True confession: I am a chronic commandment-breaker. I do it every week. In fact, my job as a pastor demands it. Every Sunday, I go to work and violate the Fourth Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8).
I wonder how many of my ministerial colleagues who are in favor of posting the Ten Commandments in public places are equally guilty? Many churches give raises to pastors who work extra hard on the Sabbath, rather than rewarding those who follow the divine directive to rest from all forms of labor. So we ministers toil away at the work of the Lord, pleasing our congregations but not our Creator.
Although those of us on "temple duty" have long been excused from the Sabbath obligation because of our work, the irony of Sabbath-enforcers being Sabbath-breakers is not lost on me. Nor is the fact that their Sabbath habits are shared by ever growing numbers of people, who work or shop or play organized sports on the day of rest. And while my insights, formed as they are in the community of my church, may sound old-fashioned, even irrelevant, it's worth remembering that until recently it was the tradition of our faith that shaped everyone's week. Believers or not, we Americans experienced Sunday as a day apart--a day when stores were shut and it was simply not possible to catch up with the errands we'd overlooked during the week. And that is still true in some European countries, many of which are now considerably less church-going than the United States.
That's all changed here in the past 40 years of course, and I'm convinced that by giving up on the Sabbath, we've lost something. I'm not talking about losing church members; we've lost something as a culture. Nonstop activity harms people, and it threatens our health as individuals and as a society.
Sure, I know that workers are rewarded financially for putting in overtime, executives are praised for clocking 14-hour days, parents of young children are liberated by working at home via cell phones and beepers and home computers, and that it's convenient to be able to drop in to all-night stores for furnace filters and fresh fruit at 3 a.m. Still, refusal to keep a Sabbath diminishes our sense of balance. Just because it is easy--even encouraged--to go, go, go, right through a day of rest, we shouldn't just cave in to this temptation.
My own congregation, Calvary Presbyterian in Alexandria, is no better than most in keeping the Fourth Commandment, in part, I suspect, because its pastor is such a poor role model. Sports schedules compete aggressively with our worship hour, and specials at Shoppers Food Warehouse can seduce people away from the sacraments. "All select soccer games are on Sunday," laments parishioner Janice Pritchett, reflecting on her daughter's competitive sports league, "and last season, most of the games were at noon on Sunday. On top of this, three or four weekends a year, there is travel for tournaments." Such scheduling creates a real dilemma for people who want to be supportive of both their children and their church.
I'm deeply grateful to the many members who make weekly church attendance a priority, because I know that it's not always the obvious choice. There is more competition than ever for people's time and attention, and I'm sure I'm not the only pastor who pines for the days when church was the main event on Sunday mornings.
Not that I want church attendance to be simply an alternative to inactivity. I doubt that people were any more focused on worship back in the days when church was the only game in town and "blue laws" prevented people from shopping or going to the movies. It seems to me that most such laws are rather odd and arbitrary, and don't necessarily preserve good Sabbath-keeping. In Connecticut, where I first served as a pastor, you could do anything on Sunday except buy beer and wine, and the grocery stores enforced this law by pulling down large pall-like tarps over the alcohol displays. The result was that you could drink to excess on the Sabbath, but you had to do your buying before the holy day.
In religious terms, the heart of Sabbath-keeping, then and now, is enthusiastic praying and playing--activities that are designed to be privileges rather than demanding responsibilities. Whether your tradition calls for Sabbath on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, the day is a time to break out of life's usual rhythms. As a pastor, I'm convinced that if Christians carved out time for prayer on Sunday mornings and play on Sunday afternoons, they would be happier, healthier and more productive . . . from Monday through Friday.
I'm equally convinced that devoting a day to reflection and relaxation would benefit us all. My friend Bill Parent, a Roman Catholic priest and long-distance runner, reports that an almost universally recognized training principle is that a runner becomes faster by taking a day off from training each week. "The Sabbath principle," he concludes, "is built into our physical bodies." There's also a saying among artists that you must know when to stop painting--if you don't, you'll make one stroke too many and ruin the painting. Overworking can have the same disastrous results as over-painting.
While I'm personally and professionally committed to Sabbath prayer, I'm no less determined to encourage people to play on their days off. When I was on vacation at Bethany Beach at the end of July, I sat in the sun and watched a man pace back and forth in the sand with a cell phone stuck in his ear, yakking away and clearly doing a deal of some kind. Except for the fact that he was shirtless and wearing a bathing suit, he could have been in his office pacing in front of his desk. Not that I am completely innocent: I checked my e-mail once from the beach (but immediately felt guilty about it!).
Neither I nor the man in the sand is unusual. Our society measures us by our productivity. To stop working is to challenge some of our culture's most basic values. In this light, Sabbath-keeping seems like a very subversive activity, because it coos "play" when the world shouts "work."
It often seems as if our greatest achievements take place at work--and maybe this is natural, since our computer terminals and offices are the focus of so much of our time and energy. But as a pastor who has been conducting funerals for 13 years, I know all too well that when grieving family members and friends speak about those they have lost, they rarely include remembrances of how much money a person made, or how hard she worked, or how many awards he received. Instead, I hear stories of tenderness and humor and silliness and playfulness--in other words, Sabbath-type memories. As the saying goes, no one says on his deathbed, "Oh, if only I had spent more time at the office."
The Rev. John Sonnenday, who has started a Sabbath-keeping group at his church, Immanuel Presbyterian in McLean, uses the gathering to reflect on some of the broader questions raised by our tendency to work nonstop. He is convinced that the one group that most desperately needs some Sabbath time each week is our children. They need time and attention from us, and they also need time just to be themselves. Days of rest are almost certainly more valuable to them in the long run than additional clubs or classes or teams.
Like many of the parents who are members of my congregation, I worry that I may be giving my children the impression that they are slaves--slaves to school and sports and so many other time-consuming activities. Better Sabbath-keeping, I'm beginning to discover, could make me a better father. You see, the Sabbath is a reminder that we are more than beasts of burden, more than cogs in a wheel, more than students or workers who are valued for our contributions. On our day of rest, we discover we are valuable simply because we exist.
It seems to me that Jews calculate their days correctly--they start each day in the evening, and begin with the refreshment of a night's rest. We would all be well served, I believe, by beginning each week with a Sabbath, a day of peace, and using the serenity of that day as the foundation for our ongoing activities. Call me countercultural, even subversive--I imagine that's what shopkeepers and my parishioners' employers will think. But as a repentant Fourth-Commandment-breaker, Sabbath-keeping is something I will continue to preach and that I think we should all practice.
Henry Brinton is pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Alexandria.