I'm writing to you as I finish up tasks prior to a two-week vacation. I suppose it is the anticipation of coming weeks that has me thinking about rest, sabbath. You, however, will be reading it well on the other side of my break, as the rhythms of summer have quickened into the mad and sometimes maddening dash of the fall. So sit back for a moment, take a deep, cleansing breath or two, resist that temptation to speed read your way through the next paragraphs and come with me back to a quieter and sunnier place than you may currently find yourself.
"Sabbath requires surrender," says Wayne Muller, pastor, therapist, founder of Bread for the Journey and author of the exquisite devotional book Sabbath. He claims this in a reflection piece that starts by noting that the beginning of the weekly practice of Sabbath for traditional Jews does not come at a particular time. It isn't marked by the clock, but by the sun. It begins precisely at sundown - that's 7:29pm on September 11th and 7:00pm on September 25th. Sorry if I've just depressed you! It was 8:34pm last Friday, if that helps. The earliest the Sabbath will begin is at 4:18pm on December 11th, and observant Jews won't have to stash away the car keys until 9:11pm on June 25, 2010.
Sabbath doesn't come when we finish our work. It doesn't come after we've made that last phone call or put the finishing touches on that paper. It starts when the sun says it starts. It is dictated by the cosmos. Muller reminds us that with every accomplishment you will gain a new responsibility. The floor will need to be swept again, another diaper will need to be changed, another meal prepared, another round of meds. Our work never ends. "If we refuse rest until we are finished, we will never rest until we die."
That all sounds a little bleak, but not Muller's next sentence: "Sabbath dissolves the artificial urgency of our days, because it liberates us from the need to be finished"
Now you more observant ones may protest: We don't observe the Sabbath in our Christian tradition. In fact, the early Christian community exchanged Sabbath for The Lord's Day - the seventh day for the first. That is a topic for another time, but the ownership pendulum swings away from us even in this Christian rendering. The day still does not revolve around us. It isn't "Scott's Day", even though Jesus did claim that at its deepest level the Sabbath (and the Lord's Day) does serve humanity, and in fact all creation, and not the other way around (Mark 2:27). And that, of course, is the whole point. The invitation of Sabbath, and the less prescripted invitation of the Lord's Day is to surrender to larger rhythms that liberate us by introducing us to a life pattern that resists the pull of "needs," the belittling urgency of our responsibilities, and calls us instead to stop, to relax, to let go "because there are forces larger than we that take care of the universe."
You see the practice of rest is about our salvation - being one with God, with ourselves, with one another. Sabbath - holy rest - invites us to life-giving, life-renewing, life-sustaining faith - for me and for my neighbor.
Now, we at St. Andrew are really good at work. I mean really good. We are responsible salt-of-the-earth kind of folk who give to one another - "ambitious disciples" as our Mission statement puts it. We have a pretty impressive resume when it comes to service. And our efforts are indeed important and useful. They make a difference. But service alone does not make for peace. In fact, those times of high anxiety, stress and conflict that I remember are often closely associated with overwork. Too often. When we find ourselves there, it's because we've mistakenly allowed more to depend on us than really does. We've forgotten that the world has been spinning for quite some time without our assistance, and it will more than likely continue without a good kick from us. We have a big theological word for that, of course: idolatry. Idolatry pulls us away from God.
Rest, Sabbath is an invitation to draw closer to God. Rest, Sabbath is an invitation to become human again so that we can do this thing we call life well for the long haul. It is ok to relax, to "enjoy our relative unimportance, our humble place at the table in a very large world. The deep wisdom embedded in creation will take care of things for awhile. It is more than OK. It is essential to well-being.
Remember this from Exodus 20?
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall do labor and do all
your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do
any work - you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock,
or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord
blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Did you just speed through that? Go back. Savor it. I'll wait.
Exodus ties Sabbath to creation. Deuteronomy 5 ties it even more to that primary Old Testament metaphor for salvation - liberation from slavery in Egypt:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to
the Lord your God; you shall not do any work - you, or your son or your daughter, or
your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the
resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as
you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God
brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore
the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
The Session has approved my participation in the Pastoral Leadership Program, a course of study, renewal, and leadership development at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry. It is a program that stands on its own, but can also lead to further study down the line.
I am looking forward to the opportunity this good work will provide for a kind of good rest that will lead to deeper understandings, better reflection, and insight and thus, more faithful pastoral leadership. Built into the program as well is a pattern of intentional rest, Sabbath, if you will. For two to three days each month I will be away from the church and in class. The cell phone will be off and you and I will both have opportunities to discover that we can do this work that we do together, even as we are apart for brief periods. We will have the opportunity to remember that good rest is essential for good work - that the work of God is bigger than my work alone and your work alone, that "there are forces larger than we that take care of the universe" - even our little slice of it!
These are the days that I am committed to the program and unavailable:
So it is a long time from now, but put the date that we started on your calendar. It is the only one I can think of now that explicitly reminds us that we are part of something bigger - April 3, 2010, 7:42pm. That's when we'll light the Christ candle at the Easter Vigil from that most ancient of elements - the new fire, precisely at, you guessed it, sundown, to begin our celebration of the light from God that has come into the world, the light that is in each of us, but bigger than and beyond any of us. Thanks be to God!
Chuck Sigars is currently an elder at St. Andrew and a newspaper columnist and author.