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Sabbath Freedom

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Do you remember when you were a kid on the first day of summer?

I remember waking up in my bed, thinking to myself, “What I am going to do today?”

A limitless horizon stretched out before me: the entire summer.

Of course there would be chores to help my mother, and weeding the garden with my dad.

But at that moment all I could think about was me and my friends and hanging out at the pool.

It was pure freedom.

On Memorial Day this week, I sat on our deck with some family friends we’ve known for 15 years.

My friend Ryan was telling me about his trip to Denmark back in April

He is a teacher and went on a weeklong school exchange.

He described for me the concept of hygge, which roughly translates as ‘coziness.’

Hygge is a part of Danish culture that permeates everything:

It’s family time spent by the fire, sipping hot liquids, and visiting with friends.

It’s the 15 minute break between every class where the students congregate at the snack bar

And the teachers gather over pastry in the teacher lounge.

It’s the attitude that being kind to yourself and others is more important than striving after goals.

Hyyge’s gotten a lot of press recently, because Denmark consistently ranks at the top

of studies on global happiness.

In explaining it to me, Ryan said, “what we are doing today is hyyge—

“We’re enjoying being together, we’re relaxing over a drink, we’re taking a leisurely walk.”

It was really enjoyable.

But it was also overdue.

Because despite our long standing friendship and our love of being together,

We haven’t been able to find time to hang out since November.

It turns out we aren’t the only ones who are overdue in taking time for rest, relaxation, and friendship.

The average American spends more than 55 hours a week working at their jobs.

In her best-selling book, The Overworked American,

Juliet Schor stated that Americans worked an average of 163 more hours in 1990

than they had in 1970.

That translates into almost an extra month of full-time work per year.

And currently Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers

260 more hours than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.

The additional work time has wide ranging effects, cutting family time, volunteerism,

socializing, and religious and community activity, even the necessary hours of sleep.

Many people bemoan the lack of time for the enjoyment of life, but it’s not solely our culture that is to blame—

it’s human nature to focus on doing and forget about simply being.

That’s why taking time to enjoy life and our Creator who gave us life is one of the 10 Commandments.

“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you,”

“Six days you shall do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God;

You shall not do any work---you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave,

Or your ox or your donkey, or the resident alien in your towns… so they may rest as well as you.”

Today’s passage is actually the second time this commandment is stated.

Moses gave the 10 Commandments to the people at Mt Sinai in Exodus—

Forty years later, recorded in Deuteronomy, he reminds the Israelites of these commandments

and how to live well with God and one another.

Sabbath keeping is among the first and most important commandments.

The literal meaning the word ‘Sabbath’ means “to cease or desist.”

In other words, to stop doing, accomplishing, and performing. To rest.

In Exodus, Sabbath keeping imitates God who created the world in six days,

And on the seventh day, ‘shabat-ed’—rested.

All of the people, including foreigners and slaves, the animals,

even the land itself rest as a part of divine rhythm of creation.

Sabbath keeping, like the other commandments, are not a dreary obligation or burden,

But rather a beautiful gift that keeps people in harmony with the rest of creation.

Here in Deuteronomy, we have an additional reason for keeping the sabbath.

“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,

and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm;

therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

The Sabbath is a regular, tangible reminder that the people of God knew what it was like to be slaves,

but now are free people—

Free from the tyranny of toil

Free from always having to produce and prove their worth

Free to choose enjoyment and community with God, neighbor, and creation.

When I was a young pastor, I really struggled with life-work balance.

I knew the tyranny of toil.

I loved scripture and writing and preaching, and I was good at it

And yet every other week when it was my turn to preach, I was miserable.

I belabored every word, I worried over each phrase.

Even when I wasn’t working on my sermon, I was consumed by it.

My husband began to dread these weeks because I become impossible to be with.

One day when I was with the local rabbi, he said,

“if there is one gift that the Jews can give the world, I think it’s the Sabbath.”

When I asked him what he meant, he gave me a piece at a college student had recently written.

In the essay, the student outlined her life.

She could see it all from her seat at her desk: granola bars in the drawer, bed within feet,

Work in front of her at the computer and among the books.

She could spend all week in that spot, rarely emerging except to go to class

And ocasionally to catch a brief meal at the 24 hour cafe.

Time had little meaning, as she worked regardless of day or night or season.

Except for one time during the week.

On her computer, she had posted the note, “Shabat’s coming, baby.”

And each Friday night, before sundown, she turned off her computer and emerged from her cave.

She went to the prayers and the meal, and connected with the things that mattered most:

Friends, community, God, and the enjoyment of life.

It restored both her sanity and her soul.

I recognized myself in this young woman’s story.

And I started to desire the gift within this commandment.

I began to invite people over on Sunday evenings for meal, carving out time for enjoyment.

I put away my to do list for a few minutes each day,

opting instead to sit in the sun and quietly drink a cup of tea.

Sometimes I would even shirk my duties for an hour and do something that I enjoyed.

Gradually I came to experience myself as free—

Free to choose to work, or to rest.

I was no longer a slave to my expectations or anyone else’s.

You don’t have to take a whole day off to observe the Sabbath commandment.

Start by taking 20 minutes to yourself.

Call a friend or write a letter.

Do something that nurtures your sense of enjoyment.

Perhaps do nothing at all, and simply notice the beauty around you.

Put aside your to do list, and simply rest in God’s love for you as you are.

Poet Mary Oliver captured the spiritual practice of Sabbath in her poem Summer Day:

The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

People of God, you are no longer slaves.

The tyranny of time and toil has no power over you.

You are a beloved child, and this is the first day of summer vacation.

You are free.


What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?


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