I was recently in an e-mail exchange with someone regarding my refusal to force my children to go to church. I do not go to church myself. I will probably go back someday, but for now I do not. I stay away from church for a number of reasons, but one of them is the fact that I desire my Sundays to be ones of actual Sabbath—days set apart for rest.
The response I found in my inbox to this argument was, “That’s bullshit,” a rationalization because I don’t like church. I know that I do have other issues with church right now, but I don’t think this one is bullshit.
When we are exhorted to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, the word holy simply means set apart for special use. In light of the Hebrew rules regarding the day, it would appear that the special use of the day does not have to do with giving yourself more to do.
My Jewish friends tell me of how these rules have been twisted and reinterpreted until they become ridiculous— from having a Shabbos Goy, a non-Jew, come into the house to take care of all the work you aren’t supposed to be doing, to running string around a city so that you can claim it and then travel freely around town without leaving your “courtyard.”
Still, it’s pretty clear that breaking away from the busy routine is the goal of the day, not adding more items to an already full schedule.
I remember an evangelist who came to our church when I was young, shouting from the pulpit, “We aren’t going on a prayer retreat. We are not beating a retreat. We are going on a prayer advance.” An unfortunate misunderstanding of what a retreat is all about, but not unusual I’m afraid.
I have acquaintances who measure the value of their lives by how busy they can remain without collapsing. So, whenever they are around you can count on them to moan and groan about all the things they have to do. They aren’t really complaining; they are making sure you take note of how busy they are, and valuing them accordingly.
They spend every day in a frenzy of frantic running. Too much to do, they scurry around like Alice’s white rabbit, always late for a very important date. And for the ones who attend church, it is no different there. The root of the problem is that being still is of little value in our culture. If you aren’t out accomplishing things, things that can be observed and measured, then you aren’t being productive.
This everyday busyness has not only encroached on the Sabbath, it has overrun the day. You can’t show up on Sunday morning in any church around here for too long before someone is admonishing you to get more involved, join groups and programs and ministry teams, and then church—and your Sunday—becomes indistinguishable in its busyness from the rest of your life.
In his book Turning East, Harvey Cox describes the Hebrew idea of Sabbath rest as the same in essence to the Buddhist idea of sati: stillness that is not sleep, but a deep mindfulness. It can only be achieved through carving out a space into which you will not allow everyday concerns. This is the essential condition for meditation, for contemplation, for real knowledge of who you are in the world.
It isn’t just a luxury. It is essential to our healthy existence as human beings. In this world of busyness and running, running that seems to be always on the verge of spilling into chaos, we need stillness, our souls need rest.
Busyness saps our spiritual energy, leaves us walking around with emaciated souls—and too often church and its many related activities are part of the problem. Instead of being a sanctuary of rest, it is simply more activity to smash into an already packed schedule.
I try to protect this day in my kids’ schedule, try to model for them a calm and stillness, a refusal to be busy on the Sabbath. I realize that something else of great importance—community—is suffering as a result. I want them to have a balanced perspective on this; I want them to know the value of both.
It feels to me that if I don’t hold firm on this the busyness of the week will swallow up our Sunday as well.
So I set aside their Sundays as a time to rest, to purposefully do nothing. I sense that they like it. They are released from the nagging sense that they should be getting something accomplished. They can have a much-needed Sabbath rest.