Remember the Sabbath

There was time again to go to church and keep the rest of the day “apart”—just like in the days of my supervised youth. But I wondered, is doing nothing the best way to keep a day holy?

I don’t recall my parents sitting me down to explain just what we kids could and could not do on Sunday. We learned by example and fell in step with the prevailing home and church standards. Sometimes we learned the hard way: a reprimand, a scolding, a shaming.

On Sunday mornings we marched to and from church for our weekly dose of three points and an application. After eating the roast and roasting the sermon, we lapsed into languor until it was time for the evening service. For kids, there was little about Sunday to look forward to. It was a day of refraining, of avoiding, of not doing.  

As we grew older, we chafed at the restrictions and argued with our parents, wanting to know why our friends’ folks sometimes drove their car into the countryside on a Sunday afternoon while we had to stay home to read the Sunday school paper or play Chinese checkers. Buying groceries on Sunday was out of the question, as were throwing a softball or riding a bicycle.   

The fabric of my piety became progressively tattered as I grew into adulthood. I became a doctor-in-training and discovered that illness and calamities are not acquainted with the fourth commandment. Once established in practice, though, my life became more orderly and predictable. There was time again to go to church and keep the rest of the day “apart”—just like in the days of my supervised youth. But I wondered, is doing nothing the best way to keep a day holy? 

While walking in our garden one Sunday afternoon, marveling at God’s way with tulips and daffodils, a cluster of dandelions challenged my piety. As I tugged at the stubborn roots, the rectitude of my youth tugged at my conscience. Guilt-induced disquiet waged war with a longing to be free from legalism. I wondered how to square Yahweh’s explicit carvings on Sinai’s stone tablets with the lessons his son taught on the subject centuries later: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” 

I have gone from pulling weeds on Sunday to pruning back unruly shrubs and even, on occasion, to mowing the grass. After church we sometimes join friends for Sunday brunch at a restaurant. I do not wear a WWJD bracelet, but I do wonder how Jesus would react. Pulling weeds and eating out are not matters of necessity like healing leprosy or staving off starvation. Would Jesus condone my “work”—though it feels like play—in the garden? What about playing a round of golf?

At what point do we Christians lose our distinctiveness from unchurched neighbors, from the self-serving, consumer society we live in? Help me, Lord, to determine your will for my life.

About the Author

Hank Ottens is a retired orthopedic surgeon and an active gardener, photographer, and singer. He attends Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Mich.

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