May 6, 2014


They’re tearing up the sidewalks in our neighborhood again—to lay more fiber-optic cable so that we will watch more television and play more video games—and use the sidewalks even less.

Commercial motivations aside, they have improved the sidewalks, at least from the perspective of this late-night walker. Surfaces are now uniformly level, so toes don’t catch on cement slabs heaved up by frost or tree roots. I can walk 100 yards with my head in the clouds or my eyes on my smartphone screen and never fear I’ll sprawl all out, undignified and hurting.

But it’s the footprints in the new cement sidewalk that puzzle me—99 of them, or actually 99 impressions that had to be patched by the sidewalk crew, using an obviously inferior grade of mix. There they go—right down the middle of the walk, 24 inches apart, made by what appears to be adult size 8 shoes.

Who walks 99 steps in wet cement?6 1 1 2

Truth is, we’ve all most likely stepped into the stuff in some unplanned moment, quickly retreating lest our sins be sure to find us out. The heaviness that pulled our sneakers or flip-flops earthward was all we needed to alert us to our transgression and ensure a quick repentance.

But who walks 99 steps in wet cement?

On a recent Sabbath morning I was making a pre-Sabbath school loop around the block when I came across the now-familiar footprints.

Brazen, I thought. The kind of person who walks 99 steps in wet cement is brazen—carelessly, thoughtlessly marching on protected, prepared ground. Like what’s happening in so many homes as respects the keeping of the Sabbath . . .

“If you turn back your foot from the sabbath,

from doing your pleasure on my holy day . . .” (Isa. 58:13, RSV).*

As Seventh-day Adventists have moved progressively further from an obedience based on law to a discipleship inspired by grace—a movement I applaud—we have nonetheless seen the rapid decay of our community’s consensus about what constitutes biblical Sabbath-keeping. In a recent Sabbath school class discussion, the chair of the church school board lamented that one and the same proposed Sabbath activity would be judged by some constituent parents as impermissible on Sabbath, while others would be equally angry if it didn’t happen.

With a growing biblical illiteracy among even churchgoing Adventists, the Bible’s direct commands and numerous illustrations about appropriate Sabbath-keeping are not now well-known and are even less understood. Surely it should temper something of our zeal for Sabbath afternoon community service projects when we discover that the Lord of the Sabbath would not even allow His chosen people to build the wilderness sanctuary—His earthly dwelling place—on the Sabbath (Ex. 31; 35).

Mrs. Howell’s picket fence may well need painting, but is this really the kind of caring to which Jesus’ Sabbath example of healing the sick now directs us? Is any act of caring or self-sacrifice a candidate for the unfilled hours of my Sabbath afternoon? Her fence will be similarly unpainted on Sunday afternoon, when the youth group members could be invited to lay aside their paintball to paint the picket fence—and each other!—at a God-honoring hour.

More pointedly, is anything that brings me “recreation” or a sense of personal renewal also includable within the Sabbath frame?

I love bookstores: my wife has often noted how my sagging energy for general shopping suddenly disappears when I come within the lovely shadows of a Barnes and Noble outlet. Does that make my stroll along the brimming aisles a walk worthy of taking on the Sabbath with the Lord, about whom John wrote even “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

The Lord of the Sabbath promised “delight” to those who do not go stomping through the unruffled wet cement of each new Sabbath. Stand back, observe, and while you do, take off your shoes. There is some ground on which we should not tread until our life in Christ has settled and firmed up. Then, wiser and with reverence, we step, all barefoot, onto what surely is the touchstone of our weekly journey with Jesus.

* Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.