Monday, March 15, 2010

The Rest of the Sabbath

Day 27 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

So we’re listening to this tall, lanky, African man with dark chocolate skin, talking in French to an interpreter. The two of them were standing at the wrought-iron and carved-wood pulpit in our church's sanctuary, describing his ministry in Senegal.

Mamadou Djop doesn’t speak English well, but he’s fluent in French, so a church member who also speaks French helped translate Djop’s story for the congregation this past Sunday. Djop described how his abandonment of Islam and coming to faith in Christ harmed his own mother, one of his father’s four wives. Among other things, having her son disgrace their family by adopting Christianity automatically thrust her to the bottom of the intra-wife hierarchy.

For Americans unused to plural marriage and the severe subjugation of women, the plight of Djop and his mother seems too foreign to comprehend. Yet for Djop, whose conviction of faith could not be denied by familial ties, the burden of seeing how his mother unwittingly suffered from his conversion must have been heartbreaking.

Convicted of how I take my faith for granted, I marveled at how God can both utilize the family structure for the nurture of familial relationships, and also instigate the pain of dislodging those same relationships for His glory. I don’t know if Djop and his parents have been able to forge any sort of reconciliation, but it certainly seemed as though the peace of Christ has been a balm of sorts for whatever brokenness took place within this family that Djop obviously loves.

Sunday Fun Day?

Of course, his is but one story of the many people around the world who have had to relinquish so much to “take hold of the prize” through faith in Christ. Whether in the persecuted church or in countries with strict cultural norms such as Senegal, believers are living testimonies of suffering for the sake of the Gospel that, to be frank, should make we American Christians blush with shame. Sure, we sometimes get made fun of by opinionated boors in the media, and anecdotal stories about illicit nativity scenes and Ten Commandments plaques sound like persecution in our privileged society. But don’t kid yourself – that’s not persecution, is it?

So we go to our churches on Sunday mornings and then play all afternoon. Does that sound like a bunch of persecuted religious zealots? Even after a compelling testimony of God’s work in Senegal, our ethnocentrism inevitably takes over and by the time we’re driving out of the parking lot, many of us have already been consumed by plans for the afternoon.

Not that the persecuted church would begrudge American believers our Sunday delights. Or even our Sunday chores. But how often do we sit through a God-focused worship service only to revert back to our own small worlds, failing to fully appreciate God’s goodness and blessings to us? In the bustle of our everyday lives, have we unwittingly drawn Sunday out of its Biblical context and fashioned it into just another day for us to get stuff done?

Weekend Warrior

Some people view Sundays as a day for still, solemn meditation about God and His Gospel. Quite honestly, that may be an ideal pursuit for Sundays, but how realistic would it be? How many people can sit for hours on end, mentally exercising their faith, without falling asleep or fighting a running battle with concentration? How restful is struggling to stay awake or keep kids quiet all afternoon?

Indeed, the concept of rest and recreation on Sunday afternoons has evolved along with society. Time was, people who went to church didn’t really have the luxury of leisure like we have today. And you can bash unions all you want, but in many western countries, the two-day weekend is mostly an invention of workers rights groups. Of course, the idea of “Sabbath rest” comes from Genesis 2, where God Himself set the example of taking a break from one’s ordinary labor. But by tacking Saturday onto Sunday, which many cultures associate with the day of the week Christ rose from the dead, we’ve stretched the “Sabbath rest” concept until it’s practically lost its significance.

Not that everybody gets weekends off from work. Farmers have to work just about every day. Doctors, nurses, police officers, and other round-the-clock careers sometimes have Sunday hours. And of course, pastors and church workers punch in every Sunday. But the idea of taking time off for rest is still a good idea, isn’t it, even if you can’t do it on Sundays.

Instead, so many churchgoers seem to shoehorn Sunday services into a day they’ve intentionally crammed full of a lot of other stuff. Most of us sleep late, which automatically means we’re running late for church. Then a lot of us go out to lunch – which, btw, a lot of restaurant workers don’t like because a lot of us tip horribly. And then the afternoons quickly become congested with trips to the mall, homework, mowing the yard, and everything else that didn’t get done on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Christians around the world meet in secret to fellowship together on the Lord’s Day. Not that we should spend Sundays in mourning for them. But maybe we can do a better job of spending our Sundays more intentionally. Why waste them cleaning the bathroom or trimming the hedges? By not taking advantage of the same opportunity that God took – and ordained – for Sundays, do you think maybe you view your time as being more important than God’s?

It’s not just about what we do on Sundays, but why we do them. Why didn’t you get all your chores done Saturday? Are you bending over backwards keeping your yard as perfect as the Jones’? Did the kids have too much on their sports schedule that their homework waited until Sunday? Did you put in extra hours at the office on Saturday (or Sunday) to impress the boss? Is your lifestyle linked to your income, and your income linked to a heavy work schedule?

Hmm… maybe I’m getting too personal. Maybe some seasons in life are more hectic than others. Certainly in this economy, keeping a job is hard enough without complaining about extra hours. And lots of kids in sports must play their games both Saturdays and Sundays.

Best Sabbath Rest

Indeed, should we have hard and fast rules for what believers should and shouldn’t do on Sundays? If you’re going to make people jump through hoops to be spiritual on a certain day of the week, how many scriptures can we find to prove the fallacy in that?

For example, there’s a school of thought that says we shouldn’t go out to eat on Sundays, because we’re obligating other people to work, even though people who want to attend church usually can find a way, even if they work in a restaurant. What if an elderly widow’s lawn needs to be mowed, but it rained all day Saturday? What if your child is sick all day Sunday, and you have to spend the day tending to their needs, washing soiled laundry, and going to the store for medicine?

Even if you wanted to spend the day away from the office, the mall, and the little league park, don’t all sorts of people have all sorts of ways to “rest and recreate?” For people like me, a nice long nap is pure luxury. But for others, unwinding on the golf course, decompressing with a brisk walk, contemplating the hues in some beautiful music, or even – gasp! – wading through the Sunday edition of the New York Times can be just the tonic for brains, bones, and muscles tensed up by a weeks’ worth of toil.

Somebody once tried to convince me that they found mowing their lawn to be relaxing, and therefore a perfectly appropriate Sunday activity. Now, I understand that a sense of accomplishment usually follows one’s labors at a lawn mower, and there may be weeks when Sunday offers the only time to mow. But relaxing? Please – if mowing the lawn is restful to you, do it on a Saturday and be both rested and efficient. Mowing the lawn is noisy and laborious any way you look at it. You may not sin if you mow your yard on Sundays, but you will annoy any neighbors trying to use their Sundays for quieter pursuits.

Back when I lived in Brooklyn, I used to enjoy strolling through parts of its Borough Park neighborhood on idyllic Saturday afternoons. Home to a sizeable community of Hasidic Jews, Borough Park can be downright quiet on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. Only gentiles would be driving down its tree-shaded streets, lined by row houses where kids played quietly on the stoops. Casual clutches of bearded men wearing white shirts and black pants would be interspersed down the blocks, with women leaning through open windows, chatting softly with their next door neighbors. I almost felt like I was intruding into their private sanctuary; that I needed to apologize for disturbing them, the serenity was that palpable. Hushed and ordered, their Sabbath observance bespeaks a simple method for taking advantage of what rejuvenation we can snatch away from our frenzied world.

Of Law and Commandment

Granted, Borough Park’s Hasidic Jews may have mostly observed their religion’s Sabbath rules out of a rigorous, traditional, do-and-don’t mentality. In Christianity, we believe that because God looks at the heart, why we do the things we do matters significantly to Him. Why do you mow your yard on Sundays, or why don’t you? Does not mowing your lawn on Sundays make you more spiritual? Of course not. But if you spend the time you would have spent mowing the lawn on something that will physically benefit your body, your mind, and your soul, how much closer to God’s model for rest have you come?

Honor the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Where have you heard that before? It’s one of the Ten Commandments, isn’t it? If it’s a Commandment, then why don’t we do it? Why don’t we honor the day by keeping it separate, which is what “holy” means? Many believers around the world live in fear because of what they celebrate on Sundays. We don’t live in fear, but maybe we should do a better job of living with respectful observance of freedoms God Himself commands of us.

Think about it. How many other religions tell its adherents to rest? To take a day off? Indeed, all other religions require constant, hard work from their followers before they earn their "salvation."

By contrast, what is the degree to which we demonstrate our trust in Christ’s atoning sacrifice by taking advantage of Sabbath rest, acknowledging that there’s nothing we can do to work for salvation? I’m not saying we demonstrate Christ’s substitutionary atonement by taking a nap on Sunday afternoons, but it’s not as far of a stretch as it sounds, is it?

God could have snapped His immortal fingers to instantly create our world. Instead, He paced out His creation over six days. And rested on the seventh.

What did you do yesterday?
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