One of my favorite conversations with my grandma was about Sabbath. Grandma grew up in China in the first half of the 20th century as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. She loved China, longing for it well into old age even though she was never able to go back after she came to the States to go to college.
Many years after Grandma left, I followed in my great-grandparents’ footsteps and spent a year in China myself. During a mid-year break in Thailand, I had a phone chat with grandma. She asked when we would be heading back to China.
I told her we were going to be traveling back on Sunday. The shock in her voice made me chuckle. She was not easily shocked. “You’re traveling on Sunday?? Even when we were fleeing from the Communists, we never traveled on Sundays!!”
Yes, you read that right. Even when running for their lives during the tumultuous times of the Communists’ and Nationalists’ brutal battle for power, Sundays would find them having a family worship time and then resting the remainder of the day.
Influenced by that kind of commitment, my family had a pretty solid sense of Sabbath when I was growing up. My parents weren’t dictators about it; I mean, we weren’t required to only sit primly in the parlor and read religious books. We could generally enjoy life.
But Sundays were primarily for church and rest. We occasionally ate lunch with my other grandma at her retirement home. My parents often took naps on Sunday afternoons. Sunday night supper was “fix it yourself” – low key, low pressure. We kids were generally allowed to hang out with friends in the neighborhood, or nap, or read, or play Nintendo, or whatever. But we didn’t go shopping or really go much of anywhere at all until we were old enough to go to youth group on Sunday evenings.
I am deeply thankful that that these family norms taught me how to rest, and I have carried this love of Sabbath rest into my adult life as well.
There’s been a good bit of conversation in the broader Christian world lately about what Sabbath rest means. In a culture where we have largely forgotten how to rest, we desperately need this discussion. But I’ve noticed a major piece missing (in some sectors) from the dialogue: the place of corporate worship in Sabbath rest.
I understand why this piece is missing from the conversation. Since we’ve forgotten how to rest, going to church feels like one more activity on the to-do list. And if we serve in the church in any way, it can certainly feel like another job!
When we’re already exhausted, living with no margin in our daily lives, Sabbath becomes a day of collapse or attempted escape rather than a day of rejuvenation.
But rejuvenation is the purpose of Sabbath. It’s a day of blessing. Is it possible that going to church could contribute to the rejuvenation that Sabbath rest is intended to bring?
Yes. Yes! But I think that (like a lot of life) how we experience church depends on our expectations from church. I don’t know about you, but I often go to church expecting to feel socially awkward (because I’m insecure like that), or expecting to run into a particular friend, or expecting to hear good preaching, or expecting to feel tired, or wondering if we’ll find people to go to lunch with. When I was single, I often went to church expecting that my single-guy-radar would be on, and that I would be distracted by whether I was dressed cute enough to compete in the singles market or whether I’d be able to strike up a conversation with that guy I was crushing on.
But what if I went to church expecting to meet with God?
Expecting his healing and his grace to wash me afresh?
Expecting the Holy Spirit to move among us as a congregation, because He is most definitely present there?
Expecting to be renewed in my freedom in Christ to be full of joy, to be full of peace, to grieve, to love?
When we’re in our “right” minds, we go to church to be reminded of the Gospel. We go to church to be refreshed by the gathering of Holy Spirit bearers (by the way, this includes many children!). We go to church to build our trust in the Lord through confessing with our mouths the truths contained in the songs, creeds, and confessions – reminding ourselves of what is gloriously true. We have to be reminded over and over and over again!
And there, in the gathering of Holy Spirit bearers, in the presence of the Living God, our souls are invited to rest.
Without soul rest, all other attempts at rest don’t ever really seem restful. #Sundayfunday can make me start my work week already exhausted. I come home from spending a day with family or friends feeling drained. I wake up from a nap so groggy that I can barely function. I spend the day outside only to find I’m worn out from the sun. I finish my book, and feel the sense of obsession that I’ve had about finishing it overtake me.
Until my soul rests, my body can’t rest; my mind can’t rest; my heart can’t rest. This is why going to church is such a vital part of Sabbath rest. Resting my soul by worshiping God together with my brothers and sisters in Christ gives me the foundation for mental, physical, and emotional rest.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
~ Exodus 20:8