Since today is Sunday, I thought I'd make my first real blog post about Sabbath observance in my family of origin. I wrote this a couple months ago, and was waiting for an opportunity to share it with others. Enjoy! Or be appalled...whichever.
In Christian circles, there’s a range of views on the Sabbath and how it is to be observed. Most Protestants agree that the Sabbath is on Sunday, based on the New Testament description of Jesus rising on the first day of the week and Acts 20, verse 7: “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples were come together to break bread, Paul preached unto them.” (KJV of course!) To celebrate the Sabbath on any other day could be perceived as a denial of the Resurrection.
Reformed Presbyterians, such as I was, proclaim their freedom from the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. They chow down on ham, bacon, and shellfish, wear mixed fibers, shave their beards, and shake hands with menstruating women. But somehow they think the commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” is still in force and now refers to keeping Sunday holy as a day of rest. There’s really only a very shaky basis for that in the New Testament books of the Bible. Sure, according to Acts, Paul preached on a Sunday, but there’s no indication that the Gentile believers felt bound by any legalities of the Jewish religion. None. But Reformed Presbyterians can be very…very…fond of rules and legalities. Really, it might be easier for them to follow all the laws of the Pentateuch, rather than trying to make distinctions.
For most of evangelical Christendom, keeping the Sabbath holy would probably mean showing up for church on Sunday. No fuss, no muss, and out by noon to make it to Applebee’s. If you’re Reformed Presbyterian, though, attending church is only the first step into a legalistic quicksand.
This is an area where it’s definitely hard to find any consistency of practice, even in the tiny denomination I grew up in. Some people are hardliners (even cooking meals the day before to avoid excessive work on the sabbath) some are middle ground (reading secular novels and watching Netflix is allowed) and some people are so lax that they even go out to eat at restaurants, committing the double sin of violating the sabbath and causing others to violate it as well (those poor cooks at Mickey D’s!). Working at a job is very much frowned upon unless it is perceived as necessary, like nursing, emergency services, etc.
To a well-balanced person, this probably sounds like a lot of fuss over a trivial matter. But when you’re a Biblical literalist and come across Numbers 15:32-36, a horrifying story about a man being stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath, you are bound to interpret Sabbath-breaking as a very serious matter. If God killed someone for picking up sticks, and God is still the same today, then the slightest infraction of the rules means that you are deserving of the same death. I cannot stress enough that I am not kidding here. Any thought, any action that violates the Sabbath is deserving of death by stoning. That is what I was taught, and that is what I believed.
But the Reformed Presbyterians don’t want to end up on the news. They won't stone you literally, only figuratively. As long as you realize how worthy of death you are, and are seized with crippling anxiety as a result, they’ve done their job.
So how could I break the Sabbath? Let me count the ways, as a child of parents who took everything, including Sabbath-keeping, to painful extremes. Also as a child with untreated and undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety.
Sunday dawns, and I rise from bed. I do not perform my normal exercise routine: that, of course, would be sacrilegious. Going for a walk might be permitted later, as long as it’s kept to a gentle pace and a reverential attitude.
Thank God for hot showers. At least in my family of origin, we were permitted to shower. Nobody wants a houseful of stinky people, not even Jesus. He was grateful for the prostitute that poured incense on him, wasn’t he? I’ve heard and read plenty of debates about the use of electricity on the Sabbath, because somebody is presumably working at the power plant. However, the general consensus is that electricity is necessary to the function of present-day society, so somebody has to work at the power plant. It most likely won’t be a Reformed Presbyterian, though.
Breakfast is not fancy, maybe some scrambled eggs, to keep labor minimal. Big involved breakfasts are not for the Sabbath.
From breakfast until time to leave for church is about two hours of trying desperately to keep my thoughts focused on what we called “Sunday things.” We weren’t supposed to even think about schoolwork, jobs, hobbies, or, basically, anything fun. God, sin, death, Bible, God, sin, death, Bible. God, sin, death, list of chores…wait, that’s a worldly thought-oh-God-forgive-me-for-that-in-Jesus’-name-amen. God, sin, death, Bible…
As a family, we drove quite a ways to church on Sundays (only sinners and misguided people went to the regular local churches). The family van had to be gassed up on Saturday for the trip, because it would be a sin to fill the tank on Sunday morning. That would be unnecessary work, and also involve the sin of buying and selling on the Sabbath, which gets its own special mention in Sabbatarian hell. Many times, the drive to church included memorizing the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which is second only to the Bible among Reformed Presbyterians. It's a screed more dry than sawdust, but at least the questions provided a distraction from trying to shut off all non-Sabbath-related thoughts. Yes, it was like trying not to think of a pink elephant!
Church was the main event of the day, of course. I don’t need to get into the routines of that here: the music was the Psalms of David, there was no accompaniment and we sucked at singing; the prayers were long, the sermons Calvinistic to the core. There was no excitement or running up and down the aisles shouting “Hallelujah!” As they say, you know you’re a Presbyterian when the preacher says something you agree with and you smile as loudly as you can. We were the Frozen Chosen.
After church came the potluck dinner: everyone brought food (prepared the day before, of course) and the congregants shared a meal. This was usually the best part of the day, because for some reason you were allowed to think about food. Not too much, or you’d make an idol of it (ha! like Pepsi!), but at least you were allowed to enjoy lasagna and jello cake. Cue the Bible verse about Jesus plucking grain to eat on the Sabbath, blah, blah…Of course there were quaverings of unease even about the meal. Were we putting too much work into setting up tables and preparing food? Were people spending too much time chatting about worldly things? Were the children playing tag outside instead of walking quietly?
Once the meal was concluded and we went home, the rest of the day stretched out gray and bleak. Catechism questions, Bible reading, sermons on audiocassette, a small supper, Psalm-singing in the evening (since it wasn’t public worship, my mother played the piano for that, thank heaven). We had a collection of books determined to be worthy of Sunday reading, so we read those over and over. I kid you not, some of them were republished tracts from the 19th century. Small children were not allowed to play with toys, except for the Noah’s Ark with its little plastic animals.
Sometimes I could sneak a nap in, always with guilt about how I was using the Lord’s Day for sleeping. And most of us went to bed as soon as possible so we could end the misery. I used to get horribly depressed on Saturdays, knowing that Sunday was coming. That one day felt as long as the rest of the week put together. My OCD made it worse. OCD by its nature focuses on a source of anxiety, and my Sabbath anxiety was fear of sinning by thinking about secular things. I spent a lot of Sabbaths mentally chanting prayers for forgiveness every few minutes.
If this sounds miserable, believe me, it was. The restrictions on what could be done on the Sabbath would have been bad enough without the sheer torture of trying to control every single thought that crossed your mind. Instead of being a day of rest, it became the most labor-intensive, mind-fucked day of the week.
And they told me that Heaven would be one long, everlasting Sabbath.