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Keeping the Sabbath is simple, but not easy


About 900 Presbyterian college students are at Montreat for their annual conference

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

A band under the direction of keyboardist Daniel Heath leads music during opening worship Thursday at the 2020 College Conference at Montreat. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

MONTREAT, North Carolina — About 900 Presbyterian college students have gathered at the close of their Christmas break for the 2020 College Conference at Montreat. They’re here to rediscover the importance of keeping the Sabbath.

“We’re here to explore a practice that’s so simple — but it’s not easy,” said the Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, the conference preacher. “It’s one of the 10 commandments God gives us, but it doesn’t take hold of us like some of the others.”

Plenty of seemingly good options, including time with loved ones and civic engagement, all vie for the time we set aside for Sabbath. But none challenge Sabbath-keeping like the cellphone, she said, holding hers high over her head.

“The less we say about these dastardly things, the better,” she said. When she starts scrolling through her feed, she says she feels a little like Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” character, Gollum: “My precious!” she said, to laughter.

Quoting Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, McKibben Dana said Genesis 2 proves that “God is not a workaholic.”

“God revels in Creation for a while,” she said. “Rest is important to God. It’s an important part of the created order.”

Thursday’s Scripture passage, Isaiah 58:11-14, (“You shall be called the repairer of the breach”) gives us the prophet’s vision for what Sabbath should look like. Isaiah “was speaking to down-and-out people,” she said. Some had forgotten the commandments, and all of them “were devastated by exile.”

But Isaiah doesn’t tell the people to get to work right away. “Instead he says, ‘Keep the Sabbath,’” she said. “We start by putting God at the center of our lives — lives that have work and rest, toil and play, digging and then letting go. We are called to keep Sabbath as a delight,  not a chore or obligation.”

The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana

A resident of the Washington, D.C. area, McKibben Dana said the most steadfast activists that she knows “take their work seriously and themselves lightly. For them, play is a conduit for perspective and hope.”

In a nation experiencing deep political division, “play and Sabbath aren’t luxuries right now,” she said. “They are vital.”

Busy college students may have difficulty finding time for play and rest, she noted.

“My prayer is this conference will help you soften your grip on your to-do list,” she said. “Others of you are all over that play thing. Invite God into your places of joy.”

She closed her first sermon with the famous question and answer from the centuries-old Westminster Shorter Catechism: What is the chief end of humanity? To glorify God and enjoy God forever.

“That is our highest purpose,” she said. “I’m in, and I hope you are too.”

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