Sabbath Rules and Regulations
My first encounter with Sabbath was not a foretaste of heaven. I remember visiting my grandparents one Sunday. To pass the time before dinner, my brother, sister, and I decided to go door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions to raise money for our school. We didn't know that my grandparents lived in the middle of a neighborhood filled with people who took Sunday seriously. After knocking on a couple of doors, we encountered a woman who seemed scandalized by our behavior. Scolding us soundly, she said, "I can't believe you are selling magazines on a Sunday!" Then, with a huff, she shut the door in our faces. We had thought we were doing something good by raising funds for our school. Now we felt like scoundrels and cheats though we didn't know why.
Years later when I began working in Christian publishing, I listened in on a conversation in which colleagues took turns describing their own childhood Sundays. Most had grown up in churches that observed strict regulations for how Sundays should and should not be spent. As children they were sometimes puzzled about why they were allowed to do one thing and not another. Many of them concluded that the key variable was "sweat." If an activity made you perspire, it was forbidden. Notably, none of them said anything about experiencing a sense of awe and peace as Susannah Heschel had characterized her own family's observance of the Sabbath.
The Jewish people, of course, are not strangers to the problem of legalism. In their earnest desire to keep God's commandments, they've developed a technique that involves "putting a fence around the law." For instance, instead of merely fasting for 24 hours on Yom Kippur, they fast for 25 hours, thereby ensuring that they are in compliance with the regulation. But the problem with erecting fences is that life itself can start to feel fenced in by countless rules and regulations.
In his book The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan points out that "for a long while legalism was the hound that chased Sabbath, kept it gaunt and haunted." But for most of us that is no longer true, he said. Now the great killer of Sabbath is busyness. Lamenting his own harried schedule, Buchanan says,
I cannot think of a single advantage I've ever gained from being in a hurry. But a thousand broken and missed things, tens of thousands, lie in the wake of all that rushing.1