Six days you shall labor - sabbath


In just a few hours it will be Friday, and my sabbath will begin. For a full day I will, as Eugene Peterson describes it, 'pray and play.' I will do the most radically counter-cultural thing that is required (commanded!) by my religious practice, and do so joyfully. I share this because it has become something of an American crisis, how reluctant we are to take time off. It is sometimes because of ridiculous policies, but the truth is, American workers don't even take the vacation time we are entitled to. And we spend far too much time at the office, or running around being 'busy'.

Sabbath-keeping is crucial to our lives as Christians, it is a gift to the weary world, and it is an important way of demonstrating with our lives that God is in charge of the world, not us. But we resist it mightily.

Why? Some reasons I hear a lot:

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.

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. 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.

I don’t have time. ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead,’ Warren Zevon famously sang (may he rest in peace), and 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 hard to slow down, because we think we will run out of time before we have seen everything and done everything. 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 take a moment to delight in all that God had made and called 'good'. Sabbath is our time to delight.

Emergencies don’t take a holiday. My fellow clergy point out that often, 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. In my experience, though, true emergencies are rare, and often situations require honest discernment about whether we are truly needed. And if we are, then our responsibility is 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. 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? God’s commandment specifically includes nonbelievers, servants, even animals. 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 gives 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. It gives 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.

Rest is our witness and duty. Our privilege as God’s beloved children. An opportunity to share our faith. And it's there for us to take, just one day a week. It's not just a good idea, it's the Law.