Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting

On my way to California, I read a book that I was really hoping I would be able to recommend highly. It is called Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, by Marva Dawn. While it certainly does contain some good insights, it turns out I can’t recommend the book, for several important reasons. Let me start with those, and then I will share what I did find helpful.

First, let me say that I always appreciate books that offer ways for us to deepen our connection to God and other people, and live into a healthy rhythm of work and rest. I am someone who is a big believer in a regular rhythm of life, and also someone who can struggle to find that rhythm. I also believe very much in the theological concept of the sabbath, which begins with God’s own creative rest, into which we are invited. So, a book that helps me think deeply about various ways of practicing sabbath-keeping was, on the surface, very appealing. And, as I said, there were some good points that I think are worth sharing. However, at the same time, there also were some serious drawbacks to the book that gave me pause.

First and foremost for me was the author’s uncritical appropriation of Jewish sabbath practices, including lighting sabbath candles, and reciting traditional Jewish sabbath prayers. Christian religious appropriation of this kind, especially with Judaism, is highly problematic and disrespectful. She seems to have no awareness of how it might feel for Jews to have Christians take over one of their most sacred rituals and put it right in the middle of a Christian framework. It wouldn’t have taken much, actually, to note that as Christians in particular, we must take extra care when talking about and reflecting on Jewish practices, and certainly when we are desirous of modifying them for a Christian context. Yes, Christians share a belief with Jews in a God who created the world and rested on the seventh day, and who commanded God’s people to “remember the sabbath and keep it holy.” However, traditionally Jews and Christians have had centuries of very different sabbath-keeping practices, shaped by different theological commitments. Those differences need to be noted and respected. Dawn, however, does none of that, and therefore, her argument feels very supercessionist to me.

The second thing that was disappointing was her heavily gendered language for God: all male, all the time; and also her reliance on traditional gender stereotypes. In several places, she talks about a husband and a wife and their roles; and there is an uncomfortable point where she talks about traditional feminine characteristics, like softness. Ugh. But I think the most problematic aspect of the book was the author’s smug, moralistic tone that came through repeatedly, even as she made protestations to the contrary, arguing that she doesn’t do these practices perfectly, and this all shouldn’t sound like duty or drudgery, etc., etc. And yet, she finds multiple ways of extolling her wonderful practices, including the fact that she doesn’t have a TV, and that television is so harmful [This was written in 1989]. So I really had to fight hard to keep going and glean what I could from her argument.

But, having said all that, there were things to glean, and there definitely were some points that I found really helpful and will continue to think about. She categorizes sabbath-keeping around four overarching practices: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting. I really appreciated each one of these, and each one had much to offer as I think about the rhythm of my own life and the role my relationship with God plays in it. Ultimately, the larger point is that the entirety of our lives is wrapped in and nurtured by our relationship with God, and everything else plays out in that larger context–all aspects of our lives are held in God’s time, and these four practices help keep God at the center, and help us develop habits that can be “channels of God’s grace.”

So, Ceasing. The first chapter is on Ceasing Work, focusing instead on “activity that is enjoyable and freeing and not undertaken for the purpose of accomplishment.” The second chapter is on “Ceasing Productivity and Accomplishment,” and she invites us to think about “what you require of yourself to feel that you have had a ‘successful’ day.” [That is a good question for me!] I liked the quote here: “To celebrate God’s love on our Sabbath also transforms us so that we can more deeply value others in the same way. When we are not under the compulsion to be productive, we are given the time to dwell with others, to be with them and thereby to discover who they are” [20]. I definitely feel the compulsion to be productive, and the negative consequences that accompany that compulsion. Chapter three is “Ceasing Anxiety, Worry, and Tension, and here she suggests, “The practice of thanksgiving is one of the best ways I know to cease worrying” [25]. I think that is a great insight. Chapter four is “Ceasing our Trying to Be God,” and allowing God to provide; and chapter five is “Ceasing our Possessiveness:” “As we keep the Sabbath, instead of our possessing things or space, time possesses us” [40].

Then Resting. I appreciated her discussion of many different kinds of rest–there are chapters on spiritual rest, physical rest, emotional rest and intellectual rest. In the introduction to this section, she laid out the following rhythm for the week that revolves around the sabbath: Anticipation [Thursday, Friday & Saturday], Celebration [Sunday], Reflection [Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday]. How would we live differently if we organized the week this way? In this section, she says, “If we are not able to rest one day a week, we are taking ourselves far too seriously” [70]. Guilty! Here, she also suggests, “The Sabbath is a day set apart for deepening our relationship with God, and that necessarily leads to emotional healing” [74]–it invites us into both solitude and community, both of which we need. Finally, in one of the chapters that conclude this section, she asks us to consider, “What gifts in your life enable you to rest?” [84]. That is a great question, I think, as it helps us reflect with intention on some of our unconscious habits and ask ourselves if they are facilitating positive relationships with God and others, or hindering them.

Part Three is Embracing. In this section, I really liked chapter 15, on “Embracing Intentionality,” which encourages us to be more deliberate about our choices, thinking of the sabbath as “a holy time for carefulness” [104]. Chapter nineteen was also good, on “Embracing Our Calling in Life,” that is, our particular station–partnered, single, old, young; each station has its gifts and joys.

The last part is on Feasting, and here she emphasizes in particular feasting with music, beauty, food and affection–cultivating practices of celebration and delight. She sums up these practices this way: “Observing the Sabbath includes…the freedom from, and repentance for, work and worry (ceasing), the renewing of our whole being in grace-based faith (resting), the intentionality of our choosing and valuing (embracing)” and “the fun and festivity of a weekly eschatology party” (feasting) [151].

So, again, there definitely were some good suggestions and areas on which I will reflect more, especially as I begin to think about the new year, and which practices I want to keep from 2022 and which ones I want to leave there, for the sake of my vocation, and my relationship with God and others.

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