Saturday, November 20, 2010


When I left my position as youth director at the Church of the Good Samaritan, I planned to take three months of “Sabbath” while discerning what might come next.

It’s interesting how much discussion that simple word, “Sabbath,” sparked. What is it? How do you do it?

I’m still sorting that out. I was trained to stay busy. I can sleep late- but rarely. I can hang in the hammock – if I’m reading something useful, planning something in my head, or taking a short break from the gardening at hand.

Three months of Sabbath?

A huge help along the way has been a book named, simply, Sabbath, by Dan. B. Allender. Its part of the new Ancient Practices series; Phyllis Tickle is general editor of the series. Looking at the list of authors involved, I’ll definitely be reading more of the series.

What I’ve enjoyed about Allender’s approach is that it’s not so much about keeping the “day” of Sabbath, although that’s part of it. Instead, he suggests that experiencing Sabbath more deeply is a way to reset the defaults inside us, reorient our vision, and find our place again in the larger plan.

I’ve always thought of Sabbath as partly about rules, and partly about rest. Both, I confess, bore me. And who would want three months of either?

Allender suggests that the key to Sabbath is joy. Puzzling over God’s “rest” on the seventh day described in Genesis 2, Allender suggests “it should be obvious that God rests not because he was weary from his labor.” As Isaiah reminds us, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary.”

Seems kind of obvious. But that suggests we’ve misunderstood some key point in the rationale for Sabbath. According to Allender, “Menuha is the Hebrew word for rest, but it is better translated as joyous repose, tranquility, or delight. . . God didn’t rest in the sense of taking a nap or chilling out; instead, God celebrated and delighted in his creation.”

Allender explores this idea of celebration and delight, our uneasiness with the idea that
God desires our joy, our preference for forging ahead on our own rather than pause long enough to see what wonders God has in mind.

The central section of Allender’s book considers “Sabbath purpose” as seen through the avenue of play. I honestly don’t remember, ever, hearing play discussed in the context of the Christian faith, yet play is deeply important to me, and I found the discussion of play, in the context of Sabbath, compelling.

I was grieving a bit the loss of play as I stepped out of active youth ministry. I have never lost my love of play – Capture the Flag in the woods, Boggle around a ski lodge table, impromptu games made up by girls in pajamas at a Girls’ Night lock-in. One of the tragedies of American adulthood is that play is so narrowly permitted. In fact, think about it – for American women past a certain age, what kind of play, if any, is allowed? Yet youth ministry has given me space to stand on my head, reenact “Three Chartreuse Buzzards,” and trash talk the opposition during our legendary games of Golden Fleece (not to mention the ongoing excuse to practice my offense in foosball).

Allender rescues play, and reminds his readers of its incredible value as a way to step outside of what is and see what might be, just as a small child might try on a Superman cape to explore a very different persona.

Jürgen Moltmann, a theologian whose work centers on the interplay of creation, liberation, future, and play, writes:

 We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo . . . the significance of games is identical with that of the arts, namely to construct ‘anti-environments’ and ‘counter-environments’ to ordinary and everyday human environments and through the conscious confrontation of these to open up creative freedom and future alternatives. We are no longer playing merely with the past in order to escape it for a while, but we are increasingly playing with the future in order to get to know it. Theology of Play

I remember playing paintball several years ago with a middle school boy who was used to being discounted. Both he and I, I’m sad to say, had been considered extraneous by our highly-competitive team. Our captain had a strategy that didn’t include either of us, and, feeling a little left out, we planned our own simple maneuver. To the surprise of both teams, my normally timid accomplice captured the flag and delivered it to the other team’s pole, while I provided cover and shouted encouragement. It was just a game, yet the alternative environment, our freedom to act, our escape of our predetermined roles, shifted things in every direction.

Allender says “Play redistributes power and gives the opportunity for convention to be reconfigured by the unexpected and the inconceivable.” This is true in games of every kind, but Allender is on to something bigger: What would it mean to play with God? It sounds faintly heretical. Does God play?

In a spiritual direction session a number of years ago, I had mentioned some difficulties and challenges I was facing. I was invited to spend some time in silence, picturing those challenges and inviting God to show me his presence in the midst of them. I imagined a long, mountainous path, strewn with heavy boulders. The terrain ahead seemed so daunting I couldn’t imagine moving forward. Then, as I invited God to show me his presence, I had a clear sense of Jesus himself, running lightly over the tops of the boulders. He motioned to me to follow and I stood, unable to move, conscious of my own poor balance, my serious fear of heights.

“What would you like to do?” he called. “Shall we dance across? Should I carry you over? Or . . .” I remember the unexpected sense of glee I heard in his voice, “shall we heave them all out of the way?”

I caught a glimpse of delight and play in that moment of meditation. My own approach to problems had always been much heavier. Yet, as I've seen so often since, to God every challenge is an occasion for him to show his grace, his strength, his goodness, an “opportunity for convention to be reconfigured by the unexpected and the inconceivable.” A chance to break through my narrow view with his greater, more joyful reality.

The path leading up to this time of Sabbath felt a bit like that path littered by boulders. In every direction lay uncertainty, challenge, difficulty, even dread. Yet, as I’ve begun to see what God has planned, I’ve experienced a sense of being lighter on my feet, less fearful of the heights around me, more eager to see what it would be like to live in a reconfigured landscape.

I have much more to process about Sabbath, and more to learn from my own Sabbath as I pass the half-way point. But here’s a start: forget about rules, rest, “retirement.” Think about delight, joy, play.

One last quote from Allender: “Imagine a friend asked you, ‘What do you most want to do, to know, and to give away in the last third of your life?’ How would you respond? Many of us would be irritated. We don’t know. We don’t have time to ponder the question.”

Sabbath is the place, time, opportunity, to explore those questions more deeply.