Our family has had trouble with the fourth commandment. Keep holy the Sabbath day. It’s not that we skip Mass on Sunday, but rather that too often, we only keep holy the Sabbath hour and a half (our time at Mass), rather than the Sabbath day itself.
We live in a neighborhood with a high population of Orthodox Jews. Their Sabbath runs from sundown Friday evening to sundown Saturday. During this twenty-four hour period, they may not drive, cook, clean, shop, mow their laws, do laundry, repair problem areas of their home or play in soccer tournaments. There are probably additional things they may not do, but these are the ones I notice, since that’s what Bill and I are generally up to while they are walking past our house back and forth to synagogue.
One Saturday afternoon, David and Liz, our Orthodox friends down the street stopped by so our children could play together. Bill had been weed whacking at the time and I had just taken a week’s worth of socks and underwear out of the dryer. We stopped our work to chat, and talk soon turned to the Sabbath.
“On the Sabbath, we spend a lot of time visiting and talking with other people, because we can’t do much else,” David explained as I peppered him with questions. “Most of the people we visit with are also Orthodox Jews because they’re the only ones who have the time off to do the same thing.”
“In fact, David, we should be going because we interrupted them from their work,” his wife nudged.
But Bill and I urged them to stay. I knew my 84 socks and 42 pairs of underwear would wait patiently for me, and I wanted to learn more how this Orthodox family with three kids could manage to set aside a full day for God and relationships, when our own family seemed not to have an hour to spare.
Talking about it later, Bill and I decided our family needed a Sabbath. Aside from Mass, we acknowledged that our Sunday didn’t really look that different from any other day of the week. Chores; running kids to activities; last-minute projects from work; errands. It’s not that what we were doing was so bad—it just wasn’t especially holy.
In the book Sabbath, author Dan Allender makes a case for Christians to take the Sabbath as holy. He defines “holy” as “set aside,” and writes, “Sabbath is the day we practice for eternity. It requires that we receive, intend and protect the day. The bind is that if we let the day happen spontaneously, it will usually dissolve into the route of least resistance.”
As Bill and I planned what we wanted our Sabbaths to be, we held onto to Allender’s assertion of Sabbath: “Sabbath is about relationship, nature and beauty.” Bill and I knew we could never keep our Sabbaths at home if we hoped for them to feel holy and set aside. The call of the socks, weeds, e-mail and cluttered basement would be too loud.
Instead, we decided that after attending Mass, our Sabbaths would be spent outside, in a beautiful environment, with the whole family.
Allender aims high with his Sabbath plans: “The Sabbath calls us to receive and to create with God the delight he gives and invites us to orchestrate for his glory. It requires surrender and imagination.”
For us, the surrender involves letting go of the thousand things we “should” be doing to join in the delight that Allender promises God offers. The imagination comes in finding simple, outdoors activities that have elements that can be enjoyed by all of us. We’ve been keeping our Sabbaths for more than a year now, and it’s been one of our best family decisions. We’ve seen miles of the Ice Age Trail and have visited every state park within an hour of our house. Much of our Sabbath involves hiking. Often two members of the family pair up for a discussion on the path— conversations that likely would not have happened otherwise. Arguing among kids is kept to a minimum because everyone is moving and has plenty of space. We have found that Allender is correct in how nature and beauty connect us to God.
Like all spiritual practices, our family’s keeping of the Sabbath has ebbed and flowed. We were terrible about keeping it this past spring, but we seem to do especially well during autumn and winter. Liam’s favorite Sabbath was a horse-drawn sleigh ride last January on a farm just north of Milwaukee-- despite temperatures that dipped below zero. Jacob and T appreciate any Sabbath outing that includes a sand volleyball court. A couple of Sundays ago, it started to rain on our way to Naga-Waukee Park and Jamie moaned, “This is the worst Sabbath ever.” But we found a picnic shelter to eat beneath and the rain ended before our hike began, so even Jamie had to admit it turned out to be a good Sabbath after all.
I still marvel at our Jewish neighbors and their 24-hour commitment to the Sabbath. Our family Sabbaths are not even full days yet—they are more like Sabbath afternoons. But Sabbath for us has grown to mean so much more than a morning at church. We protect the day as much as we are able, and try not to beat ourselves up when we fall short. Through our Sabbaths, we have found Allender’s words to be true: “Delight doesn’t require a journey thousands of miles away, but it does require a separation from the mundane, an intentional choice to enter joy and follow God.”