Thursday, February 17, 2011

Keeping the Sabbath

According to Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart's Seeking Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream, a big fat scholarly history of the religion from Indiana University Press, Seventh-Day Adventists are the contemporary heirs of the Millerites, a group of Americans who became convinced by a man named William Miller that the world would come to an end on October 22, 1844.

In the wake of that fateful date—since, as you may know, his prediction turned out to be incorrect—his followers split into a number of different groups, initially determined by their reaction to their disappointment at the earth still existing. The group that became the Adventists ultimately came to the conclusion that the process of bringing the world to its close, as described in the scriptures, had begun in heaven on October 22, 1844, but for some reason was delayed here on earth. Only until the work of “cleansing” heaven of human sin and stain was completed would the end times begin here on earth.

But a second belief of these disappointed Millerites soon became essential to membership in the Adventist church: the conviction that we were meant to keep Saturday as the Sabbath.

“After some years of disagreement as to when the Sabbath should begin and end,” Bull and Lockhart write, “they agreed in 1855 that Adventists, like orthodox Jews, must observe the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.”

When I got to the Pleasant Street Seventh-Day Adventist church last night, for the Wednesday evening prayer service, I was able to get into the main doors but not into the sanctuary itself. So I waited out in the stairwell, hoping that the service had not been canceled for some reason. Eventually a young man showed up and tried the sanctuary doors as well, and then went down to the basement, where I could hear a baby crying.

He came back and announced that nobody down there had a key, so we would have to wait until one of the Elders came by and opened the sanctuary. Then he extended his hand to me:

“I haven't seen you here before,” he said.

We introduced ourselves, and I told him why I was visiting. I asked him about the Saturday services, and he reviewed the schedule for me, giving me the same basic rundown that I had heard at the last prayer service I attended. We had struck up an easy rapport, so after he finished talking about the services, I just blurted out the question I still had on my mind:

“So when I come here on Saturday, am I going to be the only white person in the room?”

“Not the only one,” he said. “There might be one or two others.”

He explained to me then that the church was actually composed primarily of people of Carribbean descent. Most of the people who ended up at the prayer service that evening—around eight of us—were from Jamaica, either by birth or descent.

Since I had just been reading Bull and Lockhart's explanation of the Sabbath, I thought I'd get his perspective on it. Perhaps now, I thought to myself, I'll get a little bit of the wackiness I'm expecting to find in this strange religion. I asked him whether, like Orthodox Jews, all work was forbidden on the Sabbath.

“Naw,” he said, “you can come in here and turn on the lights, open the church, drive your car, fix if it breaks down, all that kind of thing. But you shouldn't be doing your real work, work for your paycheck. You shouldn't be taking phone calls for your job, that kind of thing. You're supposed to focus on God on the Sabbath, to rest and rejuvenate yourself. But you can still make your food and do the things you need to do to live and get around.”

“So it sounds like it's less about forbidding certain things and more about encouraging certain kinds of things?” I said.

“That's right,” he said.

At this point an elderly man in a Boston Red Sox hat came in, and he too tried the sanctuary and then settled down with us in the stairwell. My new friend spoke again.

“I have a friend at work who asked me about this,” he said, “and I told him that celebrities go to these therapy centers where they have to put away their phones, and they're forced to just relax and do nothing for a day or more. It's the same thing. You're taking 24 hours out of your week and saying, these hours are for God. You rest and focus on what's important. You come to church, spend time with your family, have a meal together.”

“And you don't even have to pay a bunch of money to some therapy center,” I said.

“Exactly,” he said. “And people always say they would never have time to do that. But you know, you make time. You can make time for it if you want to.”

“Just like exercise,” I said. “Nobody really has time for exercise, but if you decide you're going to exercise, you make time for it.”

“That's right,” he said.

I don't know how many times, over the course of this year, that this same scene is going to be repeated for me: I go into a new religious context, expecting to be shocked or turned off or baffled by some doctrine or practice I have read about, and instead what I find are good and sensible people doing things that make a whole lot of sense.

It may seem horrifying to think about—I am not sure how I would handle it—but can you imagine the impact it would have on our lives, our communities, and our identity and unity as a nation if more and more of us began to take one day a week and set it aside to gather together, focus on family and and the things that matter to us, and share a meal or two?


  1. I highly recommend reading Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz, which I found a good meditation on the Sabbath.

  2. We, too, have been working towards a greater appreciation of "Keeping Sabbath" in our house. The (PCA) Presbyterian Church we belong to is STRONGLY Sabbatarian, and we were definitely the odd men out when we showed up with our Starbucks cups in hand on Sunday morning. But having seen it genuinely and joyfully lived out for over 10 years, we would honestly say it is one of the better things in our life. We are so crazy hectic the rest of the week that I don't know how we could possibly manage without a weekly hit on the pause button. It is truly a joy to spend the day together, worshipping, eating simple meals, and just being together (either outside or in front of the fire, by season). I would also say that the Jewish/Orthodox/Adventist view of "Sunup-sundown" is another help to us - I can't be doing laundry and frantically making preparations for a day without work right up until 11:00 on Saturday night without feeling a bit resentful of it, and not at all ready in my heart to worship. But easing off at suppertime on Saturday, then re-engaging with the world a bit on Sunday night (we look at our calendars and talk about the week to come) evens things out.

    Thank you as always for your engaging and reflective (as well as respectful) interaction with a very different community. Carrie.