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Sabbath: Holy Hedonism

For as long as I can remember I have remembered the Sabbath to keep it holy. Six days I have had to work and play and the seventh has been for Jesus. Growing up a multi-generational Adventist, my understanding of what should not be done on the Sabbath was generally more robust than my concept of what should be done. Even though my wonderful parents did many creative things to make Sabbath a joy, I was painfully aware that the things I thought brought me the most pleasure (from playing sports to watching television) were hardly Sabbath activities. This ascetic attitude toward Sabbath observance reached its zenith in my high school Bible class where the teacher counseled us that because the Sabbath hours were holy, during that time he and his wife abstained from sex. Is it any wonder that like most of the young people in my community I often counted the hours, minutes, and seconds until Sabbath was over so that I could have some fun?

The Sabbath asceticism that I remember from my youth is superseded by unabashed Sabbath hedonism in a recent book by Dan B. Allender simply entitled Sabbath. This book is part of the Ancient Practices Series and is edited by Phyllis Tickle. In her forward to the book, Tickle writes, “What has happened for me in working with this manuscript is a transposition of the Sabbath from rule and commanded observance to holy romp and secret playground where each visit only adds another level of delight.”

Delight is a recurring theme in Allender’s book. Calling Sabbath a “day of delight,” he opines that, “For many Sabbath keepers, it [Sabbath] is a day of duty, diligence, and spiritual focus that eschews play and pleasure for Bible reading, prayer, naps, and tedious religious services that seem designed to suck the air out of the soul. If that is keeping Sabbath holy, then it is better to break it.” Ouch, reading these words I am reminded of all the ways I have kept a joyless Sabbath beginning in my youth and continuing right up to the present.

However, there are moments in the book which recall vibrant Sabbath memories. When Allendar says, “If the Sabbath sends us anywhere, it is to nature,” I am reminded of perching on the edge of a cliff worshiping with the emerging sunrise. As he describes a theology of beauty, I think about the art supplies my mother kept in a separate box just to make Sabbath special. His description of Sabbath feasting brings to mind the amazing food my wife lovingly prepares for our family and occasionally a few guests. When he describes the sensuality of the Sabbath as, “a riot of the senses, a celebration of smell, touch, hearing, seeing, and especially taste,” I picture the way our Sabbath routine begins by snuggling under the warm covers with our two boys. Then, just when Sabbath observance begins to sound rather emasculated, Allender writes that, “There is meant to be more risk and danger on the Sabbath than any other day,” and with a manly grunt I remember Sabbath afternoons of rock climbing, mountain biking, and SCUBA diving.

At the beginning of the book, the traditional Adventist explanation for Sabbath observance is acknowledged. God commanded Sabbath observance on the 7th day and so we do it. (The historical Adventist eschatological importance of the Sabbath is of course not represented.) However, the remainder of the book seeks to explain why God would make such a command. Allender explores the underlying rationale for Sabbath observance by focusing on the personal pleasures of joy, celebration, and holiness which extend far beyond simple rest for the weary and avoidance of work.

And yet, this personal focus results in my greatest disappointment with Allender’s book. While there are scattered hints of the importance of community such as an inspiring description of sharing the Sabbath delights with good friends, I found a robust Sabbath ecclesiology sadly lacking. Allender’s suggestion that Sabbath can be kept on any day one chooses sounds quite convenient on an individual level but Allendar never fleshes out the way this egocentric Sabbath would disrupt both local and extended communities. I value the history of the Sabbath and appreciate the connection it demonstrates with our Jewish spiritual forebears. In A Day Apart, Christopher Ringwald makes the point that the Sabbath offers a unique place in time for the three great monotheistic religions to come together and ‘meet in the middle.’ I can readily embrace the idea of Sabbath as facilitating unity in a diverse community rather than demonstrating or even causing exclusion and division.

Many Christians, some Adventists included (as is evident in recent discussions), interpret the first few chapters of Genesis as poetic theology and not literal science. Traditional Adventists are dismayed at what this understanding might do to erode our Sabbath foundation. Yet, in the second recording of the Sabbath commandment (Deuteronomy 5:12-15), the rationale given for remembering the Sabbath is not creation but freedom from slavery. This aspect of Sabbath keeping, expressing a grace-infused emphasis on social justice, resonates with me and I think it resonates with many others as well, especially those with postmodern sensibilities. Allender discusses the weekly and yearly Sabbaths, which point to the year of Jubilee in which slaves were to be set free and land returned to the original owners to prevent unequal distribution of wealth. The concepts of allowing people to rest, the land to rejuvenate, and wealth to be redistributed are remarkably current and they serve as important reminders in light of global warming, resource depletion, rising food costs, increasing socioeconomic inequity, and modern day forms of slavery.

The last chapter, focusing on Sabbath justice, includes my favorite quote, which is taken from Adventist scholar Kendra Haloviak who writes, “The Sabbath was the music that took the groans of hurt and the words of hope and created a song. The Sabbath song is also a song of inclusiveness, a song that affirms the place for every person in God’s family — the resident alien, the immigrant mother, the Korean family that lives next door, the Latino teenager, the man dying of AIDS, the women of all races who know domestic violence, all of society’s marginalized. The Sabbath is a sanctuary for the alien, a sanctuary where there is always room for another person, because it is a place in time, not space.” This vision of a sanctuary for all is an important step in articulating a generous ecclesiological perspective on the Sabbath and I wish Allender had pursued this line of thinking further.

There are many other facets of Sabbath keeping that Allender explores such as shalom, practicing eternity, surrendering to abundance, experiencing Sabbath joy, and receiving the Sabbath day as a Queen. All of these aspects are meaningful and well worth discussing. But for now, perhaps you will consider the following question: in what ways do you delight in the Sabbath?

Brenton Reading writes from Birmingham, Alabama, where he is finishing a residency in diagnostic radiology. Along with his wife and their two boys, he is preparing to move to Cincinnati, Ohio, for a fellowship in pediatric radiology.

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