God's Countercultural Invitation to Sabbath Rest

Do you use the words busy, tired, and stressed more than the words peace, rest, and refreshed? If so, Dorothy Bass invites you to receive God's gift of Sabbath. A feature story exploring the need for a Sabbath.

On a scale of clearly-defined Sunday practices to Thank God, we're free of legalism, what does your typical Sunday look like?

Are we talking snap-on bow ties and patent leather shoes for the kids, a roast in the oven, going to church twice, and no shopping, television, or bike riding?

Or are your Sundays more like watch "Meet the Press," attend morning worship, buy takeout on the way to your child's soccer game, get groceries, access your office email, and pay bills?

Either way, how do you feel when you flop into bed on Sunday night? Rested? Refreshed by your time with God and ready for another week?

Theoretically, Sabbath observance rules can work like bumpers in a bowling alley. Even if rolled with little strength or skill, your bowling ball bounces off bumpers and wobbles toward the target. Equally theoretically, remembering that "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27) can carve a weekly oasis in our 24/7 culture.

In real life, though, it's easy to miss seeing that God's invitation to gather for worship offers concrete ways to shape our Sundays, weeks, and yearly cycles of life.

"Have you ever really appreciated how countercultural our worship is in this rushed, acquisitive society?" asks Dorothy Bass, author of Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time.

Together with God on Sunday

Bass admits it took her awhile to realize the value of keeping Sabbath in a society that doesn't. She was certainly well-versed in Christian spiritual practices. After all, she'd been ordained in the United Church of Christ, had become a historian of Christianity in America, and had taught at several colleges and seminaries.

But it wasn't till she'd become the working mother of twins, Bass says, that she embraced the fourth commandment as a call to worship.and to stop working, to step away from our market economy and live more intentionally.

As she recalls in Receiving the Day, Bass was at a Saturday night dinner with other professors. All whined about the grading they had to do the next day. Suddenly it struck her that Christians would never tell each other, "I'm planning to commit adultery" or "I think I'll steal something." So why do we feel fine about dismissing our Creator's commandment to keep the Sabbath holy?

When you see yourself as the ultimate master of your time, you measure your worth by what you accomplish. Maybe you know Christians (perhaps saw one in the mirror this morning?) so caught up in doing God's work that they feel guilty for joining God in divine rest.

That's why Bass says it's vital to keep Sabbath in community, beginning with gathering for worship.

Think about how the pattern of face-to-face worship identifies you. Listen to scripture with ears for vivid particulars of how Creator provides for created. Hungry sheep, cool water, green pastures. Winter ends, flowers bloom, doves coo, figs ripen. Peter shivers; the rooster crows. Days later Jesus tells him where to catch 153 fish, gives him breakfast and a mission.

Bass says that experiencing ourselves as "a Sunday people" helps us remind each other to explore ways to keep the day holy. We may rest from commerce, worry, and work as well as give creation a rest.

When Dorothy Bass's daughter was 12, not letting Martha accept a Sunday shopping invitation led mother and daughter to a memorable discussion. Bass recounts a poem in which the late Sietze Buning (a.k.a. Stanley Wiersma) tells how going to church-instead of mowing ripe oats when rain threatened-helped his family live the truth of resting in God's hands.

Experiencing Sabbath all week long

Worshiping together on Sunday and keeping the day holy immerse us in God's time. But we don't practice the Sabbath in isolation from daily life. Far from it, Bass says. Simply look, and you'll see how "worship prepares us to engage in daily life in new and different ways."

You pass the peace even when you're angry. You move with reverence. Through sermon, song, and liturgy, you hear and tell stories that remind you who you are and how God invites us to live.

Consider communion, where "Christ is both Host and Feast." This celebration resonates beyond the church walls. Bass notes that in worship, all of us, rich and poor, receive the same treatment. "We're sprinkled and embraced. We break bread and pass wine. Everyone gets the same amount. And it's enough."

Receiving the Eucharist in worship can prompt us to be God's hands and feet so that everyone, nearby and around the world, gets enough food, welcome, justice, and mercy.

When at the Lord's Table, we might think about hospitality at our own tables. How do we decide who may eat with us in our homes? How does God decide who may come to the Lord's Table?

Paying attention during communion has led Bass to ponder other issues, too, such as how Christians break table life during the week by eating too much, degrading water and earth, or passing up opportunities to share with others.

In Receiving the Day, Bass passes on ideas from others who have helped her live each day, not just Sunday, as a child opening God's gift of time. These ideas are based in realizing that the "Christian practice of receiving the day is made for people who have and are bodies."

Martin Marty says that taking a nap is a wonderful way to respect your body's needs. Kathleen Norris says that small ways of taking care of yourself-drinking enough water, taking a vitamin, brushing your teeth-help you take care of others. And Eugene Peterson interprets the Genesis 1 sequence ("and there was evening and there was morning-the first day") as assurance that God begins the day while we sleep; we enter each day after God's already spent hours attending to us.

Going through the year with God

Bass says she grew up in a church that distrusted fasts and feasts and found liturgy distracting. But settling into the rhythm of Sundays and letting that peace spill into the rest of the week deepened her appreciation for "the full circle of the Christian year."

Just as Sundays let us "step off the treadmill of work and spend," the liturgical seasons shape each Sunday and reframe our life stories within God's story. Advent, the first season in the Christian Year, opens as the calendar year winds down. Advent and Lent quietly prepare us for the feasts of Christmas and Easter.

Babies come into the world, friends move, and loved ones die. Bass finds herself tying these events to liturgical dates and seasons. Revisiting dates she's met before gives her markers to measure how she and her husband have changed and how their children have spiritually matured.

In Receiving the Day, Bass says the rhythms of the Christian year script the "thick inky line" of our years into meaningful curves. Longing and fulfillment, light and dark, repentance and grace: these patterns "encircle us again and again as we encounter different dimensions of the mystery of God at each point in time, all year long."

Keeping Sabbath is not always easy. In fact, Bass warns that opening the gift of time can be messy. But when you extend the practice to each week and year of your life, you'll find, she promises, that you have "been caught up into the story of God," with the lines of your life "curved into script that proclaims this good news." 

Learn More

The Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith has many suggestions forkeeping Sabbath, including essays, sermons, and study guides. Keeping Sabbath is one of a dozen key spiritual practices described in the essay collection Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People. Download a free study guide to the book. Christian Century interviewed Dorothy Bass about the book, which is also available in Korean.

Want to help the youngest members of your church make forgiveness, hospitality, honoring the body, keeping Sabbath, and more part of their identity? Then read about teens' experiences with these ways of life and download a free study guide. These children's books provide segues into discussing specific Christian spiritual practices.

Lauren Winner compares Jewish and Christian Sabbath observances in thisChristianity Today essay. Read articles by people from many denominations on what it means to keep the Sabbath holy. View paintings by John August Swanson. Then think about what kinds of paintings, photographs, or other visuals best capture your idea of the Sabbath.

You may know John Foley's song "Come to the Water." Listen to an excerpt. Now ask five family members or fellow worshipers which songs best capture for them what it means to accept God's gift of Sabbath rest

Do your pastors need renewal? When it's hard for pastors to keep Sabbath,congregations need to help. Check out these books on sabbatical planning andgetting the most out of the time away. Read sabbatical planning guides written especially for Evangelical LutheransDisciples of Christ, and MennonitesHolden Village can provide a low cost retreat for clergy and spouses.

Want to read more about Sabbath keeping? These titles make excellent book club or small group choices. Expand the wealth by writing book reviews for your church newsletter:

Start a Discussion

  • Given your responsibilities for planning or leading worship-and your church's Sunday schedule-how often do you experience Sunday as a day of worship and rest? Do you set aside another time each week for Sabbath rest?
  • Does your church provide worship times for healthcare, retail, or other workers whose jobs require them to work on Sunday?
  • Compare the Sundays of your youth to how you observe Sundays now. Do you see any differences among generations (or along other lines) in the way your congregational members seek to open God's gift of Sabbath? Which ideas would be most helpful to share more widely within your church?
  • How might you help worshipers make connections between Sundays and how they live the rest of their weeks?
  • What do you think of Dorothy Bass's suggestion that observing the Christian year helps people more deeply enter into the meaning and purpose of Sabbath rest? 

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to enrich Sabbath keeping in your congregation?

Whether you do these or any other things, we'd love to learn what works for you:

  • Did you gather church members for a survey of what they do or don't do on Sunday, what they yearn for on Sundays, or how they've changed their Sabbath practices over the years?
  • Have you developed any best practices for helping your congregation's children and teens shape their lives to Sabbath rhythms?
  • Can you share liturgical banner patterns, PowerPoint templates, or other visuals that help worshipers understand and remember the freedom and rest God offers through the Sabbath?
  • Have you videotaped Christians whose jobs require them to work on Sundays-but have found ways to offer the Sabbath to their co-workers or those they serve, as well as ways to set aside Sabbath time for themselves?

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