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Pastors and the Sabbath: An Interview with Marva Dawn

Justin Juntunen

Justin Juntunen

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Marva Dawn is a scholar with four masters degrees and a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics and the Scriptures from the University of Notre Dame. She is also a popular preacher and speaker for people of all ages. She is the author of numerous articles and over 20 books, several of which have won awards and/or been translated into Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and other languages.

Jeff Heidkamp: Could you give some summary thoughts about why Sabbath in general is such a crucial practice for Christian believers?

Marva Dawn: I think it’s crucial because God said to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. Nothing in Scripture revokes that. We still keep the commandment not to kill, and hopefully to honor our parents. Since the Sabbath is also one of the Ten Commandments, I think we should be paying attention to it.

On a secondary level, it has great benefits. But the first and most important reason for my beginning in Sabbath practice is because God commanded it.

JH: Could you outline some of these benefits?

MD: At Mount Sinai, God said, “I’m the God who brought you out of Egypt. I’m the God who took care of you. Therefore, here are some commandments. Keep these, and you will remain in relationship.”
In the same way, we have been rescued out of our sin and brought into a relationship with God. As a result, we gladly keep God’s commandments. Obedience becomes a joy to us. In that sense, the most important reason to keep the Sabbath is to respond to God with obedience. The other secondary benefits would help persuade or sway us to continue to keep the Sabbath—for the sake of gaining those benefits themselves.

JH: Particularly for people in ministry (and especially paid ministry), what are some of the temptations that might draw us away from keeping the Sabbath? And if we chose to obey God in that way, what are some of the effects that would especially benefit pastors?

MD: Pastors often say to me, “I can’t keep the Sabbath; I’m much too busy.” And I respond, “Then you’ll really want to keep the Sabbath, because you’re much too busy.” Sabbath is a great cure for busyness. To take that day enables us to reorient all of our time. Furthermore, in practicing Sabbath, we rethink how we spend our time so that we use time the best and most wisely.

JH: If you’re talking to new church planters, who are typically pulled in so many directions, they would probably push back and say, “But you don’t understand. I’m obeying God, and I really don’t have time. I can’t do that—God wouldn’t expect it of me.” Could you give some thoughts to a person like that?

MD: Yes; I’ve thought deeply about the question of time. When I first started keeping the Sabbath myself, I was in my PhD program. I had to read 350 books in seven months. It was rather busy. I had to read at least a book a day.

But during the course of that time, I discovered that I worked far better if I would take a day of Sabbath and then work the other six days. I had far more energy for the other six days if I took a decent rest as God commanded. God knew that if we overtax our bodies—if we keep on and keep on working too hard, eventually we just wear out. But if we take a rest and start fresh the next day, we work with greater diligence.

JH: You addressed this next question very well in your book: Being as you’re a person highly involved in ministry and teaching, there are probably times you have lots of formal and informal contact with people. There’s a certain hazard of trying to spend time with others on our Sabbath that turns into feeling like work again. How do you draw those boundaries? How do you decide what works in your own ministry context to do and not to do on the Sabbath?

MD: Jesus himself kept the Sabbath day. And he was doing ministry all the time. So it’s important for us to realize that Jesus was the model of how we can obey God, be very involved in ministry, and still keep the Sabbath. Why do we think that Jesus stayed in the grave on Saturday?

JH: I don’t know.

MD: He was keeping the Sabbath!

JH: [Laughter]

MD: [Laughs] I’m actually kind of serious! In the early church that day was called “Great Sabbath.” And Jesus was taking the Sabbath rest before he rose and got into ministry again. In general, the gospels are very clear to point out that Jesus went to the synagogue, as was his custom on the Sabbath day.

We’re sure that Jesus kept the Sabbath day because his followers kept it too. You can imagine that the women who came to the tomb wanted nothing more than to go right away to the tomb to anoint Jesus. And yet, they stayed back and rested on the Sabbath. Jesus had taught them to keep the Sabbath. So they waited until Sunday morning. As soon as the Sabbath was over, they came to anoint Jesus.

So likewise, if you say, “Well, I’m working to serve God, so God must be pleased,” it’s the same as saying, “I love God so much that I’ll go to anoint him right away.” But that would be breaking the Sabbath. You must realize that God would be more pleased if you waited.

To answer more of your boundaries question: First of all, decide the day. Most pastors can’t keep Sabbath on Sunday, so they’ll want to use another day and keep it as a holy day. Pick a day that involves the least number of people. Don’t plan any meetings. Get away from the church building. Make clear to the congregation which day is the Sabbath day, and that can be a teaching lesson. Encourage the congregation to keep the Sabbath, hopefully on Sunday, because now that’s usually the day when all God’s people keep the Sabbath and worship together. It’s also the day when we celebrate the resurrection and the beginning of creation and the pouring out of the Spirit.

But again, pastors might pick a different day. And to model it for the congregation, they might ask that the congregation will not disturb them unless there is a life-or-death emergency. Jesus did respond to those on the Sabbath! But otherwise, he got far away from people. We find him far away, in the hills, not always available even to his disciples. We can try to go on hikes or nature walks as a model.

Or if you can’t go far away, leave a message on your voicemail that tells people it’s your Sabbath day. You might have an administrative person or someone helpful on your staff that will take messages for you that day of the week.

If some sort of work or distraction enters my mind, I try to write that down and put it in a place that I’ll find the next day. I used to keep a Sabbath basket; I’d write down work-related thoughts on little pieces of paper and throw each one in the basket. Then I’d look at them the next day. But pretty soon, I got better at keeping work out of my mind, and I didn’t need the basket anymore.

JH: One of my favorite things about your book and your other writings is that you’re very clear about God’s expectations, yet you treat your readers graciously. If there are young people trying to start a church and trying to keep the Sabbath, but feeling as though they’re failing miserably, I’d imagine that you would speak gently to them and be aware of their efforts.

MD: I would especially want to encourage them that it doesn’t matter if we fail at it, because we’re always going to fail. There is no perfect Sabbath until the end, when we enter the true Sabbath rest. In the meantime, our Sabbath days are going to have a few problems. I’ve been keeping Sabbath now for more than 30 years, and I’ve never had a perfect one yet.

– from Cutting Edge, Summer 2010

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