Keeping the Sabbath Wholly

Keeping the Sabbath Wholly

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by Marva J. Dawn

“But I don't wanna go to church!” Marva Dawn has often heard that cry—and not only from children. “What a sad commentary it is on North American spirituality,” she writes, “that the delight of 'keeping the Sabbath day' has degenerated into the routine and drudgery—even the downright oppressiveness—of 'going to…  See more details below


“But I don't wanna go to church!” Marva Dawn has often heard that cry—and not only from children. “What a sad commentary it is on North American spirituality,” she writes, “that the delight of 'keeping the Sabbath day' has degenerated into the routine and drudgery—even the downright oppressiveness—of 'going to church.'” According to Dawn, the phrase “going to church” both reveals and promotes bad theology: it suggests that the church is a static place when in fact the church is the people of God. The regular gathering together of God's people for worship is important—it enables them to be church in the world—but the act of worship is only a small part of observing the Sabbath. This refreshing book invites the reader to experience the wholeness and joy that come from observing God's order for life—a rhythm of working six days and setting apart one day for rest, worship, festivity, and relationships. Dawn develops a four-part pattern for keeping the Sabbath: (1)ceasing—not only from work but also from productivity, anxiety, worry, possessiveness, and so on; (2) resting— of the body as well as the mind, emotions, and spirit—a wholistic rest; (3) embracing—deliberately taking hold of Christian values, of our calling in life, of the wholeness God offers us; (4) feasting—celebrating God and his goodness in individual and corporate worship as well as feasting with beauty, music, food, affection, and social interaction. Combining sound biblical theology and research into Jewish traditions with many practical suggestions, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly offers a healthy balance between head and heart: the book shows how theological insights can undergird daily life and practice, and it gives the reader both motivation and methods for enjoying a special holy day. Dawn's work— unpretentiously eloquent, refreshingly personal in tone, and rich with inspiring example—promotes the discipline of Sabbath-keeping not as a legalistic duty but as the way to freedom, delight, and joy. Christians and Jews, pastors and laypeople, individuals and small groups—all will benefit greatly from reading and discussing the book and putting its ideas into practice.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Drawing deeply both from Scripture and from Jewish practices, the author of I'm Lonely, Lord--How Long ? ( LJ 3/15/84) shares ideas for various ways of keeping the Sabbath: by ceasing (from striving, productivity, anxiety); by resting (physically, emotionally, intellectually); by embracing (intentionality, Christian values); and by feasting (on the eternal, with affection). A thoughtful, prayerful book that opens new vistas on the underlying spirituality of what is too often understood in terms of shallow conventionality alone.

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Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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5.48(w) x 8.58(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 9. Physical Rest (from pages 65-71)

The story is told of a wagon train on its way from St. Louis to Oregon. Its members were devout Christians, so the whole group observed the habit of stopping for the Sabbath day. Winter was approaching quickly, however, and some among the group began to panic in fear that they wouldn't reach their destination before the heavy snows. Consequently, several members proposed to the rest of the group that they should quit their practice of stopping for the Sabbath and continue driving onward seven days a week.

This proposal triggered a lot of contention in the community, so finally it was suggested that the wagon train should split into two groups—those who wanted to observe the Sabbath and those who preferred to travel on that day. The proposal was accepted, and both groups set out and traveled together until the next Sabbath day, when one group continued while the other remained at rest.

Guess which group got to Oregon first.

You're right. The ones who kept the Sabbath reached their destination first. Both the people and the horses were so rested by their Sabbath observance that they could travel much more vigorously and effectively the other six days of the week. God honors those who honor his commands.

Someone told me that historical story so long ago that I can't remember where it came from or if I have all the details correct. But the story was so exciting to me many years ago (I've been thinking about this Sabbath book for a long time) that I have never forgotten it. The principle it propounds has proved true in my own life, especially during the last four years, when I was working on my doctorate. Some of my classmates teased me that I would never get my work done if I continued to refrain from studying on Sundays, but invariably I was able to finish my class papers and projects more quickly because my Sundays of rest enabled me to work longer and more effectively the other six days of the week.

When we know the spiritual rest described in the previous chapter, we are thoroughly set free to rest physically. My Sabbath days often include sleeping later in the morning or taking naps or going to bed earlier at night. I try never to do anything that makes me feel unrestful. Once on a Sabbath afternoon I wrote to several friends and explained that I should have written to them the previous week and therefore did not. Because I felt I had to write those letters the previous week, it was very important that I postpone them and rest instead. The Sabbath is never a day to allow ourselves to be pushed (especially by our own false guilt or by others' expectations) into activity of any kind.

The emphasis upon physical rest as the meaning of the Sabbath is especially strong in the account of the commandment recorded in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. In contrast to the account in Exodus 20, which celebrates the Sabbath as an imitation of God's ceasing from his creative activity on the seventh day, the Deuteronomy passage says the following instead:

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your wok, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor you manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

The commandment is quite clear: each person is to cease from work—not only the masters, but also all the servants and the foreigners and the animals. Give your donkey a break!

The motivation for letting the servants cease their working was that the Israelites had once had to work as slaves, and they know how miserable that was. Therefore, in gratitude for Yahweh's delivering them out of their Egyptian bondage, they were to observe the Sabbath and allow everyone else not merely to quit working, too, but also genuinely to rest.

We might have trouble putting this idea into twentieth-century terms because, for many of us, our regular weekday work does not involve physical labor, whereas in biblical times most jobs involved great physical exertion. To the Israelites first receiving the command, it offered hope for a real reprieve from the arduous activity of trying to grow food in their hostile environment. As we cross the hermeneutical gap and seek to understand Sabbath rest in our times, we can look for a similar contrast between our weekday and Sabbath activity. If we are primarily engaged in physical exertion during the week, the Sabbath offers a physical respite. For those of us involved in the opposite rhythm of sedentary labor, the Sabbath offers a contrasting change of gentle physical enjoyment.

For me the Sabbath means several kinds of physical rest depending on what I do the week before and the week after each celebration. During most weeks I swim every day to take care of my health. Sunday offers a reprieve from that workout. I enter the water differently on Sundays—I enjoy just playing around in the pool or floating on the lake's waves. (What a nice break from doing laps!) For me to keep the Sabbath means to exercise in a way that concentrates on God or on other people. So I frequently enjoy hikes in the woods (which always lead to praising God for the beauty of his creation) or walks with friends (and then the focus is on positive and upbuilding interchanges).

I must also stress that we must often take extra care to make it possible to rest from our labors on the Sabbath. Sometimes it means doing extra work the day before or spreading our work out throughout the week a bit better so that the Sabbath can truly be restful. If I'm going to teach on Monday, I need to do the final review of my plans on Saturday—which usually means double duty, since I'm generally teaching on Sunday, too, and need to review those plans as well. But in the freedom I experience throughout the complete day of Sabbath rest I continually find that the extra effort to get everything done before Sunday is worth it.

Recently a schoolteacher asked me how teachers could rest on Sunday when they had to give report cards to their students on Monday. This question requires a threefold response. First of all, those who have seriously decided to practice Sabbath keeping will gradually learn how to restructure their work so that they can spread it out over the days preceding the Sabbath. Furthermore, the rest of the previous Sabbath will have released them to work more diligently during the week so that they will be better able to finish their work before the next Sabbath arrives. (Another schoolteacher friend of mine has discovered that to be the case.) Finally, let's not become legalistic! Sometimes in our fallible humanness we do not plan appropriately—and we wind up not able to finish everything that needs to be done by Monday. Then we have three choices: to stay up later on Saturday to finish, to get up earlier on Monday, or to use some of our Sabbath day. I personally so value having an entire day of rest and worship that I will gladly choose the first or second option rather than be forced by necessity (the opposite of grace indeed!) to spoil my day of ceasing and delight.

Interestingly, scientific research frequently offers confirming evidence for the value of God's principles as given in the Scriptures. The interchange of physical activity and rest has been studied extensively by Juan-Cardo Lerman, whose research at the University of Arizona shows the biological need for rest every seventh day and the energizing value of rest. According to Lerman's theory, failing to rest after six days of steady work will lead to insomnia or sleepiness, hormonal imbalances, fatigue, irritability, organ stress, and other increasingly serious physical and mental symptoms. Lerman suggests that this need for rest every seventh day is rooted in the fact that the human biological clock operates on a 25-hour cycle. Because organized society prevents us from getting up one hour later each day to follow our natural internal clock, our body demands the time to "sleep in" or rest every so often to recover from the forced 24-hour time cycle that is too short. Lerman insists that we must "cease labor" once every seven days and rest our bodies for longer periods than on other days in order to catch up on our cycle of time. He also adds that the biblical Sabbath commandment includes the ideas of both cessation of labor and refreshment.

Of course, such scientific study doesn't "prove" the validity of God's command, since the purposes of science and faith are very different. But it is interesting that the methods of scientific inquiry have also led to the truth of God's design for rest, established long before in Sabbath commands.

An important warning immediately comes to mind as we pursue the subject of physical rest. It seems to me that our culture's obsession with audio and visual media has decreased the possibility of true physical rest. Our bodies are not able to rest when our senses are assaulted by advertisements and our sensibilities are bombarded with immoralities. There is a great need in our society for the rest of silence.

One great tool for Sabbath resting in my childhood was the front porch swing. My family enjoyed sitting there and visiting with the neighbors who sauntered past. We talked gently and watched the fireflies. I wish there could be a resurgence of front porches in American architecture. To restore them could help rebuild a sense of neighborhood and community in our technologically cocooned world. If we had the possibility of resting on a porch swing, we might more easily learn again to watch fireflies and be friendly with our neighbors.

The world around us is beginning to recognize the need for better rest. A few years ago U.S. News and World Report featured an article called "Sabbaticals Spread from Campus to Business." However, a clinical psychologist quoted in the article stated that many executives suffering from burnout returned to the same work after an extended leave and again exhibited the same burnout symptoms within sixty days.

Perhaps that is why a weekly cycle of work and physical rest had to be commanded by God rather than merely suggested. As Eugene Peterson, author of "The Pastor's Sabbath," insists, "Nothing less than a command has the power to intervene in the vicious, accelerating, self-perpetuating cycle of faithless and graceless busy-ness, the only part of which we are conscious being our good intentions." Peterson describes the Sabbath as that uncluttered time and space in which we can distance ourselves from our own activities enough to see what God is doing. If we are not able to rest one day a week, we are taking ourselves far too seriously.

Since it is so hard to rest in our driven culture, a very essential contribution of the Christian community could be its support for those seeking to incorporate Sabbath rest into their lifestyles. So many factors push us constantly, and we always have too much to do. Therefore, we as members of the Body of Christ need to help each other learn to rest. Ideally, we could covenant together to celebrate our Sabbaths in restful ways—taking gentle walks together, encouraging each other to sleep, helping each other know that the grace of God has set us free from the need to accomplish things.

We can also support one another in practical ways—for example, by sharing chores during the week so that they don't have to be done on Sundays. Sometimes I can do my friend Myron's laundry when I do my own, so that he can get other things done on Saturday (his only day off from teaching school) and thereby be freer to rest on the Sabbath. So many people are unable to practice the ideal of Sabbath ceasing from work—like musicians or cooks at a camp. I don't think it is work for us to give them the gift of assistance by setting up chairs or washing dishes with them. Every little bit of support that we can give each other is an important contribution to another's Sabbath rest.

Perhaps such support is implied in the Sabbath command in Deuteronomy 5. Perhaps the command for the masters to let their menservants and maidservants also rest is a reminder to the masters and mistresses themselves that they, too, are invited by Yahweh's instruction to give up their efforts and control and to enjoy the sweet repose of God's menuha.

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4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In an age when many Christians don't take the Fourth Commandment seriously, this book is needed. Dawn focuses on the 'hows' of Sabbath keeping and gives many practical suggestions. This book is not for those who are looking for a theology of why to keep Saturday or Sunday-- there are plenty of books out there that do that. This is a practical guide to help those who wish to rediscover God's gift of rest to us--far from being bound by the Law, it frees those who choose to obey! I found it a bit too structured for my liking--4 sections broken up into 7 chapters each--but it is still a good book and I still recommend it.