Come Sunday: Sabbath Thoughts from an Old Testament Professor

The following reflections are taken from Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt, by Dr. Renita J. Weems. One of the nation’s leading African-American female preachers and theologians, Weems shares her early memories of Sabbath through the lens of the “colored” community. Special thanks to Cynthia V. Vaughan for sharing these excerpts with Blessed Earth.

weems“Once upon a time Sunday was a special day, a holy day, a day different from the other six days of the week. This was back before malls were ubiquitous and when shopkeepers after six days of receipts thought nothing of locking up Saturday in late afternoon and not opening their shop doors again until Monday morning. This was a time when colored people like those I grew up with still believed that it was enough to spend six days a week trying to eke out a living, worrying about whether you were ahead or behind, fretting over the future, despairing over whether life would ever get better for coloreds. Six days of worrying were enough. The Sabbath was the Lord’s Day, a momentary cease-fire in our on-going struggle to survive and an opportunity to surrender ourselves to the rest only God offered. Come Sunday, we set aside our worries about the mundane and renewed our love affair with eternity.”

“Our working-class hearts were ultimately fixed on one thing alone. Sunday held out to us the promise that we might enter our tiny rough-hewn sanctuary and find sanctity and blessing from a week of loss and indignities. Remembering the Sabbath where I grew up involved delighting oneself for a full twenty-four hours, ultimately in good company, with fine clothes and choice meals. The Sabbath allowed us to mend our tattered lives and restore dignity to our souls. We rested by removing ourselves from the mundane sphere of secular toil and giving ourselves over fully to the divine dimensions, where in God’s presence one found ‘rest’ (paradoxically) not in stillness and in repose but in more labor–a different kind of labor, however. We sang, waved, cried, shouted, and when we felt led to do so, danced as a way of restoring dignity to our bodies as well.  We used our bodies to help celebrate God’s gift of the Sabbath. For the Sabbath meant more than withdrawal from labor and activity. It meant to consciously enter into a realm of tranquility and praise.”  

“It was as though time stood still on Sunday. It was a day of magic. Time was different; life was different; the very air we breathed was, it seemed, different on Sunday. We ate together as a family. We went for drives in the country as a family. Husbands and wives called a halt to their bickering on Sunday and spoke in hushed tones in front of children. Even the drunks in the neighborhood quit drinking on Sunday, and the prostitutes were grateful for a day to sleep in.”

“Knowing that the Sabbath was just around the corner made demands upon us and disciplined us in certain directions. The Sabbath demanded that we do better, even if we weren’t intrinsicallyListening for God any better human beings on Sunday than we were on Saturday. It reminded us what we could be. It gave us something to aim for — peace, tranquility, love, Paradise, eternity, a vision of heaven on earth.”

“The Lord’s Day allows us to bring our souls, our emotions, our senses, our vision, and even our bodies back to God so that God might remember our tattered, broken selves and put our priorities back in order. The Sabbath makes sure we have the time to do what’s really important and be with those we really care about.”

“I miss the Sabbath of my childhood. I miss believing in the holiness of time. I miss believing there was a day when time stood still. Once upon a time Sunday was a special day, a holy day, a day different from the other six days of the week. . . This is the Sabbath I miss.”

Photo credits: American Baptist College website and Amazon.com. 

Robert’s Rules and God’s Rest

Near the banks of beautiful Lake Junaluska sits a house called “Roberts’ Rules,” built by Rev. Bill Roberts and his wife Lisa. But this is more than just a vacation home. The house is intended for Sabbath use, for the Roberts’ as well as family, friends, or colleagues who need time away.

Three months before the house’s completion in August 2015, Roberts met Blessed Earth Sabbath Program Coordinator Bill Hughes at an event at Duke Divinity School. Hughes shared a copy of 24/6 with Roberts, who devoured it. Its message reaffirmed the importance of Sabbath and confirmed his family’s desire to use the house for Sabbath purposes, not only for themselves, but to bless others as well.

“We accept this house as God’s gift to us, and as with all God’s gifts, it is God’s plan that we share,” said Roberts. “Dr. Sleeth reminds us that generosity and Sabbath go hand in hand.”

Bill and Lisa named the house thinking of all the meetings they have attended at Lake Junaluska Conference Center, following Robert’s Rules of Order. But the Roberts’ primary rule is that the house is intended for Sabbath.

“It reminds us of one of the greatest spiritual truths a Christian can follow—that God, as our designer, knows our need for rest so well that he has commanded us to take Sabbath. It allows us to grow closer to our God as well as care for ourselves.”

Rev. Jonathan Brake, who pastors at Centenary UMC in Winston-Salem, recently spent a night there while attending his daughter’s college freshman orientation. Grateful for the Roberts’ hospitality, Jonathan reRoberts House Picfers to “Roberts’ Rules” as the “Sabbath House.” Having recently suffered a tragic loss in their family, the Brakes hope to find time soon to relax and heal there.

Hospitality, generosity, and Sabbath–the trifecta of God’s shalom. Through the Kingdom hearts and open hands of people like Bill and Lisa, we see a beautiful example of how Roberts’ Rules can order God’s rest!

LEFT: Rev. Roberts and his wife Lisa wrote Scripture passages and meaningful quotes on the walls of their house during construction. 

Sabbath Rest: Setting Your Rhythm

By Cynthia V. Vaughan 

A couple of months ago, I found myself—after twenty years as an ordained clergyperson—on the brink of compassion fatigue, a precursor to burnout.  In addition to the challenges of being a Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor in a hospital setting, I was dealing with prolonged grief from multiple major losses; had just become president of the North Carolina Chaplains’ Association; had recently started as Sabbath Chaplain for the Harbor District; was active with the Outreach Committee at the church I attended; and was involved with the World Pilgrims, an Interfaith Coalition group out of Atlanta.  Professionally, I was serving on two national committees with the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, and, socially, on the Board of the Cape Fear Jazz Society.  In the midst of all of that, as an African American woman, I was acutely aware of the societal discord raging around racism and sexism.

The annual Carolinas Black Clergy Leadership Event could not have been more timely.   It was a workshop presented by Rev. Dr. Joseph W. Daniels, Jr. entitled, “Setting Your Rhythm.” That got my attention.  Dr. Daniels shared that he served as the District Superintendent in the Greater Washington District in the Baltimore Washington Conference and  the lead pastor of  Emory United Methodist Church in Washington, DC; was a nationally sought after preacher, teacher and speaker; and was a loving husband and father. At some point he realized he had to stop. He wasn’t just burning the candle at both ends: his candle was engulfed in flames!

Dr. Daniels knew a little something about being headed for burnout. One of the many things he did as he began to get the fire under control was he made an intentional commitment to Sabbath rest. He also asked to be released from the DS position so that he might concentrate on fulfilling his call to pastor the Emory Church and to lead them through the construction of a $56 million affordable housing and church renovation project. After a brief conversation with Dr. Daniels at the clergy event, he reached into his briefcase and gave me a copy of his most recent book, The Power of Real: Changing Lives, Changing Churches, Changing Communities.

In the book, Pastor D mentors Joe, a young man who is newly appointed as pastor of a dying church called Church of the Last Chance.  Over many months, Pastor D and Joe talk about praying, fasting, worshiping, studying the Word and assessing the needs of Last Chance Church.  In the following excerpt from The Power of Real, Pastor D introduces Joe to an unexpected spiritual discipline that will change his way of being:

“Sabbath rest.  It is essential that you and your fellow leaders and congregants commit to Sabbath rest. Scripture is clear that God created Sabbath to be a blessing to humankind. In fact, Watchman Née, in his book Sit Walk Stand, reminds us that God worked six days and then rested on the Sabbath, and that God created human beings on the sixth day. Therefore God began with work and rested on the seventh day. Humans, however, began with rest; the first day for human beings was the Sabbath day. God was trying to send a message from the very beginning . . .

“Many people are fractured, broken, and frustrated, and as a result we have fractured broken and frustrated congregations and communities. Thus brokenness can be attributed in part to our lack of discipline around prioritizing Sabbath rest. Simply put, Sabbath is refraining from work or from our normal routine and using that time to rest, reflect, and draw closer to God. Eugene Peterson wrote a book called Working the Angles, and he refers to Sabbath as a day of praying and playing. It is not a day off, but a day to break the normal routine and reconnect ourselves to the God of our lives. Taking Sabbath rest recharges us, replenishes us, refocuses us, and redirects us into God’s intended plans, purposes, and destinies. It allows us to look back at the accomplishments of the last six days and refocus us for what is about to happen in the next six days. Sabbath gives rhythm to life. Without Sabbath, we become lost and burned out.”

In the book, Dr. Daniels shares a lesson he learned with some of his colleagues from a resident rabbi:

“He taught us how the Sabbath is practiced in the Jewish tradition; because we are Judeo-Christian people, Christians should practice it the same way.  He said that the day of Sabbath has various components to it.  There ought to be time for prayer, worship, and study.  Also, time spent with family and friends doing fun things.  There ought to be a lot of eating.  Traditionally, feasts are conducted on Sabbath days.  And obviously there should be time for rest—sleep.  The rabbi also said—he had everybody laughing with this on—that the Sabbath should be a day for sexual intercourse! (Clearly discrimination against single people!)  All the single clergy in the room shouted, ‘Uh-oh!’ and most of the married people in the room had big old smiles on their faces and were laughing like crazy. . . . The Sabbath should be a day when we cease from the normal working routine.  A time where we recharge, refocus, renew, reflect, revisit, review, refresh, and reignite ourselves for the journey ahead–or at least for the next six days until the Sabbath comes again.  As congregations practice this God-given gift of rest, we find our balance and position ourselves to be powerful agents of transformation in the world. . . . We must have Sabbath. Even if we need to start with a few hours a day until we can build up to a whole day, just start! Your life will never be the same again.”

Dr. Daniels goes further to say that there are “distant relatives to Sabbath rest that when exercised properly, can contribute to positive spiritual balance.  These include full vacations, mini vacations, time with family and friends, and a commitment to fitness, physical and emotional.”

After reading this book, I decided to jump-start my Sabbath keeping with a week of Sabbath rest.  I sought to reset my rhythm, regain my spiritual discipline by staying at home praying, reading, reflecting and resting; making phone calls to both my pastor in Atlanta and my spiritual and exercise accountability partners; and setting and keeping appointments with my local therapist and medical doctors.  I was seriously seeking to reset my rhythm; I was way out of sync. With the prayers and words of encouragement from family, friends, my Bible study group and Sabbath Chaplains—praise God!—I’m almost back in sync.  I am aware that I did not lose my rhythm/discipline overnight; it will take more than a week to reset it.  It will take a lifetime to maintain it. But more importantly, I also realized how important Sabbath-keeping should be to everyone, and especially to pastors and others who are set aside to represent God to the masses.  It made me rethink my work as a CPE Supervisor, my ready access to seminary graduates, pastors, and chaplains, and the secondary role I had taken on as part of the staff of the Spiritual Care Department at the hospital.

My colleague at the hospital is a great teacher.  She is creative and easily gets into a zone when she makes a presentation or teaches on skill building, etc.  I tended to defer to her as the educator. During my Sabbath week I re-discovered that I am also gifted in teaching—on spiritual things, a component that is often left out of CPE curricula.  I immediately took the lead on a “Sabbath by the Sea” event we were planning and suggested to my colleague that we be intentional about enhancing our curricula with more spiritual activities in the future.  She readily agreed and suggested I should take the lead in doing those!  How easy was that!  Via my Sabbath keeping experience, my colleague has been relieved of the weight of doing the majority of our teaching sessions and I have regained a valuable part of my love for being a CPE Supervisor!   I can feel the rhythm coming!

In addition to her hospital chaplaincy, Cynthia serves as Sabbath Chaplain for the Harbor District in the North Carolina UMC Conference. She is ordained in the North Georgia Conference of the UMC, appointed to extension ministry in North Carolina as a CPE Supervisor/Chaplain at New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington.  She attends Wrightsville UMC in Wilmington.