Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Self-Care


Read: Luke 13:10-17


When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” (Luke 13:12, NRSV).

Why is it so hard to slow down?

Perhaps I shouldn’t make assumptions. Maybe I am the only one who gets frustrated when the elevator door doesn’t close fast enough. Maybe I am the only one who grumbles when it takes more than a few seconds to send an email to the other side of the world. Maybe I am the only one who has to restrain myself from finishing the sentences—and for that matter, the stories—of my slow-talking, elderly relative.

Maybe I am—but I doubt it.

Since time is short (isn’t it always?), can we just agree that I’m not alone in this? While we’re at it, let’s just skip over the “why” question as well and simply move on to admit that many of us have a problem. We might even call it a sickness. Acceleration sickness.

In his book, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick observes our tendency to live our lives on fast forward. It is quite literally a “rush.” It gives us a sense of rush of adrenaline that our ancestors knew only in battle. The battle analogy is especially apt, since it’s impossible to sustain that kind of pace. This is a sickness that will almost certainly kill us.

At some level, many of us know this. We just don’t know how to be healed.

Some years ago I noticed that there was one lecture in my semester-long Old Testament class that always drew a crowd of students eager for further conversation. It was the lecture on sabbath. Instinctively, I think they knew how badly they needed this “rest cure.” I had to admit to them that I needed it just as much as they did. But I shared the sense that this was at least part of the answer to our prayers.

Over the years, however, I have noticed a tendency among us “sabbath seekers” to approach sabbath like a project. Oblivious to the irony, we make resolutions to “work harder” at keeping sabbath. While it does take work to set limits on ourselves, I wonder if part of this tendency reflects a fundamental mistake in terms of category. Here’s what I mean.

Sabbath is not primarily self-care. If, in our minds, it is filed with all the other ways we’ve tried to improve ourselves—whether it be through mindfulness, exercise, assertiveness, or de-cluttering—we’ve missed the point.

Don’t misunderstand. All of these efforts may be worthy. But sabbath-keeping is primarily about honoring God, not helping ourselves. If we find that celebrating the sabbath makes us feel better—hallelujah! But that benefit is a secondary. God is primary.

Perhaps today’s gospel passage can help put this in perspective.

In the story from Luke, Jesus’ critics get on his case for curing a woman on the sabbath day. Jesus deftly puts them in their place by pointing out that even a strict interpretation of sabbath allows for acts of mercy. The critics slink away defeated, and the story ends with the crowd celebrating all the wonderful things Jesus has been doing.

For our purposes, however, it’s worth looking again at the beginning of the story. It’s the sabbath day. Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues. A woman shows up who has been sick for eighteen years. Does she show up because she has heard that Jesus is there? The author doesn’t say. I prefer to think that this is just what she does—sabbath after sabbath, and year after year. In any case, on this particular sabbath day, Jesus heals her. Hallelujah.

This is primarily a story about Jesus. But it’s also a story about a woman who finds release from a debilitating condition. It’s a story that reminds me of the importance of just showing up—of consistently accepting God’s sabbath invitation whether there’s anything “in it for me” or not.

Prayer: Accept our sabbath praises, O God. We will return to praise you, week after week, and year after year, “even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats.” And if, in your great mercy, you see fit to heal us, we will praise you all the more. Only let us praise you for your own sake until “the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means.”

Quoted sections from the conclusion of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s, The Sabbath



Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.