By Bethany Williams

Leading Me to Rest: Thanksgiving Lessons for the Sabbath

We cut our honeymoon short to make it to our family Thanksgiving dinners.

My husband and I got married the Saturday before Thanksgiving. We flew to Nashville the next morning for a short honeymoon but chose to fly home on Thanksgiving Day to make my new in-laws’ family meal that evening and my family’s meal the next day. I remember explaining our decision to rush home to friends: “After all the wedding attention and pressure, we want to sit at the table, in jeans and sweaters, and just be family together.” 

A decade and a half and four young children later, I look forward to this holiday even more. My hope is that Thanksgiving is a time for deep breaths, a break from pressure and expectation, and a time for having fun and resting well. When I gather with my family and friends around a meal and practice gratitude to God, it is holy. It also reminds me of the beauty of one of God’s kindest gifts to us: the gift of Sabbath. I now look back at our sense of urgency to return from our honeymoon as a desire for Sabbath.

In the last several years, I have come to think of Sabbath as thanksgiving holidays, minus the expectation for the big meal. It’s a time when we share holy table fellowship, pause to be grateful, and remember intentionally what is most important — but it’s weekly.

I don’t hear much practical discussion of how to honor the Sabbath as a modern woman with a busy life. It’s easy to see the Sabbath as an antiquated rule which doesn’t fit in modernity, or as an another obligation in the pile of “oughts” feeding my constant guilt of unfinished tasks. But I know this should not be so! Sabbath is not meant to be a burden but a day of rest from burdens.  

For full theological discussions on the practice, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath and Walter Brueggemann’s The Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of Now each offer brilliant and thorough presentations, and I commend them to you. Reading such works casts the vision for all that Sabbath can be for my life, but I need practical steps to actually do it.  Here, I’ll consider some common challenges I face in trying to honor the Sabbath, some of the joys of Sabbath, and practical suggestions we’ve found helpful in our family’s efforts. I’d like to start with a working definition: Sabbath is a day of rest, worship, and joy, all experienced fully while abstaining from any work that is for the purpose of “getting ahead” either financially or socially.

Rest.

Like every woman I know, I have a long litany of to-dos which can keep Sabbath gifts unopened at arms’ length. It’s easy to be convinced that if I stop for a whole day, everything will surely fall apart. I can resign myself to life without a good, weekly rest. I feel I should always be doing: organizing, cleaning, cooking, writing, planning, studying, researching, or submitting something.

Instead, I should be freed to submit myself to a better way. When I honor the Sabbath, I am obedient to God’s best. After all, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath (Mark 2:27).” Sabbath is not an item for my list of obligations but rather a generous gift, offered weekly, for my health, wholeness, and joy. Honoring the Sabbath reorders my life in ways I can forget to even hope for.  

Worship.

The Sabbath allows for space, time, and deep breaths. This is the day we gather as God’s Church and remember we are dependent on God for our daily bread and that this is the moment to be thankful. We carve out time for practices of our faith: we worship, we grieve and lament, we forgive and accept forgiveness, we give thanks. It is mysterious math, but with healthy rhythms, taking a day out of my forward charge gives me the gift of more time. When I pause with humility, I remember God as protector and provider and myself as human. This day I have nothing to produce, nothing to prove; I remember my identity is in being a child of God. I admit my imperfections, and I take notice of areas of lack and need.

Joy.

The Sabbath wards off anxiety, the manic pace of self-importance, and oppressive guilt. I look up from my calendars and agendas long enough to see that the world does indeed go on without me — and while that may be painful and offensive at first, it is mostly and lastingly liberating. Sabbath is not always easy or carefree, but it is good and full of sacred joy.

I never regret the hours spent in Sabbath. I look up long enough to see those around me and savor the current season’s blessings. The Sabbath is all the things I have been saving for whenwhen I’ve finished this, published this, and presented this. Honoring the Sabbath ensures I don’t miss life, right now, in the midst of seasons, even before next week’s impending deadline. The Sabbath frees me for holy imagination and fun.

In our family, some days we get back in our pjs after church, take naps, and stay home, or we walk to a pond with a picnic of pb&j sandwiches. We play Uno and laugh at the four-year-old’s precocious strategy, or read a book that is neither for school nor work — no hard and fast rules, just soft and peaceful days. Those are the days when we accept the gift. But some other weeks we miss it entirely after we get home from worship, either because we failed to plan or because we yielded to the pressure of what seemed  urgent around us, and we didn’t drop our burdens long enough to have our hands free for receiving the gift.

How can we as the Church better receive the gift of Sabbath? What makes the Sabbath more than a day off from going in to the office? How do we determine what is okay to include and from what to abstain?  Here are some suggestions from my family’s efforts over the past several years.

The most essential first step is going to church to worship. No one can fully explain in short form the necessity of worshiping God with sisters and brothers: singing praises together, offering prayers of thanks, petition, and lament, sharing Holy Communion, reaffirming our beliefs together, and listening to the music and the silence. We need communal reminders of our reliance on God and the joy of intimacy with God.

Start small. Make church attendance a priority, and then choose something that brings you joy. Your Sabbath may not be the same as mine, and that’s okay. Try first setting aside the morning for worship, then half the day, and work up to the full day for life-giving worship and rest.

Lower the requirements. This is one way the Sabbath is not like Thanksgiving. No one has to cook Grandmother’s biscuits or Dad’s favorite casserole. Lunch can be crackers and cheese and grapes, eaten on paper plates, with no dishes to wash. You can make cookies with the lonely neighbor next door or take your niece to brunch.

Give yourself kind guidelines. This day is not about “getting ahead” in the world. Instead, find ways to worship, rest, have fun, spend time in nature, and savor table fellowship. And look up. Remember there is not enough achievement to fulfill your soul. Look up to the One whose job it is to provide for you, to protect you, and to tell you who you are.

Be prepared for some gray areas. Some weeks will require hard decisions. Should time with certain, extended family members be included, when you do not find yourself rested after being with them? Where is God leading you? Perhaps some weeks you will, but some weeks you’ll kindly explain you have plans and won’t be able to make it. Even some Sabbaths at home will include time alone for Mom or Dad. With prayer and intentionality, we can each find what is life-giving and belongs on the Sabbath in that season.

Brace yourself for your own strongest, future opposition. “I really cannot take a break right now, just not this week.” When I feel like I absolutely cannot stop, I know that’s when I need Sabbath the most. It’s good to remember the world keeps spinning even when we’re at church or taking an afternoon nap.

Finally, have grace with yourself. Some weeks just won’t go as planned and hoped. Thankfully the Sabbath is not something to do perfectly but rather something to receive with openness. 

This Thanksgiving, my hope is that we each notice our favorite moments and are encouraged that we do not have to wait until next year to feel that rest, freedom, and perspective again. We never even have to wait more than seven days.

About the Author

Bethany Williams is a teacher, encourager, advocate, writer, and consultant. After teaching high school English, she focused on her four young children at home while volunteering as a Court Appointed Family Mediator and Court Appointed Special Advocate and also finishing her Masters of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary with an emphasis in Children at Risk. She is happily a Methodist clergy spouse, adoptive and biological mom, and treasures a little knack for eliciting laughter in church small groups.

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