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On Sabbath Rest and Immigrant Fathers



By the time you read this, you’ll know the outcome of Super Bowl LVIII - that’s 58 for those who aren’t used to converting letters into numbers. As a lifelong fan of the San Francisco 49ers, you’ll also know my hopes of cele-bragging online have been ruined as I now plan to crawl into a digital hole and hibernate from social media, licking my wounds well past Easter.


I’ve always loved football. There’s no doubt that affection stems from my father. He didn’t know about the National Football League before he immigrated to the United States in the summer of 1980, but by the time I could form memories, my dad was rooting for the red-and-gold team by the Bay.


Korean immigrant fathers are known for two traits: a legendary work ethic and a stone-cold demeanor. Both work hand in hand, vital necessities, one emboldening the other as a means of survival in a foreign land. My father was no different. Most of my earliest paternal memories revolve around his work schedule which took precedence over everything else, including church. 


Before my younger sister was born, we lived in a ramshackle two-bedroom apartment - where no space was left untouched by cockroaches or my grubby adolescent hands... no space, except my father’s work desk, which was immaculate. He worked as a computer engineer so every tool, every drafting pencil, every staple was accounted for and it was a well-known rule that his desk was off-limits. You can guess my father’s reaction when he came home to the sight of me at his work desk playing with a drafting compass I found in the top drawer. Not good news. I never opened his desk on my own again. Even the cockroaches stayed away after that. 


Don't get me wrong. My father is usually an even-tempered man. Joyful most of the time. He wears a smile as easily as we wear our favorite t-shirts. But when it came to work, he was all business. 


When he didn’t work he napped. That was the only time I ever saw him rest. (I tell my wife that’s why I like to take naps too—an attempt to subconsciously connect with my father—but she doesn’t buy it.) 


Sleeping is what many of us think about when we say we need to get some rest. But anyone working from home and taking care of small children knows that sleep alone is an incomplete rest. Abraham Heschel writes in his paradigmatic book, The Sabbath, “Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath … one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come.” Relishing is a bit more active than napping. Sleep is a passive retreat. Relishing Sabbath rest comes with a little more energy expenditure. If Heschel is correct, there is a learning curve involved in fully enjoying the Sabbath experience. 


The idea of learning how to Sabbath makes me think of the Creation narrative. I read Genesis 2:1-3 and the details are sparse. Did God relish? I try to imagine what God looked like when he ceased his work on the seventh day. Did he sit back and admire his Creation the whole day? Was it a calm, serene moment? I’d like to think there was a little bit more excitement involved. Maybe he even expressed, dare I say, exuberant joy?


That’s what I see in my spiritual mind’s eye.


Throughout the Holy Scriptures, we are given glimpses into the exuberant heart of the Father. The three-fold parables of Luke 15 reveal a Father who is willing to forsake all social norms to express his joy. Zephaniah 3:17 paints a beautiful image of a warrior-father, not shouting war cries, but singing over his beloved child. Our Heavenly Father knows how to relish, even in his rest. 


This makes me believe there are times when our rest response to the Lord needs to be equally exuberant. 


My father was exuberant only while he watched football. I’ve always wondered why he chose American football. What did a thirty-something-year-old engineer from Korea know about the gridiron and pigskin? And more pressing, how did he come to love it? I’ve asked him on numerous occasions and, in his dismissive stoicism, he has never given me a straight answer. I don't know… I just watched because the American people at my work talk about it. 


That would explain why he watched it—to assimilate as much as possible, ingratiating himself to a new people and a new culture. But it doesn’t explain why he was obsessed with it.


In Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson sheds light on my dad’s obsession with football. He writes, “Animal wildness is unfettered exuberance. We are delighted when we see animals in their natural environments—leaping, soaring, prancing… [Sabbath rest] is like that: undomesticated. We shed poses and masks. We become unself-conscious.”


I’d like to believe, if my father had the words to express it in English, his love for football would match Peterson’s description. That deep down inside, football tapped into a certain kind of unfettered exuberance he didn’t know he needed. He was an immigrant in a new land, learning a new language. Every encounter in English, every bill that needed to be paid, every school function he needed to attend was yet another reason to keep his guard up. I can’t believe there were many moments throughout his week when he could become unself-conscious. He may not have understood all the rules of the game, but he knew sports, and watching the 49ers gave him permission to relish in his own kind of social unmasking, three hours at a time. 


The seminal moment of witnessing my dad elated, overcome with jubilee, is when the 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals on a last-second touchdown pass from Joe Montana to John Taylor in Super Bowl XXIII (that’s 23). He leapt from his seated position on the couch and screamed to the high heavens while the coffee table and lampstand took cover in each other’s arms. It was an emotional earthquake. 


In the aftermath, my dad and I went out to the front yard and tossed around the Nerf football he bought for my birthday just a few months earlier. The front yard was really just a small patch of grass in front of our apartment building, no bigger than a good-sized living room. But after that game it was Joe Robbie Stadium. We stayed out for the next hour and ran the same play we just watched on TV. I was John Taylor, he was Joe Montana, and we just won the Super Bowl on a ten-yard slant across the middle. I can easily say that was the happiest moment of my childhood. Grainy footage of that afternoon replays in my mind like it was filmed on an 8mm camera with The Wonder Years theme song playing in the background.


For me, learning Sabbath rest has always been an attempt to recreate that moment. 


Our rest traditions are undoubtedly shaped by the moments in our childhood when we witnessed our earthly fathers engage in acts of exuberant joy, relishing life in ways that were indelibly impressed upon us as children. If my dad loved knitting yarn and I witnessed him overjoyed at the completion of a throw blanket, then I’m certain I’d be justifiably obsessed with watching a two-tone, herringbone stitch, textured throw blanket come together. But he chose to watch football and scream with unbridled joy when the Niners scored a touchdown. So I did too. Still do. 


In our moments of rest in the delight of the Father, we do so as an exuberant expression of the finished work of Jesus Christ, who is our vicar and our High Priest. Practicing an active Sabbath faith teaches us that the expression of that exuberance is often a reflection of the joy we witnessed in the rhythms of our own childhood families. Genesis 1 tells us we were all created His image and likeness so it’s only fitting that we take our Sabbath cues from the same image and likeness of our earthly fathers, including our Korean immigrant dads who loved the Forty Niners. 


 

Daniel Jung is a graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary and a teaching elder in the Korean Northwest Presbytery. He lives in Northern California, where he serves as an associate pastor at Home of Christ in Cupertino. In his spare time, Daniel loves the 49ers, good coffee, and writing media reviews for Think Christian. You can find more of his work here.


 


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