One of the richest spiritual practices we can engage in is the intentional attempt to shift our understanding of time. We all have an understanding to time, to be sure- in this hectic age, we are driven by our appointment calendars, to-do lists, meetings and obligations. We celebrate cultural holidays, some of which are even historical relics of a different way of reckoning time. Unfortunately, most of us don’t really master time, rather it masters us. For those of us of faith, this is particularly challenging for two reasons: first, we are living out a schedule that is largely demanded by the wider secular culture and its’ requirements for productivity and speed; secondly, we struggle to “make time for God,” to fit our faith into our schedules.
This is particularly tragic in that, in one sense, we don’t need to make time for God. Rather, he made time for us. As theologian Frank Senn reminds us:
Time is God’s creation and God’s gift to us. Since the times and seasons belong to God already, we cannot sanctify or make them holy. The times and seasons are holy because of the presence of the Holy God who relates to his people in specific ways at these particular times and seasons. We can only affirm the sanctification of time because of God’s presence and the gifts of grace received at particular times.
Obviously this is a profound subject that can seem a bit overwhelming, because, if we are honest, it challenges both our cultural assumptions and many of our daily practices. Nonetheless, if we can begin to shift the way we understand time- seeing it both as God’s and as God’s gift to us- the fruit in our lives can be incredibly rich. While Dr. Senn is right that nothing we can do will make times and seasons holy- God does that already- there are in fact practices that can help us to recognize, celebrate and live into that holiness in an enriching way. To make this subject approachable, these three articles will consider some specific spiritual practices that have been used throughout the centuries to do just that. In this article, we will start with the practice of sabbath. Later articles will consider fixed-hour prayer and the church calendar. Taken together, it is hoped that this will help provide both a framework for beginning to reinterpret our understanding of time, as well as some practical ways to live into that new understanding.
The place to begin understanding the sabbath is the practice of God himself. Genesis 2 tells us:
On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.
What do we see here? God’s work of creation is good, even very good by the end. The day of rest at the end, however, is something different. It is proclaimed to be holy- literally, “set apart.” We see here the beginning of a pattern: work is good, but resting from work is to be considered holy, ultimately even a commandment for God’s people. The practice of sabbath among the people of God can be seen to have three main purposes:
1. Freed from time-consuming everyday work, the seventh day is a gift and a blessing from God.
2. It is a reminder that all time is the Creator’s gift—a fact we acknowledge when we consciously give back to God part of what is his anyway
3. It also serves as “God’s signpost,” pointing not only to his goodness toward us as Creator, but also to his mercy toward his chosen people as their Redeemer.
A gift and blessing of rest which we receive. A humble gift we return to God. A weekly reminder of our redemption. This is the beauty of the practice of sabbath.
How we mess it up
Unfortunately, like so many good gifts God has given us, and like so many spiritual practices, we are prone to “miss the mark” when it comes to sabbath-keeping. It’s part of our fallen nature to misuse what’s entrusted to us, sadly. It’s important to note that this is why Jesus can seem to be so hard on the idea of sabbath at first glance. Six different times he is recorded as having confronted the Jewish religious leaders over the issue, but a careful reading shows that he is taking issue with their manner of sabbath observance, not with the idea of sabbath itself. Jesus’ legitimate criticism of how the Sabbath was observed in his day invites us to consider the pitfalls of our practice as well. Briefly, let’s look at three:
Legalism. We have a tendency to ruin the sabbath with rules, as the Pharisees did, turning a gift into a burden. I think Dan Allender puts it well:
Does the Sabbath have to be exactly twenty-four hours? Must it be celebrated on Sunday or on Saturday? … These questions too often take us far from the true heart of what it means to celebrate the Sabbath….The issue is not when or how long, but if a day is at all chosen…Many who take the Sabbath seriously and intentionally ruin it with legislation and worrisome fences that protect the Sabbath but destroy it’s delight.
In Mark 2:27-28, Jesus is clear: Sabbath is a gift from God for us to use properly, but that doesn’t mean it is some kind of religious cage. We do well to observe it as best we can, yes, but primarily it is a day of rest, joy and freedom.
Activities and opposed to rest. Whether it is getting household chores done, kids to sports, or binging on Netflix, our hectic lives mean that we often fill up our sabbath with many activities that can become another form of work, as opposed to rest. None of them are bad in and of themselves- Calvin reportedly liked to do lawn bowling on Sundays- but the issue is one of balance. Most of us need deep and healing rest in our lives. Are we filling our sabbath with so many fun and good things that we finish it more tired then when we began?
Forgetting time with God and community. Again, we need to be careful not to be legalistic here, however a key part of sabbath is gathering of the community to receive God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament and to give him praise and thanksgiving in return. Over-scheduled days off, combined with a general trend away from formal religious observance mean that for many sabbath is increasingly divorced from the Lord of Time and company of our sisters and brothers.
Invitations to Sabbath Practice
So what do we do? How do begin? Here are some thoughts:
Schedule it. Again, the actual day isn’t what’s important (see Romans 14:5). Given modern schedules, the traditional day of observance may not be practical. What is important is intentionality. Our sabbath shouldn’t be something that we erratically stumble into, but rather something that is deliberately planned. So often, what is not planned and protected from competing interests simply never happens.
Keep a balance. Activities are fine, but balance must be our watchword. Remember that both rest and remembrance are key accepts of sabbath-keeping, not merely fun pursuits, catching up around the house, or hobbies.
Remember God. Sabbath is the key time to remember God and his gifts of creation, provision, and redemption. However you do this, make sure that you do it! We do well to incorporate the traditional observances of worship- hearing the word preached, and receiving the sacraments regularly.
Celebrate together. In most cases, it’s probably good to keep to the understanding that sabbath is not something we celebrate alone. From its’ earliest Jewish beginnings, the Sabbath is a time to gather with family, friends- and even strangers- at times of meals and worship. Joining with the church- however it is defined in our lives and context- is one important way to do this, but times of more intimate fellowship around a meal can also be a welcome event we can look forward to.
“In yourself you rouse us,” Saint Augustine says to God, “giving us delight in glorifying you, because you made us with yourself as our goal, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” The gift of sabbath is one way to remember our goal, and to rest and delight in him in the midst of our full schedules. Hopefully, these brief thoughts can help you explore becoming more intentional about this practice, which in turn help to transform your understanding of the nature of time for people of faith.
In our next article in this series, we will turn to the practice of fixed-hour prayer, as we seek to offer our days to God in a more deliberate fashion.
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
- Senn, Frank C. (2012) Introduction to Christian Liturgy. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 76. - Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Ge 2:2–3). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. - Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Sabbath. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1875). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. - Allender, Dan B. (2009) Sabbath. Nashville, TN: Zondervan Publishing House, p. 8. - Augustine. Confessions. (Sarah Ruden, trans., 2017). New York, NY: Modern Library Edition, Penguin Random House, p. 3.