“Better is one handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.”
Ecclesiastes 4:6, TNIV
As a young man I worked for my uncle, a plumber. One day we landed a job for a new restaurant in a small hotel. Our project involved something we had never done: cutting a hole in the twelve-inch-thick concrete slab so we could install a floor sink. We rented a concrete-saw, including the special “sintered” blade, which was embedded with diamond crystals to make it hard enough to cut the cement. To keep the dust down, we built a tent of clear plastic sheeting around the work area, and I began cutting. The project took hours, and put up so much dust that the visqueen became opaque, and I looked like “Dr. Cement.” The other construction workers seemed to be avoiding us! When we returned the saw at the end of the day the bill was astronomical. We had worn out and used up the bejeweled blade, which cost hundreds of dollars! The rental tech pointed out something we hadn’t noticed on the saw: a threaded fitting to which a water hose could be attached. It was designed to be water-cooled to keep the dust down and to save the blade from burning away. If we would have observed the design of the saw, we could have avoided ruining the precious blade and spending all that money—and I could have avoided the embarrassment of walking around the construction site looking like a C.G.I. comic-book movie villain!
We humans are like that blade: valuable and powerful, we need refreshing cool water flowing over us to honor our worth and preserve our strength. God has designed each aspect of his created order with a threaded fitting, too, including us. The rhythms of Sabbath are built in to the very fabric of creation and—since we are part of that creation—into the DNA of every human being. Christians are not required to observe a structured, law-based Sabbath as the ancient Hebrew people were, but the mystery of Sabbath and its rhythms of rest and worship are still crucial to our spiritual, physical, and relational well-being. Abraham Heschel, a leading Jewish thinker and rabbi who, “praying with his feet,” famously marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., paints a compelling picture of what Sabbath can be: “The seventh day is a palace in time which we build. It is made of soul, of joy, of reticence. In its atmosphere… is a reminder of adjacency to eternity.” He goes on to ask what was created on the seventh day. His answer: “tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose… happiness, stillness, and harmony. The Sabbath must all be spent in charm, grace, peace, and great love.” Wayne Muller articulates the heart of Christian observance of Sabbath rhythms, “Sabbath is more than the absence of work; …it is the presence of something that arises when we consecrate a period of time to listen to what is most deeply beautiful, nourishing, or true.”
Though it is tempting simply to see Sabbath as a longed-for opportunity to get by ourselves and take a long nap, isolation and sleep are not defining characteristics of this practice as described in scripture. The Sabbath is a day for sacred assembly—for gathering together in the name of God. Sabbath is communal. Sabbath is a gift from God for our delight and blessing, a time to thankfully receive God’s provision as a grace, and to do so together.
Sabbath is the first positive commandment. It is not simply a prohibition of work, it is a call to remember and observe something greater than accomplishment and effort. Sabbath is an expression of human nobility that relocates our intrinsic value so that our worth is no longer defined by what we can produce, but by who we are as God’s beloved. Rabbi Heschel gets to the heart of this matter in a way that evokes the Rolling Stones’ classic song: “Man is not a beast of burden and the Sabbath is not for enhancing the efficiency of his toil.” Jesus likely had ideas like these in mind when he said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”
All this brings the question “why don’t we honor God’s creation rhythms of worship and rest?” Perhaps the greatest detriment to Sabbath observance is selfish ambition. The person who works seven days instead of six has an automatic seventeen-percent time advantage—great leverage if the ultimate goal is to get ahead! Another motivator is lack of grace toward self and others, often rooted in a misunderstanding of our basic human identity (I hear that Mick Jagger song again!). Fear, strife, and anxiety can also be powerful forces inhibiting a rightly-ordered life.
If we don’t honor these rhythms, though, we risk becoming slaves to our work; and, worse, we enslave others, failing to give our spouse, children, coworkers, and friends the grace of rest that God intends for them. We become bitter toward God and others and we become sick, depressed and burned out.
The Christian Practice of Sabbath
The Jewish practice of Sabbath involves sanctifying the time between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday, refraining from all work and physical effort, and gathering with family and friends for worship and togetherness. Some Christian groups choose to observe Sabbath according to this Jewish model, and this can be done in a healthy and life-giving way. I have a friend who is a Messianic Christian pastor and rabbi, and the congregation he leads honors the Jewish Sabbath, along with the rest of the Jewish calendar of worship and holidays—and they do so without a trace of legalism toward those who choose to do otherwise! Most Christians, though, will not choose this kind of rigorous observance—and this makes things much more complicated and murky. One solution to this complexity is to build “Sabbath-resonant” activities and practices into the ongoing patterns of life.
My ability to navigate this concept was challenged one day when my then teen-aged daughter, as we were arriving home on a Sunday evening after a long and busy weekend of ministry, asked me if I would go for a midnight run with her. If Sabbath were simply defined as rest and the avoidance of physical activity on the holy day, the answer would have been simple: “No honey, Daddy’s tired and needs to get to sleep.” As I lifted my attention to God in that moment, seeking a response that resonated with divine values, I realized there was a greater logic at work: a midnight run with my daughter was resonant with important biblical values that touch on Sabbath—much more so than an early bedtime on the heels of a weekend full of work!
To sort out real-world questions like this, and to recognize Sabbath-resonant activities when they present themselves, consider these five Sabbath values:
Faith: Sabbath is holy, so attendance of public worship, times of family prayer, reading and contemplation of scripture, giving thanks at the table, and other God-centered activities are more than appropriate.
Family: Sabbath is not getting away from the relational matrix of home, it is allowing family and home to be infused with God’s goodness and presence. Stephen Covey offers a compelling four-word phrase that captures the hoped-for end product of this Sabbath value, the cultivation of “a beautiful family culture.”
Friendship: Sabbath is communal and is characterized by togetherness, so anything that involves time with friends enhances the life-giving aspects of Sabbath.
Freedom: It is not the expenditure of effort that is to be avoided; it is the slavery of have-to’s. Climbing a mountain or riding a bike is a Sabbath activity; completing the honey-do list is not.
Fun: Sabbath is a celebration of life in God, not a morose duty.
Considering these values, I concluded that a midnight run around the neighborhood with my daughter really was an expression of Sabbath. I could invest time with my daughter in a spirit of family love. I could express the divine gift of freedom by doing something out of the ordinary—something not required by my work agenda. She and I could worship God by observing the creative beauty of the stars in the crystal sky above us. We could laugh and enjoy the exhilaration and joy that comes from a good run in fresh air.
 Hebrews 4:9-10.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Boston: Shambala, 2003), 3.
 Ibid., 20.
 Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest. Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, (New York: Bantam Books, 1999), 8.
 Leviticus 23:3
 Exodus 16
 In Deuteronomy 5:12-14, the Sabbath command is explained with a reference to God’s having delivered Israel from slavery. This contrasts the parallel passage in Exodus 20 wherein the same Sabbath command is explained by reference to God’s resting after six days of creation.
 Mark 2:27, My translation.
 Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families. (New York: Golden Books, 1997), 20.