Book review: ‘The Sabbath Experiment’

Jan 4, 2016 by

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The Sabbath Experiment: Spiritual Formation for Living in a Non-Stop World transports me back to childhood, when observing the Sabbath was unselfconscious and assumed.

The Sabbath Experiment

The Sabbath Experiment

Those were the days when books on Sabbath weren’t read by people from my childhood congregation, Manson (Iowa) Mennonite Church. Those were the days when Iowa farmers turned off their tractors and traded pig-barn boots for polished black wing-tips. Women pulled casseroles from their ovens for potlucks after the benediction. Extended families and friends shared food for body and soul. They shared an unspoken commitment to set aside Sundays for relationships, rest and worship.

Those were the days that I long for in adulthood, and days that author Rob Muthiah gives me hope can be again — albeit more self-consciously, more intentionally. He causes us to hunger for the ancient gift of Sabbath by making it new for our time. He then provides “recipes” for how to make it creatively and sustainably our own. He both ascends to the heights of God’s intentions and descends to on-the-ground realities — making this a balanced approach for serious Sabbath seekers.

Muthiah makes a convincing case that, for 24 hours each week, we need to leap off the merry-go-round of fast food, Facebook, texting and full schedules. For most people, this would be from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday, though clergy and others who work on Sundays might need to choose another day. The hiatus makes room for us to take a nap, take a walk, take a break from technology and take stock of our relationships with God, others and creation.

In the first chapter, he whets appetites for the remaining pages: “In a culture that entices us to worship at the altars of shopping, image creation and the latest and greatest gadgets, Sabbath confronts these gods by rooting us in joyful worship of our triune God. In a culture that strains and fragments our relationships and communities, Sabbath provides a way of experiencing wholeness and integration. In an age when human trafficking and environmental degradation are rampant, Sabbath keeping reveals to us the social justice and earth care dimensions of Christian discipleship. In a time of cynicism and despair, Sabbath leads us into delight and hope. This ancient practice is a gift for our time.”

Each chapter explores an ingredient for Sabbath-keeping. In chapter one, Muthiah explores the frenzied nature of our “25/8 culture” — a pace of life we can’t sustain. Chapter two examines how we can cease from work and celebrate rest. Chapter three offers practical tips for unplugging from cyberspace. Chapters four and five examine Sabbath’s justice-making and creation-caring dimensions as linked to workaholic and consumeristic tendencies. Chapter six excavates the trials of our inner life that emerge when we slow down. And chapter seven names the tensions that exist between our ideals and realities.

My favorite is chapter six: “Sabbath and the Self: The Storms That Rage Within.” This chapter reminds us that it takes interior work in order to rest. The calmness of Sabbath makes one aware of internal storms of compulsion that need to be reset into a more peaceful and sane pattern of living. Muthiah offers a list of the compulsions that boil over in our souls when we slow down, get off and unplug. Awareness of these compulsions can help us carry some dimensions of our Sabbath rest into the other six days of the week:

– The compulsion to surround oneself with sound.
– The compulsion to read and respond to text messages immediately.
– The compulsion to eat.
– The compulsion to prepare.
– The compulsion to clean and organize.
– The compulsion to be entertained.

If this is not enough to satiate us, Muthiah, a professor of practical theology at Azusa Pacific University and a member of Pasadena (Calif.) Mennonite Church, gives us bite-sized sections at each chapter’s end: “Slowing Down.” These highlight the biblical and theological underpinnings of the meaning and practice of Sabbath throughout the history of God’s people.

One of the more powerful of these sections is titled “Jesus and Sabbath.” It explores the confrontation, as described in Mark 2, that Jesus had with the Pharisees when they saw his disciples picking grain. In verse 27, they were reminded the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.

Muthiah writes: “Jesus was not abolishing Sabbath but was challenging the way it had come to be understood and practiced. The day was never intended to rule over people. Rather, the day was intended to serve people by connecting them to God. The role of Sabbath was in a sense to watch over the covenantal relationship between God and God’s people. It was never intended to police alleged petty offenses.”

Sabbath practices are not about rule-keeping but relationship-making. They are not about policing others but persevering in self-discipline. They are about renewing the simple elegance of eating at our own tables or on picnic blankets. They are about preparing for a delicious feast of rest upon which family and friends can feed.

Most important, Muthiah’s wisdom is shaped by his compassion for our plight of busyness and brokenness. To that end, he gives guidelines to launch us into our own Sabbath experiment: preparations for Sabbath, guidelines for the 24-hour Sabbath period and a liturgy for a Sabbath meal. He is not asking us to pour new wine into old wineskins of a bygone era. He gently prods us to make space on our lives’ overfull plates for the food from heaven that truly satisfies.

Laurie Oswald Robinson is a freelance writer in Newton, Kan.


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