If I say the word Sabbath, what comes to mind?
Ask my wife, Jenna, and you’ll hear about a small college town in rural Iowa, a fiefdom of Dutch Reformed theocracy, where it is literally a crime to pick a tulip. While in decline in most places around the United States, Sunday blue laws are still very much in effect in Orange City. Jenna could never figure out why so many men were installing floor drains in their garages until one day she realized they were all secretly washing their cars on Sunday—hidden from the Sabbath police who were determined to make them rest even if it killed them!
Chances are that’s what Sabbath is for many of us: restriction and boredom.
Does today’s on-the-go lifestyle really have room for the old American Sunday—when time slowed down enough for church, family barbecues, and baseball in the sun? Who can afford to give up work, chores and technology for 24 hours?
And, for that matter, who wants to? Sabbath means rules and limits. It stands in counter-position to the American credo: do what you want, when you want.
Yet, we need a sacred day of rest more than ever. Our schedules are overloaded, our minds are frenzied with work, our communities and families are disconnected, our phones constantly light up with demands for attention, and even our attempts to relax prove ultimately unsatisfying.
In response, we keep trying to fill our time with more media, more things to buy, more vacations. And it just keeps getting worse and worse. Because we don’t need “more” of what we already have; we need something different.
We need what Jewish author Judith Shulevitz describes as “a different order of time.”
To find that different order of time, we have to go back to the very beginning of time, to creation itself.
Now you are probably accustomed to thinking that you were the goal of creation. But what if I were to tell you that Sabbath, not humanity, is the pinnacle of creation?
Look back at each day in the Genesis creation story. Each day brings — at least in the eyes of an ancient Hebrew priest — a more complex and important creation, progressing from plants to fish to birds to land animals, and then to humans. But God creates something after us. God creates Sabbath.
But this time, God wasn’t creating objects or living things or even time; God was creating the reason for time, the reason for life itself. It was what God had been working toward since the very first spark. This is why the seventh day is the only day God blesses.
Because Sabbath is life as it was intended.
It is the goal of life that it be lived, that it be shared, that it be returned to God, relished and loved in every detail.
One day each week, we are given a gift — a bus pass, if you will, back to Eden, back to creation.
What we’re talking about is more than a break, more than a Netflix binge. It is renewal. It is a sacred and different way of living outside of time. It is an invitation to feel joy and awe. It is the difference between life and distraction.
On Sabbath, in the mindful presence of God, the whole world becomes church: Westminster, the woods, the soup kitchen, the family dining table, a good book, a museum, an opera ... maybe not the mall.
Jenna and I are trying this out. We want to know if there’s a way to hold onto this gift despite all the modern pressures of life.
We’ve decided to share a Sabbath at least two days each month. If an activity brings us closer to God, to each other, to the community, or to the earth, we can do it on the Sabbath. If it doesn’t, if it’s about accomplishment or work or mindless entertainment or profiting off others, then it’s not Sabbath.
What falls under that rubric will look differently for each person. For some people, gardening is a chore, in which case it would not be done on the Sabbath. But for others, the act of digging their fingers into the soil and growing life evokes intimacy with God and creation, in which case it would be perfect for the Sabbath.
So, go ahead, take your bus ticket. It will take you to a place of unhurried time, shared with family, friends, and God.
The Rev. Patrick David Heery is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, and the former editor of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s denominational magazine, Presbyterians Today. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Heery lives in Auburn with his wife, Jenna, and their two dogs, spending much of their free time hiking the countryside.