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Keeping the Sabbath Holy

by Yvette Moore


The biblical sabbath was a day to keep holy. How people have interpreted the call to Sabbath and how they have observed it over the millennia has varied.

In the Hebrew tradition, the rest and holiness reserved for the day is associated with Godís completion of Creation and rest on the seventh day, which Genesis writers say God "hallowed."

Early Christians met the first day of the week to worship and remember the predawn resurrection of Christ. By 321 CE, newly-converted Roman Emperor Constantine declared Sunday the Christian Sabbath, an official day of rest throughout the empire, with exceptions granted for farmers who were allowed to make use of good weather whenever it happened to come.

Much later in 17th century, governments in colonial North America enforced Sunday Sabbath "blue laws" that banned work, mandated church attendance and imposed sanctions against those who habitually skipped church.

Although a sprinkling of counties across the United States still have blue laws, Christians have in many ways come full circle: we must choose to claim a Sabbath rest for ourselves, and we must seek out ways to keep it holy.

But what does that mean?

In Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, Wayne Muller writes:

"Sabbath time can be like...a sanctuary in time when we consecrate our loved ones, our yearnings for peace, our prayers for strength and well-being for our children. Sabbath time is set apart for remembering the holiness of life."

Singing on the Sabbath

Memories and experiences of United Methodist Women members offer ideas for how to create Sabbath time. For example, Womenís Division Director Kyung Za Yim grew up in Korea where there was no government-sanctioned day off for worship or rest. It was her familyís choice to observe a Sunday rest.

"My country was not Christian but Buddhist at that time," said Ms. Yim, who now lives in East Northport, N.Y. "Stores were open Sundays, but for our family, Sunday was just about worship. My father was a dentist, but he didnít work Sundays. The whole family went to Sunday school and church."

The church in Korea didnít restrict Sunday activities, but did promote worship, which started early with a service at dawn.

With a mother who played the organ and a father who loved to sing, Sunday evenings at Ms. Kimís home were filled with music as she and six siblings joined in the hymn singing. The family also set aside time for corporate worship during the week.

"We always had a Wednesday night service," Ms. Kim said. "We called it Third Day Service because Jesus rose on the third day."

Friday nights, Ms. Kimís family got together with other Christians for home Bible studies with rotating hosts.

"We children got to play!"

A weekend of Sabbath

For Josephine Deere, Womenís Division director and United Methodist Women president in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, Sabbath worship and rest encompassed the whole weekend when she was a child.

After traveling long distances, Native American families arrived at Springtown Indian United Methodist Church in Broken Arrow, Okla., Friday night or early Saturday morning and stayed until Sunday afternoon. There were Saturday evening worship services, and Sunday sunrise and afternoon services. Young people led devotions. Older women cooked for everyone.

Those weekend were special times. Ms. Deere said.

"When I was a little girl, our services -- the singing, the preaching, the praying -- were done in our language, Creek," she said. "I like to sing the songs. Just to hear the tribal hymns and sing them makes you feel good."

Today Ms. Deere is a member of Fife Memorial Indian United Methodist Church in Muskogee, Okla., which is attended by people from a number of tribes. Church members eat together once a month and sing at least one song from one of the tribes during worship.

Church focus of Sundays

Ann Ashcroft, Womenís Division director from Little Rock Conference remembered her childhood Sundays as days devoted to

church school, worship and visiting people in the rural parishes her father, a Methodist pastor, served in the 1940s.

"In those days, the minister was asked to the home of a family in the church for lunch after service," Ms. Ashcraft said. Those Sunday lunches provided time for her brother and her to play with children from church. As teens, it was a time for them to hang out with other teenagers.

When Ms. Ashcraft married while in college it was natural for her husband and her to continue the practice of Sunday worship and relaxation. Later they took their two daughters to Sunday school, and Ms. Ashcraft taught a class.

"We came home after church for lunch and to relax, then we went back for United Methodist Youth Fellowship," she said.

With her children now adults, Ms. Ashcraftís Sundays remain a time for praise and rejuvenation. Much of her renewal comes in community with women.

"Being with Christian women in different settings, like meetings and retreats, lets you set yourself apart from the world for a day of worship and to leave the outside world alone for awhile," Ms. Ashcraft said. "Sometimes just being alone and relaxing can help me get centered."

No work on the Sabbath

Sunday was "the Lordís Day" in Liz Williamsí grandmotherís house in Huntsville, Texas, and that meant no work. Regarding the day as special was a way to honor God, said Ms. Williams, who is executive secretary for leadership education in the Dallas area for the Womenís Division.

"I remember sweeping something out in front of the house one Sunday, and my grandmother said: `You donít do that today. This is the Lordís Day. Remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy,í" Ms. Williams said. "What she meant came to me later on because I was very small at that time. Everything was just different Sundays. Sundays were very special."

That meant special clothes, shined shoes, church and special activities.

"As children, we did get to play Sundays, but it was a different kind of play," she said. "You didnít get into your play clothes and rough it. I grew up in a small town where you could roam all over the place, climb trees. But if I climbed a tree on a Sunday, my mother would have had a fit. Sundays were for visiting and playing games."

Sunday is still a special day for Ms. Williams, though she does not mark it in quite the same way as her mother and grandmother.

"Sunday is the same to me in the sense of a time for honoring God and taking time off from the things that take my attention away from God," she said. "But I donít always get to use Sundays for the type of Sabbath I like, so I find other times -- days for rest, relaxation and listening."

Reading Bible offers rest

The refreshment of a Sabbath never revolved around a particular day for Womenís Division Director Dolores Garcia of Rio Grande Conference. As a child, she was baptized Roman Catholic, but never went to church except when her family briefly attended a Pentecostal church.

"During that span of years, I didnít attend any church," Ms. Garcia said. "I got my spiritual base from a radio show that would send you Bible-study materials. Then, in high school, I was invited to church by the daughter of a Methodist pastor. When I later went, she wasnít there. Her father had been moved. But the people welcomed me, so I stayed."

While Ms. Garcia still finds rest today in reading her Bible alone, she is also refreshed in her family and in her local church, La Santisima Trinidad United Methodist Church in Weslaco, Texas.


Yvette Moore is managing editor of Response.