, cooking, all were met with a note of righteous distain.
This may sound passé, but the attitude still exists. How many of us have heard remarks suggesting that the church would be filled with young families if only there wasn’t soccer practices on Sunday mornings? Being kept away from pew sitting, for whatever the reason, is to simply break of the fourth commandment. Thus, to fully observe the Sabbath one must refrain from all non-church related activity. The answer is quite plain and simple.
Or is it? Is that all that the Sabbath is, the demand to go to church? What is more, if church attendance is part of our regular life, are we actually entering into the state of meditative rest if we are simply doing that which we always do? How this is a rest from the routine of life, if church attendance is part of that routine? In this, the biblical call to step outside the parameters of that which defines our regular activity, for the purpose of communion with our Lord, remains forever illusive.
The complexity of observing the Sabbath as it relates to our Christian lives can clearly be seen when we view this from the priest’s perspective. If we happen to view observance of the Sabbath as the day in which one ‘goes to church’, then every single minister, priest or pastor has it made – at least as it pertains to this command. Yet one could argue that spending yet another day in pastoral leadership doesn’t hold the sense of spiritual restfulness implicit in Sabbath observance. So then are we saying that for ministers and preachers, observing the Sabbath involves is a reversal of what it is for everyone else? For clergy is observing the Sabbath not about going to church, but actually staying away from it?
Of course, if all the malls are closed, where would we go?
Part of the problem in how we understand Sabbath observance is that view it locationally. We tend to view our observance of the Sabbath in terms of where we go, or where we do not go. Viewing Sabbath observance in this way limits us from discovering God’s dynamic presence in ways beyond our current notions and ideas. Our observance of Sabbath is routine and repetitive, thus, so too our relationship with God becomes that which is exercised without thought or meditation. Faith is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Instead of seeing Sabbath observance locationally, we need to see it relationally. God’s own observance of a day of rest did not involve going to a specific location. The divine act of Sabbath observance in Genesis 2, and the very model of our own observance of the day of rest, was about a relational dynamic between creator and creation. It was a day in which God enjoyed that which He had created; and in this, the creation was called to enjoy the presence of the creator.
See, the power of Sabbath lies in the fact that it remains undefined. As soon as we attempt to put some structure to it, then it ceases to be Sabbath. Defining our observance of the Sabbath by ‘not doing work’ or ‘going to church’ doesn’t really fulfill the God’s call for each of these things can be done in faithlessness and with a lack of divine commitment. Sabbath observance cannot be defined by what we do or what we chose not to do; rather it exits in the act by which we remain recklessly open before God. We place ourselves in unhindered worship for the sole purpose of responding to the movement of God in our lives, or in the lives of others. Our desire for Sabbath observance must be the enjoyment of God. Observing the Sabbath, then, involves the cultivation of a space by which one is open to the presence and working of God apart from that which is regular, routine, or expected.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t care if you go shopping on Sunday, or miss church in order to catch the big game? Hardly. However pretending that merely going to church amounts to a full observance of the Sabbath does little to move us closer to an enjoyment of our creator. Rather, we must find and cultivate those places by which we enter that uncomfortable place of surrender; a place where we lay aside all manners of control and expectation, and allow God to work mightily amidst us. Ultimately our walk of faith, and our relationship with our Lord, is only strengthened insofar as we embraces the deep dynamic of God given Sabbath.
May God bless that time, wherever it may be found.
How do you define Sabbath? What are the ways that you enter into the dynamic of Sabbath observance?