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How Can We Observe the Sabbath in Our Modern World?

I'm part of a small group that consists of members of our Creative Arts team at church, along with some spouses. These are folks who serve diligently and work hard -- some lead worship or play an instrument, while others serve behind the scenes in a technical capacity (and some of us do both). For our Creative Arts team, Sunday is a busy day with rehearsals starting at 6:30 and two services. A couple of us in the group are on staff, which means Sunday is a work day.

Last week, near the end of our group time, one young woman in the group -- who grew up in a German missionary family and is learning about American culture through a decidedly Southern lens -- posed an interesting question. She asked, "How do you observe the Sabbath in our modern world?" Needless to say, none of us had any easy answers.

I believe that keeping the Sabbath is a lost art and an underrated discipline. In our world of iPhones and hyper-competitive kids' sports and rampant workaholism and too much reality television, we don't know how to rest -- especially when it comes to resting in the Lord.

God expects His followers to observe the Sabbath; after all, it's part of the Ten Commandments:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Exodus 20:8-11 (NIV)

And yet, that commandment may be the one we break the most often. The Old Testament laws regarding the keeping of Shabbat were detailed and stringent. Many Jews observe Shabbat from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday in a similar fashion to the requirements listed in the Torah and Talmud.

For most Christians these days the Sabbath falls on Sunday (and I'm not going to debate the Sunday-versus-Saturday issue here). But the demands of our modern lives pull us in so many directions. Too many people wind up putting in seven days worth of work at their jobs, and kids' sports leagues practice and play all week long. Our media culture throws so much entertainment at us all week long, and smartphones, tablets, and Wi-Fi make it even tougher to disconnect from the world.

Does modern life make true Sabbath rest impossible? Not necessarily. In her introduction to her father's classic book The Sabbath, Susannah Heschel (daughter of renowned rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) argues against the notion that the Sabbath flies in the face of the present way of life:

Writing in an era in which books by clergy advocating the psychological health promoted by religion were coming into vogue, my father went against the trend. He insisted that the Sabbath is not about psychology or sociology; it doesn’t serve to make us calmer or hold the family together. Nor does the Sabbath represent a rejection of modernity or the secular world – for him, the Sabbath was a complement to building civilization, not a withdrawal from it.

Jesus promises rest to His followers in the New Testament:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)

And the author of Hebrews speaks of the Sabbath rest that God offers to His people:

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

Hebrews 4:9-11 (NIV)

So, a Sabbath is both a requirement and a possibility. But how?

Lauren Winner, a Jewish convert to Christianity, writes:

The key to the Sabbath isn't merely rest. Rather, it's that in our rest we turn our attention to God, whose rest our Sabbath mirrors.

[...]

The way into Christian Sabbath observance isn't so much about rules as orientation: away from the busyness of the week and towards the Creator who rested. In this we may find a true sense of Shabbat shalom, Sabbath peace.

Sundays are a little different for me because I'm "on the clock" as a church staffer, but I make a point to ensure that I'm worshipping while I serve. Sunday afternoons for me are reserved for family time, and the only work I regularly do it to take the trash to the compactor, a task that takes no more than 15 minutes. I've even begun to put my phone away on Sunday afternoons! Spending time in worship and with family have always been wonderful ways for me to rest in the Lord. 

I think Sabbath observance is a little different for everybody, and that the way you rest in the Lord is ultimately between you and Him. But we are commanded to do it, and so we must.

How do you keep the Sabbath? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.

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Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.com / aga7ta