Sabbath, Explained

A “day of delight” is not an easy topic to engage in the midst of this season. Nevertheless, Sabbath is a vital practice that is needed more than ever before and, as Dan surmises, is less engaged than at any other time. Listen as Dan and Rachael engage the true meaning of Sabbath, how it is meant to be a taste of the coming Kingdom of God and what we are meant for, and common misconceptions that accompany this day of restoration.

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Episode Transcript

Dan: Rachael, we’re tackling a topic that just provokes a lot of issues for people, at least when I have talked about it with others. And we’re going to talk about Sabbath. But, Sabbath in the context of a seditious, chaotic, wild, heartbreaking world, in which Sabbath is more needed than ever before, and yet probably is less engaged than, my suspicion is, almost at any other time. So, before we do that, though, do you know, do you remember? This is how we met.

Rachael: I do remember how we met. I was a second-year MDiv student at Mars Hill Graduate school at the time, The Seattle School, and a job opportunity came up to be a research assistant as you were working on your Sabbath book, and I thought that sounds really fun to get paid to research Sabbath. Though at the time, like probably many people, my experience or understanding of a word like Sabbath felt like, well, that is a very real and sacred religious practice for Jewish people. So that understanding of Sabbath. And then maybe, at least in my upbringing, Sabbath was like Sundays, though we went to church two times in the morning and in the evening, and usually it was like you worked on homework in the afternoon. Or maybe some chores you hadn’t been able to get done. Or maybe you got to play a little bit. So I had a very minimal understanding of Sabbath when I first met you and we started working on this.

D: Yeah, well, the reality was I knew very little about Sabbath. In fact, I was almost a proud, contentious Sabbath breaker in that I worked on those days called the Sabbath, and I had come back from a sabbatical, and my agent wrote me and said, look there’s something that has come up. A publisher needs a book on Sabbath and needs it fast and is willing to pay well and help you, you know, hire researchers. And I thought it was so hilarious. It’s so contradictory for a man like me to write on Sabbath, that it just seemed like a perfect thing to do. So I went ahead, asked a number of professors who would be the very best. So I know we should get onto the topic, but I want to read what I wrote. I said to my young, gifted and wise researchers Philip Nellis and Rachael Clinton: I cannot count the number of times I heard you make connections, ask questions, offer thoughts that shape this book. It was the rare experience with you, a delicious blend of academic, relational, pastoral, theological, and philosophical delight that takes us into the topic of what Sabbath is. But before we begin to talk about—Sabbath is a day of delight I just want to say that we are in an era where there is not much delight, where there is not much opportunity to have what I would just call the normal passage of sweet, good, delightful things. I mean, we’re living truly in a seditious world. I mean, January 6 will be for me just a day of such dark rebellion, treason, violence, the rise of a kind of hideous Christian nationalism. A level of interplay, of misogyny, white supremacy, it’s a day that for me—and I hope this country—is remembered like December 7. In one sense, even more than December 7. And that sense of: how do we in a world that is a journey into pieces, how do we create a day of delight? Oh, this is not an easy topic to engage.

R: No, not even the slightest. And I think especially for many of us who have a very anemic understanding and experience of Sabbath, because I think this notion of a day of delight that is meant to stand in defiance against all forms of the kingdom of evil, all forms of empire that demands a kind of life-blood and a kind of loyalty and a kind of idolatry that we are just not meant for and created for us Children of God. So there is also this aspect of Sabbath that is about justice, and it’s this interplay of growing and practicing delight as a radical form of defiance against all forms of injustice, of a way of saying our humanity is meant for the glory of God.

D: Preach it!

R: Intentioning a practice of Sabbath at such a time as this, one, not only does it help you grow a capacity to nurture and set aside a space for a defiant kind of delight even, when it feels like the capacity and permission for that is so thin, it also reminds you and gives you our practice to really rest into the faithfulness of God. That sense of, we are participants in the story, and we’re not central to the story. So it’s also a great way to confront even our own narcissism, our own idolatry. And yeah, so it’s not an end all be all. And it’s certainly not meant to be, You know, this is the fix, but it is a spiritual practice that we are going to talk more about that I think has a lot of power. To guide us into a kind of play that we are meant for.

D: Yeah. I mean, let’s say it again. It’s seditious. It stands against every form of perfectionism, drivenness, all forms of workaholism. But those are more slightly psychological terms. Let me use a little bit of a different language. Sabbath stands against all forms of greed, power, control and ultimately, violence against others and against ourselves. And I love the way you put it. No, it’s not a cure-all. You know, there is no cure-all but standing before Jesus. But before then, we’re going to be putting more words to this. But let’s just state it pretty obviously: The Sabbath is not an option. It was not abrogated. It’s part of the 10 Commandments. It’s the fourth commandment. So if you believe you’re not meant to kill, but then you go Sabbath, whatever– you’re already in a position to go no, no, no. This is for your life and for the life of others. So don’t throw away the concept of Sabbath. But when you think of it as primarily religious activity, like: go to church, and then after church, have lunch, but then study, and then take a nap, and then study again, and then go back to church in the evening, you know, if that’s what you view as Sabbath, you need more than a chill pill. You need a life. Because that’s not what the Sabbath is meant to be. Kind of a religious activity.

R: Yeah, and I want to just say one of the things that so struck me when we did this research is that the commandment to practice Sabbath, to set aside a day to cease from, I would say, monotonous labor to a different kind of labor, it’s the fourth commandment. And it is a commandment that I would call a transitional commandment between love of God and love of neighbor. And that really struck me. What is it about this commandment that in some ways is a playground for us to live out loving God with all of our heart and our soul and our mind, and then all the commandments that follow the fourth commandment, which are all about loving your neighbor. So, yeah, this–I still am struck by– because I’m aware of how little I take it seriously and practice this. I’m still struck by that. And so I would say, therefore, a lot of what we’ve read about Sabbath is that it’s, you know, meant to be like chill time. I think there is a place for rest as resistance. If you’re familiar with the Nap Bishop, the nap ministry, there is a place to talk about rest a Sabbath resistance in the shadow of empire. So I’m not speaking about that. I think maybe more how you often talk about my love of zoning out to Netflix. Ah, kind of dissociative. Not restorative. Not necessarily connecting or embodying rest, but a kind of dissociative rest, which I think a lot of us need dissociative structures in order to enter rest. That’s not so much the kind of rest we’re talking about on a Sabbath day.

D: Oh, no, no. I mean, now: Are you owning and confessing your idolatrous, dissociative Netflix activity?

R: Yeah, yeah, I’ll own it. I mean, it’s perfect. They just keep playing them, you know, occasionally they ask you if you’re still tuning in, which I think is rude, because obviously, if you haven’t stopped it, you’re probably still watching. Or, you know, doing something else while you watch. Yeah, I can own that, it’s fine.

D: But let me, before we go too much further, say there are times we need to take away from the realities that we are facing. And in that sense, allowing our minds to go elsewhere is not dissociation. And particularly when you’re allowing yourself to engage a narrative, a story, something that has a beginning, middle, and end. So I joke with you, but we also know that watching four, five hours of Netflix on the Sabbath isn’t truly play. So yes, give yourself a– particularly in this COVID heartache era– times to just steal away, without killing time. But know that in one sense a day could be lost. Weeks could be lost, and you will not know any more rest or joy from that activity. But you may be able to come down from the heartache or tension you live in, but we want more than that. That’s what the Sabbath is. You put it so well. The Sabbath is about giving us a hunger for more. And that is a taste of what the coming kingdom of God in its full and glorious restoration will be a taste of. So, from my standpoint, one of the things that you helped me see as we did research. How many years ago was that? Like a decade.

R: It was like more than a decade. It was in 2007, 2008.

D: Yikes! Anyway, so I mean, one of the things that became so clear is–two things that you made so dear. One is it is the transition between loving God and loving others. Without a Sabbath, there will not be much of a transfer of the interplay of our heart for God and our heart for others. We need a taste of Eden to be able to continue engaging in the issues of a fallen world and our own fallen heart. But in that, it’s also a taste of the coming kingdom. A taste of what we are meant to know today and yet we will one day know in fullness. So in that sense, we can reiterate this is not a day you just go play golf. It’s not a day to get work done in preparation for Monday. It’s set aside–and we’ll try to put a few words to this. It’s set aside to take in the glory of creation, plan for, prepare for, but in order to grow in delight, delight of God. Delight of his creation, including delight in the creation of who you are. And therefore a nap would be a lovely use, if it brought your body pleasure and honor and gratitude.

R: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, even that reality. I mean, I think that’s what’s so powerful is there’s this commandment that invites us to a different rhythm, a different kind of reciprocity, a kind of receiving, that changes us, that transforms us, and transforms our imagination for what is meant to be. And, you know, one of the things that was so interesting and obviously we were still pretty — I’m going to know if I say this word right –hegemonic. Is there a different way to say that word?

D: No, that’s how I would say it. But I also mispronounce lots of words.

R: I think, like just thinking about our research team. There was more we shared in common based on our identity and our place in the world that was different. But even among us, you had an older man at a certain stage in his career with different imagination for what would be Sabbath, a young father of three small children trying to imagine, Yeah, well, what feels like Sabbath to me doesn’t necessarily like Sabbath to a two-year-old. And a single woman at the time. And so I think there’s also, when you talk about preparation and planning, I think there is meant to be a communal play with Sabbath, which is part of, I think, the struggle of Sabbath at such a time as this, when we are in many ways, by nature of how we’re trying to honor each other and keep the world as safe as possible, cut off from community and cut off from each other.

D: I just want to scream. Yep, I mean, being online through something called Portal with my grandchildren is not the delight that my heart desires. And yet it is the primary option we have and again, not trying to sell a particular device. But this portal is brilliant for grandchildren and grandparents because there’s a portion where you can read a story, and they have it so that the face of the reader shows up in the story. My grandchildren, even some of my older ones, love it. Entering into the delight of reading to a grandchild. Oh my gosh. Look. Much of my Sabbaths over many years includes Becky and I reading to one another. And reading things we don’t read generally during the week. That notion of set aside– planned for, prepared for, but not what you would do in the other six days of the week. I don’t often read poetry, but Sunday is the day I read poetry. There’s certain fiction that I would not generally read. That’s the day that I will take in things that are just playful. I even went so far as I bought a pen. It’s like a really nice pen, and I don’t use it to write until the Sabbath. So when you begin to create not an exclusion from the rest of the week, but a kind of anticipation of things that bring your heart the pleasure of again: creation, goodness, beauty, honor, joy. All of a sudden I look forward to the Sabbath in a way in which it’s a reentry, a permitted reentry, at least in the antechamber of Eden in a way that no other day holds.

R: Yeah, I think, especially at such a time as this, where we’re able to, I mean, I think for me to intention beauty, to make space for it, to create it, to co-create it together. To practice abundance even when there is scarcity. To let strife not cease and denial, but to say, can we practice a kind of connection that doesn’t feel like it’s the norm? There is such power in reconnecting to, first, our common humanity, our desire, our delight and our hope. Right? Sabbath Day is going to stir hope, and again, it’s where it connects to that imagination for: this is a kind of play, at least where we dream and participate in the Kingdom of God that all of God’s creation is meant for. And it’s where we see again what is it about the glory of creation to the delight of God that actually we see in the text and you know, you’ve talked a lot about this. We’ve read it on here. Isaiah 58. You know, there’s this whole treaty and in some ways, an indictment on false forms of Sabbath that actually are not what I would say practicing and manifesting the kingdom of God as it is most meant to be. And you see this language, it’s not the kind of fasting I’ve chosen to loose the chains of injustice and the cords of the yoke and set the press re and break every yoke to share your food with the hungry. I mean, it goes on and on and on, to provide shelter. And this sense of the light breaking forth like the dawn and healing coming because of this righteousness. So I think there’s something about these simple yet defiant practices that actually ground us in the embodied tangible realities of what we’re meant for. So then they also, they should disturb us in that sense of, oof, this is what we’re meant for. And there’s so much of where this is just not my reality, other people’s reality, then it should shape how we’re living with the remainder of our week. And, you know, I wish I could say my Sabbath practices or the way it places my intention always lead to that. But I have been aware in this COVID season that in many ways, because there is so much heartache and there is so much exposure of the radical injustice of our system and if you’re a person who pays attention and loves in even the slightest sense, it’s brutal. I do find that I have to make space for grief in the midst of my Sabbath, which feels a little antithetical, and I would love to hear your thoughts on that, knowing that it really is meant to be a day of delight. But I find that what my heart most longs for sometimes, like you’re saying with the portal, I have to grieve that, like, I would have much rather be doing this on a Sabbath day. But I have to let there be a little space for new imagination, which for me has meant, I have to be okay acknowledging that I’m trying to cultivate beauty and joy and delight, as you mentioned, in a season that just feels so ridiculous almost.

D: Oh, amen. Look, we need to be engaging the people in our world that matter to us that often feel alone. This is a day to care for the elderly, and I know I’m in that category, we need to be caring for people who are not able to do some of the things that even in the COVID era that some of us are able to do. We visit prisoners. We stand with the poor. But let me just again give images: Friends of mine who live in a particular city. Sunday is a day in which they prepare wild amounts of food and invite wildly divergent communities into their space. They happen to be in a place where they, well, invite people who are living on the street and people who are multimillionaires into a setting in which they actually can talk, share, engage, and they provide the food. And it is, I’ve been to one of these events and I’m tellin’ ya, it’s the wildness of the kingdom at its best. And to go: sometimes Sabbath ruins you. I mean the very memory of those moments, I don’t create that in my own home in the way that this friend does. But there’s always something we can do to engage, to be playful. To in one sense round up the kingdom and say we defy for six days we stand against the kingdom and empire of this world. And for one day we dance, sing, shout, play games, have great sex. I mean, this is a day again I don’t think you could do all that one day and if you can wow, you’re moving fast. But nonetheless, if we get a sense that the Sabbath is so much other than a kind of religious spirit, but is actually the human spirit playing with the living God and with others to give something of the music of the kingdom to one another. And I wonder, does –given Michael’s, your husband’s, rather rare and glorious gifts do you all bring music into your Sabbath?

R: Music, I would say, is a big part of our Sabbath. Whether, you know, I’ve had to relinquish a lot of my ways I would want our home to be tidy because we got a lot of instruments in our row house living room, which, if you’ve ever lived in a row house there’s not a lot of room for amps, keyboards, guitars, cellos, microphones. But you know, it did feel like, especially in this season, you know, we need them accessible. And so we do try to, I’m not saying it sounds good what we do because, you know, we’re just trying to have some freedom with it. Or having a dance party. We’ve really been, really enjoying the eighties power ballads, just really feeling the emotion behind that and I just want to say, Dan, I think you’re differentiating that in many ways, we’re talking about justice, and so I loved how you just said: six days a week we lean in and there’s something about the practice of Sabbath that invites us to a different to lean into something different. Not as an escape, but as a way to receive and restore and remember where we are and who we are, and what we’re meant for, to cultivate. I mean, I just do think that sense of like, delight and meaning, meaning for what it is to be loved by God, and to be loved by others and that mutuality. So I really think, even just for myself, you distinguishing that is helping me remember. Remember what permission is had on the Sabbath. That is actually hard for me.

D: Not this Sabbath, but the Sabbath before Becky and I put on Netflix. David Byrne, the mind behind Talking Minds. And–is that right? Did I say it right? Talking Heads! Well, anyway, the music, it was, he put it on Broadway. It’s called American Utopia. And, you know, after about three minutes, five minutes, Becky and I, I mean, we just danced for almost two hours. And again, it’s not Christian! Good God. Everything, whether a person desires that or not reveals something about the reality of living in a fallen world and something of the heart of dreaming for a different world. And if we can enter the human experience of desire with honor, then we’ve got a taste of how to dance to the kingdom even when we live in Babylon. So our desire as we invite this is to get a little more practical. We’ll do that.

R: It’s always our work, isn’t it?

D: Well, you’ve got a Sabbath in between. So we’ll see how it goes.