I write this preamble because I do not want anyone to interpret what I am about to write through that lens. I know that some will, no doubt, still do so, but I want to try to bathe this post with a great deal of humility. I write, not as one who has arrived or has it all figured out, not as one who is angry or upset, but as one who is sincerely saddened by where we all are when it comes to this topic.
So with that huge caveat in place, one question often comes back to my mind, week after week. It is simply this: are there any Seventh-day Adventists left - especially young Seventh-day Adventists - who still keep the Sabbath?
I realize there are many who still do, of course, and I fully admit that I am less than perfect in this area myself. So, again, I don't write this with a judgmental attitude (at least not consciously, realizing that none of us truly knows our own hearts). But I continue to be saddened, week after week, how there seems to be so few Adventists - especially from my generation and younger - who have a love affair with the Sabbath.
One does not need to scroll down too long on Facebook to realize this. Status update after status update betrays this reality. "Going to see Harry Potter tonight," or "Girls night out!" or, "Shootin' some hoops." The list goes on and on.
A few years ago, when I was giving some young kids Bible studies in preparation for baptism, the response from one of the kids astounded me when it came to the Sabbath study. He came from a fairly "straight-laced" Adventist family, but when I told him that on the Sabbath we probably wouldn't want to play sports like soccer, etc., he responded by saying, "What's wrong with playing soccer in your backyard on Sabbath?" Even though I tried to make it sound positive, saying that when we're in love with God we will naturally want to do other things on Sabbath, I overheard him saying to one of his classmates later in the day, "Pastor Brace says we can't play soccer on Sabbath."
What amazes me even more, however, is just how unashamed people are in their openness to pastors about their Sabbath behavior. A few years ago, I was talking with a pastor friend of mine that I went to seminary with, and he was telling me about the church he was pastoring. On the very first Sabbath he was there, he had a number of his new members - who hardly knew him at all - invite him out to eat at a restaurant for Sabbath lunch. He was baffled - not so much that they actually went out to eat on Sabbath and not so much that they would invite their pastor, but that they would assume, even without knowing their new pastor at all, that he would be open to such an idea.
I, too, have had similar encounters as a pastor. It seems that the frequency of people sharing with me unashamedly about their unorthodox Sabbath practices multiplies with each passing week. And I pastor in "conservative" (at least as far as Adventism goes) northern New England!
Again, I need to reiterate this, just in case someone is feeling beat up or embarrassed: I do not write this with condemnation. I am in no way looking down upon anyone and I don't want anyone to think to themselves, "Oh, no, he will probably think I am going to hell if I tell him what I do on Sabbath." In all honesty, no such thoughts ever come through my mind.
This is because I, too, am saddened by my own Sabbath behavior, my own failure to utilize the day optimally for God's glory and responding to Christ's love. Too many times my own mind wanders on Sabbath - to the Bruins game, to the next camera lens I want to buy, to many things that are irrelevant to what God is inviting me to do.
The truth of the matter is, I have often felt that the way we enjoy the Sabbath is perhaps the most telling reflection of where we are in our walk with Christ. Think about this: God has given us an excuse to leave absolutely everything else behind and spend a whole 24 hours with Him. He actually provides a whole day for us to simply enjoy His presence in fellowship with Him. The rest of the week we are bombarded with work, competition, bills, entertainment; but on the Sabbath, we actually have an excuse to leave all that behind and respond wholeheartedly to His pursuing initiative.
But, instead, what do we do? I often hear, and sadly participate in, these types of conversations many a Sabbath afternoon during lunch: "Let's go play volleyball after this." "What do you think of Obama's chances in 2012?" "So, how is work going?" "Oh, man, my 401(k) is looking disastrous." "Hey, did you hear that so-and-so broke up with so-and-so??" (Of course, then there's the "sanctified" Sabbath conversations where we simply talk about church politics.)
All these are a reflection of where our affections truly lie. Given the opportunity to dwell upon nothing but the beautiful character of Christ, we discreetly take a pass.
Truly, it seems to me that if our hearts were overflowing with love for God - and, again, I completely include myself in this indictment - then we would feel overjoyed with the privilege of being able to saturate our conversations, our activities, our everything, with all things pertaining to God. This is why Jesus proclaimed, "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45).
Simply put, that which we love to converse about on Sabbath reflects where our hearts truly are.
Don't get me wrong: this doesn't mean God is asking us to quote Bible verses all day. But oftentimes our Sabbath deportment is akin to a young lady who goes out on a date and all she wants to do is talk about her ex-boyfriend. It would be like a Brit going through the whole of April 29, 2011 without talking at all about the Royal Wedding.
It is no wonder that Ellen White gave this rather pointed advice, "The words and thoughts should be guarded. Those who discuss business matters and lay plans on the Sabbath, are regarded of God as though they engaged in the actual transaction of business. To keep the Sabbath holy, we should not even allow our minds to dwell upon things of a worldly character" (Counsels for the Church, p. 269. Interestingly, after pointing this out, she makes this sobering claim: "Had the Sabbath always been sacredly observed, there could never have been an atheist or an idolater.").
She then goes onto say a few sentences later: "Ministers of Jesus should stand as reprovers to those who fail to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. They should kindly and solemnly reprove those who engage in worldly conversation upon the Sabbath and at the same time claim to be Sabbathkeepers. They should encourage devotion to God upon His holy day."
Of course, where does all this leave us?
Well, whenever I address the Sabbath issue I like to make sure people understand that it is not a day of do's and don'ts and that, to a large degree, how one chooses to honor the Lord during the day is a personal matter. I also recognize that, for many, the day has been presented to them simply as a day of rule-following and the relational aspect of it has been left out. Thus, as a reaction to the legalistic presentation of it that has plagued many of us, we have swung the pendulum the other direction and, in an attempt to rescue it from its rigidity, we make it all about "fun" stuff that we perceive to be relational-building (beach, anyone?).
But, sadly, when we do this, we often fall into the trap of only thinking about relationships on the horizontal level and we completely neglect the vertical relationship. Don't get me wrong: the Sabbath is about strengthening the horizontal relationships for sure, but the optimal way to strengthen the horizontal relationships is by responding corporately to the vertical. In other words, the more we respond to God and view that relationship as the top priority, the closer we come to other human beings who also perceive that to be the most important.
And that's what we're all about, isn't it?
Beyond this, however, I also like to mention that, though the Bible does not give us strict rules to follow when it comes to the Sabbath, it does lay down some basic principles that should inform those things we do engage in. It's really very simple. As far as I can tell, here are the five basic principles the Bible lays out when it comes to Sabbath keeping (these could all be expanded a lot more, but that will have to be for another day:
1. Keep it holy (Exod 20:8). The Hebrew word for "holy" is qadosh, and it means to "set apart" or to "consecrate." It is what God did at the very beginning with the Sabbath - He set it apart and consecrated it. Furthermore, in Exodus 3:5, when Moses came before the burning bush, God told him to take off his shoes because he was standing on "holy [qadosh] ground." This implied that God's presence was there and, thus, when something is "holy," it is consecrated with God's presence.
2. Refrain from work (Exod 20:8-11). There has been great debate as to what constitutes "work," but when Exodus 20:9 says that "Six days you shall labor and do all your work," the word for "labor" is 'abad, which literally means to "serve." The noun form of the word, ebed, is the word that is used for "slave" or "servant." Thus, the "labor" we are to refrain from is that which we are in servitude to. The second word for "work," mela'kah, is the more common idea of work, literally meaning "occupation" or "business." Thus, between 'abad and mela'kah, these two words cover anything from my paid occupation, to my homework as a student, to yard work at home.
Of course, some people like to then ask, "Okay, so is it all right to rake someone's lawn or paint their house as an act of service on Sabbath?" This, it is posited, is a selfless type of work that has its place. But two things: 1. Why not do it on Sunday or another day off? 2. Is this, as an act of "Community Service," just that - "serving/working" for someone other than God? These things are not bad or evil; it's just, again, God wants to give us the full blessing and benefit of Sabbath rest.
3. Leave your buying and selling for another day (Neh 13:15-22). No matter how relaxing it might be to sit in that nice restaurant, sipping an Ice T, do your server a favor and stay away from the marketplace! I realize the argument is that he/she is going to be there making money anyway, whether you go or not, but, at the very least, do not contribute to the tyranny of work and the obsession with money.
4. Leave your selfish pleasures behind (Isa 58:13-14). Isaiah 58:13 tells us to "turn" our "foot" away from "doing [our] own pleasure" on God's "holy day." This doesn't mean the Sabbath should be a drag, of course, and, admittedly, this one can be left open to a lot of interpretation. But I think that, in light of the fact that we are to "consecrate" the day and "keep it holy," this eliminates a lot of stuff, freeing us from the tendency to tickle our own fancies all the time.
5. Do good (Matt 12:12). After a number of "negative" commands, this one is very refreshing and it is one that I often like to ask myself: Jesus said that it is "lawful to do good on Sabbath." This was directly in the context of Him healing people. Thus, am I seeking, on the Sabbath, to encourage someone spiritually, to bring them joy - true joy, not the variety that comes through mindless entertainment - to point them heavenward? Am I seeking to bring happiness to someone's life other than myself?
Thus, all of these five principles must inform my Sabbath activities. I must force myself to slow down and ask, "Does this activity fall within the parameters of these five principles?"
Of course, hopefully I will not even have to force myself to slow down at all because the disposition of my heart will be such that I delight to engage in the things of God naturally - as an outgrowth of my appreciation for the love of Christ.
But I also need to share this in closing: God does not give us the Sabbath commandment that we might try to keep it. He does not lay out the parameters of "proper" Sabbath keeping so that we would become convicted that we should be doing it and then set out to do it. As sinful human beings, we cannot keep the Sabbath, no matter how convicted we are. We can simply recognize that we are helpless to really do it and we need Christ to fulfill it our in our lives.
Thus, these principles actually act as a convicting agent, showing us of our utter failures, pointing us to the fact that our hearts really aren't in the right place and that we need them changed by a supernatural Agent. And we, like Paul, can cry out, "O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24) Then, when we recognize our futility and need, we look to the cross and the tremendous sacrifice made on our behalf - the sinners that we are - and this opens our hearts to Jesus and allows Him to change them. He will then work out His good pleasure in our lives.
And the Sabbath will become a delight.