Making Sabbath special

Sabbaths aren't always a perfect delight in fact, they can turn out to be a hassle. But the right balance among ritual, planning, and flexibility can help.

Edna Maye Loveless is an associate professor of English at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Soup on Friday evening began for us in the seventies when I received a soup tureen as a Christmas gift. Later we added freshbaked bread, salad, and cheese, and created a family tradition.

Friday night candlelight began much earlier, even before we became parents. When children arrived we went through a period when they showed their bravery by putting their fingers through the flame, and vied (fought, really) for the privilege of blowing it out. The candle light tradition is centuries old. It goes back to our spiritual forefathers who prescribed that candles be lighted eighteen minutes before sundown, and com missioned the mother to do the lighting.

Celebrations ordained by God can often be enriched by ritual, and Sabbathkeeping is no exception. Two other ingredients that can help make the day a joy are planning and flexibility.

Nehemiah's attitude toward the Sabbath remains instructive: " This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep.' For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law. . . . 'Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength' " (Neh. 8:9, 10).

In our less-than-perfect world, Friday night for a minister's family often includes sermon polishing, preparation for Sabbath school, and perhaps a public meeting or Bible study. Sabbath ushers in a spate of duties that do not fit my picture of the placid Palestinian family, bathed in the warm glow of candlelight, welcoming God's presence. Precious little ritual, planning, or presence of God may be evident on hectic weekends. Yet the blessings of the Sabbath have come to our family, almost serendipitously at times.

Daughter Marti's call one Friday evening from college reminded me of this. "We just had supper and worship at a professor's house—candlelight throughout the house; it made me so homesick," she said. We both cried a little, but I rejoiced that the faculty members on her campus are continuing a tradition that has significance for my daughter. The ritual enriches the observance.

Uninvited guests

Another Sabbath ritual that began early in our children's lives sprang from a discussion with two other young mothers. We emerged from the mothers' room after church, all of us clutching babies and reaching for toddlers' hands. Our eyes met after we watched guests drive off, uninvited to dinner. "Well, I didn't have anything for a salad or dessert," I offered meekly.

"I have a casserole dish, but not enough for four more people," Alice said.

"We're just having potato salad and soup today," Irene admitted.

But we all felt guilty about the uninvited guests. Over an impromptu meal in the park, Irene, though recently baptized, was the one who came up with a plan: "What if we took turns making a salad, entree, and dessert each weekend for the rest of the summer? Then the three of us could be ready to invite church guests for a picnic dinner in the park," she suggested. I have a snapshot record of some of those meals in the park: fathers pushing small people in the swings; little ones napping safely in a portable playpen while we enjoy fellow ship with church guests.

Beyond the Sabbath hospitality came another blessing: Irene's and Alice's families became a surrogate extended family and would inquire after the progress and welfare of my family. Sociologists studying prevention of delinquency have concluded that in homes where the extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins) is absent, other families can perform the function of extended family members. Their regular social interaction (celebrating holidays and birthdays, attending graduations and weddings) provides a stabilizing influence that is especially helpful at times when children feel alienated from their parents. Our regular Sabbath outings became an oasis for mothers needing adult talk, children needing relief from mothers, and a minister's family needing, like Jesus, some friends of the Mary-Martha-Lazarus type.

Sabbath in the real world

Preaching Sabbath observance is easier than practicing it. Just when you are busiest, the children are often underfoot and sometimes embarrassingly audible and visible. One of my husband's most graceful Sabbath acts came as we knelt to pray before he left for church. A small daughter discovered how to remove the top of her bottle at just the right moment and gave Dad's preaching suit a thorough anointing with milk. As she wailed over her loss, he gave her a quick hug, rose with considerable self-control, and changed into his only alternative, a light-gray summer suit. As I remember it, the prayer was never finished. Flexible response saved the joy of the Sabbath.

The fireplace and a good book often beckon me on Sabbath afternoon, but then what about the children? One particular Sabbath stands out in my mind. Father was off saving the world, and I was wondering how the priest was supposed to fit into the family picture. Then a beautiful thing happened. The children brought in their neighbors, lined up chairs in front of the fireplace, and brightly announced, "We're going to have Sabbath school." And "Mother will tell us a story."

"Give me some time to think," I said, thankful that any Bible story would be new to these neighbor kids. My children began teaching their friends the songs from Sabbath school, and by the time Dad arrived, they had a rehearsed choir ready for his approval. Since he likes to direct, he insisted on getting into the act and waving his arms wildly while they performed the songs. I was surprised when the neighbor called for her children to come home because it was getting dark. In the end my laid-aside plans seemed unimportant.

Later I negotiated with the preacher: "These children need you on Sabbath. Did you see how they turned on when you came in?"

"Aren't they always turned on?" he asked warily.

"No," I insisted, "you have some special electricity with them."

A preacher is a professional planner. When Dad does accept responsibility for a Sabbath afternoon with the kids, we find that he can rally the whole neighborhood to his ideas, whether he is inviting them to Vacation Bible School or to a bird-watching outing. Birdwatching bouts are well attended because Dad has a lot of bird stories that whip up interest. He admits that he never expects to see any birds except pigeons on such ventures with the children—their excited behavior frightens away any timid birds.

Dad plans afternoons the way he plans sermons: he clips notices from the newspaper and slips them into a file folder. On a visit to a battlefield he tells us the story of the Civil War battle at Bull Run as related by Ellen White, with unseen angels in action, along with all the sightseers from Washington, D. C., who had arrived in horse-drawn carriages to view the battle. Other Sabbaths we head for the zoo, the botanical gardens, a waterfall, a wooded trail. Dad initiates a rock-skipping contest at the creek. The lovely thing about these outings is that they renew all of us in spirit and in health. We feel "like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not" (Isa. 58:11).

But what about winter? Trying to cope with a restless child, I collapsed on the carpet in the living room. "See how many times you can do this," I said with a tiny burst of energy that produced a pseudo-push-up. Then I served as official counter while my daughter gyrated, somersaulted, and did push-ups. After my mini-rest and her exhilarating exercise, we pulled on our rubbers and coats and made footprints in the snow. Neighbor children joined us as we progressed around the block.

Back at home the children we've collected know from past experience that we follow singing, stories, and prayers at sundown with sandwiches, popcorn, and hot chocolate. Across the street Peggy sings a solo, off-key but gustily. Is anyone aware of the presence of God? I wonder.

Years later it occurred to me that Sabbaths provided time for us to nurture neighbor children we never would have known otherwise. A chance meeting with one of them or their parents now may end, as earlier conversations never did, "Please pray for us."

Indoor Sabbaths

On the quieter Sabbaths when we bypass walks on the beach, trips through a museum, or picnics in the park with friends, we all agree on the joys of reading. To keep a ready supply of good reading at hand, we jaunt to the library twice a month. All of us leave with books up to our chins. I retain the right to veto, with explanation, some of the children's choices. I also impose some of my choices on them. Often I select biographies whose titles, illustrations, and bindings offer no lure to the children, but whose story lines powerfully portray God's created, creative beings. Books about noble people, mission efforts, and animals go on reserve at home for Sabbath reading. The special thing about Sabbath is the absence of deadlines. For several years reading was an oral exercise involving Dad or Mom, and it often generated spirited discussion. Then the children began to read on their own.

Supplementing reading in the early years, we also had a Sabbath box with toys and crafts profitable for creative play. Noah's ark and animals got a thorough workout, with the animals often graduating from the ark to a modern farm. With other items (wig, shawl, cane, artificial fruits and flowers, construction paper, glue, scissors, clay, and felt figures) the children portrayed or acted out favorite Bible stories. Regular restocking with different items kept the contents from becoming old hat. Sometimes the children and their friends considered their dramatic creations so spellbinding that they would get on the phone and invite their parents, who made up the world's most appreciative audience.

When itinerary takes Dad and the sole family car away on a rainy Sabbath, we stay-at-homes don't know whether we miss him or the car more. Such a day calls for something special. Spreading a blanket on the living room floor and eating sandwiches on paper plates provides a picnic in the living room. "Look! No dishes to wash!" the kids exult. A flexible response to circumstances makes our Sabbath a delight.

Sabbath ministry

We also want to cut our children in on a piece of the action in the ministry  we perform. Taking them on do-good visits, we find them apprehensive and shy, sometimes even sullen. Invariably, however, their very presence in a sickroom or home where trouble prevails brings a spontaneous response that brightens their own spirits, as when an aging grandmother reached into a cabinet and drew out china dolls that she had collected on trips abroad. Placing a doll in each child's hands, she delighted them with stories of people she had known.

I've learned to save calls on new residents in the neighborhood for Sabbath hours. Taking a plate of cookies or home-baked bread along, the children find something to do with their hands and feel less self-conscious.

Guests in our home bring enrichment too. I finally came to the point where I could comfortably say without apology to unexpected guests, "Hm! I really don't have anything to make a decent salad today."

I'm pursuing a policy of inviting, among others, people who can't reciprocate. The children respond experimentally to a frequent visitor who is blind. Looking upon him as their property, they escort him on a walk. As they set out I cringe at their shouted announcement to the neighbors, "We gots a blind man!" Then I hear his amused chuckle. This plan gives the children a sense of worth in our world and also extends our circle of friends.

Listening emerges as one of the few offices a parent of teenagers can fill without being reminded of ineptness. Long telephone conversations demonstrate that these kids are communicators. But they need a safe setting in which to communicate with the family.

I recall significant listening during memorable Sabbath endings. After one of those wrenching moves that mobile families know about, we were responding to the texts that say, And the people did what was "right in the sight of the Lord all the days of the reign of . . ." "That king obviously had a positive impact," preacher Dad observed. "Like ..." and he told of someone who made a positive impact on him. Each of us in turn named someone who made a positive contribution to our lives. Our 13-year-old recalled Jackie, her teenage Sabbath school teacher in "the last church." She warmed to the subject. As worship ended she ran up the stairs, homesick but coping. "I'm going to write Jackie a letter!" she called back. Plan (Dad's worship design) had produced response, and I perceived the presence of God.

Another time we read about the storm on Galilee and talked about what we think we would have done, given a chance to ride in the boat with Jesus. We also talked about the way we handle storms in our lives: crying, seeking out friends, going for a walk alone—after slamming the door. After such sharing we have something to pray about.

We haven't been in Eden, but when we've visited new baby kittens with one child, walked on an early Sabbath morning with another, listened to a record and talked about it afterward, we've captured something of what it means to share God's presence. When the children take turns going with Dad to churches on his circuit while Mother's duties keep her at one, or when one child rides with Dad to a pastoral call on Sabbath afternoon, role-playing as they drive along ("What's a good thing to say when we see Mr. Riggins?"), we've cut them in on the action, riding "upon the high places of earth," experiencing the blessings of the Sabbath.

For additional ideas on activities you can use to make Sabbaths happy days for your children, see:

Happy Sabbath Afternoons. The Come Unto Me Library. Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1980. Intended for children ages 4-7, this set (storybooks and work books for each quarter of the three-year sequence) suggests activities for Sabbath afternoons that supplement the Sabbath school lesson of the day.

Gerita Carver Liebelt. From Dilemma to Delight: Creative Ideas for Happy Sabbaths. Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1986. This book suggests ways to prepare for the Sabbath and ideas for making the whole day, including meals, special.

Glen Robinson. 52 Things to Do on Sabbath. Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1983. This little book suggests activities for tiny tots, older children, the whole family, and large groups. It includes indoor and outdoor activities, Christian service activities, and suggestions of things to do Friday evenings.

Out of print, but worth looking for:

Miriam Hardinge. Happy Sabbaths. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1950.

Eileen E. Laritry. A Family Guide to Sabbath Nature Activities. Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1980.

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Edna Maye Loveless is an associate professor of English at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland.

June 1986

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