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Starting Out at Rest

Practicing Sabbath, part III

2018 – a brand new year, is off and running. Twelve new months, Lord willing, stretch out before us, pregnant with possibilities. Already, events are scheduled, business goals projected, travel plans made, resolutions cemented. Many of us are like hockey players at the start of a game – we’re pumped.  

This is all fine and good. Ambition is dangerous only when it’s selfish; when it’s Spirit-wrought, it will propel a Saviour, with a face like flint, toward certain death in Jerusalem and it will carry his apostle through a storm and a shipwreck all the way to Rome.  Might we all be so ambitious!

But this is a series on practicing Sabbath, and there is no more urgent time to resolve to do so than at the start of this long journey into a new year. So far we’ve drilled down on two elements of Sabbath, both of which imitate God’s seventh day. Our first article insisted that Sabbath is not possible if the assigned work of any given week is not finished. Undone work dogs us and erodes rest; completed work brings a 24 hour, even much longer, sigh of relief! Our second article reminded us that as God entered his rest, he looked back and delighted himself with his workmanship over the previous six days, seeing it as “very good.” So ought we! Savoring a “well done” at the end of a work week, seasoned with gratitude, is a fine entry into deep rest.  

Ridiculous command?

Now a third Sabbath practice for the journey ahead, and be forewarned you may not like this. In fact, you may think I’m just being a fussy old legalist. We cannot truly Sabbath (to say nothing of reaching our goals for the year), unless every 7th day we totally cease, as much as is reasonably possible, our daily work for 24 hours and refuse to come anywhere near it. We don’t even check our phones for work related text messages. Why? Because of the explicit prohibition in the commandment itself:  “On it you shall not do any work.”  Worship? Yes! Play? Sure. Work? None. Zilch. Nada.  

This is not easy, especially when deadlines, demands, homework and duties bear down on us relentlessly. Who can afford a full day break, especially in today’s highly competitive, low profit margin economy? Close up shop, one day a week? Ridiculous. Students stay away from studies a full day in every seven? Sure way to flunk out!

Really. Is it so ridiculous? Consider the story of conservative Southern Baptist Truett Cathy, who, from the beginning in 1946, insisted that his fast food Chick-fil-A restaurants be closed every Sunday. Today there are over 2,200 of his restaurants flourishing. In 2014 the chain was ranked ninth in total profit among all fast food restaurants, but first place, by far, in profitability per store. Each Chick-fil-A store earned $3.2 million compared to second-place McDonalds at $2.6 million. Chick-fil-A has been rated #1 in customer service for years. Rested and cared for employees are much more industrious and compassionate, and the result is customer loyalty that creates long lines in the drive-through lanes and tidy profits at the bank.  And they are closed every Sunday, everywhere.

Getting ahead, falling behind

My town (Lynden, Washington) was founded by a mother who arrived here in 1871. Phoebe Judson promoted Sunday closure and here’s why. In May 1853, she and her husband Holden joined a covered wagon train near Kansas City hoping to reach Washington Territory by mid-October, a distance of more than 2,000 miles over the rough Oregon Trail. Like all wagon trains, they elected a captain. His word was the law. They chose Rev. Gustavus Hines, only to be surprised one Saturday night when he announced the train would never travel on Sundays.  Phoebe was shocked. They had half a continent to cross, at oxen pace (15 – 20 miles per day on a good trail), with at least four mountain passes and innumerable river crossings ahead of them.  She sat in her wagon and just fumed. One family deserted the train and joined another. On their first Sunday, while they stood still, one train after another passed them by. But, being the daughter of a minister herself, Phoebe felt they had no choice but to honour their captain’s scruples. They started out again on Monday, bright and early, only to reach their first river cross on Tuesday evening.  A long line of wagons stretched out ahead of them, waiting for the single “ferry” to carry them across. They waited three days. On Saturday they resumed the journey, only to be told they would still rest the whole next day. Phoebe was livid. This made absolutely no sense to her. Still, the minister’s daughter obeyed.  

Then, a few weeks later, she began to see scores of dead oxen, mules and horses along the trail. They had been driven so relentlessly, they had collapse and died. She grudgingly admitted that perhaps the animals needed a day of rest. A few weeks later, she ruefully admitted that maybe the men needed it too, since they walked most of the time. Then she slowly began to notice that as they worshipped, ate, rested and even played together on Sundays, it had a remarkably salutary effect upon people’s spirits.  There was less grumbling and more cooperation. She even noticed that they seemed to make better time on the other six days. Finally, what totally sold her on the value of the Sabbath happened one Sunday evening:  the family that had deserted them came limping into their campsite, humbly asking to rejoin them. She had assumed they were at least a week ahead; in fact, they had fallen behind. Their own wagon train had broken down! Of course they were welcomed back. And so it happened that they reached their destination in plenty of time, as friends. Out of the 50 head of cattle with which they began, only two were lost.  

Recalibrating our hearts

We need to be cautioned against spiritualizing the meaning of the Sabbath commandment so much that we forget its literal and physical side. Bodily stepping entirely away from all work for 24 hours is clearly what is prescribed. The benefits are enormous. For one day, it moves us from life as a “human doing” to life as a “human being.” For one day, it compels us to recalibrate our hearts back to the stubborn fact that “God is the only source of everything good, and that neither our work and worry nor His gifts can do us any good without His blessing” (Heidelberg Catechism L.D. 50, Q&A 125). For one day it allows our souls to catch up with our bodies, or vice versa! For one day it arrests our drive for profit by reminding us that our real wealth is not in what we have, but in whom we love and in who loves us. For one day it slows us down enough to ease our anxiety over reaching our destination to actually enjoy the journey.   And for one day it brings us back to that Light, in Whose Light, we see the light which brightens every day.   

Related articles: 
Recovering from vacation Part I

Sabbathing: Savouring the six

  • Paster Ken lives in Lynden, WA, with his wife Kay. As a “retired” CRC pastor, he and Kay have now begun pastoring to seniors at Sonlight Community CRC.

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