The Sabbath: A day of rest and gladness
When I was four years old, my father worked the night shift at Bostitch Company. Each morning Dad met his counterpart on the day shift and handed over the work, providing continuity on the assigned projects. Interestingly enough, the day shift worker sensed an honest heart in the guy handing him the orders each morning. It was not long before Al Lein asked my dad a simple question: “Would you be interested in taking Bible studies?” Dad did not hesitate. He had a deep desire to know more.
Line upon line
More than half a century later, I can still see Dad rushing to the mailbox, pulling out the white envelope each week, settling on the front porch of our simple clapboard house in Norwich, Connecticut, and opening his Bible. Having been raised in difficult circumstances in Harlem, he had little basis for understanding religious matters. But his sharp intellect, piercing questions, and dogged determination kept him studying for two years. Line upon line, precept upon precept, he compared verses as I played with my dolls and swapped Barbies with my sister, Dale.
And then one day he found it.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8–11).
The more Dad studied those verses, the more he realized that they called for action. One Friday evening as the sun began to set, he pulled over to the side of the road on the way to Bostitch Company, bowed his head, offered a simple prayer, and determined that this would be the last Sabbath he would ever work.
He never went back on his word.
My Sabbath keeping dad
Dad’s decision was not an easy one. With three children and one more on the way, he was deeply aware of his need to provide for his family. As a devout Catholic, my mother did not fully understand his new commitment but was dedicated to their relationship and respected his right to make individual decisions.
Initially, Dad found a job operating automatic screw machines for a company owned by two Jewish men, knowing that this would keep his Sabbaths protected. When work became sparse, they offered him the opportunity to start his own business in the basement. I will never forget the lean years, sharing a hat with my sister on cold mornings, tearing open our Christmas gifts wrapped in newspaper, relying on my grandpa to drive us to the store.
Yet in the midst of all this, a profound sense of joy is associated with my memories surrounding the seventhday Sabbath. While my mom, brother, sisters, and I would remain Catholic for many years, I anticipated Dad’s return home from church each Saturday, running to meet him as he walked down the sidewalk. There were the trips to the zoo, walks in the park, big fruit salads, and the sense of calm and peace. Friday evenings as we settled in front of the television, Dad would pad through the room, smiling at us as he quietly entered the den, closed the door, and opened his Bible. The soft glow of light from the other room told me that all was right in my world.
Dad kept his Sabbaths with unflinching integrity. Whatever the outcome, I am sure Dad would not have altered his course. But God rewarded his faith. Within five years, the fledgling business had grown to include a dozen workers, and our family moved to a house with an acre of land in the country. By the time I was a teenager, 30 employees clocked in at Finley Screw Machine Products each day, and the business was financially stable enough to pay our family’s ever-increasing college bills.
The Sabbath has now been at the heart of my faith for many decades. While Dad continued to drive my sisters and me to catechism each week following his new revelation, the day came when we, too, began to ask questions. Ten years after my father’s decision to keep the Sabbath, he was finally surrounded by a family united in their dedication and belief that the fourth commandment is still binding.
The power of an idea
What is it about the seventh-day Sabbath that is so arresting, so compelling, that it beds down in your heart with a power and conviction that cannot be shaken? During my teen years, there was a period of time when I turned my back on some of the new beliefs I had embraced, but there was never a question in my mind about the Sabbath. I remember being invited to parties but telling my friends, “When that big red fireball goes down in the sky, I cannot remain here.” Hurrying home, I would be greeted by our Sabbath candles burning on the mantel, my mother playing the piano, my father studying his Sabbath School lesson, my sisters with freshly washed hair. The peace in the air was palpable.
The Sabbath. A 24-hour period that anchors me, fills me with grace, reminds me of my heritage, offers fresh insight and courage, and colors my life with richness.
A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to come across one of the finest books I have ever read, Sabbath by Dan Allender. Not generally one to read a book more than once, I have savored Allender’s work three times, slowly digesting his phrases as a fine meal, stopping to let the juices flow slowly.
A day of delight
Allender asserts that the Sabbath is not so much a break from life as a rich, joyous entering into life.
“God didn’t rest in the sense of taking a nap or chilling out; instead, God celebrated and delighted in his creation. God entered the joy in his creation and set it free to be connected but separate from the artist.
“In many ways, God’s rest on the seventh day of creation is paralleled by the birthing process and the period after birth, when the labor is finished yet the bonding begins. The mother and father gaze endlessly at their child, who is distinct from the parents because she is no longer merely in the mind and the womb of the mother, but external and separate. She is no longer solely in the imagination or deep in the womb; she is finally released to be held in the arms of the parent. This attachment brings mother and child into a bond that, if secure, will last through thick and thin, heartache and loss, and provide the child with an assurance that all will be well.
“Similarly, God gazes in rapture at his creation and says, ‘She is so beautiful.’ We do not know what else God did or didn’t do on the seventh day, but we can assume that his gaze did not vary or his delight wane as the day progressed. Instead, his infinite delight grew in wonder and joy as he surveyed all he created and declared that it was good.”1
Allender proposes that what prevents us from immersing ourselves in all that the Sabbath has to offer is not merely our rushed lifestyle but, on a deeper level, our fear of truly embracing joy. When surveying his college class, he discovered that his students were much more comfortable with work. “I don’t know what to do with a day that is meant to be full of delight,” one student responded.2
Allender’s book outlines the many levels of Sabbath joy that await those who are brave enough to embrace it. Reading his words, I am reminded again of the deep blessing the day unabashedly offers. The choice is mine. Am I to trivialize the gift of the Sabbath, relaxing on the couch while scanning Facebook, checking email, and playing a banal word game, or am I brave enough to face the seventh day with arms outstretched, willing to run headlong into all its beauty?
Allender provides four elements of the Sabbath that he feels are at the heart of the seventh-day blessing. I offer them here, with my own commentary:
1. Sensual glory and beauty. “We are to bask in beauty, to surround our senses with color, texture, taste, fragrance, fire, sound, sweetness, and delight. And if we are to do so, each and every day, with joy, then how much more are we to do so on the Sabbath, when God stood back and marveled at his own creation?”3
It would have been easy to stay inside on that Sabbath afternoon in northern Massachusetts. The temperature hovered around zero, the frost coated the window in a thick glaze. But my aunt had given me a warm hat for Christmas, and a friend called with the offer of a walk. I bundled up with the anticipation of a child, pulled a woolen scarf over my mouth, and opened the door into all of Sabbath’s rich glory. We walked for about an hour, filling our lungs with the cold air, taking in the hushed reverence of a forest graced with snow. Decades later, that Sabbath memory still brings forth delight.
2. Ritual. “Sabbath rituals and symbols are the way we act out the drama of a holy, redeemed day.”4
In reading Allender’s comments on ritual, I cannot help but be reminded of one of my favorite chapters in another of my favorite books. Oliver Sacks, in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, includes a compelling essay about Jimmie, a man with extreme memory loss, or Korsakov’s syndrome. While Jimmie has become frozen in a 30-year time warp and cannot remember what happened even five minutes ago, he becomes amazingly alive in the context of ritual: “Fully, intensely, quietly, in the quietude of absolute concentration and attention, he entered and partook of the Holy Communion. He was wholly held, absorbed by a feeling. There was no forgetting, no Korsakov’s then, nor did it seem possible or imaginable that there should be; for he was no longer at the mercy of a faulty and fallible mechanism—that of meaningless sequences and memory traces—but was absorbed in an act, an act of his whole being, which carried feeling and meaning in an organic continuity and unity, a continuity and unity so seamless it could not permit any break.”5
Every time I read this passage I am freshly amazed. Ritual is important. Sabbath is important. There is a part of us that becomes anchored and grounded and whole in the context of symbols and of the actions that we perform each week.
3. Communal feasting. “The delight of the Sabbath is not merely a gathering with good food and friends—there are many nights for such gatherings; but there is no one night that is so gloriously set aside for a taste of wonder that ushers us into the eternal party of God.”6
As a pastor’s wife, I have experienced countless Sabbath meals with friends, old and new. Andriy showed up at our church in Orlando by bicycle one Sabbath. “Is this the Kress Memorial Church,” he asked in a beautifully deep, thick accent. When we confirmed that he was, indeed, at the right place, he shouted, “Good! I found you on the Internet in the Ukraine. I arrived by plane yesterday, rented this bike, and have been riding for the past two hours asking everyone I meet on the street how to find you!” We feasted together that Sabbath with delight, bonded to this stranger with the joint knowledge that we worshiped the same God.
4. Playfulness. “The Sabbath is our play day—not as a break from the routine of work, but as a feast that celebrates the superabundance of God’s creative love to give glory for no other reason other than Love himself loves to create and give away glory.”7 One of my favorite memories of Sabbath as a “play day” centers on a glorious day in a sunlit New England cove with an unlikely friend. My husband met Maggie in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. Riddled by chronic depression, she had asked to see a pastor. Her face bore the scars of years of suffering. Over the months, as she grew to trust us, her story came out. She was divorced from an abusive husband who had a violent temper. But that was not the worst of Maggie’s story:
Raised by a rigid clergyman, Maggie had learned to associate religion with hypocrisy, abuse, and cruelty. The fact that she responded to the offer of friendship from the two of us—pastor and wife—was nothing short of a miracle. Even more surprising was her desire to attend church.
One sunny Sabbath in June, we decided to take a ride to the Maine coast following the church service. Passing through the vestibule, we found Maggie waiting for her ride. On a whim, we asked her to join us.
Amazed at the offer, she consented. An hour later we pulled up beside a small bluff overlooking a protected cove. Marveling at the sunlit water below, I knew what I had to do. Clad in shorts and a top, I ran down to the shore and submerged myself in the salty cove. Hesitant at first, Maggie followed.
“I never dreamed I would be swimming with a pastor’s wife on the Sabbath!” she announced, finally dipping her scarred body into the blue circle of ocean.
We must have floated there for more than an hour, the salty water making us buoyant and light. I can still feel the peace of that day, the two of us bobbing in the cool water, the sun’s rays lighting up our faces, the burdens of a lifetime finally rolling off Maggie’s back like the rocks we had sent careening down the bluff.
The Sabbath. O day of rest and gladness. Yes, gladness. Don’t forget the gladness. The joy, delight, and abundance awaiting those brave enough to receive this joy, delight, and abundance!
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1 Dan Allender, Sabbath (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Pub., 2009), 28.
2 Ibid., 24, 25.
3 Ibid., 44.
4 Ibid., 156.
5 Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 36.
6 Allender, Sabbath, 78.
7 Ibid., 82.