Practicing Sabbath

The last two Sundays, Dan Johnson has led the Adult Faith Forum in exploring the spiritual practice of Sabbath. The following post contains a few of his reflections on the topic.

For anyone wanting an executive summary of the last two faith forums, here it is:

1. Sabbath is a pause in which to remember and delight in the good gifts of God.

2. In a world that is filled with worry over scarcity, the practice of Sabbath helps us be a people celebrating the abundance in which we actually live.

Have you ever had one of those moments in the midst of a busy day when there was a short pause in the action and you had a chance to catch your breath? That’s one of the experiences that points to the spiritual practice of Sabbath. There are any number of examples that support the premise that regular periods of rest are foundational to our reality. Consider the beating of our hearts and that moment between filling and contracting. Or how about that short length of time between exhaling and inhaling? On a larger scale, ponder the harmonic motion of the earth, tipping towards the sun and then tipping away. These are the kinds of things, with inherent periods of rest, that make up the rhythm of our lives and all are essential to our survival.

That there are rhythms in our lives is one thing, but it is still quite a leap to talk about Sabbath as a spiritual practice. Perhaps coming at it from the other direction will help.

The Hebrew creation story in Genesis is poetic in form and mythic in scope. In it we are introduced to God who speaks into being everything that is; light and dark, sky and water, earth and vegetation, sun and stars, creatures of all kinds, and humans. The poem tells us each step of the way God says what was made was good. And when God looks at the entirety of creation, God says it is very good. Then, the poem tells us, God finished what was done by resting. That rest is called Sabbath and it’s spiritual qualities are grounded in this story.

The nature of Sabbath has been the subject of generations upon generations of thinking and practice. I find Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s perspective most enlightening. He asks, “What did God create on that seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose. Happiness and stillness, peace and harmony.” That list of qualities has a transcendent tone, but each one can only be understood in down to earth realities. The invitation of Sabbath rest is to experience these powerful and restorative qualities in the context of our lives.

Jesus says it this way in Matthew 11:28-30. “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” The Message

So how does one practice this “unforced rhythm of grace” called Sabbath? First of all, be intentional and ask God for the gift of Sabbath. Notice those pauses during each day that are the opportunities to reflect on what has been done. As you get practiced in these momentary Sabbaths, find a time during the week to recall the moments and celebrate the goodness you find. (Our sisters and brothers in the Jewish tradition have long believed a whole day, Friday’s sunset to Saturday evening’s first three stars, should be set aside for this) Share the time of remembering with another person or group of people. We are after all in this together. Keep practicing this over a long period of time and see how it changes and affects you.

How about you? What do you do that has the qualities of Sabbath? How does it affect your relationship others? with God?


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One Response to Practicing Sabbath

  1. Lisa Wiens Heinsohn says:

    Recently my extended family went on a vacation at Disney World, which, while tremendously exciting for the 5-6 year olds in our family, was not the most restful place in the universe for the grownups. My husband figured out how he needed to cope by deliberately taking a few minutes to sit and gather himself at random stopping points throughout the day — when we were standing around waiting for someone to use the restroom, waiting for the monorail, standing in line at the ice cream stand, etc. These intentional pauses seemed to make all the difference in the world for his general cheerfulness and capacity to be present to the incredibly overstimulating sensory barrage of Disney World (to an introvert, at least). It wasn’t just that he sat down–he sat down in the posture he usually uses to meditate, gave up his agenda, and focused on being present, on resting–on Sabbath. It was shocking how much of a visible difference it made to his overall attitude. I like this example of Sabbath as “pausing”–it doesn’t have to be 2 hours of yoga, prayer, journaling, and silence in the morning before one’s family gets up.

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