Lauren Winner's talk at the Ancient Evangelical Future conference was about retrieval of our Hebrew roots. Her initial observation was that when we talk about our ancient roots, we usually mean the early church, whether the patristic or medieval era. But she encouraged us to go further back, to our Jewish roots in ancient Israel. She went on to talk about several Jewish practices, particularly sabbath keeping and bereavement/mourning (ground she covered in her book Mudhouse Sabbath), that modern evangelicals would benefit from recovering. There was some ambiguity here - I think her presentation may have conflated ancient Old Testament practices with those in contemporary Orthodox Judaism, but the exhortation was still valuable.
A major theme here was that in Judaism, formation and learning happen through doing, not just by hearing, knowing or understanding. Judaism has always been an embodied, practiced faith, not merely a creedal formulation of doctrines to assent to. As such, the twin themes of practice and community emerge in many of the Jewish traditions Lauren highlighted. Sabbath is practiced in community, not individualistically, and the practice of lament takes place in a community that offers particular rituals for the first week and the first year following a death.
She commented that when talking with other authors who have written about sabbath, it seemed to all of them that their books have not had much overall impact because people would read about sabbath keeping but lack the community to help them practice it. She didn't say it in quite these terms, but my take on it was this: If a community does not practice the practice, then the individual cannot (or is far less likely) to practice the practice.
What came to mind for me was the fact that my church meets on Saturday nights, because we are a church plant meeting in another church's building. Thus for us, sabbath begins at 5 p.m. on Saturday evenings. And all day Sunday is spent practicing sabbath. We take our time getting up and getting ready, we might have pancakes or waffles for breakfast, and during the warmer months we might go for a leisurely walk or play in the park with our kids. There are no meetings, no committees, just uninterrupted time for rest, restoration, relationship and delight in God's creation. And this rhythm is made available to us as individuals because it is the corporate practice of our church as a community. Not that you can't do this if you go to church on Sundays instead of Saturdays, but it's different.
I'm also reminded of the Taiwanese church I went to as a kid, where every single week, the entire church would have a potluck. We'd all bring food and eat together and hang out at the church until 2:30 or 3:00 or later. We kids would run around the building and play hide-and-seek in the sanctuary, and we'd fall asleep in the car on the way home. Only later did I realize the countercultural significance of the entire church practicing this rhythm of eating together every single Sunday, as opposed to going out to eat at restaurants (and making other people work on Sundays). There's something very powerful about how a church can create a culture where sabbath is a time for the community of God to fellowship and break bread together, not run off in individualistic directions for nuclear family activities.
If we extrapolate this further to local communities, especially suburban ones, we can consider other systemic and structural ways. I heard about a local municipality somewhere in New England that decided not to have any school sporting events on Sundays. No soccer games, nothing. I don't know if this was particularly motivated by a Christian or Jewish sense of sabbath or if it was merely a desire to have an activity-free zone during part of the weekend, but it strikes me as the kind of thing that suburban Christians can work for in their local school districts and park programs. Practicing sabbath can transform entire communities, thus enabling more individuals to experience the sabbath God intends.