Rest. Not just a good idea. It's the Law.


I am currently taking the month of July off. Yes, I am writing my blog, but other than that, I am lolling by the pool, reading, training for a marathon (this is relaxing and fun for me!) and visiting friends and family for two weeks. Then I am taking two more weeks to attend a spiritual writing workshop and go on retreat with some former seminary classmates. It is heavenly, and as much as I love my job, I enjoy every second of my time off. I think of it as part of my spiritual practice as a Christian, actually. It seems as though I am in the minority as an American, however. According to a 2014 Oxford Economics analysis, although 3 out of 4 American workers receive paid time off, we don't take all of it. The average American leaves 3.2 days of vacation on the table every year. That's about 429 million unused vacation days in this country annually. The Oxford Economics folks list several reasons why it is a much better idea to take our time off: huge economic impact (approximately 52 billion travel dollars we are not spending domestically); less stress and more productivity (pretty much every study shows that when we take our time off, we like our jobs more and perform them better); and personal well-being (those who take time off are, overall, healthier mentally and physically).

Of course, those of us who are Christian have an even better reason to take regular rest and time away from our busy-ness: Sabbath is a Christian practice. It is also the 4th Commandment (or the 5th, depending on how you are used to counting them!). Jesus rested. God rested after the creation of the world.

Rest is an act of faith for Christians. And in this culture, it is a radical one.

When asked by the Oxford Economics survey why they did not take their vacation days, most people responded by saying, 'I have too much work to do.' I am too busy. How often do we think this or feel this? How often do we perceive this as a spiritual problem, something directly related to the practice of our faith, our belief in God? What would happen if we let go of our busy-ness? What are the fears we are feeding when we tell ourselves we are 'too busy' to rest? And most importantly, what are the idols we are worshiping when we allow ourselves to believe we are too important to step away?

I am too important to rest. This is at the heart of it, isn't it? There is often some sort of pride about not taking a day off, not taking our vacation. We hear it in others, I think, before we hear it in ourselves. How will things get done if I am not around? The good news is, there is actually a sense of relief when we can get to the place where we know the world turns just fine without us. Rest is a sign of humility. A sign of trust in God's grace. Everything will get done in God's time, according to God's plan. Some day, the world will keep turning without us altogether. Our lives and our contribution are very important, but not crucial, to the continuity of good work and good works.

I am in control. In addition to pride, I think fear that things will fall apart without us is also part of our reluctance to rest. Sometimes I hear people say, 'think of all the work I will have to do when I get back from vacation. All the emails!' We fear things happening without us and plans going awry when we are away. And yet, the life of a Christian says so clearly that we recognize that we are not in control. Sometimes things happen according to a different plan, and that is ok. 'When we cease interfering in the world, we are acknowledging that it is God's world,' says Lis Harriss in the book, Holy Days.

I don't have time. 'I'll sleep when I'm dead,' Warren Zevon famously sang (may he rest in peace), and in this he captured something significant of our culture, this sense that we must always be pushing ahead, to accumulate things, to experience things, to get things done. It is very, very hard for lots of us to slow down, because we literally believe we do not have the luxury to do so, or that we think we will run out of time before we have seen everything and done everything we think we should. But the truth is, we have all the time we need. And part of what we need is time to reflect on everything we have seen and done. There is a Jewish understanding that God did not rest on the 7th day because God was tired, but in order to rejoice in all that God had created, and to call it 'good.' This appreciation of our blessings, and the goodness of creation and Creator, is part of our commandment to rest as well.

Emergencies don't take a holiday. Often my fellow clergy point out that just when they are ready to take a day off, or a sabbatical, or a vacation, something goes wrong in the church. A key member dies. A tragedy strikes. A conflict starts brewing. How can they go? I know my profession is not to the only one where we feel like we can't get away because people need us, or urgent situations come up suddenly. Of course, there are times when we do need to make other plans because it is simply impossible for us to be away. However, in my experience, true emergencies are rare, and often situations require honest discernment about whether we are truly needed. And if we are, then our responsibility becomes to reschedule the time off. In terms of our life of faith, rest reminds us that we are not God. We need this reminder continually.

Not everyone gets to rest. If three quarters of our workers get paid time off, that means one quarter does not. And that is just counting paid, legal workers. How can we rest when so many get no time off from their labors? Is it not selfish to get away when others do not get this same privilege? And yet, if we eschew our own rest time, where does that ultimately lead us? Does our constant labor actually help others take rest? Does any of it point to God's goodness and God's insistence that sabbath is made for everyone? '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 town.' (Exodus 20:10). Our rest time is meant as a witness, an example to the world, the mark of the faithful and even meant for those who are not. The commandment to rest was given to the Israelites when they were former slaves, wandering in the desert. It is a sign of radical faithfulness to those who believe in God's abundance for everyone.

Sabbath rest, and time away, are crucial to our lives as Christians. They give us time to reflect on the beauty and goodness of our lives and of the world, and of the Lord who provides all of our blessings. They give us the opportunity to remember whose world it really is, who is in charge, and how astonishingly miraculous it is that we wake up to such a life every day. It helps us ponder how important our work and life is, and how ultimately how small and insignificant they are as well. The paradox of life and death, birth and resurrection, faith and works. How very much we depend on God. Rest is our witness and duty. Our privilege as God's beloved children. Our message to a weary world.