A series of reflections on Sabbath
by Chloe McElyea
Growing up, I rarely heard the word Sabbath. As a kid, I knew that Sabbath was kept by some members of the Jewish religious community. I also figured that Sabbath was somehow related to my own faith tradition, Christianity. But we never talked about it. Sundays felt a little different than the rest of the week— church in the morning, family errands in town, a lazy lunch of leftovers or hot dog sandwiches, normally with a sporting event on low in the background. There was something more relaxed about the day’s rhythm, distinct from the rush of homework and commitments that shaped the rest of the week.
It wasn’t until I took a course on the Sabbath with Dr. Claire Wolfteich last spring that I started to engage with Sabbath more deeply. The course challenged us to examine the complexities involved in the way Sabbath is understood and practiced across different religious traditions, and we had the privilege to converse with people who keep Sabbath, as well as participate in Sabbath celebrations with various Jewish communities.
This course also gave me the opportunity to start an intentional Sabbath practice. As a graduate student, this practice has been transformative in small but significant ways. While I struggle to be consistent, my Sabbath experiences have helped me reorient my relationship to time, uplifting that which I hold sacred— faith, family and friends, nature and health, and food. Inspired by the deep wisdom found in the Jewish tradition, my own practice is still young and is informed by my own spiritual background.
Recently, I’ve been reflecting on Marva J. Dawn’s book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, rev. ed. (1989; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000). Drawing on Jewish traditions of Sabbath keeping, she speaks about her personal Sabbath practice within a Christian context. Dawn suggests four modes of being with which to approach the Sabbath day:
Over the next few posts, I’ll be exploring each word, with a few simple practices to enter each concept more deeply. If you feel interested, I hope you will join me. Approach this in whatever way feels authentic and freeing. Perhaps you might savor one word throughout each season— fall, winter, spring, and summer— or a different word every week. Today, I will begin with “ceasing.”
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“…to cease not only from work itself, but also from the need to accomplish and be productive, from the worry and tension that accompany our modern criterion of efficiency, from our efforts to be in control of our lives as if we were God, from our possessiveness and our enculturation, and, finally, from the humdrum and meaninglessness that result when life is pursued without the Lord at the center of it all. In all these dimensions we will recognize the great healing that can take place in our lives when we get into the rhythm of setting aside every seventh day all of our efforts to provide for ourselves and make our way in the world.”
Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, 3-4
Ceasing on the Sabbath makes space. How can we enter this time by letting go, by simplifying, by not grasping for control?
In a conversation with Zach Kerzee, pastor of Simple Church—a new United Methodist dinner church in Grafton, MA—he reflected on the meaning of simplicity in his life. He laughed and said, “Farmers don’t join gyms.” As he has gradually adapted to a lifestyle as a pastor in a semi-rural community, his days are increasingly shaped by his work on a neighboring farm that supplies produce for the church’s Thursday night dinner service, as well as a bread baking ministry that helps support the church. He said with sincerity, “I’m not busy at all.” He described his rhythms as conforming to that of the farm, and his way of life as his attempt to incorporate “Sabbath moments” every day. He holds meetings in the kitchen over the activity of baking bread. Exercise and movement is provided in the farm work. His family knows where their food is coming from. In addition, he takes two days off each week to rest.
He commented on how much of our American lifestyle demands the opposite: fragmentation. People’s work, social lives, and physical needs are often accomplished in different spaces, and typically require a financial cost (like a gym membership and prescriptions) and personal cost (like being overworked and out of touch with the natural world). Living, growing food, and cooking in one community transforms the way we appreciate our interdependency with the world and one another. By keeping church programming to a minimum and renting out a space for dinner services, his faith community can do more with less. By simplifying and ceasing, they are encountering a different way of being.
While dinner churches are popping up in both urban and rural settings, not all of us are able to adopt this lifestyle or have access to a similar type of community. Despite what our cultural and consumerist manifestos may insist, however, I do believe that all of us can simplify and find time to cease from our activity and overwhelm.
What are some practices we can explore to help us enter more fully into Sabbath?
Dawn offers one basic practice on page 183 of her book. She eats a simple bowl of oatmeal for breakfast throughout the week, but enjoys something special on Sabbath. This single gesture grounds her way of being throughout the week and reminds her of Sabbath joy.
Or perhaps it’s the opposite for you. Maybe you are heavily involved in cooking for your family and friends throughout the week, or often eat on the run, and would better experience ceasing by preparing a simple lunch at home for your Sabbath meal or asking friends to come together over a potluck. Either way provides the opportunity to change our daily rhythms and set aside a time for ceasing.
Lastly, Zach’s emphasis on interdependence is important. In ceasing, we have more capacity to notice. When we put aside our concerns on Sabbath day, or choose to take a run in our neighborhood or work in a garden alongside neighbors instead of depending on a gym or online groceries, we increase our capacity to better notice the communities in which we live (a note here— sometimes a gym provides a great opportunity to engage with our neighbors! It all depends upon your context).
How can you spend some time noticing today? Can you go on a walk, say hello to a neighbor, or visit a local market or farmer’s market during the week to prepare a meal from your surroundings?
Cease doing, and reclaim being.
This is the first reflection of an ongoing series on Sabbath. Feel free to join the conversation!
Chloe McElyea is a second year MDiv student from California. She loves ripe tomatoes, the smell of rain, stickers, and dark chocolate. She hopes to work in Community Nutrition one day.