Sabbath. The single most important thing that separates Seventh-Day Adventists from every other Christian denomination. In short it’s the observance of Saturday as the day of rest told to Moses by God and etched into stone as part of the 10 commandments. For Adventists the Sabbath starts at sundown on Friday and concludes at sundown on Saturday as followed by the Hebrews. Sabbath is a welcome respite from the other 6 days of the week. Adventists don’t work jobs that require Sabbath hours (unless it’s healthcare related), nor do they buy or sell. Traditional Adventists won’t do strenuous activities like sports or things that are too playful such as swimming. Sabbath is a day of rest and worship. At least that’s the theory. In practice, keeping the Sabbath is much more complicated that many would have you believe.
Growing up I remember the mad scramble of our Friday afternoons preparing the house for Sabbath. As soon as we got home from school our parents put my brother and I to work as we all dusted, vacuumed, scrubbed toilets, made beds, picked up laundry, and anything else that needed done to make the house spotless. It was a stressful and annoying ordeal as we worked to undo the toll that life had taken on our house during the week. The Sabbath hours would roll around and the house came to a screeching halt as we all collapsed from the mad dash to Sabbath rest. For two boys Sabbath had mixed emotions. We cherished the time as a family when we didn’t have the distractions of the rest of the week. Then it was also unwelcomed since our Sabbath observance eliminated Saturday morning cartoons, playing with friends, and generally anything fun (at least in our minds). Church in the morning was followed by the best home cooked meal of the week which led directly into nap time. Our parents would sleep for hours while my brother and I watched the clock march slowly toward the exact moment sundown came and we were free. For my brother and I Sabbath keeping was a burden. A bondage from which we sought freedom for 24 hours once a week.
So what is appropriate Sabbath keeping? To a growing number of progressive Adventists this childhood bondage experience has led to a different application of Exodus 20:8-11, one that is more open to personal interpretation, and at first glance more liberating. Many progressive or “liberal” Adventists I know have no problem going to Starbucks before or out to a restaurant after church. They enjoy going to the beach for a swim or cycling down the road. Personally some of by best Sabbath’s start in the gym early on a Saturday morning and include a long hike, some rock climbing with my boys, and conclude with a scoop of ice cream from the dairy some time mid afternoon, well before sundown.
To traditional Adventists however, everything I just said is quite disturbing. Those individuals still rush home to ensure they aren’t in the public sector at Sundown on Friday. And although they don’t work or engage anyone to work by eating out or shopping those Adventists also fail to see the host of hypocrisies and inconsistencies they have created. While in college at an Adventist University I witnessed the same individuals who condemned going to a restaurant after church pre-purchase meal passes to the campus cafeteria where they would wait to be served lunch by a college student working to earn tuition dollars. Those same individuals can also tell you exactly when sundown is, as they look forward to the moment when they can get their scoop of ice cream or turn on the TV. I’ve seen Adventists condemn new members to their church for “inappropriate” Sabbath activities, yet never invite those people home to enjoy “proper” Sabbath fellowship.
Although I’m clearly not a traditional Adventist, I by no means dismiss everything that traditional Sabbath observance brings. I don’t go shopping, do house work, or play competitive sports. Those things tend to be rather selfish in nature and have a different time and place. The difference for me is the heart of the decisions that are made during Sabbath hours. That time at the gym is personal reflection time, often listening to sermons or worship music. A time to “come apart from the world” and relax my mind and body, the blessing of peace and health. The long hikes and ice cream are all about the blessings of time spent with my family. All things that I know traditional Adventists would promote as worthy Sabbath outcomes.
All of these things are tough topics to tackle and the topic of appropriate Sabbath keeping has come up recently in our household as we made some significant changes removing ourselves from the shelter of Adventist culture in the past year. Our kids no longer go to an Adventist elementary school and now are faced with the challenges of school activities during Sabbath hours. We have also had to answer relatives and friends who question my transition to a job where I work Friday and Saturday evenings. In a world where many Adventists give up jobs because of Sabbath observance, I embraced one. But they don’t see the bigger picture. My job in itself is a ministry. My Fridays and Saturdays are spent reaching out to teens and connecting their stories to the bigger story we all share in God. It’s the same thing I did as a youth leader for the church for ten years. In essence I’m no different than the pastor who is paid to present the sermon each Sabbath morning (unless you honestly thought pastors were paid for Monday through Friday and the Sabbath sermon was free).
My point however with appropriate Sabbath observance is that each person has a different way in which Sabbath brings physical and spiritual rejuvenation. I like to think that God on the seventh day took a step back as He filled His eyes with all the wonders He had just created and said “This is good”. Then decided to swim in His ocean with the humpback whale, run through His fields with the cheetahs, or free-climb with Adam to the top of the mountains. There wasn’t a church or a sermon or a Bible study. Just the joy of the blessings of rest and refreshment in the presence of God and His wonderful blessings. Jesus confirmed that Sabbath was made for man to enjoy (Mark 2:27). It should be a blessing not a burden. And for each of us our joys and our blessings are different. They can’t be dictated or spelled out in a rule book.
The most profound statement I’ve heard regarding Sabbath came from my pastor when I was a teenager. He said, “If you’re sitting around watching the clock for sundown so you can do something after Sabbath, then you’re heart isn’t on Sabbath anyway. You’re mind isn’t on God. You would be better off doing that thing and enjoying it on the Sabbath than to ruin your Sabbath thinking about what you can’t do.” And it made sense. My brother and I would play one on one basketball on Sabbath afternoon, but never played on our school’s team Friday night. For non-Adventists (and many traditional Adventists) that differentiation doesn’t make sense. But to me, the difference is clear. God in His infinite grace has blessed with so much more than I deserve. And in His wisdom he also gave me one day a week where I can set aside all the stress of the world, willfully and guiltlessly say “no” to distractions, and open my eyes to love and appreciate those blessings. And however you spend your Sabbath my only question would be is are you encouraging yourself and others to enjoy and give praise for all the goodness God has placed in your life. Or is your Sabbath keeping merely a requirement and a stumbling block to the joy of saying “this is good”. Then you will be able to answer what is appropriate Sabbath keeping.