When the editor of The Outlook first asked me to write a series of articles on parenting issues, I knew the only way I could do it was by reporting what others say and do. Even being the mother of eight children, I still don’t feel qualified to give helpful suggestions. By God’s grace and through the graciousness of many, it has been fairly easy for me to interview others.
My questions about the Lord’s Day, however, have been met by a very different response—mostly silence or fervent apologies. I’m not surprised. After all, we are talking about one of God’s commandments, and one that seems particularly challenging today. Besides, most of us are aware that the standards of Sabbath observance often vary from family to family.
“I am no example,” most people said when I asked what they were doing to make the Lord’s Day special for their children. Many parents, exhausted after a long week, just tried to get as much rest as possible after the morning service. I talked to a pastor and church planter who had to pastor for two years on a part-time basis, while spending from forty to sixty hours a week in a full-time job.
“After preaching and leading worship, my Sabbath was pretty much a matter of falling asleep,” he said.
Lisa, a pastor’s wife and mother of four young children (all under seven years of age), told me that her Sunday afternoons are basically filled with the challenging task of making that time special for her little brood as her husband rests in preparation for the evening service. “Often, we all ride our bikes together,” she said. “It’s something that we don’t do on any other day of the week, and we can take advantage of the beautiful surroundings to praise God for his creation.”
Billie Moody, another pastor’s wife, spends her Sundays following her husband as he preaches in two different locations. “We are currently planting two churches in two different cities,” she said, “so our Lord’s Day is spent driving in the car.” She tries to make the most of the situation. “Being in the car for three and a half hours each Sunday gives us a chance to have great family discussions,” she continued. “We talk about the sermon and what the children learned in Sunday school, how they can apply what they learned to their upcoming week, and so on. It also gives us an opportunity to have a lot of uninterrupted family time as we sing together, talk together, and enjoy each other.”
Of course, these challenges are not unique to pastors and their families. As I look around my church on Sunday, watching mothers holding a newborn in one arm and pulling along a toddler with the other, I remember those exciting but difficult days. Even now that my children are grown, things are not always easier, and the Sunday afternoon nap is still a necessity—dictated maybe less by exhaustion and more by aging.
“Of course, I sanctify the day primarily through the celebration of Word and sacrament,” my church planter friend added. “I do think, following the Heidelberg Catechism, that it is primary.” And he is right. If we just manage to arrive in church with our children in unmatched socks, weary from a last minute tug-of-war over our teenagers’ dress choices, God will refresh us and give us the rest and nourishment we need.
That’s why attending church twice on the Lord’s Day can be so helpful. While there is no scriptural injunction to worship the Lord publicly morning and evening, this pattern is established in the Old Testament and has been followed throughout church history. “One great practical benefit of having both morning and evening worship is that it provides an excellent structure to help families sanctify the Lord’s Day,” wrote Rev. Michael Brown, pastor at Christ United Church in Santee, California. “The two worship services become like bookends on the Sabbath, allowing the Christian more easily to keep the day holy as we are commanded, rather than merely sanctifying a couple of hours in the morning. (Despite what is popular in our culture, it is still the Lord’s Day, and not ‘the Lord’s Morning.’)”
While attending two services on the same day may sound challenging for families who live far from the church, others have found a solution by spending the afternoon with families who live closer to the church. In those cases, a meal together and a prolonged time of fellowship can add to the celebration of the day. Older children can help to watch the younger ones, and there are always enough arms to pass the babies around. Joseph Pipa, author of The Lord’s Day, suggests some activities for these particular occasions. For example, the children may prepare a small drama or musical entertainment for the family and guests.
This extended Sunday fellowship can even work at a church level. “We are thinking of asking the consistory to keep the church facilities open on Sunday afternoon for those who want to stay the whole day,” Lisa said. “It would be a great way of getting to know other families better.” After all, this is what many Christians did in the past, when churches were fewer and people had to travel far to attend the weekly services.
As with every challenge, it’s important to realize that many problems are simply caused by excessive or inadequate expectations or by incorrect priorities. The Word and sacraments are the priority on the Lord’s Day. If between services sometimes we can do nothing more than nap, let’s enjoy our naps. If we can’t always fill our children’s afternoons with meaningful activities, let’s just make sure they are happy and safe. If, in spite of our good intentions, we have not laid out their clothes the night before and they have to come to church wearing play-pants, let’s spare them our frustrations.
“After a long and painful search for shoes on Sunday morning,” Lisa said, “my seven-year old son reminded me, ‘Mom, it’s not about clothes.’ He was right, so he went happily to church with sandals on his feet.” As in everything else, giving up on a less important front may provide the opportunity to emphasize what is truly essential and non-negotiable, focusing on the joy and rest of the Lord’s Day.
It is helpful to remember that the Lord’s Day is most of all a day for receiving God’s gifts and for remembering that the small dimension in which we have been struggling all week is not the whole of our lives, and that it’s not a day to be filled with restrictions or impositions. We have probably all seen parents who strictly confined their children to their rooms on Sunday afternoons, with the only options of sleeping, reading Christian books, or writing Grandma. As much as those activities can sound appealing to us parents, particularly at some stages of our lives, children normally need some form of physical activity, even on the Lord’s Day.
We have also heard stories such as that of James Watt, the eighteenth-century inventor who formulated the idea for a steam engine on a Sunday, and had to wait until the next day to write it down. As a person whose mind is filled with more ideas than can be put in action, I have the feeling that Watt kept thinking about his discovery all day and night. It might have been better to write it down and get on with the celebration of the Lord’s Day.
“The Sabbath is not cessation from activity,” explains Dr. Michael Horton in A Better Way, “but cessation from a particular kind of activity—namely, the six-day labor that is intrinsically good but has suffered the curse after the fall. God did not rest because he was tired; rather, it was the rest of completion, the rest of a king who has taken his throne.”
“If God’s ‘rest’ is a royal enthronement rather than a cessation of activity,” Dr. Horton continues, “the same is true for us. As kings under God, we take our place with Christ in heavenly places, setting our minds on things above where our true inheritance lies. The Father and the Son are working redemption, which the healings represented. It is resting from creation-labor and from our sins, not cessation from activity, that the Sabbath envisioned for us as well as God.”
On the other hand, we have also seen families frantically filling the Lord’s Day with occupations and duties, so much that they start the work week already exhausted. Maybe we belong to one of these categories of people—or maybe to both.
“When I was growing up, the Lord’s Day was always full of activity, so there was no idea of resting from worldly labors,” said Timothy Massaro, a student at Westminster Seminary, California. While he is thankful that his parents gave him a strong foundation of faith, taking him week after week to church to hear God’s Word in fellowship with other believers, he remembers his attitudes were not always right. “I often did not appreciate the Lord’s Day for the right reasons,” he continued. “I saw opportunities to ‘serve’ as a means for getting out of the church service, see my friends, and have a good time in youth group.”
Finding a balance can be easier if we remember that the Lord’s Day is just that—His day, when He calls us to worship in order to feed us with His word and sacraments, to announce His promises, and to renew His covenant with us. In fact, our view of this day will do more to give our children a true appreciation of its meaning than anything we may say or do. While actions usually speak louder than words, sometimes our attitude is even louder. In spite of our frailties and failures, our children know what is really important to us.
Free from a slavish observance of the fourth commandment, we can set our minds to grasp the undeserved realities that God spreads in front of us, basking in the fullness of the “already” and experiencing the thrilling anticipation of the “not yet.” A fuller appreciation of the Lord’s Day will cause us to wait for it with eagerness and to enjoy it with excitement, and communicating that excitement to our children is more important than any plans or checklists we may make for that day.
“What if each week we could really ‘taste of the powers of the age to come’ by sustained attention to what God has done, is doing, and will do for us by his Spirit in Jesus Christ? Wouldn’t we become better parents without hit-and-run sermons on parenting?” asks Dr. Horton.
Our attitude towards the Lord’s Day is also something our children will remember vividly throughout their lives. “My parents have always set Sundays apart as a day for us to spend time as a family,” said Madeline Taylor, a sixteen-year old at Christ URC in Santee, California. “One of the most memorable aspects of Sundays (aside from the means of grace, of course) is eating lunch all together on Sunday afternoons and discussing the sermon and what we learned in catechism. That relaxing, slow, pleasant meal and discussion really made (and still makes) the Lord’s Day special and set apart from all the other hectic days of the week, in addition to church on Sunday mornings and evenings.”
We may all try to come up with great programs and activities to fill our children’s Sundays, but it’s interesting that what Madeline remembers now—besides the means of grace—are the small, unassuming things—the quiet hours, the long discussions, and the food. Food, as many other common gifts of God’s bounty, can play a great part in making our Lord’s Days a time of celebration, especially when it’s served and consumed leisurely.
Sebastiano Sclafani, a member of Filadelfia Evangelical Reformed Church in Milan, Italy (a URCNA church plant), agreed that one of the joys of the Sabbath is to spend more time with his family and being able to talk to his children more than on any other day. Of course, Italians are masters at creating an atmosphere of warmth, joy, and celebration with food—even in the simplest meal. In fact, just as he was describing to me his typical Lord’s Day, his wife Rosa rushed to remind him that she prepares croissants on Sunday morning, filled with either chocolate or jam. That simple gesture reminds the children that the Sabbath is a celebration, a day unlike the others.
“So many people consider Sabbath observance as an obligation to be performed,” Dr. J.V. Fesko wrote in his book, The Law of Love, “yet they look forward to birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and other special days. If we can rejoice in such earthly celebrations, shouldn’t we rejoice even more on the days that celebrate the work of Christ and our redemption?”
Aly Brown, Rev. Michael Brown’s seventeen-year old daughter, has similar memories of Lord’s Days past. “My mom has made it a tradition to make cinnamon rolls for breakfast each Sunday morning, so we have known from the time we were very young that Sunday is a special day,” she explained. “Then, after coming home from the service, my family has always been sitting together for lunch. When I was young, my mom worked while my dad was in seminary, so this was usually one of the few times we ate together as a family.”
Of course, food was just a part of the festivity in the Browns’ home. “During the afternoon, we were (and still are) encouraged to do something relaxing, and take a break from the stressful things of the week, such as homework.” In fact, the excitement of the day started the night before. “On Saturday nights my dad would always (and still does) tell us in a very enthusiastic, excited tone that the next day was the Lord’s Day, and we had the privilege to go and worship at ‘His house.’”
What Else Can We Do?
Lord’s Day activities can include service to others and works of mercy, which are often difficult to include in the week’s schedule. Some families, for example, spend their Sunday afternoons visiting the elderly in nursing homes. If this works for your family, it provides a wonderful opportunity to teach your children that, on the Lord’s Day, we receive from the Lord in abundance and then share of our fullness with others.
Jolene Korpan, pianist at Christ URC in Santee, has kept a long tradition of Sunday visitations. Her father, Rev. Ken Meilahn, faithfully cultivated in his eight children both a sincere love for God and musical talents. Since they were young, he took them to a retirement home every Sunday afternoon to sing for the guests before and after he shared the gospel message. Jolene and her husband John have done the same with their three daughters, who now hold fond memories of those times. “I remember how much the guests loved our visits,” said Jolene’s daughter Jeanette, who has just ended her teenage years. “It was a good experience.”
We can also take walks and talk to our children about God’s creation. In A Timbered Choir—The Sabbath Poems, author Wendell Berry has collected the poems he has written during his Sabbath walks around his Kentucky farm from 1979 to 1997. Joseph Pipa lists many more ideas in his book, emphasizing the importance of parental involvement.
There are, of course, also some things that we don’t want to do on a Sunday. As we mentioned earlier, some rules of what to do or not do on that day may vary from family to family. While Scripture is clear about church attendance and about ceasing from the common labors of the week and from sin, other issues may be a matter of Christian liberty.
In Law of Love, Dr. Fesko offers a good rule-of-thumb for deciding what is allowed on the Sabbath. “What is the best way to observe the Lord’s Day? A simple way to answer this is to ask, ‘Does my activity promote or hinder my celebration of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ?’ Corporate worship, reading the Scriptures, prayer, singing psalms and hymns, meditating upon Christ, fellowshipping with the body of Christ, visiting the sick, and attending the needs of others help us celebrate Christ’s work. Watching ball-games, shopping, doing homework, and working around the house do not promote our celebration of Christ’s work because these are activities that we do every weekday. They do not help us to meditate on the completed work of Christ.”
Our children may have to turn down some invitations, especially if they happen to be at the same time as the Lord’s Day services. They will have to make some sacrifices, but if they have been attending faithfully the means of grace and have been raised with a sincere appreciation of the wonder of the Lord’s Day, they will understand. In fact, these occasions can become opportunities to teach them that we belong to Christ and, as His people, we cannot march by the world’s tune.
“I remember when my sister and I were in seventh grade,” Aly Brown said. “We were involved in ballroom dance classes, and the spring dance was on a Sunday night. We had both looked forward to this dance very much, and were distraught when my dad told us we weren’t allowed to go. I was angry at my parents, not at God or the institution of church services on Sunday, seeing as other parents (even in our church) allowed their children to attend similar events even when they occurred on the Lord’s Day. I think it just took me time to understand and fully appreciate the strictness of my parents’ rules regarding Sunday. As I got older, I began to realize and appreciate the break that Sunday provided me from the culture of the world.”
Aly, who is also a talented young musician, noticed a visible change in her attitude when she had to give up an even more enticing invitation. “Recently, my sister and I were asked to sing as the opening act of a well-known comedian’s television show,” she explained. “It was a huge deal and probably would have given us much exposure to music producers had it not been for the fact that the show was on a Sunday night during evening worship. While this was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we didn’t take it. This time, however, I was not bitter, because then I realized the importance of attending the means of grace on the Lord’s Day, the only day I truly got to detox, so to speak, from the culture being shoved down my throat the other six days a week.”
It may take a while for our children to come to that realization, but these stories encourage us to keep trying. Things will be difficult at times. In spite of our good intentions, there will be days when our best-laid plans go awry. “We try to avoid shopping and cooking on the Lord’s Day,” explained Janie Brown, Aly’s mother, sipping a tiny cup of espresso on a church pew after the evening service, “but it doesn’t always work out. We also try to rest every afternoon between services, but there are times like today when we just can’t do it, and that’s why Mike and I are so exhausted. Still, our children know that these are the exceptions and not the norm.”
As Dr. Horton teaches in A Better Way, “this day was given to us not because we are strong but because we are weak.”
“The commandment should also remind us that we enter that rest, not by our works, for the wages of sin is death, but by grace through faith in Christ and His work,” Dr. Fesko writes. “Let us therefore welcome the fourth commandment as a reminder to mourn our failures to fulfill its demands and to flee to the completed work of Christ. Let us rejoice in the knowledge that Christ has completed the work of the Father on our behalf. Let us also consider the fourth commandment as a guide for holy living, remembering that each Lord’s Day offers us a taste of heaven itself. Let us rejoice every Lord’s Day until we finally and completely enter the eternal seventh day of God’s rest.”
Some helpful resources:
Joseph A. Pipa, The Lord’s Day, Christian Focus Publications, Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, GB, 1997. This is the most complete book on the Lord’s Day I have found. It comprises the meaning of the Sabbath, its observance in history, practical ways to celebrate it (including planning ahead), prayers for the Lord’s Day, and suggested reading lists.
Bruce A. Ray, Celebrating the Sabbath, Finding Rest in a Restless World, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 2000.
Michael Horton, A Better Way, Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 2002. This is a book about worship in general, with a very inspiring chapter devoted to the observance of the Sabbath (chapter 11, “Taking a Break from the Buzz”).
J.V. Fesko, The Rule of Love, Broken, Fulfilled, and Applied, Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009. A view of the fourth commandment in the context of the whole Decalogue and in reference to Christ.
Mrs. Simonetta Carr is a member at Christ United Reformed Church, Santee, CA.