By Tish Harrison Warren

Keeping Sabbath

One of my earliest memories is hiding in church.

My best friend, Megan, who happened to be the pastor’s daughter, and I didn’t want to part from each other after the worship service, so we concocted a brilliant plan. After the benediction, when the grown-ups filed decorously down the aisle, we took off to our hiding place in the fellowship hall and set up camp to stay awhile. Of course we were soon discovered and reluctantly reunited with our unamused parents.

At the risk of over-spiritualizing childhood motivations, I’d like to think that Megan and I were on to something — that this desire to savor Sunday afternoon, to remain in a place of worship and enjoy the pleasures of community, is part of what it means to be made in the image of God, who after creating sunsets and alligators, arugula, and Adam, rested and enjoyed his creation.

Mostly though, I was ambivalent about Sundays growing up. I loved going to church and eating out afterwards, and I relished my weekly ritual of stretching out on the floor with the Sunday funnies. But Sundays also brought homework to be done before school the next day and the dreaded Open House events, when my parents, who are real estate agents, toted me along with them to model homes to listen sulkily as the adults discussed crown molding and wall-to-wall carpeting.

Later in college, I continued to enjoy a respite from work while worshipping on Sunday mornings, but I often found Sunday evenings full of stressful hours preparing for my Monday classes. There was no intentionality to the way I spent my days. Seasons of the year and days of the week were interchangeable and monochrome.

  

Soon after I was married, my husband and I went to seminary. Our life began to fill up with more and more papers and tests, housework, and ministry duties. Time seemed to have no texture to it. Our rhythms were the rhythms of the academy — times of intense late nights filled with coffee and the triumphant moment of handing in a paper followed by a crash and a four-day migraine. Disciplines of prayer and scripture reading felt like just another thing I was supposed to do. We were surrounded by rich theological insight, Bible study (in biblical Greek!), and Christian community, yet we were totally stressed out. Then, my whole relationship with time began to change.

Maybe it was sheer exhaustion that made me seek out a more robust understanding of the theology of time. Maybe it was the kid in me wanting to hide in a place of safety and worship, but I plunged myself into thinking about time, and I started by thinking about the Sabbath. I read Marva Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly — the “Sabbath for Dummies” of the evangelical world — and began asking everyone I could corner about their views on the fourth commandment. My husband, somewhat reluctantly, went along with my newfound fervor, and we began making small attempts at Sabbath-keeping. We cleaned the house and stopped working on Saturday night. We read a Psalm and lit a candle to set apart the beginning of Sunday. Soon, we began to see the Sabbath as a day to cease from that which we worship, namely efficiency, control, and consumption, and we began to cease all commerce on Sunday. You would not believe how difficult and how freeing it is to go one whole day and intentionally spend no money — no grocery shopping or eating out, no getting gasoline or going to a concert. We discovered that we didn’t know how to rest without consuming. Some of our friends, Christians and skeptics alike, began to think we’d gone a little nuts. They tolerated our new practice with the bewildered amusement we reserve for those whose faith leads them to shun blue jeans or indoor plumbing.

My husband and I were beginning to see changes in our week. All of our other activities had a greater sense of purpose as we prepared for our day of rest. Our bodies began to know when it was Sunday and went into a mode where we couldn’t have gone out if we’d tried. We were drunk with Sabbath-keeping.

Not to say that this transition was flawless. There were days we spent Sunday fighting about what we should and shouldn’t do on Sunday. (Arguing about how to rest is not, we learned, a restful Sabbath activity.) Four years later, we still bounce between legalism and license about Sabbath-keeping, but nevertheless, this weekly practice of ceasing from work and embracing rest and play became my touchstone, reminding me again and again of the gospel, the kindness of God, and the eternal “Day of Rest and Gladness” to come.

On Sunday, we go to church; we eat lunch at our home, often with friends or visitors. We take naps, we go on long walks, share about our lives, and pray for each other. We savor beauty and have been known to build tent forts to hide in with a good novel on a rainy day. Sometimes, I buy the darkest chocolate I can find on Saturday and on Sunday evening have a time of solitude and prayer where I literally taste and see that the Lord is good. Mostly, we experience the day, and through it time itself, as a gift and as a means of worship.

The largest blessing of Sabbath keeping isn’t about having a day off, it is about learning how time itself tutors us. Not long after we began experimenting with Sabbath keeping, I discovered the church calendar, which also became a constant source of nourishment in my life. In Advent, I sit on Sunday afternoons listening to Handel’s Messiah, longing for the coming of Christ’s redemption and waiting expectantly with the worldwide church. In Lent, the Sabbath is a feast day in the midst of fasting. On Pentecost Sundays, I celebrate the church’s birthday. Time for me is no longer about management, but worship, reminding me of my hunger and of the feast to come. For me, Sabbath-keeping was not the discovery of another (increasingly trendy) discipline, but an invitation to rediscover how the gospel textures our time. Time itself is worship, and I am looking forward to some endless Sabbath when we will be with our best friends feasting in the Fellowship Hall, and we won’t have to part company.

About the Author

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. After eight years with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, she now serves as Co-Associate Rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She writes regularly for The Well, CT Women (formerly her.meneutics), and Christianity Today. Her work has also appeared in Comment Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, Art House America, and elsewhere. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP). She and her husband Jonathan have two daughters.

 

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