Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sabbatical Me (Pt. 3)

Last month, I wrote a couple of posts about the Sabbath in response to a friend's questions, but I left this last set of questions unanswered:
I'd be even happier if you would also reflect on/write about the role of Sabbath in your life, in general...perhaps including (but by no means limited to) what you do/don't do on that one day of the week, what your conception of Sabbath is and how/why this has changed for you over the years, etc.
Essentially, S. is asking me to tell the story of my relationship with the Sabbath. I started writing a reply to these questions three weeks ago, but the post kept getting longer and longer. The more I wrote, the more I felt that I do not know and cannot say all there is for me to write: that the story of me and the Sabbath is still "coming to a middle" (to quote the captain of Serenity). And now it's the middle of March, and I think this is destined to be a post without a conclusion. With that prelude, here it is.

When I was very young, my parents read me the Little House on the Prairie books, as well as various accounts from the Puritans, in which the characters took the Biblical mandate to rest on the Sabbath very seriously and strictly. They construed "rest" and "holy" to mean no play as well as no work. As far as I can recall, this was my earliest picture of Sabbath: something austere, defined by all its negatives. Later, my parents took up a habit of fasting on Sunday at lunch time, and I think this also played into my perception of Sabbath as a time of deprivation.

When I was ten or eleven, I began to be concerned about my relationship to fiction, novels in particular. I don't recall what triggered this--perhaps a sermon on idolatry? teaching in my Sunday school class? I do remember talking to my dad about it. He was not as hard on me as I was on myself. Thus it was entirely my own decision (I'm not sure I even told my family about it) to stop reading fiction on Sundays. I kept to this practice for years, with varying levels of stringency; to some extent I still follow it. I don't feel good about watching Firefly or reading Anathem on Sunday. This Sabbath practice represents a seeking of holiness and godliness by turning away from worldly things, and a prioritization of God and God's values (for instance, love for other people) by setting aside pleasures that I sensed to be worldly/fleshly.

This version of the Sabbath wasn't the austere and empty time seen in Little House on the Prairie; the void left by not reading was filled by games or cooking or hiking with my family, and by lively time in my church small group. Nonetheless, it was a negatively defined Sabbath: Sunday as the day I don't read.

Another dimension to my observation of the Sabbath came into play in middle school when my workload at school increased. My middle school forbade weekend homework assignments (thank God), but was big on projects which one inevitably ended up working on during weekends: posters, research papers, art projects, book reports, ... It only got worse in high school. I--probably with encouragement from my parents--decided any schoolwork I needed to do over the weekend should get done before Sunday (if possible); if necessary there was always Monday morning. (I was the kind of kid who did better finishing an assignment at 6am Monday than at 11pm Sunday, or even 10pm. Definitely a lark, not an owl.)

Not doing homework on Sunday reflected the day-of-rest aspect of the Sabbath. Still a negative-space definition of Sabbath (no homework day), but moving toward something more positively defined (rest day).

At some point in middle or high school, I heard John Ortberg preach a sermon on the Sabbath, and he called it a joy day. (A cursory search on mppc.org didn't yield the sermon in question so I leave it to you to seek it out if you're interested.) I think this was the first positive definition of Sabbath that I encountered. He spoke of using the day of rest to focus on relationships, beauty, anything that brings joy. I think this is a much-needed perspective, and a lovely picture, if an incomplete one. But if there's anything I've learned from thinking about Sabbath and other things God-related, it's that no picture is complete.

There was also a conference I went to with my family where the speaker (Mark Labberton?) addressed the Sabbath and exhorted us to observe it more conscientiously. He advocated never buying or selling on Sunday. My dad was not convinced, and talked to me about Romans 14:5--
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
--which remains the primary source of uncertainty for me about the present day significance of the Sabbath for Christians and the applicability of the Old Testament laws concerning the Sabbath to Christians. You can read more about his perspective here.

In college I tried to avoid homework on Sunday, but it didn't work out too well. Then for a while I tried to keep Sabbath from sunset on Saturday to sunset on Sunday, on the grounds that the Jewish model begins and ends the day at sunset. This was better than trying to cram all my homework into Saturday at the cost of staying up so late that church was painful the next morning; but it felt like I was cheating and I was never convinced that it was really the way to go.

Somewhere in there I read Lauren Winner's lovely book Mudhouse Sabbath. I don't remember what impression of the Sabbath it left me with, but it was a thought-provoking and life-enriching book. Anyone interested in tradition or spiritual discipline or Judaism and its relationship to Christianity should read it.

At present I keep the Sabbath mainly as a day of personal rest, not really focusing on the social justice aspect. I avoid buying things on Sunday mostly because that feels like work for me. But I don't have pangs of conscience about eating out on Sunday because that results in rest for me. But I don't have a good sense of whether that's God's plan for how I keep the Sabbath. The part I am more convinced about is that I need to avoid novels and movies on Sunday, to surrender that pleasure-source up to God, and spend the day loving my God and the people He has put around me (in this season, mainly O.)

So: that's where I am, and those are the places I've come from. I'm still on the journey, so feel free to check back with me in a few years on this topic! I hope you will join me in continuing to wonder and ask God about His good, pleasing and perfect will for the Sabbath.

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