They may have gone through the motions of Sabbath, but they did not stop the practices of anxiety, coercion, and exploitation that real work stoppage would entail. Their acquisitive enterprise had such momentum that it carried right into and through the Sabbath. The great festival of rest had become simply another venue for restlessness.
Since Sabbath in the Time of Corona two years ago, “Return to normal” has taken over as the cliché of the day. There’s even an insistence to return to pre-pandemic realities that threaten to undo changes that had made lives and work more humanized.
Inescapably, churches are also shifting back to normal, yet I find myself reluctant to return all the way back to pre-pandemic realities. I’m also certain that I’m not the only one rethinking many aspects about what church means these days. So, after two years of brewing, I will attempt to put language to the experience of pandemic-era Sabbath that, even to a lifelong Sabbath-keeper, was revelatory: how good, indeed, how restful it was to have Sabbaths at home.
Craving for Rest
In my faith community, we maintain a ritual of spending Sabbath mornings at church. Kids attend their age-appropriate programs, with adults in their parallel curricula. A liturgical service then follows where songs are sung, Bible verses read, and sermons preached. Add to this the accoutrement of modern-day church service—AV system, livestream, slideshows—and you’ve got a complete show that takes a substantial amount of work to sustain each week.
Optionally, the afternoon may include a potluck lunch, arguably the best part of church because food, but also because it is the closest thing to people really meeting face to face. Then, if you’re part of an ambitious community, various programs ensue.
In others words, Sabbaths can be very…exhausting?
Personally, Sabbaths have been the most tiring and stressful after becoming a parent of toddlers. Attending church with the ticking time bomb that is hungry children is super hard. Irregular schedules, keeping them quiet (without sedation), managing the psychological effects of imagined and real dirty looks from distracted people, picking up the 1700 pieces of noise-free toys/crafts/activities that you bring to keep them occupied. Yeah.
When churches closed down during COVID, I felt like I entered the Narnia of Sabbath-keeping. Is this what true rest feels like? Cue in A Whole New World. All of the sudden, we were freed from getting the kids prim and proper on Sabbath mornings, freed from sweeping goldfish crackers that got stepped on, freed from thinking what other high-sodium snacks am I going to feed my kids until the three-hours-later-than-usual lunch, from skipped naps, from programs, programs, and programs. It really was a fantastic point of view.
Oh, and I didn’t have any work to do on Sabbath and could listen to the sermon? What a novel concept.
Sometimes, often, I crave those Sabbaths at home. I believe in the value of community and fellowship in faith building, that rituals in religious practice can sustain a person through spiritual ups and downs. I also believe in rest though, as in, Sabbath.
The question is, if I was doing Sabbath right, how come that restful feeling was such a revelation?
Fatigued by Programs
I am nothing if not systematic, so I have tried to analyze possible answers to the question, Why am I surprised by rest?
Am I just tired in life? Perhaps. The more involved one is with church, the more tiring Sabbaths are. This is not necessarily bad, since Jesus’ Sabbaths must have been tiring too. But being tired in and of itself is not a virtue. Rather, the reason for that tiredness determines the virtue.
Is it the performative aspect of Sabbath—the gearing up to go to church (physically and mentally), the gearing up to perform the various duties at church, the formalities? There’s nothing wrong in each of these things, yet they chip away at my energy.
When I think about the best church experience in my life—during college—I remember how none of these programs were a burden then. Why is that? Well, the answer is quite simple: friends make everything better.
I’ve concluded that my source of weariness is this: programs that forget the human connections. (On top of being tired in general).
If the ultimate church experience is about community and human connections, involvement in programs often competes or eliminates this aspect of church for me. Some days, I go through church without a single meaningful conversation with another person because I am running to and fro fulfilling responsibilities. This feels deeply wrong to me.
There’s a lot of discussion on why it’s hard to get people of the age bracket 18-40 to come to church. This is a complex question with many, many layers to unpack. But from a very small-scale nonscientific survey, I’d submit that some are not going to church because church is not church enough.
There is a certain kind of fatigue that many in my and neighboring generations—even the ones who are still attending—feel from church. There’s a feeling of being unknown and unseen by fellow church-goers, a disconnect between the world depicted in church vs. the world that we see six other days of the week. There is a craving for real, honest, and authentic connections with each other, rather than merely practicing the forms of religiosity. A craving for a safe place where we can process questions and doubts as living in the present world becomes more and more confounding. A place where we can bond over shared brokenness, not just shared beliefs.
Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town, Walter Brueggemann writes.
Could some of these cravings be fulfilled by programs? Maybe. But let’s be honest, oftentimes, usually, the programs win over the needs of the people.
A Tale of Two Cultures
If you are a Sabbath-keeper, when someone asks about your Sabbath, is the description filled with programs? In my case, the answer is yes. I think this is problematic.
One of the core essences of Sabbath is its refusal to succumb to the culture where everything is valued, quantified, measured in economic standards. We are more than our productivity. Every moment doesn’t have to be monetized, advertised, or broadcasted. It is restfulness against anxiety, against wanting more, having more, everything more. In his book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, Walter Brueggemann calls this the commodity culture.
Under commodity culture, our lives are defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. We are how productive we are, how much better than the competitor, how much we are capturing the market. We are getting and acquiring at the expense of others.
The rewards in this culture are profit, fame, power, clout, influence—a measure of greatness derived from the market. Brueggemann writes,
In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods…
In contrast, when our minds and hearts are divested away from production and consumption, from winning and acquiring, they are freed to turn towards our neighbor. This is the Sabbath culture. In the commodity culture, everyone else is a threat, a competitor, or a market share to win. In the Sabbath culture, they are neighbors; people to have relationships with, not a thing to be bought or sold, won or discarded away. We see others as humans, not as commodities.
The God of the Sabbath is “not to be confused with or thought parallel to the insatiable gods of imperial productivity… At the taproot of this divine commitment to relationship (covenant) rather than commodity (bricks) is the capacity and willingness of this God to rest.”
Is it possible that the way we do church resembles commodity culture more than Sabbath culture? If you replace the currency and rewards of commodity culture with church stuff, can we distinguish it from corporate work?
Does the way we do Sabbath resemble more the culture of production (producing programs, content) and consumption? Is it about advertising? Is it about wanting more (members, followers, attendance, broadcast audience), having more (baptisms, Bible studies), and owning more? Does the church’s pride lie more in the amount of tithes than the spiritual experience of the people? Does the church hold a culture that curries favor to the rich, the influential, the powerful, and famous? Does it value those who donate big money to church more than the poor?
The appearance is one of rest, but, says the poet, the social reality is one of restlessness, for the pattern of acquisitiveness is not interrupted, even on the day of rest.
The problem with these pursuits is when it turns human beings into commodities. Practically every church knows this problem—we “love” people until they get baptized. And then, everything falls apart. A baptism is a score to win in the church market philosophy, hence the investment is made. But once that’s accomplished, it’s time to reallocate resources. As it turns out, we never loved the person to begin with.
Do we understand what it means to minister to a person, to have the covenantal relationship that God is after, to cherish the long-term engagement needed for neighborliness? Does our Sabbaths reflect a culture of rest, not just physically, but relationally—restful engagement with God and His children?
Can’t we do both—pursue the metrics and love people? Maybe…not? Jesus says that “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24) I’m starting to think that wealth applies to church assets too.
The way of mammon (capital, wealth) is the way of commodity, which is the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness without any Sabbath. Jesus taught his disciples that they could not have it both ways.
When the Lord of the Sabbath goes about building His kingdom, He centers it around the poor, the grieving, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, the refugees, the aliens—the ones who hold no “market” value, but in God’s eyes they hold great worth. He instructs us to invite those who cannot invite us back to dinner, because He’s trying to break us from the transactional world and turn into neighborly engagement. He tells His disciples that the widow’s two mites are the best offering that day, because they reflect the spirit of Sabbath the most.
He says to seek His kingdom first and His righteousness, and all the commodities will be added. But the key is that the orientation of the mind needs to turn away from commodities, and especially from seeing people as commodities.
When COVID ruled our lives and churches closed down, I felt rested in a long time because finally, I stopped hustling on Sabbath. Sabbaths at home not only freed me from the personal type of tiredness, but also the collective, institutional weariness of keeping up appearances, of pursuing metrics that actually diverted our eyes from seeing each other as human beings.
I realized that the restful time was a chance to focus on the main stage of God’s kingdom–the ones whom Jesus mentioned first in His first sermon. While some part of the church show went on, for the large part, I felt like my brain and heart finally had capacity to think about and feel for God’s often overlooked children.
Whatever normal we’re going back to, I’m not willing to let all of these go. Now to figure out how…
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