The Christian practice of keeping sabbath embodies a theology of creation, liberation, and resurrection. Keeping Sabbath forms persons and communities in faith and fosters resistance to distorted ways of living and inadequate views of human identity that implicit in the culturally dominant experience of time.
Stanley Wiersma, poet, professor and heir of the Dutch Reformed tradition, introduced a story about his Iowa childhood with a question:
Were my parents right or wrong
not to mow the ripe oats that Sunday morning
with the rainstorm threatening?
Looking back, the poet knew the answer to the question: his parents were right. As a boy he was not so sure, however, and marshaled arguments in an effort to convince his parents that it would be all right to skip church that one time. The Sabbath is made for man, he declared. And if the law permits pulling one's ox out of a pit on the Sabbath, he reasoned from scripture with an acumen surprising for one of his age though not for one from his tradition, why would it be impermissible to save the oats that would get one's cattle through the winter? His parents did not argue. The family went to church. Together with others whose harvests were also at risk, they sang psalms more loudly than usual. As wind and rain and hail pounded "that House," the minister "made no concessions on sermon length," even though his parishioners could hear little above the racket. When the electricity failed, they sang the last hymn in the dark. Then they rode home past their flattened oats. "God was testing us," said Dad at dinner; "I'm glad we went." "I wouldn't have missed it," Mother agreed.
Wiersma's poem is a reflection on the formative impact of that morning on his own character. Later lines suggest that in adulthood he was not nearly as strict an observer of Sabbath as his parents had been; his own moral stands emerged in relation to other practices, particularly through resistance to racial segregation. Yet he acknowledged that his parents' Sabbath observance was at the root even of this, and he was grateful that they had bequeathed to him "an important pattern defined as absolutely as muddlers like us can manage." That pattern-and the poem's title-is "Obedience."1
In this essay I shall consider Sabbath observance as an element in forming and nurturing the faith of Christian persons and communities-a potential that was apparently fulfilled in Wiersma's case and to which his poem gratefully testifies. Sabbath keeping first arose within Judaism, where it continues as a vital and definitive practice. Indeed, the power of this practice to shape and nurture peoplehood and identity is encapsulated in a Jewish folk saying: "The Sabbath has kept the Jews more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath." In somewhat different form, this practice also offers to Christians a set of activities (or nonactivities), done together week after week and century after century, that enact central Christian beliefs, shape specific patterns of communal life, and impart openness to the grace of God. Engaging in this rich and complex practice can shape persons and communities in distinctive ways and foster a way of being in the world that spills over to affect an entire way of life.
"People come to faith and grow in faith and in the life of faith by participating in the practices of the Christian community," the Presbyterian educator and theologian Craig Dykstra has argued in his book Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices.2 Those who have embraced the practice of Sabbath observance have not done so in order to induce Christian growth; they have rather been moved by obedience, or by exhaustion, or by attraction to the beauty of the Sabbath and the life-patterns that emerge among those who observe it. Moreover, Christian theologians historically have agreed that claims of direct causality between practice and faith are dubious and have denied that engaging in specific behaviors can instill or increase God's gift of faith. …