What We Talk About When We Talk About Sabbath

The teacher in me loves Venn diagrams, and I sketched out a quick one today. 

If you think of the left circle as "Reclaiming Sunday" and the right circle as "Sunday Supper," you can see the shaded, starred area is where the two ideas overlap, and that's where I hope to focus most of my writing: on that sweet spot in the middle, where we talk about food and recipes and the way they're so connected to hospitality and rest. But sometimes I'll want to zero in on one circle and ignore the other, and that's what I'm thinking about today.

What, in 2014, is Sabbath? When I talk about "reclaiming Sunday," what do I really mean? Does a Sabbath - a period of rest - really need to be a whole day long? Does it need to happen on a Sunday? Does it need to be religious or Christian in nature?

The answer to those last three questions, I think, is no. Sabbath doesn't need to last an entire day, doesn't need to happen on a Sunday, and doesn't need to be religious in nature. But historically, the answer to those last three questions has been yes, and that's changed in such a short period of time that I think it's worth comparing the Sabbath of my grandmother's mid-life to the Sunday of today.

I lost both my grandmothers this past year. The eldest one, my dad's mom, was 99 when she died. Her life was very little like mine: she grew up on a farm, went to school in a one-room school house and only through 8th grade, she had five children, and she lived with her family above the grocery store my grandpa ran. On the Sundays of his childhood in the 1950s, my dad remembers church, a family meal, and then church again at night. That was all. He remembers not being allowed to swim, bike, clean, play, or do anything at all except those three things. He remembers my grandmother trying to make most of the Sunday meals ahead on Saturday, so she'd just need to turn on the oven and cook what she had already prepared. 

Fast forward to my childhood in the 1980s. I remember Sundays that featured church, coffee at my grandparents', a big noon meal, naps, playing in the neighborhood and maybe some homework, and that's about it. My family didn't generally go shopping, go out to eat, or run errands, and that's largely because stores and restaurants weren't open on Sundays, but it's also because my parents didn't like the idea of supporting a culture where others had to work on Sunday. Neighbors who washed their cars and mowed their lawns on Sunday were frowned upon, and the county in which I grew up didn't sell alcohol on Sundays. We had a pool, though, and would definitely use it in the summer, and we'd ride our bikes and occasionally go to the beach for the afternoon in the summer, and my brother and dad would likely play basketball in the driveway or watch sports on TV. Throughout childhood, I played a little soccer and my brother played basketball, but I never remember either of us having Sunday games.

This morning, I found myself standing on a soccer field at 9:00 a.m. with a birthday party and a Costco trip on the schedule for the afternoon. Later, Jason mowed the lawn while I cleaned the bathrooms and did a load of laundry. The girls rode their bikes around the block and hula-hooped in the front yard. In just two generations, Sundays have become totally unrecognizable as a day of the week that used to be set apart for rest. Many people we know do go to church, but it seems that even those families have to squeeze church in among several other commitments in their Sunday: kids' sports, training for their own sporting event, birthday parties, grocery shopping, running errands, cleaning, piano lessons, social events. I get work emails all weekend long, and I know I'm not the only one. Many of our friends who travel for business have begun flying out on Sunday afternoon in order to be at their destination as expected for the 8:00 a.m. meeting on Monday morning. 

So over a period of 60 years, give or take, a day of the week that, in the Christian tradition at least, had been set aside for rest and worship for hundreds of years, has become just another one of seven weekdays, nearly as busy as the other six. And here's what I wonder: Are we OK with this? Or are we not OK with this, but we don't think we have a choice? 

Because here's the thing. I don't especially want to go back to the Sundays of the 1950s; those days of enforced church and joyless rest sound pretty grim. And having actual laws in place that forbid businesses from being open on Sundays seems like a pretty blatant flaunting of the separation of church and state. (Let's not even talk about shunning the neighbors who wash their cars and mow their lawns.) I don't presume that most of the residents of my community, my state, or my country share my faith or should have to follow any sort of religious rules. But no matter your religion or total lack thereof, don't we all want a day to just shut it down? To hang around the house in elastic waistband pants, watch mindless television, cook good food, read, hike, play? To let go of the need to be productive?

When I think about what's changed in the last few decades (and what might have caused our culture's definition of Sunday to change), a few things come to mind: more women entered the workforce, fewer people attend church, more people live in cities instead of on farms, and technology has completed changed the way we work. But I was in Paris and Vienna last summer, and those world-class European cities still close their restaurants and stores on Sundays in spite of the fact that hardly anyone in Europe cares about organized religion and the majority of women work. People sit in cafes, read the paper, walk along the Seine, play with their kids in the park -- and it's not because they're required by a priest or shamed by their mothers or neighbors. It's because they value the time away from work and school. I'm not sure why, as Americans in 2014, the voices calling for sanity in scheduling seem few and far between. I'm not sure why we aren't taking a good hard look at what we've given up since we've let Sunday become just another day of the week. I'm not sure what it's costing our kids, our health, our creativity, our relationships. But I'm curious.

Here's what I know for sure. My grandmother would never have found herself standing on a soccer field at 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. 

Am I wrong? Am I way off base? Because I want you to set me straight if you think I’m wrong. I want to know. I mean, I don’t know anything, and I’m the first one to admit it.
— Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love