The Fourth Commandment—“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy”—is the bridge between heaven and earth, Matthew Sleeth insists. He’s absolutely right.
Sleeth was a nonbelieving emergency room doctor who experienced a call to follow Jesus, care for creation and keep the Sabbath almost simultaneously. He now leads Blessed Earth, a nonprofit organization that educates, inspires and equips “people of faith to become better stewards of the earth.” He led a workshop on Sabbath rest at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship annual general assembly in Atlanta this summer.
Sleeth resonated with a conviction that deepens and grows as I examine my own life and observe the lives of fellow Christians: Jesus was right; Sabbath was made for people. And we really, really need to keep the Sabbath.
“Time is something the whole world is having trouble with,” Sleeth noted. For example, when I typed “time management” in a popular online search engine, it turned up 10.4 million possible web pages.
“The world is speeding up and speeding up, and it’s scaring us,” he said. “Time-saving devices don’t save time. The amount of work is going up, and the amount of leisure time is going down.”
Life takes its toll
That takes a toll. “We’re the most depressed nation on earth,” he reported, linking the malady, at least in part, to time pressure, stress and fatigue.
The problem has skyrocketed, he added.
“There’s been a fundamental shift in 50 years,” he said, contrasting current time constraints with his boyhood. “I grew up in dairy country. We milked cows, but we didn’t take in the hay or buy groceries on Sunday. My No. 1 Sunday memory is meals with family. We took naps. We didn’t shop.”
A ‘stop day’
But the escalating pace of life today “is just starting,” he warned, prescribing a “stop day” as the antidote for Christians.
Of the Ten Commandment, the first three are about God, and the last six are about people. “But the Fourth Commandment—the longest—is a bridge,” Sleeth said. “In the Ten Commandments, it’s the link between heaven and earth.”
“Keeping the Sabbath is fundamental to keeping the other commandments,” he stressed, quipping, “You take a nap, you’re not murdering anybody.”
Sabbath has been God’s plan since Creation, he said, adding the Sabbath was the only aspect of Creation God called holy.
“And what makes Sabbath holy?” he asked. “Rest itself is holy. Nowhere in the Bible does it say work is holy.”
The Sabbath and holiness
In his excellent book 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life, Sleeth explains the connection between Sabbath and holiness: “God doesn’t need to rest after creating the universe because he’s tired. He rests because he is holy. Everything God does is holy. God rests. God is holy. Therefore, rest is holy.”
(By the way, even if you don’t buy his book, you can see a video here.)
True confession: I’ve been a lousy Sabbath-keeper.
Simple observation: I don’t think I’m alone.
Fact is, keeping the Sabbath seems like the easiest of the Ten Commandments to break. The first three—put God first, no idols, no cussing—feel frightful to break. The last six—honor your parents and don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet—look downright heinous.
But breaking the Sabbath? What could it hurt? Jesus’ disciples “broke” the Sabbath. Even church can wear us out on Sundays, which feels a lot like—and maybe truly is—breaking the Sabbath. With all the stuff that goes on nowadays, it’s almost impossible not to break the Sabbath.
Besides this, many Christians look upon Sabbath-keeping the same way we see the worst of what passes for Christianity. One more set of rules. One more giant “Don’t.” A blah, boring chore. An obligation that gets in the way of what we want to do.
Part of that inclination may have to do with misunderstanding Sabbath. For example, Sleeth said, if you sit at a desk all week, then working in the yard on Sunday afternoon probably is keeping the Sabbath. Tell that to the deacons in our little church back in the day.
Christians stagger among the harried and frazzled throughout society. We get depressed, worn out, stressed. With cell phones, tablets and laptops, we can’t unhitch from work. With youth sports and shopping, we can’t stop going.
Jesus said we need the Sabbath. He told his disciples: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Don’t you think he meant it? Don’t you think God designed the Sabbath not as one more rule to keep but the cure for much of what ails us?
So, maybe I’m preaching to myself here. But I sense God has been moving me toward Sabbath for a while now.
Although I almost never make New Year’s resolutions, on Jan. 1, I vowed to turn off email and the Web browser on my phone, tablet and laptop on Sundays. It’s a start. And although life this year has included at least a couple of all-time leading stressors, I’ve experienced divine peace that surpasses all understanding, even in the storms.
Tips for keeping the Sabbath
Sleeth inspired me to pursue Sabbath more passionately. And he provided a few key tips for succeeding:
• If you absolutely cannot keep the Sabbath on Sunday, schedule another Sabbath, another “stop day.” He travels to preach all over the country, so he and his wife, Nancy, block out their Sabbaths four months at a time.
• “Keeping the Sabbath is like exercise. It builds up,” he insisted. “You do it for a couple of weeks, and you don’t notice. You do it for a year, and it changes your life. It changes your character.”
• “Try to do it with somebody else,” he advised.
I’ll be keeping the Sabbath. Care to join me?