Lesson 3: Making the first steps toward Sabbath practice.
First Steps Toward Sabbath Practice
By Nathan T. Stucky
The Grace of Holy Ceasing
If you read my previous post, you might recognize one important way I’ve already tried to address the question of first steps toward Sabbath practice. We begin with God. If we follow the very first verses of the very first book in the Bible, and if we assume that those who put Scripture together placed this creation story at the beginning for good reason, then we must recognize that Sabbath rest lies at the very dawn of the relationship between God, humans, and the rest of creation. The first full day for humankind is a day of rest, not a day of toil – a day to rejoice in God’s work, not a day to be anxious about human work.
Our first step is to remember again and again that Sabbath rest begins with who God is, God’s invitation to us, and God’s astonishing grace. Sabbath rest is not a reward that we earn; it is a gift of sheer grace that we receive. Only on this foundation can we consider Sabbath as “realistic.” The magnitude of this reality must overshadow the false magnitude of busyness.
God’s invitation to us for Sabbath rest is the invitation to know our true identity as God’s children – to be still and know who God is, and thus catch a fuller glimpse of who we are as well. We were not created for ceaseless activity. We were created to rest in and with God; we were created with God’s Sabbath rest and grace as our foundation for meaningful work.
Sabbath as Holy Ceasing
The roots of the word “Sabbath” mean to cease or to stop. On day seven of creation, God ceases the work of creation and rests (literally Sabbaths), and Scripture consistently identifies Sabbath ceasing as holy. Throughout the first seven days, the only thing in the entire creation account to be pronounced holy (hallowed or sanctified) is the Sabbath; the Ten Commandments use the word “holy” only in the context of the Sabbath command. It seems to me, then, that our Sabbath practice should lead us to holy ceasing – to ceasing that directs our lives toward God and sets us apart as God’s people, not because we have earned it, but because of God’s extraordinary grace.
Exodus 16 tells the story of a people who know nothing of Sabbath ceasing; they have lost all sense of being set apart as God’s holy people. God has just delivered the Israelites from centuries of captivity in Egypt, but instead of immediate fertile fields of the Promised Land, the Israelites find themselves in the wilderness. Any food they brought out of Egypt has run out, and the Israelites are fed up and ready to head back to the familiarity of ceaseless work and captivity. At least in Egypt, they had enough to eat.
God responds to the (extraordinarily logical) grumbling of the Israelites by providing manna and a Sabbath rhythm of life all-in-one. The provision comes with specific instructions: for five days, gather enough manna only for that day; on the sixth day, gather a double portion; the seventh day is a Sabbath – do no gathering on the seventh day. And of course, the Israelites struggle to follow directions.
Yet before we mock the Israelites for their struggle to stop, we do well to remember our own struggles. We also do well to recall the magnitude of the change the Israelites are undergoing. If you, your parents, your grandparents, and your ancestors for centuries have only known ceaseless labor, and only known an authority (the Egyptian rulers) that demanded ceaseless labor, how disorienting would it be to stop a couple centuries of inertia?
On top of the inertia of centuries of ceaseless labor, we also have to recognize exactly what they are being asked to stop doing on the seventh day. God is asking them to not do something on which it appears their lives depend. They can’t survive without food. They cannot eat unless they gather. But God says on the seventh day, don’t gather. It’s as if God tells them, “Cease that activity on which it appears your life depends so that you can know that your life ultimately depends on me.”
Perhaps this provides us with a starting point for our Sabbath practice.
Recognizing Our True Source of Life
Aren’t there things in our lives which tempt us to believe our lives depend on them? Certainly busyness is one such thing, but I think we can be more specific. Email? Smart phones? Affirmation from youth, parents, church members? Our “to do” list?
Even as manna was a good gift from God and its gathering was commanded by a good God for six days, that same activity was forbidden on the seventh. Surely this fact helps prevent the Israelites from mistaking gift for Giver – of making the gifts of God (work, food, provision) equal to God.
If we believe our young people ultimately belong to God and have been given to us for a season, then I wonder if the Sabbath challenges us in a way that parallels the challenge of the Israelites in the wilderness. It’s tempting to believe that both our lives and the lives of our young people depend on the quality (quantity?) of ministry we provide. To cease that ministry regularly is to embark on a stunning and identity altering act of faith.
If we regularly cease ministry (turning off our phones, not checking email, getting out of town, etc.), doesn’t this practice at least hold the potential for proclaiming something fundamental and radical about our faith? To cease the act of ministry as an act of Sabbath practice is to proclaim that both our lives and the lives of our young people depend more on God’s grace and provision than on our human efforts.
To temporarily cease the actions of ministry is to remind ourselves and our young people that at the end of the day, we can save neither ourselves nor our young people. Our hope has never been that we can. Our hope is that God has already acted, continues to act, and will continue to act in saving ways on our behalf and on behalf of our youth.
Again, the practices of ministry (counseling, planning, teaching, meeting, etc.) are not bad unto themselves. These practices, like the practice of gathering manna for the Israelites, are in fact commanded. The problem arises when we subtly live as if our lives ultimately depend on these practices. Might we take our first steps toward Sabbath practice by putting these things down for a time so that we can remember that our lives ultimately depend on God’s grace and provision?
Three Possibilities for Sabbath Ceasing
- Electronics: I am not against technology. I am against technology as the foundation of our identity. Because technology promises (and threatens) us with a ceaseless existence, it provides a logical starting point for considering Sabbath ceasing. Technology tempts us to believe our lives depend on it. This does not mean that technology and Sabbath rest are mutually exclusive. It does mean we will need to relate to technology intentionally. Do we ever turn our phones or computers off? Do we find ourselves mindlessly or compulsively checking email or returning texts? Do we use technology appropriately, or does technology use us? What if we turn off cell phones and computers for a few hours each week not because our phones and computers are bad, but because they are not God and to remind us that our lives depend first and foremost on God and not on technology?
- People: At some level, ministry is all about people. It’s about those we have been called to love and serve, and for many of us, this can produce a situation in which the only people we ever spend time with are people connected to our ministry. In combination with technology, 24/7 accessibility can become the assumed norm. These relationships can tempt us to believe our lives ultimately depend on them. Do we know how to say “no” when people within our ministries make requests of us? Do we know people who are not involved in our ministries?
- Expectations: After considering the need for Sabbath ceasing, a ministry friend of mine ultimately decided that her Sabbath ceasing meant putting down the unrealistic expectations she had put on herself and that she felt from others. Her context for work and ministry had led her to believe that she could never be enough. She could never work enough, do enough, read enough, be smart enough, or get enough done. Sabbath practice opened up for her when she decided to put all of those expectations down. She recognized the ways she was serving unrealistic expectations more than she was serving God. In a real way, her life and ministry had come to depend on the unrealistic expectations, but Sabbath provided a space for putting down those expectations and remembering that her life depended ultimately on God.
This doesn’t mean that Sabbath rest is about doing nothing, though we may have something important to learn by doing nothing. The witness of Scripture guides us both in our Sabbath ceasing and in our Sabbath starting. As we put down that which tempts us to believe our lives depend on it, our lives are opened to new possibilities which accompany the ceasing.
Three Possibilities for Sabbath Starting
- Worship: The drumbeat of the broader story in Exodus is worship. We’re familiar with the repeated plea of God on the lips of Moses, spoken to Pharaoh. “Let my people go!” Yet the plea doesn’t end there. The point is not to let the Israelites go simply for the sake of letting them go. The point is the release of God’s people from the captivity of ceaseless labor so that God’s people may direct their lives toward God through worship, festivity and sacrifice. To truly worship God is to curse the gods of busyness, productivity, consumerism, and efficiency. To truly worship God is to respond in gratitude and praise as we recognize God’s amazing grace.
- Sharing Meals: In Exodus 16, it’s the only thing the Israelites are explicitly instructed to do on their wilderness Sabbaths. “Eat it [manna] today, for today is a Sabbath to the Lord.” They’d gathered the manna the day before precisely so they could eat on the seventh day. On the seventh day they sit with the people of God, with God’s miraculous provision in their hands, and with the taste of God’s provision on their lips. Might we receive Sabbath rest as a time for sharing a meal with friends and family as we give thanks for God’s grace and provision?
- Remembering God’s Action and Provision: We have already noted that on the seventh day of creation, the only body of work the first humans had to reflect on was God’s. The Sabbath commands in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 similarly turn the focus of God’s people to God’s saving action and provision. Exodus 20 looks to God’s rest at creation as the basis for the Sabbath rest of God’s people. “Remember the Sabbath.” Deuteronomy 5 looks to God’s deliverance of the Israelites for Egypt. “Remember that you were slaves.” In both cases, God’s people are called through the Sabbath to remember God’s action and provision, not human productivity and achievement. What might it look like for us to receive the Sabbath as a time for recounting, recalling, and celebrating God’s saving action among us? Where have we seen God at work? What stories of God’s salvation found in Scripture or in our lives might we tell with new meaning in the context of our Sabbath practice?
Our relationship to busyness conveys something to our young people. If we teach and preach a different pace of life rooted in God’s Sabbath rest, but all the while we’re burning the candle at both ends, our young people will sniff that out a mile away. That doesn’t mean we have to be experts at this before we start talking with our youth, their families, and our congregations. It does mean we have to be honest about the witness of our lives. Does the pace of our lives proclaim the all-powerful grace of the God who freely gives Sabbath rest? Or does the pace of our lives proclaim that busyness is the god we actually serve? Unless we are willing to allow for the uprooting of lesser identities, we will struggle to fully receive the identity that God gives us apart from our laboring.
The invitation stands. Come receive an identity rooted in something deeper than perpetual motion. Come remember that you are God’s beloved child not because of what you can do, accomplish, or achieve, but because of God’s all-powerful grace.
Nate Stucky hails from Kansas but lives in Princeton, NJ, where he works closely with youth leadership education initiatives offered by the Mennonite Church. Nate is finishing a PhD in practical theology, and he has a special interest in the role of community formation, Sabbath, and agrarianism in the education of church leaders, pastors, youth ministers, parents, and teenagers.
Gathering and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Logistics and Organizational Topics (5-10 minutes)
Training Time (20 minutes)
- Describe a day that you spent when you felt completely rested. What activities were part of that rest? Which were not?
- Watch Video together
- Nate mentions cell phones, or technology generally, as something we think “our lives depend upon.” Is this true for you? Youth you know?
- What other things, thoughts, or activities do we depend upon for our lives? What would it look like to lay those things, thoughts, or activities aside for Sabbath?
- Do you truly believe that Sabbath can help us “create a new identity as God’s beloved children?” If so, why do you believe it? Have you experienced it?
- Are you willing to lead by example in Sabbath practice so as to pave the way for youth?
Take aways (10 minutes)
- How will this impact our church, our youth, or our team?
- Hand out essay for further reading
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)