Sabbath at Oxford

When we first started celebrating the arrival of the Sabbath with a feast, our daughter Bekah was engaged to Ben Merkle. We had a new house, a new table, and Ben made our numbers swell to six. But soon we had a couple of college girls living with us, and that made eight, and Knox was born, but he didn’t take up much room. So for the ten years that Ben and Bekah have been married, they have been coming to our house every Saturday night for the festivities, and Knox now has four younger siblings and six cousins joining him around our table.

This past fall the Merkles moved to Oxford for Ben to pursue graduate studies. They have a great little place to stay that has been both a blessing and a challenge for continuing the Sabbath tradition. Their cottage has a small kitchen, no separate dining room, a living room that is smaller than my bedroom, but a very expansive yard for the kids to run in when the weather is nice. Since they had so much on their plate adjusting to new quarters, a new country, and home schooling the kids for the first time (since Logos is too far away for a commute), I encouraged Bekah not to feel like she had to keep up the same Sabbath traditions that we had. The last thing she needed was pressure from Mom in the form of, “So what did you do for Sabbath dinner this week?” But it wasn’t but a few weeks before she had tackled it anyway. Once you’ve gotten into the rhythm of Sabbath celebration, it leaves a strange void to stop.

So she bought herself some British cookbooks so she could navigate the grocery store and work with foreign ingredients. She mastered the tiny gas oven that registers in Celsius, not Fahrenheit, she bought some wineglasses and other necessaries at the grocery store, and she proceeded to knock out some spectacular dinners. Doug and I got to visit in March, so we sat down at the Merkle table and were mighty blessed.

Each of the five kids has a job and they delight in the project. Bekah kicks the volume up on the ipod (which sits on top of the fridge), and they get to work. Sometimes they take a break and bust out dancing. After dinner is ready, they pull the little drop-leaf table out into the middle of the kitchen and start bringing in chairs from other parts of the house. Once they are ready, Ben has to get in first because his chair is down in front of the window. Next the kids squash in around the sides. The table takes up the whole space in the kitchen, with the chairs bumping up to the counters on both sides. Doug and I sat at the other end.

Bekah lights as many candles as she possibly can and sets them around on the counters and down the table, and then they turn off the lights (so they can’t see all the pots and pans!) and then the kids wait eagerly for Ben to begin the liturgy. He has a toast in Hebrew (Peace to you) and the children respond in Hebrew as well (And peace to you). Then he asks the children some questions. Next he has a blessing for his daughters: “May you become the mothers of ten thousands, and may your descendents possess the gates of those who hate them.” He will pause occasionally and the girls fill in the missing words.

Next is the blessing for his sons: “May the Lord arm you with strength, make your ways perfect, make your feet like the feet of deer, and set you up on high places.” The boys jump in and help him finish the blessing, just as the girls did for their blessing.

All the children join in when he blesses his wife: “Who is this who looks forth as the morning? Fair as the moon, clear as the sun, awesome as an army with banners. Many daughters have done well, but you excel them all.” (I have to confess that by the time he got through the blessings, I was looking for the Kleenex. I cannot describe the joy of seeing my children walk is such faithfulness.)

Finally is the blessing for everyone: “Give and it will be given back to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be put into your bosom. For the same meausre that you use it will be measured back to you.”

Then he reads a psalm, usually from Sir Phillip Sidney’s translation, prays, they sing together, and then the food is passed around amidst much laughter and noise.

And as though this isn’t enough of a Herculean effort to pull off a lovely Sabbath dinner just for the seven of them, they often invite guests to join them. For Thanksgiving this past year, they invited a family of eight, cleared out the living room, arranged a table complete with beautiful centerpieces and place cards made as masts in little ships. While we were visiting, they had this same lovely family over so we could meet them. Bekah served up the children (I think there were a dozen or so in all), on the kitchen floor with each child’s meal packed up separately, while the adults (there were seven of us) ate in the living room.

They’ve had many guests to their table, English, Dutch, Australian, and American. I’m so pleased we were among them! Some days Bekah is in the kitchen preparing the meal at nine in the morning, and when I call late in the evening, Ben is in the kitchen washing the stacks of the dishes while Bekah is visiting with me on the phone. The whole thing is a family effort, and as the children get older (Knox will be nine this month), they are more and more help.

I’ve said before that this is potent work. It blesses our families with a sense of godly tradition, it teaches us all how to celebrate before the Lord, it prepares us for worship, and it strengthens us in profound and mysterious ways. The fact that we are exhausted afterwards is a good sign, not a reason to quit. It is a good work.

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21 thoughts on “Sabbath at Oxford

  1. Thank you for posting on Sabbath feasting. My family has started and it has been such a blessing.

  2. This is such a great post! I remember that when I was growing up, we would head off to Mass on Sunday morning in our best clothes (lace headcoverings and gloves for my mom, sister and me, and suits and ties for my dad and three brothers). On the way home, my dad would stop for sweet breads so that we could have them with coffee or tea mid-morning while we prepared for the big Sunday feast. We’d get home, set the table, and my mother would make a roast, potatoes, gravy, salad, vegetables and dessert and coffee—with candles on the table! The rest of us set the table, got out the servings spoons and dishes and waited to cart all the lovelies to the table when everything was ready. What excitement! When I met my husband, he was a community-church congregant and Christian, and though I was a Christian too, I had “a few” things I needed to be straightened out on doctrinally :)This was a good thing, but there were some changes that I didn’t understand: I noticed evangelical women didn’t go to church in dresses and headcoverings, and I saw that some of the people in church chewed gum during services–and after church, hamburgers and chips were served on paper plates, sans candles. This was because, as I was so often told, evangelicals knew that God was their friend and that He didn’t get into all that pomp and circumstance found in your more legalistic (meaning: Catholic) churches. Now, we had a LOT of laughter and fun around those tables, don’t misunderstand me, but I did miss the specialness of Sunday dinners. I admit I became complacent in actually making them happen, even after we started having children. About four years ago, when the children were around ten, I started making roasts and other extravagant hot dinners for Sunday. Our extended families were not getting together on Sundays as much, and I felt the time had come. We set nice dishes and candles on the table. We even started stopping at a little bagel and coffee shop on our way back from church because we thought that would make things even more Sunday-ish after a wonderful rousing Reformed message at the only Reformed church we could find in twenty miles. It IS a lot of work to put on a Sabbath meal, but we do feel it has been worth the trouble.

  3. I made my first stab at a Sabbath feast last month, and hope to try it once a month or so. not ideal, of course, but a starting place. I love the idea of adding some sort of liturgy to the occasion, but I’m wondering how I could appropriately do that as a single woman, since I don’t think it would be appropriate to lead something myself. My best idea so far is to ask one of my guests to prepare something of his chosing…even just whatever devotions/worship he usually leads with his own family. It wouldn’t create a regular liturgy for my table, but it would make the occasion more Sabbathy and feasty. What do you think of the idea?

  4. Dear Mrs. Wilson,
    This was a very encouraging post. Your daughter’s life right now sounds very similar to mine. I have been married ten years ( next month ), my oldest child is soon to be nine, I have six children, we home school, my husband is in his first year of seminary, and we are now in a very small house. Before we moved we had regular Sabbath feasts. For a number of reasons, since being here we have not been as elaborate in our Sunday meals. I knew that I missed it but I didn’t realize how much my children did until today. This afternoon we had so much fun setting the table and preparing for the meal. I was resolved to try to do this every week and after reading this I am even more determined to work hard to make it happen. Thank you!

  5. Valerie,
    I suggest you welcome everyone to your table, light the candles, pray, lead a toast, even a song. I think it would be fine to ask one of your guest to pray if you wanted. But I think asking someone to lead a devotion would be asking him to assume headship, which isn’t what you are wanting to do.
    Just my two cents. But way to go on having a Sabbath feast. That’s great!

  6. Mrs. Wilson, that was a beautiful post. The Lord has blessed my wife and I with a new house (after years of apartment dwelling), and we hold your family’s Sabbath feasts as an example to us of how to show hospitality to our friends and neighbors. We’re looking forward to getting started soon! Maybe someday I’ll get to the point of being able to bless my wife without choking up.

  7. Ah…OK. I was trying to avoid taking too much liturgical leadership myself, but ended up thinking too far in the other direction. It sounds like I should focus on the degree of leadership that comes with being the host. I especially like the idea of singing, and was trying to figure out how to work that in. Since hymnbooks around the table could get complicated and messy, perhaps following the blessing with the Doxology or the Gloria Patri would be the simple, elegant solution. Thanks for the thoughts!

  8. I have a very practical question: How does the food stay hot with a multi-part dinner table liturgy? In my house, there would be a line at the microwave to reheat plates of food after such a dinner liturgy!

  9. If the liturgy goes too long, you are right that the food starts to get cold if it is sitting on the plates. I handle this a couple of different ways, depending on what we are having. We usually pass the food family style, and we wait until after the singing to pass it. I can either keep the hot dishes on the stove, or keep them covered on the table until we are finished. If I am serving the plates individually, I do that after the liturgy as well. The Merkles’ liturgy is a little longer than ours, but the food was still hot.It’s really not been an issue for us.

  10. Valerie,

    A friend of mine makes enough copies of the hymn that her family will sing for their Sabbath feast and cuts them out and places one at each place setting. Those slips of paper can easily be tucked under the plate afterward. Laminating them and rotating just a few hymns and having a special box for all these could be good ways to handle that if you wanted to add to your Sabbath feast hymn repertoire.

  11. Thanks. nancyann (my middle name is ann too – btw, you once recognized me from the AAPC 03 conf. & graciously sat with me in that funny little Monroe airport). Maybe I’m dealing with a husband who is quirky, but I doubt it. He wants his food steaming hot! Even heated serving dishes at the table won’t retain enough heat to ensure that my hubby’s plate is steaming. He never complains about getting up from the table to nuke his plate. But it seems to me, as lovely as it may be, that a lengthy table liturgy will be a challenge to steaming hot food.

  12. Dear Barb, you might consider a Japanese-style Sabbath feast. If it’s all raw you don’t need to get anything steaming hot. Jes tryin’ to be helpful . . .

  13. How wonderful to see your children walking in such faithfulness and your grandchildren like olive branches around the table!

    I take such encouragement from this.

    I have a couple of question that have come up for us over and over again: Do you still do the liturgy when you have guests? And what about when you have guests that are not Christian or parents who are not comfortable with how “religious” you are?

    Any wisdom on this would be appreciated.

  14. First off, let me say that I am not promoting our liturgy or the Merkles’ liturgy in particular. Each family will no doubt develop its own, that’s the whole idea. Back when Knox was big enough to stand up in his highchair and dance with his hands on his tummy, we made up a song about tummy dance that worked its way into the dessert liturgy….but we grew past that. Still, it was fun at the time. Having a liturgy is great, but there is no need to include all the bells and whistles if it will be a hardship.(You can have it at the end of the meal if you’re worried about hot food.) This is supposed to be an overflow of joy, not a requirement that we feel burdened with. Having said all that, our liturgy is easy enough that we include our guests. We do give them a heads up that we will be toasting. The rest they just follow along. We once had an atheist to our Sabbath dinner after Doug had debated him at the U of I. He was very struck by it. Just last week we had a young man who calls himself an agnostic. We keep the liturgy as it. If we have people who don’t drink wine, I put sparkling juice in their glasses and we don’t make a big deal about it. We want them to feel comfortable. And in all this, it’s so important that the head of the house leads the way. I did not write our liturgy; Doug did. By writing about the sabbath, I am not suggesting that wives begin hounding their husbands about it. I guarantee that will be a flop. The Sabbath feast is not a show to impress people. It is a celebration welcoming the Lord’s Day. If it is a joy, I doubt the grandparents will have grounds to object (although they still might). But if the children look tortured, then you are asking for trouble all around. If the kids don’t like it, you probably need to rethink what you are doing. It should not be over their heads. And the goal is to get them to look forward to this all week.

  15. Nancy,

    I understand completely what you are saying. This, like other things in life, grows and matures as we grow and mature. I do remember, and am embarrassed to confess, that when we first started doing this 3 years ago I did try to put pressure on Geoff to have these “perfect” Sabbath meals. I was usually pushing to get him to pray certain things and to say certain blessings or whatever I thought at the time created the “perfect” liturgy for our family. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to write the liturgy or run this event myself, so instead I tried to get him to do it, knowing I should not be trying to lead through him.

    We have wonderful Sabbath meals now. The girls look forward to it, and love to help. It has become a part of our three-year-olds life and she loves giving “cheers” (that’s what she calls toasts). Her favorite is: ” I have a cheers, to blessings to God to blessings” and we all say “Amen.” I’ve learned to let it be whatever Geoff decides he wants it to be. Once in a while the “old man” in me comes out and I say or do something that is me trying to “lead” in this area. It is something I am trying to mortify, and not in this area only. It comes out in all areas where I think I know better than my husband. So again and again I must run to the Lord for repentance and cleansing.

    Praise be to God for His Grace!

  16. My husband and I just implemented this idea into our week in January and it has been a pure DELIGHT. We even managed to keep it going when our second son was born in February. Of course the meal was not elaborate and consisted of left-over pizza at times, but it was all on a beautiful table, we got to sit and bless one another and most importantly we got to laugh. Now my husband is adding new things here and there and he comments to me how much he LOVES the Shabbat. It has been the best addition. I look forward to making the Shabbat (Sabbath) meal the best one of the week and we love having people over to share in our time together. Both my husband and I know that God has used the meal on Saturday nights to keep us close even after having a newborn (we have two under age two). Keep encouraging women to incorporate this into their homes. It’s so worth the effort. It’s such a blessing.

  17. I love this post Nancy. It makes me want to go to Oxford for one of the Merkles’ Sabbath feasts. Our favorite toast story: Virgil told the children to all think of a toast one night. Calvin (four at the time) raised his wine glass and shouted, “Grilled cheese!”

  18. Valerie,

    No problem! 🙂 Also, for anyone else who decides to do that, most copy stores will laminate.


    My husband and I were discussing the alcoholic beverage for the feast–spurred by his reading of Mother Kirk and your witty husband’s assessment of Michelob–and we’ve decided that Canon press needs to publish Discovering Beer, a companion to Joanna Simon’s Discovering Wine for those of us who don’t know what real beer is (other than perhaps a Black & Tan) 🙂

  19. Just lovely, I cried through the whole thing! What a joy it must be for you to feel so free and relaxed, that nothing needs to be perfect, it just needs to be! I long to bless my family with a lovely Sabbath tradition such as this and long to give my children the wholeness of the table and feasting, I want my children to taste and see that the Lord is good. But my Sundays are filled with rushing to church, then constant corrections and quieting of children during church,( I don’t think I’ve sat through a whole church service in 3 years) so by the time I get home all I can think about is getting into bed for a nap. My husband often works Saturday, and as a CNA he is often gone from 2:00 pm -11:00pm, so that rules out Saturday feasting. What can I do? I want my children to have fat souls!

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