Remember the Sabbath and Keep it Holy

Post Author: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

For one day a week, we would let the laundry sit in the basket, let the leaves languish on the lawn, let the bills sit unpaid on the desk. For one day a week, we would take a day of rest that, we hoped, would help put the remainder of the week in better perspective.

But how, how were we going make this happen? How does it work, with two careers and three children, and the relentless tasks that comprise life in the modern world? As a pastor, I work every Sunday morning, plus many Sunday afternoons. There are committee meetings in the evenings, Saturday retreats, and late-night phone calls with parishioners in need. Weekends are our time to catch up on chores and errands.

The laundry will not do itself. If we didn’t have small kids in the house, we could put off going to the grocery store, gamely subsisting on whatever we might find in our pantry. But it feels irresponsible to feed growing bodies a meal consisting of Wheaties, half a bag of frozen pearl onions, and Catalina dressing.

There had to be some best practices—after all, people have been doing this for thousands of years. I decided to consult some experts, hopeful that they could help with the “how.” I found every book on Sabbath I could get my hands on. These were helpful companions, as far as they went. Other people also found the pace of life as confounding as I did. Other people saw the 24/7 pace of life to be crazy-making and energy-sucking.

The Jewish-oriented books were fascinating, and the rituals were beautiful. This is deep stuff, I mused, as I read about candles and fresh challah bread, prayers said by mother and father, and the blessing of children. These books were more family oriented, and at least acknowledged the presence of children in a way many Christian books I’d found didn’t. I read about homes in which children tear toilet paper the day before Sabbath; tearing is one of the activities that’s prohibited on Shabbat.

But the strict Sabbath did not suit us. A stay-at-home mother seemed to be a key ingredient to making it all work. One book dispatched with the arrangements for Shabbatin a single sentence: “Preparations intensify on Friday as we engage in shopping, cooking, and cleaning to make everything ready for Shabbat.”I was incredulous: That’s it?!? How exactly does the challah get purchased? The house tidied? The food prepared? Who remembers to unscrew the light in the refrigerator so that it will not come on the next day (which would count as kindling fire)? How does all this happen before sundown—or more precisely, eighteen minutes before sundown as the rabbis specified?

Other books were more practical, with step-by-step guides, recipes, and cheerful urges to do what you can and start where you are. One author, a working mother herself, provided a charmingly frenzied diary of her preparations for Shabbat, including a tense countdown to the candle-lighting moment. Another writer titled her essay “Preparing for Shabbat: A Frantic Approach.”

Ultimately, we couldn’t go the Orthodox Jewish route. We are Christians. Copying the Jewish Shabbat felt like co-opting a practice that was not our own.

We decided to set the books on a shelf for handy reference and figure it out ourselves

So now we’re going all in: one year of Sabbath practice. That’s one day, every week, from September to August. There will be no work. No tidying. No answering e-mails. No sermon writing. Those errands and chores that take up a weekend? They will have to be done on Sunday afternoon, or shoe-horned into other times of the week, or (gulp) not done at all.

It won’t be easy. I feel muddled by my own spiritual contradictions. I want my children to live an unhurried childhood, even as I jam tiny feet into shoes, scooting us all out the door so we won’t be late. I believe that our constant drive for kids to Go! Do! Be! can have perilous consequences. But as Caroline brings home flyers and permission slips for science club, campouts and Spanish, I see how overloading one’s children is such a gradual process—a thousand small, well-intentioned decisions, not a single cataclysmic blunder.

Could we pull it off?

We were about to find out.

This excerpt is from the introduction of the book Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time, forthcoming in August 2012 by Chalice Press. You can pre-order the book here or you can register for Conference 2012 to hear MaryAnn in person.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, VA. Now that the book manuscript is done, she is doing the fun stuff, including looking at potential covers and practicing in the mirror for her interview with Stephen Colbert. Visit her at But don’t burst her bubble on the Colbert thing.

Photo by Sean Freese

8 replies
  1. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    What does it say about me that the first thing I am taking away from this article is, “Oh.. Of course. I can FREEZE the extra pearl onions!” ?

    I am very much looking forward to your book, Dana, and the conference in August. I know so many families who desperately want this, but have no idea what they could possibly give up. I’m looking forward to sharing this article with them.

  2. MaryAnn
    MaryAnn says:

    Aww thanks y’all. I can’t wait for Chicago either!!

    And I hope the book is helpful and inspiring.

    Alex, if I get on Colbert I’m bringing you with me for moral support 🙂

  3. Candice Robbins
    Candice Robbins says:

    Mentioned this in my Wednesday night women’s class last week and my group asked for a copy. Printing it off now to share with them this week, and shared on my Facebook page. They were really inspired.


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